All in good taste

By Elizabeth Pearce

Painter, 1995, by Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy, regularly tops our list of works most hated by Mona visitors. I have avoided writing about it for a long time, because that would entail sitting through the whole thing: fifty minutes of unpleasant muttering and groaning, thrashing wildly around with paint, pissing in pot plants and squeezing shit out of an oversized tube onto a canvas, topped off with a really (sorry to be a prude) distasteful bum-sniffing montage at the end.

Left: Painter, 1995, Paul McCarthy Right: Paul, 2014, Ronnie Van Hout Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Left: Painter, 1995, Paul McCarthy
Right: Paul, 2014, Ronnie Van Hout
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Painter-Paul Mccarthy-1995-2Needless to say, I find it difficult too. I think it’s got some merit, though. For me, it’s the sheer weirdness of the thing, the angsty-funny, sex-fiend-in-a-clown-costume atmosphere it generates; and, on a more cerebral level, the way it exposes and exploits the myth of the male artistic genius.

So, obviously Painter is a parody of the process of making a painting. It comments specifically on the American ‘action painters’, also known as the abstract expressionists: the group of artists, led by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others, who came to prominence after World War II, shifting the centre of the artworld from Paris to New York. The title character in Painter (who is McCarthy himself of course) chants ‘de Kooning’ under his breath as he works, channeling his spirit, or trying to free himself from his daunting legacy. In contrast, the scene of the interview with the inert European collectors shows them mindlessly listing their trophy-buys. ‘What Rothko do you have?’ asks the dullest interviewer on earth. ‘A brown one,’ the male of the pair replies. ‘It’s red actually’ says his wife.

This kind of commercial cynicism is common to the artworld of course, but it juxtaposes especially sharply with the central objective of abstract expressionism, which is to externalise an authentic inner reality. Among diverse styles and techniques was the common goal to express an interior psychological state – delivered via the medium of movement as much as paint. Putting paint on the canvas was a kind of performance, and the resulting painting a document of an authentic moment in time. This was ripe for myth, in part because it taps into our intuitive feelings around art and authenticity: underneath our suspicion of the pretentions of ‘the artworld’, we like to imagine there is such a thing as submerged essence of genius, just waiting for release.

This collective fantasy took shape around the macho dudes of the movement. ‘If the women could see me now, oh boy…’ says McCarthy’s painter – but he’s less potent than pathetic, a child saddened and enraged by the unwillingness of the universe to revolve around himself. ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ he cries on repeat, in a way I find especially uncomfortable; he might mean painting, or life. The other major hallmarks of the action-painting myth are present as well, in his emotional volatility (sobbing and whining one moment, calling on God for inspiration another), physicality (hacking, pumping, jabbing maniacally at the canvas), and diva demands. ‘I want all the money right now,’ he shouts at his gallerist. ‘I want shows all over Europe, and I want big, big catalogues!’ ‘You’re acting like a spoilt child,’ she replies, ‘You’re going through a stage. All the artists who get famous go through this. You’re just a human being. Stop this ridiculous tantrum!’

This is self-parody, too, of course; McCarthy himself came to prominence in the 1990s, around the time Painter was made. The aesthetic of his work – sort of like a cross between a porn set and Disneyland, in which at any moment the characters will start rubbing themselves on each other or chopping off their rubber limbs – is a reflection on his sense of place, of the difficulties of making original and meaningful film and performance work alongside the Hollywood dream machine. His intention, too, to comment on mainstream American culture is shown in his trademark use of foodstuffs like ‘ketchup’ (as they call it), mayonnaise, and chocolate sauce (stand ins, he says, for blood, semen and poo). McCarthy has been using these foodstuffs in paintings and performances since the 1970s. This connects him to the Viennese Actionists of that time, the difference being (as McCarthy himself has made clear) that they were using real bodily fluids, and causing themselves real physical and psychic pain. McCarthy is more interested in buffoonery than trauma, I think, and yet a sense of trauma is, for me, most certainly conveyed.

In the process of writing this, I started to go down the rabbit hole of art history, and it occurred to me that I might be becoming a wanker. (That’s a nice mixed metaphor: wanking in a rabbit hole.) Claiming to like and ‘get’ difficult conceptual art is a marker of the ‘in’ group, as distinct from the taste and preference of ordinary people. This very discrepancy is part of what drives the trajectory of modern art history. Quentin Bell (following Thorstein Veblen) identified the phenomenon of ‘conspicuous outrage’: I have so much cultural capital, I can afford to flout ‘good’ taste. I decided to send my essay to David for feedback. Maybe I should have stuck to my initial reaction to Painter, and not worried about this artworld palaver. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier draft:

I don’t like Painter because: it looks kind of crappy, like a student porn film; the squeaky voice is annoying and creepy; nothing really happens; the painter character is sad and pathetic; the prosthetic noses freak me out; the bum sniffing at the end is really, really gross.

And another:

I feel anxious when I watch it, and sad, like being confronted with the inherent loneliness and ridiculousness of ‘the human condition’ (that old chestnut) – and I don’t agree, and even if I do on some days, I don’t want to be reminded of it. I don’t see that scraping the barrel of our doubt and insecurity just for the sake of it is valuable, nor that shattering taboos is inherently worthwhile. I sound like a thousand other ranters on the internet. I am getting old.

And finally:

Just so you know, this is not going to be one of those ‘she does like it, after all, because it shows her the underside of her own fears and desires’ or some such rubbish. I’m pretty sure I will still hate it after I’ve finished writing this, and that will be because it’s crap, not because of some character flaw of mine.

