Hound in the Hunt

In the gallery at Mona, there is an exhibition-experiment taking place, called Hound in the Hunt. Read more about it here, and also – for the enthusiastic – watch the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, and get your hands on our big, beautiful book as well (online, in our bookshop, or in the library, for free).

The following is a conversation between David Walsh and Tim Jenison about Vermeer, Viagra, and the nature of genius. (Interviewed by Elizabeth Pearce, with a cameo appearance by Mona curator Jarrod Rawlins.)

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Elizabeth Pearce: David, in the exhibition catalogue for Hound in the Hunt, you write that even if you don’t give a shit about art you should watch Tim’s Vermeer, because it will teach you how to learn. What did you learn about learning from watching Tim’s Vermeer?

David Walsh: Tim’s process uses all the ways that you’ve got of acquiring knowledge. There’s induction – where you start with a fact and you build on it. He also uses lateral processes, and reductionism. I really like the way he thinks. He does things in a way that is structured to accrue knowledge faster than almost any other individual that I’ve encountered. In other words, I think he’s really fucking smart.

EP: Tim, were you attempting to adopt a scientific methodology when you made Tim’s Vermeer, or is that just the way you think?

Tim Jenison: It’s the way I think. I don’t seem to be any smarter than anyone else, but I was always a logical kid, growing up. My dad was an engineer and he would always talk technical to me, just assuming that I could understand everything that he was talking about. He had a really deep respect for rational thought.

EP: David, is this an exhibition about how to learn? Is that the most important thing?

DW: No. The subject matter is interesting to me, and obviously it is to Tim. But if he thought purely in a technical way, in the way he is describing, I don’t think he would have got anywhere with this project. The hardest thing to discover is the thing that, immediately after it’s discovered, everyone thinks is bleeding obvious. This comparator mirror device is one of those things. So I sit back and think, ‘Okay, it works. There’s no way it wasn’t discovered by Vermeer and others. And then I think, ‘But I’m assuming it was discovered because it seems so bloody obvious – but it wasn’t obvious to anyone else before Tim found it, discovered it, rediscovered it, whatever.’ But of course there aren’t a lot of people thinking about how to reproduce the great masters now. We tend to think that we’re smarter than people have been in the past and of course we’re not. If you’re trying to build a pyramid and you have ten thousand people sitting around for two or three hundred years, they’ll think of things that we didn’t. It is my contention that, even though it’s an obvious process, it was really hard to discover – but somebody did. And I would further contend that there are a whole bunch of ways of doing this [painting using mirrors] that Tim hasn’t thought of, and neither has anyone else, except someone in Holland or Italy or Spain hundreds of years ago. So yeah, it’s difficult to draw a conclusion about whether Tim’s right – which has nothing to do with the question, I think. Even though his process could have achieved what Vermeer achieved, it might not be the only way to do it. In fact, listening to [art historian] Roberta Lapucci, I see some ideas that might even be an improvement on Tim’s method, although the end point of her technology doesn’t interest me that much.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: I’m going to come back to that in a minute but I just want to isolate exactly what it is you are trying to learn. I think that it’s easy to misunderstand this project as being about, ‘Does this painting look like Vermeer’s painting?’ You’re not trying to say conclusively ‘yes, Vermeer and the other painters definitely did use this device.’ It’s more about, ‘Does the device work? Is it possible to use this device to accurately reproduce a live scene?’

TJ: Yes. It doesn’t look to me like there’s a way to prove that Vermeer used this device without additional information. But I think that Vermeer unintentionally left earmarks of a measurement process – because that’s what the comparator mirror is. It’s a measurement process. Our eyes are not good at measurement, especially in brightness. They’re a little better in dimension, but in brightness, our eyes are constantly distorting what we see. The brightness that you see at any point is based on the points around it. So that’s what I thought I saw in Vermeer’s pictures. Jonathan Janson and I argue about this. Janson, I think, slightly misunderstands my take on this. He says ‘People didn’t care about absolute brightness. Why would Vermeer do that?’ and I would agree, they don’t care. Our eyes don’t care. Our eyes are perfectly happy looking at the photographs that have a totally different brightness range than reality. But I think there are side effects of this process that look like they show up in Vermeer and some other painters – not that many, just a few. David Hockney got in trouble for implying that all the great masters of the late Renaissance were cheating. That’s a strong argument. He wasn’t really saying that, but he did think the use of optics was pretty widespread. I’m focusing just on Vermeer because that’s where I saw this effect [of absolute brightness] the strongest, but there are other artists that produce the same feeling. Janson says it’s just a hunch, that I am reacting emotionally to Vermeer’s verisimilitude, and projecting my own photographic sense on it, interpreting it as photographic. But I think it’s there. I’m not sure if I can measure it.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: In your catalogue essay you lay out your reasons for believing that Vermeer used absolute tonal accuracy. What Jonathan Janson says is that you base your whole argument on the fact that you believe that Vermeer paintings achieve that objectivity – but Vermeer did not paint objectively. He interpreted reality in a fantastic way. Do you see any merit to that criticism?

TJ: It’s an old argument – it goes back before Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge. Philip Steadman calls it mimetophobia – the fear of exact copying, that an artist doesn’t do that, that art is not a picture of reality. As Hockney points out, even if you’re using an optical process, it’s work done by hand, and you can’t get around that. It’s a work of art. I have gone farther than Hockney. I have said you can, essentially, paint an accurate photograph. Hockney couldn’t find a way to do that. Hockney said, ‘I tried painting on the camera obscura image and I gave up after ten minutes, and everyone would.’ Generally speaking that’s true. It seems like it should work but it doesn’t. But I would never claim that Vermeer was taking snapshots and that they’re haphazard and that they were somehow not composed. They are beautiful pictures and my argument doesn’t change that, it’s just how you go about it.

EP: It’s not that you’re saying, ‘Look at my painting, look at my Vermeer. That’s as good as his Vermeer. Therefore my device must have been used.’ It’s more that you’re saying, ‘If this is what I can produce, someone with no experience or training, imagine what someone of Vermeer’s obvious talent could do’?

TJ: Right. That’s the gist of my argument – that the comparator mirror works. It is a way to paint with a camera obscura that nobody previously had thought possible.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

DW: Actually it’s not clear Vermeer had talent.

TJ: Hmm?

DW: In my opinion it’s not clear he had talent. Other artists who probably used optics, like Caravaggio, actually painted. One of the things that’s emerging in this experiment already is that everyone who has a go, particularly people who have artistic experience, use the comparator mirror in a completely different way. You sit them down, you tell them how to use it, they start drawing. The drawing takes on the characteristic of the objects but it also takes on a sheen of the artist, right? Everyone does that, with the exception of Vermeer.

TJ: I am shocked at the variety of drawings that have come out of the hands-on table at Mona. Not one of them really resembles another one very strongly.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: So what does that tell us?

TJ: As it pertains to Vermeer, it tells you that there was some spark in Vermeer that is responsible for the look of his paintings. It’s not just the optical process.

DW: I think it’s in the exact negative of that. I think that Caravaggio, for example, adds a sheen of his own expertise. Titian, if he uses a similar process, [Georges] de La Tour, and so on. Vermeer is the negative of that. He adds nothing. That to me is what characterises his work and why it’s most identifiably optical.

