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

O death, where is thy Sting?

By David Walsh

Who’d have thought thirty year ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?

Monty Python, Four Yorkshiremen, 1974

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon

The Police, Walking on the Moon, 1979

In late ’79 or early ’80 I first heard Walking on the Moon, at a bar at Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, in the very early, desperate days of my gambling. I was stunned by the song, not the first time that The Police had that effect on me. But I said to my mate, ‘Why would your legs be more likely to break on the moon, just because the reduced gravity makes you take giant steps. It’s ridiculous.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it isn’t ridiculous. If you had been on the moon for some time, your bone density would be considerably reduced, so breakages would be more common when exerting the same forces, like the ones that allow you to take normal-sized steps on Earth, and giant leaps on the moon.’ Chastened, I listened to the rest of the song, and from then on paid more attention to Sting’s career.

Thirty years later I name dropped into an alternate universe when I found myself drinking (proverbial) Château de Chasselas with Sting and his wife, Trudie. They came to Mona and asked to have lunch with me. Fortunately, and coincidentally, I had seen Sting in concert (for the first time) about a week before so I had something to talk about. He had something to talk about too – he had read my book. But unlike others who claim to have read my book, he had read my book. In particular, he was interested in the chapter on the organisation and management of capital (‘The evolution of investment’) and he thought I should form a political party based around those ideas. I was gratified, of course. I have thought about entering politics a great deal but decided against it because: I don’t know that I can achieve any more ‘inside the barrel pissing out than outside the barrel pissing in’ (to quote my brother); I don’t like living to someone else’s schedules; I don’t like the idea of living in Canberra; I don’t handle criticism well; and I don’t know what I’m talking about (some might suggest that that last point means I’m ideally suited to politics).

When Trudie suggested that it was time for them to leave I asked, ‘What time is your flight?’ Trudie and Sting glanced at each other but said nothing. Later I realised that they said nothing because the only thing they could have said would have been, ‘Whatever time we want. It’s our plane’, but they were much too polite to say that.

Interval the first.

Donna Smith: Donna was my housekeeper, and my friend. I knew her for eight years and yet never had a reason to be annoyed with her. Conversely, she had many reasons to be annoyed with me, but never was. Three days before she died of breast cancer, I picked up her daughter Celeste so she could spend some time with my daughter, Grace. Donna was sick, but defiant. She had been told the end was near but insisted she could have handled more chemo. My wife, Kirsha, and I were then about two months away from the birth of our daughter Sunday. Donna wanted to talk about that. She told me to have two children, quickly. She thought that that made each child more balanced. She thought a lot about my welfare. Three days before she died she was still concerned about the concerns of others.

Mark O’Rourke: Mark worked for a gambling services company that used to place bets for us. His metal-head, swinging, pill-popping, party lifestyle never interfered with his professional performance or competence, but it may have interfered with his life expectancy.

At one of his swingers parties Mark introduced a colleague to an attractive young lady, who was to become his kept mistress. His wife became aware of his perfidious behaviour, however, because his opportunistic paramour wrote a book about their affair, titled Sugarbabe. (Holly Hill?)

Although he pushed boundaries Mark managed to elude epic failures of this type (until his death), because he was unfailingly respectful of other’s choices.

Interval the second.

Kirsha, an American in Tasmania, was astonished to find that the beautiful River Derwent is contaminated with heavy metals. Unlike locals (me) she could not take the state of the river for granted and she launched into a series of awareness-generating art projects. When the University of Tasmania architecture school failed to give her the support she desired, her response was to contact M.I.T. Her temerity astonished me, but I was more astonished when M.I.T. readily agreed to participate in her project.

I wrote a poem about life and death, and Donna and Mark. I liked it and I sent it to my erstwhile collaborator, Dean Stevenson. He didn’t reply. Embittered by Dean’s indifference, but emboldened by Kirsha’s arrogance, I sent my poem to Sting, the biggest musical name for whom I could conjure an email address, asking if he would set it to music. To my astonishment and delight, he agreed to be my musical M.I.T.

Here’s the poem:

Donna Smith died today
Not in a dramatic way
Gentle into the night she went.
Now she is just chemistry
Yesterday a complex entity
When death has this proximity
Sentimentally, I lament

That something so complex, something so whole
Could no longer be, makes it easy to see why so many
Cling to the notion that they have a soul
Immortal, immutable, incorruptible – indisputably
It just must be so – if it isn’t what’s the point, they need to know.
But there isn’t a purpose, life’s a circus, no one gets a safety net,
And I say all that without regret.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Mark O’Rourke died last week
His death preserved his mystique
Against the night his rage maintained
Now he is just bone and skin
Force of life not within
The times, they sure are changin’ him
And with his end, I’m changed.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

And you’ll die one day soon
Hemingway in the afternoon
Or Agatha, dead, in denial
But until then we’ll live a lie
Act as though we’ll never die
Seasons not in short supply
Never go out of style.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Why is it that we worry?
Our history makers are not forgotten
Their tombs are grand, their remains are rotten.