Works like Painter reflect, in part, a process by which the cool group selects the most outrageous art to represent it, pushing artists to invent more and more outrageous means to stay ahead of the curve. McCarthy knows this, and therein lies the strength of his work. But in the meantime, the work is still ugly and unlovable. It dares me to embrace my authentic response. The only reason I started to think more deeply about Painter, to try harder to like it, is that it has been sanctioned as ‘significant’ – by art history, and by the gallery that employs me. But then I did, truly, start to like it more. ‘Truly’. Is it really ever possible to approach a work of art in and of itself, without the surrounding social and cultural context? Art isn’t just sensory input, after all – patterns and colours and pretty shapes. It tells human stories, and humans are cultural and social – intensely so. Surely an ‘authentic’ response should embrace this as well?

David wrote back to confirm that yes, I was becoming a wanker. But he also added this:

My mother used to tell a story about World War II army rations. One wasn’t allowed to complain about the food; the penalty was to be assigned cheffing duties. A ‘chef’ attempted to get his duties reassigned. He cooked camel turd. One person exclaimed, ‘This tastes like shit,’ and then, collecting himself, continued, ‘but the servings are substantial.’

McCarthy’s marvellous parody has tension because he is biting the arse that feeds him. Art (and the art market) can be shit, indeed. But the servings are substantial.

Thanks, David, for summing up what I think I’m trying to say, and also for adding another metaphor to this overloaded essay. But mostly for letting me… um… bite the arse that feeds me… Oh Lord. I think I’m done.

I am one

My name is Sunday Walsh. Apropos of nothing, I just had my first birthday. The relevance of that, apparently, is that the angle subtended by the Earth-sun system through the plane of the ecliptic is the same as that angle when I was born.

I’m writing this because Daddy has no ideas. Writer’s block, they call it. I can’t have writer’s block, because I can’t write. I know some vowel sounds though, and I’m acquiring consonants. I can roll my ‘r’s (Argentinian nanny). Daddy can’t do that.

Daddy has been through some rough times, lately. Not as rough as his close friend Robert (who could also roll his ‘r’s). Robert died a couple of weeks ago. Then, a couple of days ago, ‘out of the blue’, Daddy got a French knighthood – Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres. He was pretty chuffed about that. ‘An acknowledgement that Mona has some global reach’, he muttered.

But (and this is the genesis of his writer’s block), how can he be happy and feel pride (it’s a ‘deadly sin’, after all), when his friends have suffered? In fact, does he have the right to feel joy while there is suffering in the world? All philosophers and priests grapple with this, and I’m not the one to resolve it, since I spend all my time blissfully free of the burden of knowledge (my uncle put it this way: ‘my biggest problem what to eat, my biggest love my sister[s]’). Daddy seems to think he has insight into all this. But in the here and now, he doesn’t know how to resolve his personal conflicts.

Pride can burn through all that is worthy. Stop giving Daddy prizes, or he might turn into a right royal prick. I need Daddy to be nice to me for a few more years.

But he still wants to be a member of the Order of the Elephant.

An interview with Mike Parr

Mike Parr’s Asylum [Entry by mirror only] was an exhibition and performance that took place during our most recent Dark Mofo festival. Parr took up residence at Willow Court, New Norfolk – a clutch of buildings that once housed Australia’s oldest asylum for the criminally insane. There, he drew continually for 72 hours, in memory of his brother, Tim, who died in 2009 after suffering from mental illness for much of his life. Video, sound, photos, objects, and installation works were dotted throughout the buildings. Visitors were welcome to come and go, on the condition that they brought a mirror to deposit somewhere on the site.

Elizabeth Pearce: How did you prepare for the performance?

Mike Parr: I fasted for about a week. That means you don’t have to interrupt the performance going to the bathroom and things like that. But also, fasting really concentrates your mind, because you’re interrupting the indulgence of your normal pattern of life. It throws you back on yourself and you’ve got to firm up your mind. I also meditated a lot, which complements the fasting and gives you focus and resolution, and helps you anticipate your own anxiety. I think it also entails an ethical dimension. For me it seemed the appropriate way to be in Willow Court.

EP: What mental and emotional state were you in while you were performing?

MP: I was feeling very anxious a lot of time, but I was drawing constantly. Sometimes I could concentrate and draw quite deliberately and other times I started to spill all over the place. I found that place really claustrophobic to be honest.

EP: I don’t blame you!

MP: And the smell. And the realisation that I was occupying a cell that some people would have occupied for years. Some of those people were incarcerated for most of their life. I was continually aware of that.

EP: Were you thinking about your brother?

MP: I did think a lot about Tim. When I tried to sleep, late at night, I found myself thinking about him. I was with him when he died. He was in a sort of coma but he was very calm. I felt he was just floating and going with the whole experience. I thought about that, and it took away some of the threat of that place. It allowed it to become just a series of buildings. I began to realise that the nursing staff and the doctors would have been doing their best. They were trying to manage a very difficult situation.

EP: Willow Court has a contested history. It strikes me as like a microcosm – an emotionally explosive microcosm – of Tasmanian history more broadly. People have very mixed feelings about it. There’s a lot of pain and anguish and suffering, but at the same time they’re always asserting the fact that it’s their history, and they’re owning it and proud of it at the same time. In Willow Court, as you well know, there are accounts of the abuse and suffering of the patients, but also stories of the kindness, care and respect the staff showed towards them as well. Did you want to get involved with that contested history in any way, or let it lie, and just have it there as a backdrop?