TJ: He does stick to the knitting, I think, if he used the comparator, more than most, more than de La Tour did, for example.

DW: The only way you can do it more than he did it is if you have no artistic experience at all, so that the comparator mirror is the only guide you have – as was the case when you painted The Music Lesson. So I think the default hypothesis is now that of the artists that used it, Vermeer was the most inexperienced.

TJ: I would maybe have to agree with you because I had no experience and I stuck to the knitting. That was my rule that I made for myself. ‘I’m going to paint, as precisely as possible, exactly what I see at the edge of the mirror. I’m going to copy that.’ I knew that I was painting differently than Vermeer but Vermeer didn’t always do what I did and he changed his painterliness often. He would abstract things. He would paint big areas of colour that are obviously not areas of colour in reality.

DW: Absolutely and that’s what emerges from people with a little bit of experience immediately. Possibly the two reasons that it worked for you is one, you didn’t know anything about painting, and two, you had decided to follow the process. Caravaggio can produce a large work in a couple of days – there’s some evidence for this. Vermeer – well, if he could, he didn’t, because he didn’t produce many works. I think there are a lot of flagstones on the path to suggesting that he wasn’t particularly experienced. We know that the Dutch had an apprenticeship-type process where you studied with a master and there’s documentation about who they studied with. We don’t know anything about Vermeer, do we?

TJ: No, we don’t, but it’s not unusual to have that lack in a Dutch artist.

DW: Give me an example.

TJ: I would say – and I haven’t really delved into this deeply – in less than maybe half the cases, the identity of the master is documented. There were scores and scores, hundreds of Dutch artists. This is a time in history, the seventeenth century, when something like five million pictures were produced in Holland. Everyone had a picture on their wall. This includes etchings and things like that.

DW: Everyone had a camera on their phone.

TJ: So a lot of people like to point out that Vermeer must have had a master and he must have studied for six years because that was the rules of the Guild of Saint Luke, and you couldn’t sign a painting, you couldn’t sell a painting, unless you belonged to the Guild. I did find kind of a loophole in the Guild regulations in that if you showed up with a masterpiece that you had painted, it was at their discretion to allow you to join without proof of your apprenticeship. In my alternate history Vermeer shows up with maybe Girl with a Red Hat or one of his early pictures and says, ‘I’ve painted this’ and they go, ‘Okay, you’re good enough to be in, without the six-year requirement.’

DW: Is it established that the loophole has been used?

TJ: No, but it’s in there in the Guild rules, as they were in the seventeenth century. It says that. It was mostly used for foreigners coming into the area, where they couldn’t really prove their apprenticeship. So then it was just down to how well can they paint, and can they pay their dues? That was important.

EP: For this experiment, based on what you’ve learned so far, would you considering altering the terms to use painters that don’t have any experience or training?

TJ: Sure. Caravaggio – we know he had training but from what we know, which is a lot more than about Vermeer, he was painting for his master, flowers and still lifes and things like that. He struggled. He wanted to paint portraits but he wasn’t at that point in his apprenticeship. We don’t really have any of his earliest works but they were pots of flowers probably. His style emerges out of whole cloth, just from nothing. It’s pretty much there from the start, from his first pictures, like Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Some of his earliest pictures have the same look as his late work. It turned Italian art upside down, because look – you either hated him or you loved him. One of his biographers was a painter, Bellori, who hated him. He said, ‘This guy’s painting naturally. He’s painting the way reality really looks, and you shouldn’t do that.’ He criticised him because he couldn’t paint without a subject right in front of him. He couldn’t invent a picture like you were meant to do as an artist. Caravaggio painted basically in secret. He didn’t like people to watch him. There’re a lot of strange things about Caravaggio. We know he owned mirrors, several mirrors, including a curved one – and he was a crazy man. Well, it was a violent time, but he was a very violent man.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

DW: Which Lapucci put down to mercury poisoning.

TJ: Yeah, they called it ‘painter’s colic’, from all these chemicals that they were around – arsenic, mercury, lead. All these things build up in your system and make you crazy. The treatment, by the way, for painter’s colic, was alcohol. Mass quantities of alcohol would take the edge off it.

DW: I think you answered the wrong question.

EP: I meant – for this experiment at Mona, you got trained painters. Would you consider changing it in light of what you’ve learned, to use less experienced painters?

TJ: I see. I misunderstood the question. Tim’s Vermeer showed one guy, me, painting one painting, by one painter, Vermeer, and as such it’s just a first step. People said, ‘Okay, that’s interesting, but what does it mean in a more general sense?’ So when David asked me to do more experiments I thought that was one of the things we should look at. ‘What happens when people that can really paint use this?’ And I’ve got to say up to this point it’s early in the process. I’m surprised. After a week or two I figured out that I had to exactly copy what I saw in the mirror and that’s where I got the realism I was after. These painters that have been practising now for several months, they have an incredible amount of difficulty doing that. My friend Graham is a painter and I had him try it. He hated it and still hates it. He allows that it is very effective and it allows him to paint like Caravaggio, which he would otherwise not be able to do. But, for example, Graham sat down with a brush, and we had a live model – Carlo. Graham started looking in the mirror and then he would just sort of lean to the side and just start to paint. He started, he got the eye in the right place – but then that was it. He was off. I stood back and I said, ‘Graham, in the mirror I don’t see the bags under Carlo’s eyes. I don’t see that, but you’ve painted it?’ He says, ‘Well, they’re there’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but you can’t see them in the mirror, in these lighting conditions at least.’ It took two or three, maybe four portraits before I could get him to do it.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: Was that about that revulsion for absolute verisimilitude, the idea that if you’re an artist then you should be interpreting reality as opposed to slavishly replicating it?

TJ: I don’t think that’s it. That wasn’t the case in Graham’s experiment. Strangely enough it seems to be much easier for artists to do still lifes [using the comparator mirror] than a face. They just refuse to paint a deep shadow on a face. They know what colour flesh is. They know how to paint portraits. The mirror says, ‘Okay, this half of the face is in deep shadow’ because that’s how I set it up, and they just won’t do it. I will point it out to them and they’ll go, ‘No, that’s the colour.’ Sometimes I’ll use my smart phone and take a picture through the mirror. Then you can see clearly that there’s black, white – it’s just like night and day. But there is a part of our brain that interprets human faces – the amygdala, I guess. I don’t know how that relates to brightness sensation, but it’s almost like a different pathway when they paint faces. They don’t want to do it.

DW: That’s what we learn from prosopagnosia, a condition where you lose your ability to recognise faces. That ability is an algorithmic component of the brain that’s separate from other visual processes.

I’m going to push this point. What we’ve done is get a bunch of experienced artists to use Tim’s device, and we’ve learned something, which is that they all paint differently. We need a control experiment, which is to get a whole bunch of artists who’ve had the experience which you’ve had, which is very little, and see if they all paint like you, because I think that that would be evidence that Vermeer was at the early stage rather than the late stage of his experience as an artist.

TJ: My prediction would be that they would not paint just like me.

EP: You’re talking about controlling different variables. Do you see this as meeting a scientific standard of enquiry?