Plato, Sappho, and Galileo
Picasso and Caravaggio
Newton’s gone and Einstein too
And millions with Chairman Mao.
People died of influenza
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
(But not Oskar Kokoschka
He lingered on a little longer.)
Lincoln and London and Lenin and Lennon
The Strength of the Strong to Imagine no heaven.
In World War Two and in World War One
Men lived by the sword, died by the gun
Died like heroes, or on the run.
Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

But…
For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her.

Sting stymied me by sending back sheet music. I can’t read music. But I have friends that can. Here’s what Dean, now a willing participant (‘With all due respect, I’m not doing a shit job on a Sting tune’), made of Sting’s delightful gesture (with a little help from his friends):

So, here I am, fortunate to not be dead, fortunate to have had my time on Earth overlap with Donna’s and Mark’s and fortunate to have collaborated with someone I admire who needs only one name. Elizabeth, my blog colleague, opined that having done this, I should never do anything again.

More Mona

By Elizabeth Pearce

When the museum first opened, this artwork, by Jon Pylypchuk, was displayed alongside a ‘spin’ painting by Damien Hirst. It was an odd coupling, one that seemed somehow to demand that I think about the myriad reasons people make and look at art.

You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

Foreground: You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk
Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

We sold the Hirst and some other works recently, part of David’s scheme to raise money to make MORE MONA – another wing to house his James Turrell fetish.

There’s three artists – Hirst, Pylypchuk, and Turrell – who illustrate the trinity of creativity at the heart of the phenomenon we call ‘art’.

Turrell is a craftsman and magician, tapping into our innate preference for the numinous. If you’ve been to the museum recently you could hardly miss his rooftop spectacular, Amarna.

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Hirst is hard. It’s so easy to dismiss him as a charlatan and to point out that he has approx. zero talent as a painter; no actual, nameable, hands-on skill or craft to speak of. But look harder – or in a different way – and he is a deeply traditional artist, in the sense that he is expressing his reality using the most relevant, up-to-date tools available at that particular time; what humans have been doing since they started making marks on the walls of caves with their hands. In post-Thatcher, empire-burn-out Britain (that is, in Hirst’s time), individual virtuosity was subsumed by the economic and nationalist nihilism of the era. In this context, the reverence with which we regard the figure of the artist – as a harbinger of authenticity, specialness, and truth about ourselves – was more than irrelevant, it was simply untenable. Art has always been packaged and delivered to us in a culture industry that stands in awkward (and sometimes arbitrary) relation to the fact of the artist’s actual talent. But for the first time, in turn-of-the-century Britain, the culture industry swallowed the artist and his talent entirely. Damien Hirst was clever enough to run with, rather than against, this sorry state of play, and in doing so made: a) A shit load of cash, and b) Us reconsider what it is we want from art. How far we are prepared to go to defend it. I posit that Hirst’s career ended with his debut as a traditional painter at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009. The public reaction to his exhibition of blue-themed, Francis-Bacon rip-offs – the Telegraph called it ‘one of the most unanimously negative responses to any exhibition in living memory’ – gave us a definitive answer to the question around which Hirst’s entire career had hitherto revolved. Are painting, drawing and individual skill important to us? Yes, they are.

What has this to do with Jon Pylypchuck’s collection of creatures doing unnatural things to trees? First, a little background. Pylypchuck came to art via laziness and apathy. At the time, he was trying to avoid getting thrown out of uni (University of Manitoba, Canada), and had ‘no interest at all’ in making art. Then he just started making this stuff he calls ‘scrap art’ with his friends, and thinking up stupid titles to make each other laugh. I don’t know. It just works. It’s weird and funny, that’s it. The weight of Turrell’s hope for humanity and of Hirst’s disorientating nihilism is crushed beneath its coolness.

David is philosophical about selling the Hirst work, but I am sad. Not because I loved that particular piece but because I have almost forgotten what it was like, in Mona’s early days, to have no set opinions on art, to be trying to work out what it’s all about. Thankfully I’ve still got Jon Pylypchuck here to remind me.