MP: I did want to get involved with it. And two very strange things happened. On the Friday night of the performance – and Felizita, my wife of many, many years, she didn’t tell me this at the time – but our next door neighbour, a young man, committed suicide. Then on the Saturday morning, a young man came up to her – he was my father’s sister’s grandson. Our Uncle Oliver was a neurologist who worked at Callan Park [Hospital for the Insane in Lilyfield, Sydney] and Morisset [Asylum for the Insane on Lake Macquarie] and also would have been in attendance at Willow Court. He had family who lived just outside of New Norfolk. I never knew this. So what I’m driving at is that I felt as though the history of Willow Court didn’t exclude me either. I mean, obviously this terrible business of our young neighbour committing suicide isn’t directly related to Willow Court – but it is related at the level of mental illness, and my brother’s death. What I’m saying is that Willow Court has become magnified for me, in the same way that perhaps the performance magnified memories and experiences for a lot of Tasmanians at the same time. The performance is very significant to me in that way. I haven’t just filed it away as just another performance.

EP: The idea of asking the audience to bring a mirror seemed to me like a gesture of communal implication.

MP: Yes, I think that’s right. You’ve blatantly got your own image there. To even furtively see yourself is to realise that you’re implicated – but not trapped, because everyone was free to deposit that mirror in any way that they felt to be significant. Some people came with a huge mirror with lighting, and some came with all kinds of fragments and little mirrors, and inserted them back into those buildings in the most extraordinary way. So I really felt that this was the bridge to the community. It allowed them in – in a kind of protected way, because they chose their mirror and what to do with it.

EP: Do you think the reaction from the New Norfolk community and from Tasmanians more broadly has been positive?

MP: I think it has been. On the Monday after the performance we returned to the site. I didn’t want to go into the installation spaces but I went to that little cafe on site – it’s very low-key – and I lined up for a coffee. The waitress came up to me and said ‘Mike Parr’ and I realised that I’d been sprung. Then a number of people came up to me. One man said that his grandfather had spent most of his life at Willow Court. He sort of thanked me, because – and this was repeated by people in New Norfolk and beyond – he said the performance had enabled him to go back to Willow Court. I think what they were saying was that it enabled them to confront something that they hadn’t previously wanted to confront. This was the individual response, but I think it created a kind of solidarity too. After my coffee I walked through New Norfolk, towards the church. In the garden of the church there was this elderly couple – they were really warm, and acknowledged me over the fence. I noticed different sorts of reactions like that as I walked through New Norfolk. Then I ran into [Derwent Valley Mayor] Martyn Evans. I really like Martyn, he’s a sincere guy I think. We spent an hour together. He really wanted to talk to me. He wanted to talk about himself. He wanted to talk about a tragedy in his own life, and then he wanted to talk about the importance of Willow Court and his determination to try to build on the performance, to consolidate it as some sort of memorial site. I said to him that the black-painted drawings and all of those mirrors should be consolidated as an installation. He was very enthusiastic  about that idea. So, my final feeling was that it had been a performance that had brought people together and that allowed people to think through stuff that they hadn’t really wanted to think about.

EP: What about you? This performance was an opportunity to think about and remember your brother. Were you looking for atonement for yourself?

MP: Yes, I was in a way, because I seem to have felt in the end… I suppose this is the inevitable guilt of any situation like this. Tim went into a final decline, and it was driving me mad. I had been looking after him for years, and it was obvious that his final decline was tied up with going back into alcoholism again, pill popping, and all the other stuff that goes with a collapse. I couldn’t get him out of it. I can remember the last coherent thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t want you to help me anymore. It’s my life.’ That was the last coherent thing he said to me.

EP: I’m so sorry for your loss.

MP: I think this performance helped enormously.

EP: What about the exhibition component – the works you installed throughout the buildings to accompany the performance. Were you trying to create a particular narrative?

MP: I had this realisation when I first visited the site that the whole place was so monumental and disturbing that it really wasn’t a place for an artist to do an ‘exhibition’ as such. I felt that it wasn’t about that kind of self-assertion or ego. I was interested in the state of the rooms, as they were. I was also very interested in the kind of order that had been brought to some of the rooms. In the barracks, the order was the result of people there trying to sort of excavate and tabulate. So it was a kind of academic order, in which people try to impose a taxonomy on the detritus. It was the sort of imposition that you often see in installations by artists. So I felt that all I needed to do in many instances was just interpolate a work by myself, one that somehow magnified or twisted your immediate perception of the room or the space. I felt as though I was working at the edge of the history and the disturbance of that architecture. I was magnifying what was there and drawing people’s attention to it, but at the same time the obverse of this was the idea of people depositing their mirrors. It occurred to me that maybe it should be just that – just the space, and the mirrors. But then I thought that people might be experiencing anxiety, remembering family members and so forth, and that there needed to be a reciprocity there – I needed to make my own contribution to those spaces too, otherwise it might be too overwhelming. I felt I needed to expose my own anxieties as an artist, to create a kind of solidarity. But I did want to keep the whole thing very episodic and inconclusive.

EP: It would be easy to emphasise the political aspect – just the word ‘asylum’ has a loaded meaning in this country, and obviously some of your own works that you chose to exhibit at Willow Court revolve around your response to Australia’s foreign policies and treatment of asylum seekers. Is that something that you really wanted to draw out?