DW: No. Science has to have knowledge emerge cumulatively, as Sister Wendy put it, like rungs on a ladder. It has to work, despite the fact that sixty-five per cent of scientific papers contain fraud in them. It has to work, despite the fact that almost no one knows anything themselves personally, because of their own biases. And it does. But insights come from a whole range of ways of looking at the world, and they’re the sort of things that I was talking about when I said Tim was smart. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a better accumulator of knowledge than some others. It just means that he has more angles. We have produced a text [the exhibition catalogue], and that text does not read like a scientific document. We’ve got two acts of advocacy, one from Tim and one from Jonathan. They’re both saying, ‘Look, here’s what I believe.’ We have no way of coming out at the other end with, ‘Hypothesis A is falsified’ – where hypothesis A is ‘Vermeer used optical apparatus’. I mean apparatus beyond a camera obscura, which is pretty well established I would think.

TJ: It’s not documented that he used a camera obscura.

DW: For the sake of the argument both you and Jonathan are assuming it is?

TJ: No. I like to not assume that. I think it’s likely.

DW: But Jonathan is assuming it.

TJ: He is, yes.

DW: And the way you’ve set up the experiment includes the camera obscura.

TJ: Yeah, but it’s not building on a known fact. It’s another hypothesis.

DW: Yes, but it doesn’t seem we addressed it in our experiment very much.

TJ: No. And our experiment here is more like – Jonathan’s two paintings will be, as I see it, two demonstrations of two different techniques. It’s not supposed to be scientific.

DW: Hopefully, knowledge… Well, let’s not call it ‘knowledge’. Hopefully, some ideas will emerge. It’s unlikely, but possible, that something will emerge that makes it testable.

TJ: It would be cool if it did.

EP: Even just loosening the constraints of how you can think about art history is already a valuable contribution to make, in terms of showing that you are allowed to challenge received wisdom.

TJ: When I read art history it doesn’t read like science to me. It’s a very quirky field to me, from the outside looking in. It’s pretty homogenous even though there are wide-ranging aspects of it that come from totally different points of view. Modern art history is really only one hundred years old. In Vermeer’s time there were no art historians. They didn’t write about art. What they wrote about it was maybe half a paragraph about a painting. Jonathan, I think, kind of resents this intrusion. Maybe I’m projecting on Jonathan, but a lot of art historians – for example, with David Hockney, they just said, ‘Stand back Mr Hockney. I can’t see Vermeer from where I am.’ Susan Sontag said, ‘You’re implying that the great lovers of history were taking Viagra. They were cheating.’

DW: Taking Viagra is now cheating?

TJ: Yes, it is, absolutely, according to Sontag.

EP: Let’s come back to that in a minute. I know exactly where David’s mind’s going. Just hold onto that thought for a second. So these are the dominant strands of criticism from the art historical point of view?

TJ: Yeah. Particularly in Vermeer’s case, Walter Liedtke and Arthur Wheelock have written a lot on Vermeer and they, at most, would go with the ‘weak optical theory’ – that Vermeer may have seen a camera obscura projection and been inspired by it but not actually used it [read more about ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ optical theories in the exhibition catalogue].

EP: But the main objections to your project – are they represented by what Jonathan Janson says in his essay?

TJ: Yeah, this mimetophobia particularly. Jonathan thinks that Vermeer was a towering genius, that he understood light in a way no one else did, understood painting as a result of this apprentice system, and also due to his incredible intelligence and talent. He might be right. That’s of course what we’re all taught in art history. So Hockney’s argument, and my thesis, which goes even farther – they don’t like that. It’s an intrusion.

EP: We are talking about the production of knowledge and the way that our own biases can contaminate knowledge. You said – famously now, within these walls – that you have ‘no dog in this hunt’. Do you really think that’s true?

TJ: No. I certainly want to be right and everyone wants to be liked…

DW: Which one would you pick? I’m pretty sure you can only have one.

TJ: I would rather be right.

EP: I’d rather be liked.

DW: It’s possible to be neither.

EP: True.

TJ: Yeah, so I’m probably neither. But what I meant by that comment was that I’m not a professional artist, art historian or art theorist, and I have no financial stake in it or academic stake in it. I am an outsider.

EP: David, what’s your dog in the hunt?

DW: Listen, I read Hockney’s book a few years ago. It didn’t cause me to form an opinion. I talked to [former Mona Director] Mark Fraser about it. Mark’s a smart art guy. He said the book was crap. Mark now doesn’t think it’s crap but he did then. So I thought, ‘Okay, it’s probably crap.’ He’s the only expert I know – or the only one who doesn’t have his own dog in the hunt. If Jonathan is going to learn to paint like Vermeer in ten minutes after forty years of failure, he’s going to be pretty shitty at the world. He would be so barking up the wrong tree that it would really, really piss him off.

So, me. Two years ago I formed an opinion. I watched Tim’s documentary. I read a few books and I started to think, ‘Yeah, that’s the way history is.’ The comparator mirror is pragmatic. It uses all available resources. At that point I was thinking, ‘This is so simple, it must have been discovered many times’, but I’ve rethought about that, and – I wouldn’t say it’s ingenious, but it’s quite lateral, and it’s possible that it wasn’t discovered. But I’m actually talking about why I believe it. I should answer your question. Your question is, do I have a dog in the hunt, and the answer is yes, but I’m nowhere near as committed as Tim or Jonathan.

EP: Do you now feel convinced enough that you would like it to be true?

DW: Well, it would fuck Jonathan’s life if it were true. Tim has got quite a bit invested in it. He’s had a movie made, had a whole bunch of people see it. He’s written a catalogue essay – more effort. He cannot avoid being very thoroughly invested. But because of the nature of our biology he can be quite unaware that he’s thoroughly invested in it. His status now depends on it. And for the most part new ideas only displace old ideas when everyone dies. Then they just move on from the old idea. Stephen Jay Gould talked more shit than almost anyone on earth and he had to die before he stopped polluting the biological environment – I mean the biological theoretical environment, as opposed to literally shitting in the river.

EP: Justification for an intellectual assassination.

DW: The trouble is, if you started knocking off all the morons, you’ll occasionally knock off the fringe dweller that’s right. Basically you need the crazies because every now and then a crazy is right. You need crazies – but also an apparatus to determine that they’re crazy.

EP: There are also other problems with killing people for their beliefs, but other than that, yes. In that sense – Tim, you’re obviously putting yourself on the line. But Jonathan is being very brave in what he’s doing. Taking part in this experiment is actually an incredibly brave thing to do.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

TJ: I like Jonathan. Jonathan is open-minded.

DW: He doesn’t like you.

TJ: I don’t care. He’s more open-minded than most people in this debate. When I first started talking to him about it he just didn’t understand my technical points. I said, ‘You should come to San Antonio and try this’ and he did. He spent two weeks there.

DW: Compared to another guy who wouldn’t even watch the movie.

TJ: Another guy, whose name – Arthur Wheelock – will not be mentioned, refused to watch the film, apparently, according to a mutual friend of a friend.

DW: That’s an hour and a half of his time. He can’t afford that. When he knows without question that the hypothesis is nonsense, why waste and hour and a half? Makes sense to me, but I’d still punch him.

