A letter of apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people (and anyone else we have offended).

Last week Mona opened Southdale/C’Mona, an exhibition that explores, among other things, the unintended consequences of created utopias. The colonisation/invasion of Tasmania by Europeans, and the debilities that resulted for its inhabitants, are among the areas explored. Another was the potential establishment of a Jewish nation in southwest Tasmania. That project, however, didn’t come to such a fraught conclusion, since it disappeared, as did its major proponent.

The artist who devised the exhibition is Christoph Buchel. Because the project was presented as an intervention he wasn’t named at its inception. He, and we, thought that the impact would be enhanced if the project was taken at face value. Since his identity was exposed by the Australian newspaper at the weekend (and they obtained their information from his dealer’s website, and not from us), I don’t feel that, at this point, we are breaking any confidences by revealing the artist’s identity. However, not naming Christoph before meant that we at Mona could appear to be endorsing a presentation that we are uncomfortable with. In the event, that is what happened.

I certainly had warnings. During the exhibition planning, Christoph proved to be uncooperative to a point I had not hitherto encountered. When an idea was rejected, the next day he would present the same scheme again, as if it were new. But we ploughed on, although on a few occasions we categorically rejected some of his material. I have discovered since the exhibition opened that, in at least one of these cases, he proceeded to print and distribute some of this inflammatory material despite our veto.

We believe that much of Christoph’s exhibition is relevant, clever and funny. But he thinks it all is; I’ll get back to that point in a moment. Christoph holds the intellectual property for the exhibition, and when we offered (threatened?) to take down some material we were uncomfortable with, he maintained his confrontational viewpoint. In his opinion, the exhibition is a conceptual whole. His position: if we take any of it down we must take it all down. Obviously, that puts us in a difficult position.

Christoph has demonstrated (for the most part) the facile nature of certainty. Those who believe in utopias, and attempt to engineer them, repeatedly fail and generate unintended consequences. They fail because their path becomes the only path, and the required outcome, the end, is sought regardless of the means. Christoph’s hypocrisy is that he parodies that position while taking the same view. He knows what he wants, and while he pursues his goals he doesn’t care what the consequences are for others.

We do. We will engage with affected individuals and redress the situation. If Christoph fails to approve our action he will have the right to legal process, of course. We know he knows about that. He has been involved in a long legal action concerning the failure of a previous show.

We’re sorry we pissed some people off. And we will find a way to resolve reasonable unaddressed issues.

David Walsh

35 thoughts on “A letter of apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people (and anyone else we have offended).

  1. Utopia is often understood in a static way. Yet, I feel you would benefit with some re-appraisal of Ernst Bloch’s Utopian philosophy that your brother was involved with to some degree. I say this as there is something open ended and utopian in our more than ‘cultural’ quests / driven-ness.The ‘utopian’ can be understood as an inescapable feature of the ‘dynamis-stasis’ processuality of human endeavor and within the process, ‘certainty’: a principle driving-force engendering the nature of human endeavour…

  2. What do Dark Mofo and The Voice almost have in common? Coldplay? Seriously? It’s a bit like Manzoni’s Merde d’Artista – is it really shit in those cans? I don’t know. I’m just hoping it was all a massive public stooge. If so, bravo, you fooled many people and tra-la-la. If not… well, zounds man, it’s a frightful thing to consider. Maybe next year you can tell people you almost had the liberal party’s front bench signed up to perform a Cinderella panto but the 767 turned into pumpkin on the flight down to Hobart.

  3. Congratulations on supporting Christoph’s artistic expression in the first instance; congratulations on qualifying that support when you believe it has become the ‘right’ thing to do. It can be no easy task to recognise moral rights in a work; to balance that recognition against the risks which ensue and then stand ready to account to artist and to community when those risks bear sour fruit. Chapeau.

    Kevin Stewart.

  4. Many thanks for you wonderful honesty and transparency, David. Tasmanian Aboriginal people and others will certainly value Mona’s actions in ensuring unnecessary pain and suffering is not visited upon Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Respect.

  5. Congratulations David on how you’ve handled what seems to be a complex situation. Your frankness and the detail provided certainly shares (for all to absorb) the challenges in this matter. All the best and keep doing what you are doing! Doug Flockhart

  6. I’ve always had the impression Buchel was a minor artist tending to the overwrought and superficial while exploiting “political” themes that go nowhere. So nothing about this surprises me. David Walsh you have handled it well.

  7. So what about the other artist unknowingly and unwillingly involved? Alan Young’s paintings are hung unattributed in the ‘community centre’, essentially reframed as amateur art among the munted ceramics made by children and attributed sculptures by local teenagers. He’s a professional artist represented by Hughes Gallery, and a former recipient of the Moorilla Scholarship. While the works are part of the MONA collection, does that give the museum the right to hang the paintings in such a disrespectful and offensive way? Should the artist not be informed beforehand if such a dramatic intervention is to be performed? It’s one thing to hang a painting against a red wall or re-contextualised next to a bowl of fish or Egyptian Mummy, but this is far more disruptive than normal MONA gallery display. If Buchel doesn’t want to be named on the O, then fine; but at the very *least* put Young’s artworks on the O.