MP: I was aware that using the word ‘asylum’ would resonate in that context. This is a culture that perennially reverts to the same pattern of anxiety – the yellow peril, the White Australia Policy. It’s got to do with the size of the place, the smallness of the population, our persistent call for identification with Britain and Europe, and our European origin – even though that origin is increasingly less significant. But it still produces the same sort of collapse. So I did realise that. Willow Court goes so far back. They’ve been locking up people there for a very long while, with ‘madness’ as a catch-all category. It would have included convicts, and remnants of the Aboriginal population I imagine.

EP: Promiscuous women?

MP: Probably, yep. Any deviation from the norm. These days we disperse [people who deviate from the norm] and they arrive at the end of their life sleeping rough in bus shelters or vacant lots. Or else they’re on Manus Island or Nauru. We’re too sophisticated to bring everyone together in one complex. If you keep them moving as it were, if you disperse the problem, it actually becomes much more manageable at the level of government policy. You can’t make the linkages between the zones of oppression, and you can treat each problem in an unrelated way, as specifics – when really they should be thought about collectively, because they speak to a kind of zeitgeist, an anxiety, and a kind of eternal return.

EP: When I spoke to you a few years ago you told me that in your early performance pieces, you were keen not to define your role in relation to the audience in any particular way. The way to do that was to not show any distress. I’m thinking in particular of the performance where you asked your friend Peter Kennedy to bite your arm repeatedly. You wanted to avoid any kind of emotional reaction because then it would define you as a patient or a victim, and the audience as your rescuers or saviours.

MP: Yes, exactly.

EP: What kind of relationship did you want to create between yourself and the audience at Willow Court?

MP: I wanted the same sort of separation. In the final stages of that performance I left the cell to take drawings to put in what I called the ‘drawing room’ and the people all followed me. But I became aware of the fact that they were also recoiling from me. I suppose I was starting to look a bit like a patient. I was dishevelled. I imagine I was becoming very dirty because of the drawing process just for a start, and I was becoming sort of wilder. I’d been in my own head by that point for quite a long while, in the lead-up to the performance and during it. So I must have seemed odd. But I felt that however they perceived me, it was important not to allow the space between us to be breached.

I’ve got these rules for performance that are very fundamental and that distinguish performance from theatre. Theatre is trying to construct a mimesis and catharsis – that Aristotelian notion. Within traditional theatre that’s a well-managed procedure and people might pull out their lace hankies and pat their eyes, but it’s not the kind of realism that I am interested in. Performance art for me is extreme realism. I think I’m a realist, essentially, as an artist. It’s really important to maintain this separation, because it builds a tension and imposes a complicity, where I’m not just a performer. I’m a kind of ‘other’. I’m the person that is not just a performer in a lunatic asylum – I come to be the person that was detained in that asylum. If you sustain this separation, this radical gap between the idea of performance and the audience, and you tension the gap to a real degree, they’re no longer an audience and you’re no longer a performer.

EP: Do you think that you struck that right balance?

MP: Yeah. I could feel people recoiling from me. I think we were in the zone of the real. It goes way beyond theatre. It’s a kind of moral barrier, because to collapse that barrier is to be back into a situation where everyone plays a familiar role. You’ve got the people that go into sort of nurse mode, and worry conspicuously, then you’ve got the artist who’s the victim and the agent of the failed provocation. Then you’re back into sort of something that is the worst sort of art – therapy. Therapy for the performer and therapy for the audience.

EP: Therapy is the antithesis of what you’re trying to do?

MP: That’s right. I get terribly upset talking about Tim but I don’t want any therapy. I don’t want to be put back into that situation where you’ve got this ‘expert’ intervention. The expert intervention in our culture is a big part of the problem, like when it comes to refugees. The government’s project is basically to manage this problem into a kind of oblivion, make it unreachable by normal human responses. It’s exactly this situation that the structure of performance art should confront.

EP: Ultimately it’s a challenging of roles on all levels.

MP: Yes. It’s the fact that we’re always invited as a solution to a problem. We’re always given a role in relation to that problem. [Refusing this] has determined my position as an artist.

EP: You’re trying to reach a point that’s prior to roles?

MP: Yes. Performance art always puts you in a kind of limit state. You’re deposited at the edge of the present tense with the ‘audience’ – in inverted commas, because they’re not the audience, by virtue of also being deposited at the edge of the present tense. It’s a formative situation without any real                 precedence.

EP: Your drawings that you did at Willow Court, were they all self-portraits?

MP: They were, but they all entailed a kind of reaction to the image. At one point I got into a rhythm and I produced some really interesting drawings. But I didn’t want to retain any of them, certainly not just because they were interesting. The self-portrait for me is sort of like a zone, a performative zone. It starts as an image but it produces a reaction, and I’m prepared to be completely uncompromising or totalising about that reaction. I was reacting to those drawings while I was producing them. It was inevitable that I would paint them out I suppose. I thought of it on Saturday night and I said to Felizita, ‘I want you to get me a can of black paint and a brush,’ and she said, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ She knew immediately what I was thinking. But by Sunday morning I was determined to do it. I thought ‘I’ve got to get rid of these. This is no place for self-expression. I’ve got to block them completely.’

EP: Is that the ethical dimension you spoke about earlier?

MP: Yes. I thought, ‘No one here had an opportunity for self-expression.’ That’s why they were in there. They were self-expression. Like how you said – the promiscuous women. What was being blocked was the possibility of difference, and self-expression is the assertion of difference. I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to assert difference in this place. I’m going to just black them all out. Bugger it.’ So I felt that the real tension with the blacked out drawings was the mirrors that everyone had deposited because they’d all blatantly deposited their own self-portraits. It was the fragments of mirror that reflected everyone else and everything else.