TJ: So Jonathan came and he tried and he came loaded for bear, as we say in Texas. He had his arguments lined up and mostly his strongest objection was about underpainting – that the Dutch would start with what they called dead painting, typically a brown and white image. Then they would work it up in colours. I had not done that in Tim’s Vermeer. I had done it in a previous experiment that was not in the film. I told Jonathan, ‘I don’t see there’s a problem here…’

EP: But isn’t that anathema to what you were testing? You were saying that the painters were possibly using a completely different technique.

TJ: It turns out that underpainting is still extremely valuable if you’re using this comparator system, and Jonathan discovered that too. You can paint very thinly if you have an underpainting. If you’re painting alla prima over this dark ground, you have to really pile on the paint, and it’s a waste – a waste of money.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: So he actually helped and enriched your hypothesis rather than disproving it?

DW: Not as far as he’s concerned.

TJ: At that point in time he said, ‘Okay, I see that I can make an underpainting and make this thing work.’ His basic stance was, ‘I thought that there were reasons that Vermeer couldn’t have used this, but no, I don’t see it as totally incompatible with what we know about Vermeer.’ On that basis he wrote this little article on his website and said, ‘I’ve been to Texas. I tried this thing out. It’s not incompatible with underpainting and it looks like it’s not incompatible with what we do know about Vermeer.’ In other words, ‘I was not able to falsify it.’ That article sat there on his website for a week or two and then all hell broke loose, a flame war.

EP: From his followers you mean?

TJ: Yeah.

TJ: Jonathan was in there too, debating the hypothesis. I think his level of believing that the comparator was used fluctuates, too, just like it does with me, although my belief level is generally much higher. In the film I said it was ninety per cent and occasionally there are things that make me wonder and it drops. Jonathan seems to be going down. He seems to be gravitating lower.

DW: When there’s more at stake, he – like all human beings – will exert his personal bias more. He doesn’t lose status by saying to you that it’s possible, but he does by saying it to the world, as he discovered. When I mentioned to him that flame war, as you called it, he said it wasn’t like that at all – there were only a couple of people that blogged hundreds of times. In fact he pointed out, legitimately, that of the three quotes I used in my foreword to the exhibition catalogue, two of them came from one person.

TJ: Mr Uppercase. Yeah.

EP: I understand that so well because sometimes, just in my own writing, I want to develop an idea that contradicts mainstream feminism, which is what I consider to be my group. I can leave that group to discuss my idea with my friends or colleagues, but to actually turn around and say it to that group – it’s almost impossible. It hurts. It actually physically hurts because they’re going to kick you out. It’s terrifying.

DW: Our exhibition On the Origin of Art addresses biological processes in art. When I get criticised I just send them Elizabeth’s introduction to the On the Origin of Art exhibition catalogue. One of the key theorists on the biological differences between men and women happens to be a woman. My critics say, ‘You said this!’ and I say, ‘Here’s the reference – Sarah Hrdy,’ and it stops them dead.

TJ: Well it is kind of interesting that you get into these weird, little factions of nooks and crannies of some technical, arcane detail of some field and there will be people who have been at each other’s throats for months and years, but they’re interested in exactly the same thing. They have so much in common.

DW: The standard Christian position that the father and son are essentially the same age was disputed by the Arians, one of the Christian offshoots. And reasonably disputed – because do fathers tend to be older than sons? It was, one would think, a minor point, but it managed to get the entire group killed.

TJ: Well, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

EP: So why isn’t there any definitive historical evidence for use of optics of any kind?

TJ: Not for Vermeer or Caravaggio or most of the people we’re talking about. The first kind of stronger evidence – but not airtight – is from Canaletto, much later, who painted Venice. It sure looks like he was using a camera obscura, and there is a camera obscura in a museum in Italy that has Canaletto’s name on it.

DW: They used Canaletto in sea-level studies because his paintings were so accurate.

TJ: Right. It’s like a view back in time.

DW: You might as well have had a professional measure.

EP: ‘Sea’ level, right, okay. I thought you were talking about ‘A, B, C-level’ art.

DW: It is sea/C-level art in both senses.

EP: Right. When was this?

TJ: Much later than Vermeer. In Vermeer’s time camera obscuras were around and they did talk about them in relation to art. Samuel Hoogstraten, a painter and a writer, said – to paraphrase, he said, ‘Yeah, you should look at this camera obscura. It’s going to be very useful to painters to see this.’ But, like Jonathan sometimes says, there’s no documentation about how to make a paint brush either. Not all aspects of art were documented. There was no internet. There were no newspapers. People were largely illiterate, and the painter’s studio was something of an enigma. A patron took pride in being able to visit the artist’s workshop. They didn’t like to just have people wandering in. Hockney points out that most modern artists don’t like to talk about their tricks. They all have their secrets. Norman Rockwell said, ‘I use the epidiascope but I don’t talk about it. It just saves so much time to take a photograph and trace it.’ But he acknowledged that there was a stigma, that it was not something he would openly talk about. But most painters that I’ve talked to will admit that they use photography as a reference – Jonathan Janson included.

DW: My sister did a picture of her daughter, Misty. My sister’s quite a talented artist. It’s a sketch but with painted eyes. It’s quite a beautiful thing. I commented on how beautiful it was thirty years ago and she said, ‘I cheated, I used a photo.’ For her, that was the end of it being art.

TJ: Yeah, and then there are the hyper-realists that just make a photograph with paint – a human inkjet printer. They’re copying every point on that photograph. But why don’t we know about Vermeer and others’ use of optics? Why wouldn’t this be written somewhere? The camera obscura at least is in the literature but there’s nothing about this comparator mirror.

EP: You don’t think that it’s necessarily the case that Vermeer and others were actively concealing it? It could just be that, like you said, they just didn’t document everything about the process of making a painting?

TJ: I don’t know, but it’s a really good argument. You would think it’s so effective, so powerful, that somebody should have said something, and when did it die out, and when did people stop using it? Leonardo is the first real, earliest case where I can find a reference to anything like this concept, where he said, ‘The mirror should be the master of the painter. You should look at your subject reflected in a mirror and compare it to your painting’ – which is what this process does, exactly. Now, he didn’t say, ‘Carefully match the colour right at the edge of the mirror.’ He does, though, talk about that basic edge-matching later in the same book. He says, ‘If I want to paint a mountain and I don’t really know what colour it is, I’ll put a little paint on a card and hold it up next to the mountain,’ and you’ve got to have light on it and so on. So he knew about that basic concept. Even if that’s not what Leonardo was talking about it’s possible somebody else read what Leonardo said and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try that. It sounds useful.’

Jarrod Rawlins: How does the Claude glass fit into that?

TJ: Most people think that Leonardo is talking about looking at your painting in the mirror. It’s not what he’s talking about there. He does talk about that later.

DW: It would be difficult for anyone to interpret it the way you have until after knowledge of your device. If you’re reading it with that information, you’re going to read it in a different way. I read it and thought, ‘Okay, that’s a description of the comparator’ and then I thought, ‘How could anyone not have noticed that?’ Because they didn’t know about the comparator. Right?