  8. My initial reaction was, well you said it was going to be dark, and Mona being defiled by Southdale is the darkest thing imaginable. Rarely seen so much confusion and anger over an installation so I’d have to say it worked. As you say, some of it is clever and funny, but some of it comes accross as a bit half assed. So impressed by your response.

  9. Its good to have a real chat from David Walsh. This is the second in two days thats come up in my news feed and its good to hear. It’s so fun to have sort of famous people here in Hobart on the street like in other places, just cruising around getting a pie or something, talking fearlessly about stuff. I think Irene from Hill st Store is some kind of famous person and she gives my son freddo frogs. My friend and I were going home and I said ‘ hey is that David W ?’ getting into that old car….still not sure wether it was Bob from Twin Peaks though. x

  10. Just trying to give a lil light heart to it all..beejesus I get all sunburnt talking about art alls the twime. Has to be done tho.

  11. I’m consistently impressed by the way everyone involved in MONA holds their hands up and admits when a mistake has been made. That honesty and integrity is bloody brilliant.

  12. Hmmm…well everyone got what they wanted didn’t they. In the end a person with too much money and who built a very interesting Museum got publicity and the artist got it too and The Australian got a story…what’s the problem. Contemporary art is a closed circuit and this was an attempt to break open that circuit. In part it has worked BUT it has also reigned the circuit and it’s insularity. Apologies for the self promo but I proposed the concept of an art gallery and museum combined with shopping mall and cinema complex for a new Gold Coast Art Gallery in the pages of Art and Australia eight years ago. I made an architectural model of the concept and showed it in Hobart too. It’s actually owned by Penny Clive. Because I didn’t have tons of money behind me hardly anyone took notice. So Mr Walsh’s concerns are a bit empty as all he is is a walking money bags. But it’s ok it’s only art trying to compete with what it can NEVER compete with: Real Life.

  13. Typical politically correct response. I wonder if some other people come forward with objections to other displays, will those items be removed as well? No…I didn’t think so. Why not?

  14. Well, didn’t you fold over like a pack of cards with the smallest of pressure. There are a number of pornagraphic images there which I am offended by….could you Mr Walsh apoligise for them and remove them because I find them offensive? Bet not.

  15. So many opinions? Is that the point, or can we just accept an apology for what it is? And while we are at it accept our response to the work for what that was. You might learn more about yourself than others.

  16. In my humble view, this has nothing to do with politics. If we look at the higher issues here, it’s about what we do when art hurts or causes harm. I doubt anyone would question the course of action MONA has taken if they had actually been present and seen the tragedy of Tasmanian Aboriginal people viewing the art in question for the first time, as I was, and the gut-wretching response it caused. Being objectified in a harmful way will always be questionable, in my honestly held view.

    • Any mention of DNA is highly controversial and causes an unsettling feeling, and for good reasons. There’s a lot more to this issue than a piece of art, and a lot more to it than Mr. Walsh and most members of the public are aware of.

  17. That is a nice piece of writing. I can certainly understand the situation you are in and I hope everyone who was affected can find some resolve with what you offer. The fact you are even willing to address this speaks volumes. Keep on doing what you do. I love it.

  18. Reblogged this on Thinking about museums and commented:
    A fantastic apology from David Walsh for a controversial installation in his museum. It shines a light on the delicate process of negotiating with artists, the museum’s accountability to its audience, and how you can stumble when they conflict. It’s refreshingly direct. Museum executives, go read this!

  19. What a great example of the nuances of working with different stakeholders and a diverse audience. Am forward to graduate students – they need to hear responses like this.

  20. Pingback: A Minute in History: Week of June 21-June 27 | UCF History

  21. Pingback: Dark Mofo 2014: Encores and Apologies » Something You Said Something You Said

  22. Pingback: Making fun: Mona and Buchel | Mona Blog

  23. I adore the rich injection of visual art and art education that MONA has speared Tassie with of course blood will course, however, it is a worry to me that other work is being censored during the installation process without it going ‘public’ does that mean the apology was a means to an end? I found this article interesting http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/17/abu-dhabi-guggenheim-delay-question
    what ever form it has taken i have always TRUSTED Art completely as pure subjective expression.

  24. David Walsh is resolving this in a proper way, in my view, that is all we can ask of him. Art has no boundaries in many artist’s minds, which has been demonstrated over centuries. Christoph Burchel’s proposed exhibition and his ideas behind it were irrational and disrespectful to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, and it was correct for us to protest. Well done David.

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