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Clown physics

By David Walsh

When we went to see the LHC there were a few Large Hangovers Colliding. We acquired these hangovers the previous night, celebrating Olivier’s birthday (‘What’s good for a hangover? Drinking a lot the night before’). Olivier is a curator at Mona, but he lives in Geneva, so we were in Geneva, which is just down the road from CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN employs 12,000 people to do fundamental scientific research. It was at CERN that the Higgs boson was discovered a couple of years ago. That’s a big deal, a Nobel Prize-winning deal, because the Higgs is the particle that allows mass in the universe (but not in the church, despite the press calling it the God Particle).

Before I go into detail about what CERN is up to let me tell you a story. A couple of clown doctors were collecting money for the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Clown doctors are what they sound like – people dressed up as clowns pretending to be doctors. But my wife didn’t think they were pretending to be doctors. She made a donation, and then asked them to write her a prescription.

I’ve read a few books on physics; perhaps clown doctors have read a few books about medicine (maybe an anatomy text that describes people with pathologically big red noses). Essentially I’m a clown physicist, and I don’t really know what I’m on about. With that proviso, here’s my prescription:

The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) collides charged particles at near the speed of light. Occasionally the artifacts of these collisions are extremely interesting to physicists because they confirm or falsify theories. In particle physics there is something called the Standard Model, which uses all the known particles and forecasts the properties of forces like electromagnetism. Under the standard model particles would have no mass without the existence of the Higgs boson, but the Standard Model predicts that the Higgs is a heavy particle. Supersymmetry (the thing that this exhibition is named after) predicts heavier partners for each of the Standard Model particles. These heavy particles could cancel out the contribution of the Higgs mass from their Standard Model partners, and that means that the Higgs could have a low mass (which it does). It also explains why groups of particles with very different properties exist. The upshot – Supersymmetry is looking pretty good.

We left CERN inspired and confused in equal proportion. We took with us the remnants of our hangovers and a couple of t-shirts (which didn’t say, but should have – ‘I went to CERN and all I got was this lousy tumour’. Or: ‘I went to CERN and all I got was this lousy Nobel Prize’).

Ryoji Ikeda was already one of my favourite artists before I saw this astounding thing in London. After all, he lit us all up with spectra, at the first Dark Mofo. Supersymmetry, like spectra and all of Ryoji’s other stuff, grapples with the big issues. I went to CERN with a hangover, and left with a t-shirt. He went to CERN with an open mind, and left with the germ of a masterpiece.

supersymmetry [experiment], 2014, Ryoji Ikeda Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

supersymmetry, 2014, Ryoji Ikeda
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

spectra [tasmania], 2013, Ryoji Ikeda

spectra [tasmania], 2013, Ryoji Ikeda
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

David Walsh, Earlobe

By David Walsh

My meagre effort to implement Graeme Garden’s scheme to become an Earl and receive an OBE, and thus become an Earlobe, was long ago thwarted when Australia abandoned the English honours system.  However, I have been offered an award within the Australian honours system: an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia. I suspect it will surprise you that I accepted. It certainly surprised me. So now, if I so choose, I can sign my name David Walsh, AO. There are certain connotations of AO that I like – if my life were a movie I’d like to think that it would be rated Adults Only, but that isn’t why I chose to accept. Knowing full well that one’s motives are often unknown to oneself, I nevertheless will attempt to précis my rationale:

It has been awarded while both the local and federal governments are conservative. This, despite my regular vociferous opposition to many of the policies that conservatives hold dear (of course, had Labour been in power, the same logic would have applied).

The citation mentions my training-wheels museum, The Moorilla Museum of Antiquities. I was always kind of proud of that cultural David amongst Goliaths, but until this commendation I thought the stone had missed its mark.

The Officer award, the second highest division, has a dark side. Amongst recipients of this honour are Rolf Harris, Marcus Einfeld and Alan Bond; all, unsurprisingly, have since had their award revoked. Those bastards inoculate me against the insidious infection of self-satisfaction.

David Bowie was once offered a Knighthood, and he turned it down, saying ‘I seriously don’t know what it’s for’. I guess he didn’t need to have his ego stroked. But he was a better man than me. He was also a better man than my wife, Kirsha. She’s American, and she was not aware of the subtle differences between the English and the Australian honours systems. When I told her about my award she said, ‘Does that make me a Lady?’

Nominating yourself for an award and subsequently winning is a lot like masturbating and then declaring it the best fuck you’ve ever had. I don’t know who nominated me, but based on the citation, he or she knows quite a bit about my activities, and approves. Although the citation doesn’t include twice daily feeding, I suspect Christ the cat.

So there it is. I’m now an Officer of the Order Of Australia. An officer, yes, but not a gentleman.

Gilbert & George: a critique

Elizabeth Pearce

I’ve been trying to work out what I think about the art of Gilbert & George. There is much that should not be taken at face value of course, but the democratic element of the work – their desire to speak as clearly to taxi drivers and café owners as to snooty gallery-goers – is genuine, and it is successful. (You shouldn’t call it ‘work’ though, it’s too wanky; they insist on ‘pictures’.) You don’t need any special knowledge to look at the pictures, nor even to think very hard. Their desire to be anti-elitist is borne out in their art critic of choice: a guy called Michael Bracewell, who has been writing about their art for years, and whose essays – no less than eleven – can be found in the catalogue on sale in our bookshop (and here), along with an introduction by David Walsh and foreword by Olivier Varenne. Sometimes, so-called anti-elitist artists are pipped at the post when it comes to criticism of their work: they insist on art wank in their catalogues and so forth, because they think it legitimates them, or something. Bracewell eschews such wank for a warm (if sometimes repetitive) humanism. And – like the artists themselves with their suits and ties and their pleases and thank-yous – Bracewell’s texts can be misread as quaint; in fact, they are progressive for their refusal to bow to the taste and fashions of the moment.