TJ: Well, Leonardo does amplify on it a little bit and he says, ‘Seeing the image in the mirror removes it from its context.’ He seems to be talking about a more general application, not trying to make a perfect copy, but a Claude glass is a similar thing. It’s taking the thing out of its context. It’s a black, curved surface. Our eyes have trouble seeing smooth gradients of a large area. We just can’t know that that is a five and that is a seven. We just don’t know that. We tend to see them both as six. In a Claude glass or a small camera obscura everything is compressed closer together and there, our retinas can see the difference better because they’re closer. If you bring them right together so they touch you have no problem telling that one’s brighter or darker than the other. The farther away you get in visual degrees, the harder that is. So the Claude glass helps you bring that together. I don’t think there’s any evidence that Claude actually used the glass to paint landscapes, or if it just had his name. But Leonardo was influential. His works were published in Milan, for example. Caravaggio could have seen them. He travelled in those circles. In my alternate history Caravaggio, and maybe a few other people, knew about this, and they’re kind of keeping it to themselves. They sometimes let other people see what they’re doing but it’s not widely known.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: David, I know we’re not talking about proof here, but speculate for me. Why would Vermeer and others want to conceal their use of optics?

DW: Up until very recently I thought it’s because if you can do something that no one else can do it enhances your status, and status is something that we’re biologically compelled to seek. Conspicuous consumption. Viagra, big dick, you know. You said you were coming to this moment? Well this moment came. So, you’re having a one-night stand, perhaps you’re trying to impress each other. Is Viagra okay? Well it’s probably going to permute the way your partner interprets your sexual prowess. So it’s cheating – if it might develop into something more than a one-night stand, and if you haven’t disclosed it. Now…

EP: Hang on. Can I stop you there for a second? Why are we comparing Viagra and painting? At the level of argument.

DW: We’re just talking about the nature of cheating and sexual metaphor is always attractive.

EP: So you’re assuming that painting is something that we do to display our skills or our abilities to enhance our status in an evolutionary sense…

DW: Yes, I see your point. Normally the context of this, within our circles, is assumed, but it would sound strange to a lay audience or a non-Mona audience. Yes, it is my firm belief that art is adaptive, or it’s nearly adaptive. It’s either adaptive because it is biologically useful in and of itself, and people making art somehow enhances their reproductive status; or it’s nearly adaptive, in that it is among the things than can enhance your status, so it’s useful in a less direct way. It’s a way of showing off. We have a metaphor in English that is just so potent that it makes it clear that it’s part of our subsumed knowledge and that is, ‘Come upstairs and see my etchings.’

EP: This an idea that you’re familiar with, Tim?

TJ: Yeah, of course.

EP: Not the part about the etchings, the part about art being adaptive.

TJ: I have etchings if you’d like to see them.

EP: Go on, David.

DW: So, if Vermeer knew something that enhanced his status, there’s a number of ways that he might justify concealing it. He might not tell anyone so that no one else can create like he can. He might not tell anyone because it undermines the possibility that he can be treated as a transcendent genius, even though, apparently, he wasn’t. In other words he’ll do anything… This is an interesting thing. People, and particularly males, will do anything – including genuinely being good at things – to enhance their status. Mathematicians only ever do anything worthwhile until they’re breeding or while they’re of an age of likely breeding. They’re nerds, so otherwise they’re not going to get laid.

TJ: Caravaggio, you can call him a ‘swinging dick’.

DW: ‘A phenomenal root rat’, you would say in the Australian vernacular.

TJ: And Torrentius in Holland was another one. He took great pride in painting these extremely realistic pictures, still lifes.

DW: What about Casanova? Casanova was such a good writer that the ladies wanted to fuck him for the sole reason that they would then end up in his books. So he closed the circle.

EP: David – and I’m going to ask you this question in a minute, Tim – let’s just say that we have established that Vermeer and others used this system or something like it. How does that affect how you perceive his art?

DW: I think he’s a fraud and I think he’s a crap artist. Let’s assume Tim is right. If Vermeer did it exactly in the way that Tim describes then he’s a fraud and a nobody and we should take him out of the canon of great artists. But the exception is if he had to cheat for reasons that were outside of his control. I hadn’t thought of this – and it probably doesn’t apply to Vermeer because of where he was, in the Protestant world. But Roberta [Lapucci] pointed out to me something that I should have already known, and it was this. In 1610 Galileo points his telescope at Jupiter and he sees Jupiter, Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto. He then uses that as evidence that all bodies don’t go round the earth. It isn’t evidence – it’s completely conclusive. They’re going around Jupiter, so they’re not going around the Earth. Okay. What does that mean for what’s called the Ptolemaic system, that says the Earth is the centre of the universe? Well it means it’s bullshit. Right? But to say the Catholic Church had a dog in the hunt regarding this matter is the greatest understatement of all time. Galileo didn’t even manage to get the word out for thirty-something years and when he did, he was castigated – possibly for other reasons as well, because he also heaped shit on the Pope. It seems that in Italy, if you used any optical apparatus to do anything, you would have been roundly castigated. I think that’s a perfectly valid hypothesis for Caravaggio. Does it also apply in the Protestant world? Well, it’s pretty well known that the telescope was invented in Holland and that Galileo built it only after hearing a description from a guy called Hans Lippershey. Yeah, so we know that, and because we know that, that might be an indicator that it wasn’t anywhere near as undermining to the Protestant religion, and also we’re talking about 100 years later. In 1665 there was a book written called The History of Optics. Such things probably wouldn’t have occurred. That’s pretty close to Vermeer. I don’t think you could have written such a book in 1600 in Italy. When Bruno talked about such things he ended up being used to roast marshmallows. It’s an alternative hypothesis that has some merit. So let’s say Vermeer used optics but couldn’t tell anyone because he’d get his arse kicked. Well then that’s okay.

EP: He’s in?

DW: He’s in. He stays in the canon. But if he did it solely to be a big swinging dick then no, he’s out as far as I’m concerned.

EP: So we’re talking here about the possibility – as you say in your foreword to the catalogue – that when we look at a Vermeer painting, we’re looking at a 350 year-old, handmade, colour photograph of his studio. We don’t exclude photographs from the canon of great art. Assuming Tim is right, why can’t Vermeer still be considered a great artist?

DW: But we only consider photography great art when the knowledge of photography isn’t suppressed. It emerges in the 1820s and then suddenly it’s universal. Five years later there are photos of women being fucked by donkeys. So we moved on very quickly.

EP: So it’s the concealing of what Paul Bloom calls the ‘honesty of effort’ – that’s the thing that matters to you? We need to be aware of the kind of conditions under which an artist created their work, in order to appraise it?

DW: Bloom also talks about the doctrine of essentialism, the idea that an object has something embedded in it by its author. Why do I want an original letter by Albert Einstein that tells me nothing that I couldn’t have found out somewhere else, or indeed purchased a facsimile of it for a couple of bucks? I was down at Salamanca Market and I see a map, a Dutch map. I said, ‘I own that map’ and the stallholder said, ‘Yes, I’ve sold lots of them.’ What’s the difference between the one she’s selling for $5 and the one that I paid $100,000 for? They’re the same map. It’s very hard to know, but that’s the doctrine of essentialism. There’s something embedded in it, right? When the artist hasn’t embedded the knowledge that enabled him to create it, I think it undermines the essentialism. I got that idea from the same guy – Paul Bloom.

EP: Sorry Tim, I’m going to give you a chance to respond properly in a minute, but I wrote a little mini essay. Will you indulge me for a second?

DW: This is targeted directly at the audience? Is this what they call ‘breaking the fourth wall’?

TJ: No. That would be pointing at the camera.

DW: This is the second wall.

TJ: Yeah, exactly.

EP: My reason is, I’m trying to put myself in your brain here…

DW: You’re going to get squashed.

EP: So here goes:
‘Art, in an evolutionary context, is essentially a signalling system. Looking at it that way, it’s clear that Vermeer was cheating because he’s faking his signal. We don’t judge art objectively in and of itself. We judge it as part of a performance, a signal of the artist’s fitness. To accurately judge that performance we need to know how, when, by whom it was performed, what tools did they have at their disposal, how did they overcome obstacles and handicaps? For instance if we look at a painting and we think a two-year old did it, we think, my God, that’s incredible. But then we find out that actually her Dad did it for her, and we think it’s crap. We judge it differently according to the context.’

DW: Yes. It’s lost its essential nature.

EP: This is obviously not unique to art. It’s about any kind of fakery in any kind of human endeavour.

DW: Amotz Zahavi proved that in a signalling system the signaller and the signallee have to share the same information base. For example, I can’t interpret Chinese singing. I don’t know if it’s good. You just mentioned the signaller then, but if the signallee is deceived, then it’s not an honest signal and it doesn’t indicate anything about the fitness of the signaller.

EP: So you’ve been duped basically?

DW: Yes. You’re banging out of your league.

EP: So Vermeer is actually being immoral according to that code?

DW: Exactly.

EP: Yep, okay. Tim you write in your essay – it leapt out at me, and I couldn’t wait to ask you about it. You write that you actually don’t think Vermeer is cheating and that for you, beauty is beauty, however that beauty is produced. Is that still how you feel?

TJ: Yeah, and I don’t think we know that Vermeer would have thought that that would be cheating, even if he was hiding his use of the comparator mirror. One obvious possibility is that his patron, his first customer, did know about it, and then that was forgotten, in which case I think you’d agree that it wasn’t cheating.

DW: No, they’re both cheating.

TJ: But what if it’s forgotten?

DW: His patron and him share a signal that they’ve given to the rest of the world. ‘Come upstairs and see my etchings’ – it doesn’t say that you made the etchings.

TJ: I see.

EP: The patron is kind of piggy-backing on the enhanced, or faked, status.

DW: In fact, I believe that Tim may well be self-deceiving here. If he says what I say – which is that Vermeer was either a consummate genius or a piece of shit, and there’s no in between – his chance of having his hypothesis accepted is diminished. I don’t think he can easily take on that hypothesis.

TJ: Your point is well taken. But, Vermeer – he lived in his time. We can’t put ourselves in his shoes. We don’t know what their attitudes were.

DW: But we’re trying to put ourselves in his eyes. Why can’t we try to understand more deeply?

TJ: Nobody wrote about these things. We know that this was a turbulent time, especially with Galileo being persecuted for being scientific.

DW: He was persecuted because he put shit on the Pope. He used the name ‘Simplicius’ as the counter-argument to the Copernican system, right? Simplicius was also the nickname of the Pope. He was essentially accusing the Pope of being a moron. It had nothing to do with the argument being made, in my opinion.

TJ: There was another painter who probably used optics, named Torrentius, maybe forty or fifty years before Vermeer, in the town of Haarlem, not far away…

DW: Do you think he used the comparator?

TJ: I do, and he was a swinging dick. He was a man about town. He had orgies. He was adored for his art. He was an atheist. He may have been a Rosicrucian, which maybe could explain why the church was so exercised, but…

DW: He was atheist and it’s funny – people would now assume, if they didn’t have any insight into that period in religious history, that atheism was worse than having a weird brand of Christianity, but in fact it wasn’t. Atheism was pretty well tolerated. What wasn’t tolerated was not believing in the right brand of Christianity.

TJ: Isn’t that interesting. So Torrentius was tortured. All of his artworks were destroyed. They said that his pictures were so realistic that you couldn’t tell you were looking at a picture. He made two kinds of art. The other kind of art was pencil drawings, mostly pornographic – people pissing on each other, screwing each other and so forth, and they were not good drawings by all accounts. So you have two things that Torrentius did – these amazing still lifes, without people, that look like photographs – and in fact a lot of people a hundred years ago thought that maybe Torrentius had discovered photography but all the evidence was destroyed. There are no paintings. So he was tortured and all of his artworks were destroyed. He was spirited out of Holland into England, where he never painted again. The English King wanted to rescue him because they admired his artwork. Fast forward to the 1900s. Somebody’s in a grocery store in Amsterdam and they found a lid on a barrel that was an oil painting. They lifted the lid and said, ‘Why is the seal of the King of England on this lid?’ It turns out this is a missing Torrentius. One of his drawings exists, too. You can see the dramatic difference. That story would have gone around and Vermeer almost certainly would have known about it. He knew people from Haarlem. There was, by the way, a real streak of realist painting in Haarlem – still lifes. It’s possible that that gives you that religious out, and lets Vermeer back in the club.

Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, Johannes van der Beeck (alias Johannes Torrentius), 1614

Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, Johannes van der Beeck (alias Johannes Torrentius), 1614

DW: So tell me, Torrentius’ paintings were destroyed because of his beliefs and behaviour, or because of the nature of the paintings?

TJ: Well, it looks like maybe they were just after a Rosicrucian but they said that it was other reasons. His lifestyle. He defiled God apparently. There was testimony that he said that the Bible might not be true. They trumped up all these charges. He was tortured and never admitted to any of the charges. He just said he was a guy that could paint – although before that he didn’t help his case, because somebody said, ‘How do you paint these amazing pictures?’ and he said, ‘It’s not me that paints. I lay the canvas on the floor, I hear the sound of buzzing bees and the painting paints itself.’ That sounds a little suspicious – like the work of the devil.

EP: So hang on, so it sounds to me like you’re coming more towards David’s position, which is that if you could establish that there were extenuating religious reasons that the painters concealed these processes, then you accept that they can keep their place in the canon. But if it was purely cheating, then they can’t?

TJ: I think my position is probably a little different. I think it probably wouldn’t have been that remarkable. They were using all sorts of machinery to make art. These perspective machines that Dürer put in his etchings… I mean, the whole book, Martin Kemp’s book, The Science of Art, there’s a whole chapter of these machines used to make paintings. Leonardo painted this perspective pyramid where you’re looking at a painted glass and you can actually trace and get accurate perspective on a piece of glass. ‘The mirror should be the master of the artist.’ That seems to be implying that it’s commonplace for artists to use aids and enhance their perception in one way or another. In Vermeer’s time we just don’t know. There was another contemporary of Vermeer, Fabritius, who lived in Delft at the same time. They almost certainly were friends. Most of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in a big explosion called the Thunderclap [when a gunpowder store exploded in Delft] and we don’t have many of his paintings left. But one of them is a little picture called A View of Delft and it’s sort of an anamorphic fisheye picture of the new church in Delft and it looks like it was made with some sort of optical process. Then there are all these others, such as Holbein and The Ambassadors, where you have this skull that you can only see from an angle and the table is covered with optical instruments. Vermeer painted two scientists in his work, The Geographer and The Astronomer, who look a lot like a portrait of Leeuwenhoek, the microscopist who was born in the same month as Vermeer in Delft and lived a couple blocks away. He was an optical expert, and ground the world’s best lenses for microscopes. I think it was just part of the wallpaper. It was like having personal computers today. Optics was the Pentium chip and it was everywhere. The telescope was the fastest-adopted technology in that time. Nobody had them, then fifty years later everybody had them. The lens that I used in Tim’s Vermeer was essentially a telescope lens. It’s exactly what you’d expect to find on the far end, the objective lens, of a telescope. They would have been around and they would have been extremely good lenses.