This brings me to probably my favourite thing about the Gs. They turn the idea of ‘radical’ on its head. They say the reason they adopted their trademark ‘conservative’ look and professed their love of Maggie Thatcher was to beat their own path, away from their bohemian peers. I am similarly irked by the seemingly compulsory politics of the gallery-going demographic, parts of which confuse ‘radical’ with ‘left-wing’. Of course, often, the two overlap. But ‘radical’, to me, is not a fixed set of beliefs, but a willingness to think things through independently, and to entertain an idea on the basis of its merit and not its popularity. They are not really old-fashioned and quaint of course, nor are they true lovers of Thatcherite politics – beyond, perhaps, a belief in the creative capacity of the individual (this is purely my reading, they have said nothing to this effect that I am aware of). But it was important, back in the 1960s when they met, to mark themselves as outsiders – for two reasons. Firstly because it emphasised their desire to break out from the uniform modernity of their art-school generation: the muted tones, the circles and squares, the denial of emotion. It’s easy to lose sight – when you’re looking back along the arc of art history – of how brave it is to do something different. (The extent to which this ‘something different’ matters to them is borne out by a fifty-year commitment… More on that below.) And secondly, in adopting the suits and the faux-stuffy manner, they are making a simple but effective point about the way in- and out-group boundaries are policed in the art world. To belong to the cultural elite, you must meet certain criteria, such as progressive politics, bohemian manner, and love for difficult and densely theoretical art. (For a hilarious take on this, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word). This is set up in opposition, as Wolfe points out, to stuffy middle class values: pretty pictures, politeness, conservative politics. This desire for elite cultural status on behalf of the viewer, along with the artist’s desire to be more and more radical, creates a kind of feedback loop that has a real impact on the cultural evolution of art (and, as we will consider in an upcoming exhibition, can be traced to our biological evolution as well).

To stopper this feedback loop, and go against the grain, was truly radical of Gilbert & George. But that was in the 60s. What about now?

Around the time of the exhibition opening a few people commented to me about how the Gs are such a perfect fit for Mona. I can see why they would say that – the subject matter, the bright colours, as well as the desire to ‘piss off academics’ as David would put it. But for much of this process, I have been preoccupied by the way they are different to us. And in thinking more about this, I have reached my conclusion about the art of Gilbert & George: I respect it, but ultimately, it’s not for me.

In my capacity as writer for the Mona marketing team, I was a little slow to work out that the Gs wanted, basically, to colonise us: to implant their entire worldview onto Mona as a passive platform, in everything from text on our website, the style of font we use, eccentric punctuation, etc. This is part of their long-standing way of working: they design, curate and execute the entirety of their exhibitions, on the stated basis that they, not curators and gallery directors, know what the public wants. I found this a little bothersome at first but then I got the hang of it. It was good for us, I think, to try this different way of working: quite often we ask artists to join a choir in a sense, to let us sublimate (respectfully) their intention to the overall ‘experience’ of the museum. It was an interesting experiment, and one that prompted us to think more clearly about our usual methods.

But as the process wore on, I began to wonder why it was so important to them to be so unbending. It fits within the ethos of their work, which makes stasis (somewhat factiously) a kind of ideology. They famously eat at the same Turkish restaurant every night, and avoid cultural input like theatre and films, in case it distracts them from their distinctive view. And do the pictures themselves reflect stasis? The subject matter has changed a little over time, as has their use of colour and composition; they switched seamlessly to digital photographic processes in the early 2000s. But the essential idea remains the same. They pride themselves on this: ‘The world has changed,’ they tell us, ‘but our pictures stay they same.’ And I know what they mean. Think of the SCAPEGOATING PICTURES (they like it written in capitals) that dominate the space as you first enter the exhibition at Mona. Women in burkhas – neighbours from their home in London’s East End – stare at us or thwart our gaze, alongside the artists themselves, who are variously menacing, and/or fragmented into little pieces, as though destroyed by the ‘bombs’ that dot the pictures. They are not really bombs of course, but nitrous oxide canisters (hippy gas) that are apparently strewn around the streets near their home. In the wake of the recent Paris attacks, these pictures are breathtaking. They capture, for me, a central ambivalence at the heart of our western stupefaction in the face of extremism: How can we begin to reconcile our love of diversity and tolerance of difference with our creeping awareness that dogmatic thinking – including that which motivates religions of all kinds – closes down the free play of the human imagination, giving rise to totalitarianism and terror? I don’t know the answer but I am pleased the Gs are worrying about it with me. And I respect them for not running away from it – literally, in their commitment to live among and depict their multicultural and multiracial neighbours, and to inhabit all the hypocrisy and contradiction to which this gives rise. I sense, here, the beginnings of that ‘moral dimension’ they claim for their art.

Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London.
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

BOMBERS. 2006, Gilbert & George

BOMBERS, 2006
Gilbert & George
(Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London)
Mixed media
Courtesy of the artists and White Cube
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

But as I walk further through the gallery, my excitement wears off, and I start to be numbed by repetition. Perhaps this is part of their intention. I can’t help but ask: in not changing, are they missing something? Namely, the sense that ‘going against the grain’, beating your own path, means something very different today as it did in the 1960s. For a start, there is no ‘grain’ to go against. There are not paths of cultural evolution: it’s a web, in which we sometimes feel trapped, numbed by the words and images that surround us in the network era. Much of their work pivots on a juxtaposition and inversion of authorised and unauthorised discourse: graffiti and profanity alongside newspaper headings and government slogans. The distinction does not hold fast today. All writing is graffiti, and all is propaganda. No discourse is authorised any more than any other. And that is exhausting, to live in – and to look at, in art. I can’t help but be reminded of the guilt-ridden, social-media apathy that marks the moral landscape of my generation: torture, suffering, sign the petition; like, unlike, unsubscribe. They tell us their subject is the raw emotion of human experience: hope, love, sex, fear. But I don’t see these emotions so much as the idea of them. They are repeated and deferred, always just out of reach. They are speaking not (to me) of the human experience, but of the way that experience is abstracted and reiterated, spawning and breeding meaninglessly like AD Hope’s ‘teeming sores’. They don’t, in fact, speak to me at all, but only speak about speaking. But in doing so, they are, paradoxically, speaking about our modern malaise: about the way hope, love, sex, fear are trapped beneath the surface of the words and images, like a fly in a glass, trying to escape. This was prophetic in the 60s but now, we need to be shown the way out.

Gilbert & George Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to get to know the pictures better. The impressive scale of them, and of the artists’ commitment: this must be respected. But still, I want more. I think I’ve become a little old-fashioned. And I think Mona has the capacity to be that way, as well – to gravitate towards art that truly engages that moral dimension, even if, in doing so, it also shows us the darkest parts of ourselves.

Stuff we are planning to do

David Walsh

There is an old Soviet joke that insists that ‘the future is certain. It is the past that is unpredictable’. Despite my endless rambling about the pointlessness of prediction, I thought I’d highlight a bunch of projects that Mona has on the go, for the self-serving reason that I want to establish our tourism credentials in the light of Federal Hotel’s tactic of promising expenditure conditionally on their pokies licence being extended.

Mona is here for good (in at least one sense). None of these projects are contingent on the casino going ahead (including the casino), but Monaco might make it a little easier to pay for all this. However, they are contingent on many other things, like planning and building approval. And me not shuffling off this mortal coil. (I heard that Rene Hidding, when told that I was planning for the consequences of ‘being hit by a bus’, said: ‘That won’t happen. I’ve had a word with our bus drivers and they are going to be very careful’.)

As an aside, when I first opened Mona, I expected to see some services (coffee shops, restaurants etc.) cropping up in the area. I don’t know why that hasn’t happened, except that there may be some zoning issues, but Local Pizza recently opened in Claremont, and it is exactly the sort of business I was hoping for. I hope it is the vanguard of more quality, consumer-oriented businesses to come. So, start selling stuff in the Glenorchy region. I’m buying.

For us, the first cab off the rank will be an extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works. As James’ works always are, these will be light works, but not lightweight works. Also in the extension will be a bar and restaurant, possibly serving tapas, which will double as another function venue. The whole thing cantilevers off the tunnel between the museum and the Round House. It would extend about 20 metres over the Derwent. Astute observers might notice from the plan that there is a dead-end tunnel going back towards the winery. That will eventually (five-seven years?) connect to a much larger extension, west of the winery, that will house some offices (our staff is growing, but not our facilities) and a museum gallery extension. This will be a large building, and I suspect it will cost about as much as the original museum. If it never gets built, the tunnel to nowhere might well cause some wild speculation on the part of future archeologists. Aliens will have been involved in some capacity, I’m sure.

An extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works.

An extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works.

We are also pretty advanced in designing a hotel for Mona, HOtelMOna, or HOMO. In fact we have now mooted the plans for more than twenty hotels for the site, starting long before Mona opened, but we finally have something that we feel justified in building. I believe a hotel should make exactly the sort of statement that Mona avoided: it should shout where Mona whispered. The building will house a decent library (I think the Mona library isn’t a design triumph, and we have a great deal of rare books and autograph manuscripts that we have never displayed [Stop Press: last night I bought an early edition of The Origin Of Species autographed by Darwin]), function centre, restaurant, bar, a theatre, some retail, and a spa, as well as around 160 rooms. Some of the rooms will be designed by artists: Marina Abramovic and James Turrell have agreed to participate, as well as our own Brigita Ozolins.

HOtelMOna, or HOMO.

HOtelMOna, or HOMO.

The casino is a different beast, or more precisely, a different flower. I’ve engaged a Mexican organic architect, Javier Senosiain, who seems to understand the sort of thing I want, despite neither of us understanding the other. Casinos are closed edifices of steel and gloss. That’s not what I want. I want an open garden. Our customer base could never be that of the standard casino world, but it is a big world, and we need very few customers. And when we don’t have customers, I’d like the casino to be worth a visit, just from an art and architecture point of view. Anyway, it might never be licenced, so it needs to function at a level beyond that of a cash palace. These early models don’t quite intersect with the present hotel, because they were designed for a slightly earlier iteration. The principle will remain, however.

Monaco

Monaco

On top of the Turrell extension I am planning a playground from Toshiko MacAdam. Although this isn’t very far along the design path, here I enclose the work that encouraged us to pursue this artist. We imagine something similar.