DW: But you said extremely good lenses weren’t necessary?

TJ: No, but they were good. People have argued that the lenses couldn’t have been very good but in fact they were.

EP: I think that, quite appropriately, you’re not committing that historical fallacy of pretending to know what it’s like to be in that world. But what about just for you, now, here today. When you look at a Vermeer or a Caravaggio – and let’s say you’re completely convinced it was produced using optics. How are you affected, emotionally, by that knowledge?

TJ: Well, I’m more interested in an optical-looking picture, but I apparently have a hound in this hunt, so that might be why I like looking at those sorts of pictures.

DW: But it’s a good question. Before you got into this were you someone that looked at Caravaggios? I remember seeing the de La Tours in the Louvre – the Mona Lisa didn’t do much for me, but they just floored me completely. Now I look at a de La Tour and they do nothing for me. You killed it. You killed my appreciation of art and I’m going to close Mona down and join a convent.

TJ: Is it for sale then?

DW: You can have it.

TJ: Yeah? Thank you. Did we get that on tape?

DW: Yeah. But you’ve got to keep it open.

TJ: That’s the catch, oh dear. Yeah, like David, I went to the Louvre and I saw Vermeers, I saw de La Tours. There is something that looks anachronistic about them, that they’re out of time, that they’re from the future, that somehow they got a Polaroid camera.

DW: Yeah. I get that more with the de La Tours more than anyone else. And even though they’re photographs, they don’t photograph well. You assume that the photo is an approximation, but it isn’t. I don’t know if you’ve answered my question. Before you were interested in optics were you interested in art?

TJ: Yes.

DW: What was your favourite picture? I know you’re a Rembrandt fan. Were you always a Rembrandt fan or did it become clear to you that he was the only genius who didn’t use optics?

TJ: I’m not sure he didn’t use optics, but yeah, Rembrandt went up a notch when I put him in the context with optical Dutch art because it looks pretty clearly like he was just a very unusually great painter.

DW: Imagine if you don’t know about something that everyone else is using…

EP: Imagine how ripped off you’d feel!

DW: No, but you’ve got to lift your game. You’re got to try to be…

TJ: I have a fantasy that Pieter de Hooch who painted pictures extremely similar to Vermeer and lived in Delft, was just tearing his hair out trying to figure out how Vermeer did it, sort of like the movie Amadeus with Salieri saying, ‘Damn him, how did he do that?’ and de Hooch did go crazy, apparently. But Vermeer just has this incredible look that de Hooch…

DW: Was he more successful than Vermeer at the time, arguably?

TJ: Well, he turned out a lot of pictures, and Vermeer was poor. We know that.

DW: Yeah, the Salieri thing. In the conception of the movie, everyone except Salieri believes that Salieri is better than Mozart, and Salieri knows that that’s complete shit.

EP: This is leading into what I wanted to talk about which was the idea of genius. You touched on it briefly before, when we were talking about Bloom’s idea of – well, the term he uses is ‘positive contagion’. That one of the reasons that we value authenticity in art is because it is seen to be imbued with something essential about the person who made it and the particular time and place, and that somehow you can kind of catch that by touching the real one. A copy of the original, one that looks exactly the same, but which is not the same, is worthless. It’s the same to talk about sentimental objects, like my child’s first pair of shoes. I keep those as a sentimental object – if you replace them with a completely identical pair, I don’t want those, they have no interest to me.

DW: The dish that had been on the Titanic is the amazing archetype of this.

EP: Through this process of ‘positive contagion’ – and this is more my take on Bloom’s work – somehow we’re brought into contact with the idea of genius, an idea we are endlessly emotionally invested in. In Tim’s Vermeer Penn says, ‘Unfathomable genius doesn’t really mean anything. Now he’s a fathomable genius’, which I thought was a lovely quote. I want to ask both of you – is there such a thing as genius?

TJ: Well, yeah. The word has a meaning…

DW: That’s exactly where I would have gone, but I think you know what she means.

TJ: Something ineffable, something not able to be understood. That’s what a lot of people mean when they talk about Vermeer’s genius – that it goes beyond understanding. You can’t describe it. You can’t analyse. It’s just there. To me that’s kind of a supernatural concept and I’m not a supernaturalist.

EP: That ties into that idea of unweaving the rainbow, how Keats said Newton was destroying the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it, and if you try to explain something mysterious then you kill it.

DW: And Newton was and is, many would argue, the most creative person of all time. But he said, famously, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ There’re about twenty-six reasons why that’s strange but one of them is that if he wasn’t so fucking smart he wouldn’t have been able to think of something that elegant. But in fact, a little bit of digging shows that we have completely misinterpreted that statement forever. The giants were the Greeks, right, and he was basically saying that he learnt nothing from Robert Hooke, his biggest competitor. That’s been misinterpreted by everyone forever, but it’s quite well known in scientific circles that he meant something completely different.

EP: I guess what you’re saying is that the idea of genius is tied somehow, even if it’s not explicitly stated, to something supernatural and you don’t believe in supernatural explanations. So it doesn’t have resonance for you?

TJ: Well, in the dictionary sense of the word, absolutely I believe in it, that it’s a measure of intelligence I guess.

DW: What’s the difference between genius and brilliance?

TJ: It’s a graduation…

DW: Schopenhauer said, ‘The brilliant hit a target that no one else can hit. The genius hits a target that no one else can see.’

TJ: That’s nice.

DW: It sounds like crap to me, though, and also it’s got the same problem that the Newton thing has. You can’t think of it unless you’re…

EP: Why does it sound like crap to you?

DW: I know what the word genius means, just like I know what the word infinity means, and I don’t think anyone is ever going to obtain either of them, because they’re nonsense. They’re not available. I’m a little bit better at table tennis than almost everyone in the world, but there are still probably twenty or thirty thousand people who can beat me. How did I get better? Because I started to get a tiny bit better and that got me interested. So I kept doing it and I got better and better and better. It’s a feedback mechanism. When Federer started playing tennis I suspect he was just slightly better than everybody else. And there’s also this thing that now we have access to everyone on the planet, outliers are given undue prominence, if there’s a reasonable distribution. You don’t talk about anyone that’s between average and pretty damn good. You cut out a big point of the distribution and it looks ridiculous. But also the closest thing to talent is to do something that makes no sense and then happen to get a statistical outlier. I talked about it in my book. There’s probably about the same number of tennis players and people who work in finance, about a hundred million or so, in the world. I would say that the average income of people who work in finance is higher than the average income for tennis by a mile. But the biggest incomes are in tennis because of that funny distribution. Genius is that thing that when you do it well, disguises the fact that you shouldn’t have done it at all. Tell me someone who’s described as a genius who was wrong about their essential argument – because there should be just as many of those. It’s essentially having a wild idea that has very little merit at the time you propose it and then turning out and being right and then having the retrospective analysis say, ‘He was right and he didn’t have any information’ and they don’t say, ‘Well, that was lucky.’ They say, ‘He’s a fucking genius’.