One of the best works of art I’ve ever seen is the Richard Wilson work 20:50. I liked it so much I wrote about it in my autobiography. And now it’s mine (nearly, I paid a deposit). As yet, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, so it won’t surface for a few years.

Conrad Shawcross featured when Mona opened, and he will feature again when the hotel opens. The centrepiece work for the entrance chamber to the hotel is a giant, asymmetrical rope-making machine. That means nothing to you, of course, but it will be amazing. Conrad has been working on it for quite some time, but he still has nearly a year to go.

The night I met Kirsha, my then wife-to-be, in Basel, Switzerland, I also first encountered the art of Jean Tinguely, and he affected me almost as profoundly. His best works are Heath Robinson-esque assemblages of arbitrariness that expend a great deal of effort to accomplish very little. I recently acquired one of these and it will appear in the gallery one day soon.

The phenomenal highlight of the first Dark Mofo, Spectra, those optical towers of alliance, might come to Mona permanently, but only for a few days a year (maybe for a night each on the solstices and the equinoxes). We are in negotiation with the artist, Ryoji Ikeda, and he seems pretty keen for his masterwork to have a permanent home.

My favourite work from our Matthew Barney show will become part of the Mona collection. I saw this piece in his New York studio a couple of years before the exhibition, and it reminded me he is the real deal.

The Swiss artist, Thomas Huber, came up with a great proposal for us, which consists of a couple of giant paintings and a few smaller drawings and watercolours. This should be completed in a couple of years, and I can hardly wait.

A few years ago I admired the diaries of the noted Australian artist, Donald Friend. His flagrant parading of his illicit sexual congress with young boys made me ponder, as I had before and have since, the morality of art based on, or in, the abrogation of ethics. Most of us are still prepared to visit Chartres Cathedral, built on the broken backs of generations of near slaves, or enjoy the benefits of medicine perfected through the torturing of animals. Does a stunningly illustrated story in a corrupt artist’s original hand constitute good art? If not, would a printed copy be okay? Is my highlighting the moral ambiguity of collecting Donald Friend sufficient justification for that very collecting?

And while on the subject of moral ambiguity, is a Nazi war machine (this is an Enigma machine, used for encoding communications within the German military) an appropriate thing to collect? Is it more appropriate given the knowledge that the Polish/English decoding of messages sent between such machines may have contributed to the Allies’ victory?

Earlier I mentioned a plan for a playground. We are actually planning two sets of artistic play apparatus. The other will be by Tom Otterness, who did some wonderful stuff at Doha airport. Here’s a preliminary sketch of one of the proposed works. He is infamously morally compromised. One of his earliest artworks was a video of him shooting a dog. He is still copping shit about it nearly forty years later, presumably from people who abet the murder of 1.2 billion pigs and 400 million cattle per annum.

When I was about ten we went on holiday to the caravan park next to Mona (now known as Treasure Island, perhaps soon to be known as Moab, unless a better acronym comes along). We went there to holiday even though we lived in Glenorchy, and even though it was about a forty-minute journey. And that’s forty minutes on foot – our family didn’t have a car so we walked to our holiday. We had lots of fun. I hope to preserve its affordability, while enhancing the sense of adventure for future intrepid travellers that visit Mona’s near neighbour.

The planned Mona boardwalk is unique is three ways. It’s the only item on this list that is approved; I don’t want to pay for it since it is mainly a community service and I can’t see an external funding source. So it is the only item on the list that I want financial help for; it is therefore the least likely to be built.

Connecting the boardwalk and the Round House library is this potential commission from perennial Mona favourite, Wim Delvoye. Towers seem to be the flavour of the century in Hobart, and with the proposed light tower for Hobart, I hesitated before publishing it. But we’ve been working on it for years, and it’s kind of beautiful. Maybe Hobart, in the tradition of Tolkien, could use two towers?

The parlous state of the beautiful River Derwent due to heavy metal contamination is something I took for granted. My American wife, however, feels a need to do something about it, and together with many collaborators has instigated a number of art projects in an effort to generate awareness. One of the biggest is a thing we call the Heavy Metal Science Lab, designed by the local architectural firm, Room 11. A walking ring about 50 metres in diameter will (given approval is forthcoming) be constructed, supported by hydraulics, so it can be raised and lowered with the tide. The plan is to keep it just below the waterline, so that the procession around it requires gumboots, or bare feet, to provoke contemplation of the state of the water. A number of sampling experiments will also be conducted.

Once we have a hotel at Mona, we need an efficient way for people to get there, and back to Hobart. Running the giant ferry out of hours makes little sense, so I asked our expert ferry collaborators, Navigators, to consider Venice-style ferries. This is their collaborators’ design for a 25-person, million-dollar motoscafi.

We’ve also got lots of offsite projects: upmarket accommodation (on a very small scale) and facilities, including a cooking school at our farm near Marion Bay, a potential hotel collaboration in Hobart (about which I will say no more), the already announced research for Mac Point, and a recording school for disadvantaged rappers in New Orleans. But I’ll stop now, because I’m going to have a look at the tables that Kirsha and her friends are making for an artist’s dinner on Saturday. They will be full of alcoholic jelly, which will hopefully induce some generosity of spirit in those rich art wankers that we invited, on the off chance that they will contribute to as yet unpropounded projects in Mona’s ‘certain’ future. But maybe peer pressure, or the jelly, will inveigle them to do something different, something wonderful, that no one now can foresee.

Off-site projects Marion Bay

Off-site projects
Marion Bay