EP: It makes me think of the time I saw David give a talk and someone put their hand up at the end and said, ‘David, it’s possible that you have autism or that you’re on the spectrum in some way. My son has just been diagnosed with autism. What advice would you give to him and to our family?’ Instead of saying, ‘Tell him he can do what he wants, reach for the stars,’ what David said was, ‘I strongly recommend that you seek treatment and you see your doctor. You’re going to have a hard road ahead of you.’

DW: Yeah. The embedded question was, ‘How can I get my son to turn out like you?’ and I am this close to having sat in the corner all my life. That’s just not a bet you should make, and that was the answer I gave, essentially.

EP: It’s the same as if someone said to Federer, ‘What would you say to a young aspiring tennis player?’ ‘Quit playing tennis and go and become an accountant.’

DW: Agassi actually says that.

TJ: Well in painting, there is genius, and I tend to think of it like David describes. You seem to be good and you try to be better. In the apprentice system people start at a very young age and that’s critical in a lot of fields, probably in tennis as well. Four years old. Maybe the game’s all over by then.

DW: Yeah, pretty well. Particularly in women’s tennis, the commentators say things like, ‘Yes, you can see the weakness in her backhand, but then she didn’t start playing tennis until she was seven.’

TJ: Right, yeah. Took it up late in life. My idea of genius in that sense is JS Bach, who has never been surpassed and probably never will be.

DW: Hasn’t been surpassed – a fair argument. Never will be…

TJ: In counterpoint, in composing counterpoint. Counterpoint is a lost art now and largely because JS Bach…

DW: It isn’t lost forever, necessarily.

TJ: No, probably not, and probably some AI will prove us wrong sooner than later.

DW: They can beat us at chess now.

TJ: But he was the result of a long line of composers that all started young and they all built sequentially on that knowledge, and he was probably just a very smart guy and a very hard-working guy. But it’s intimidating to hear Bach if you’re a composer. And if an artist was cheating, and it is really not possible to sit down in a room and paint a Vermeer, then there’s a benefit to exposing that, because artists are thinking, ‘I will never be able to paint like that, so I am not going to do that.’ I heard Art Tatum play jazz piano as a youngster and I go, ‘I was thinking about playing jazz piano. Now I’m not thinking about it at all because I could never even get close to that.’ It’s been done.

DW: Yes. I call that the enabling and the disabling. In the enabling category, for authors, is Isaac Asimov, an unbelievably good writer – but anyone can write like him. All you’ve got to do is take away all the bullshit. That sounds simple. Or not so simple, but you can learn. Then there’s Vladimir Nabokov. When I read him I am utterly disabled, because he says things, and the words seem to have been handed on a platter from God. I wonder what technology he had that we’re going to find…

EP: Imagine if we find out he was cheating!

DW: Because he’s so disabling, I would be delighted.

TJ: I think Bach did it with mirrors.

EP: Tim, you’ve become involved in a project of demystifying genius, even if that wasn’t really your intention. David, you’ve had a long-standing interest in demystifying genius, whether that’s artistic genius or table tennis.

DW: I opened a bloody gallery and I don’t know anything about art and I put a few pictures on the wall incongruously, in a way that people with some expertise wouldn’t do it. The very reason that I have a crowd is because of my lack of expertise. Because I couldn’t compete as an art historian, I had to make up my own domain. That made it very successful and now people are calling me a genius. It’s the exact counterpoint to what I was attempting to do. I was attempting to learn the basics. I was at one end of the distribution. In fact I am wobbly training wheels for real museums. I can’t remember the number, but a higher percentage of people who have never gone to an art gallery in Australia visit Mona. No surprise, because it’s fun in here, but it’s only fun because I knew nothing.

EP: Do you think that there’s something essentially pernicious about the myth of genius?

DW: Essentially pernicious? I’m just going to think about the beauty of that phrase before I work out what the hell you’re talking about.

EP: Is there something that’s essentially worth demystifying about genius, or is it just because it’s fun to do?

DW: You don’t embark on things because they have value. The value emerges later. I kind of like these campaigns where you get people like Jolie or Pitt to strip their gear off and they’ve got a bit of flab or a birthmark or something. The idea of a role model disgusts me, that there’s something special about someone that you should attempt to emulate. It’s probably the same as essentialism – that intellectually disgusts me, but I can’t walk away from it. Why do I want to own a first edition of Origin of Species signed by Charles Darwin? Why? I don’t know. If I want to know something, I can read about it on Wikipedia. Tim mentioned Torrentius. The first time he mentioned Torrentius, I had never heard of him. What do you do? You go to Google Wikipedia. That’s where you start your research. I reckon everybody does that now. And no one thinks, ‘Gee, there’s no genius behind Wikipedia.’ What if I said, ‘I’m the guy that wrote Wikipedia’, and you believe me? I’d look pretty damn smart.

TJ: So it is a work of genius?

DW: It is a work of genius but it isn’t made by a genius, nor a set of geniuses. Knowledge emerges from falsification. There’s a foment of ideas and then there’s a sieving process from which knowledge emerges, that drops through. Then you go back and you say, ‘Okay, there are these four thousand ideas, and this one said the thing that we now believe. Holy Christ. How did he know?’ and it’s always ‘he’, that really shits me, too.

JR: So is collective genius possible?

DW: Well that’s what it is, yes. If you define genius as getting somewhere when you can’t see the steps – the ‘black swan’ versus a very white swan… The best example is Michael Faraday, an English experimenter, in electricity mainly, but also chemistry. He was self-taught. He was arguably – because he managed to achieve a lot in a number of fields – a pretty bright guy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, which is like the British tax collector, was visiting him, and he’s looking at this thing that is now called the Faraday Bridge – the sparks jump from one side to the other. William Gladstone says to him, ‘That’s very beautiful Michael, but what’s it for?’ and Faraday says – this is as close to genius as you can get – ‘I have no idea what it’s for, but I can tell you this, one day you’ll find a way to tax it.’

TJ: Beautiful and true.

EP: I’ve just got a couple more questions. Tim, you wrote in a marketing text for us that this exhibition scares you. What exactly scares you about it?

TJ: Well, with Tim’s Vermeer everything was totally under my control, with the exception of editing the film. Everything I did in my studio was my own work. But one of the questions was, ‘What if somebody else was doing this? What result would they get?’ And that’s what David said – ‘Let’s do some more experiments.’ I’m already surprised. It’s not what I expected, to see all these people using the same machine and getting incredibly different results. Scary but exhilarating. I guess what I meant was that everything I know may be wrong, and that’s disconcerting. I may have hallucinated this entire hypothesis. It may be utterly wrong, and if you read every other book on the topic, I am wrong, because the comparator mirror doesn’t exist.

DW: This harkens back to my genius, right? Tim’s essential idea is very, very good. The comparator works. People walk in and they draw something and you look at it, and there’s something essential – the other sense of essential – in the picture. I look at it and it happens to be that I’m one of the subjects and quite a lot of the drawings are of me. I look at them and I think, ‘Yeah, right. I didn’t see that before’ in my own face.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

TJ: Wow.

DW: Now. That this technology exists – it either existed before, in which case you’re only a re-discoverer and you’ll get credit. One day you’ll be a hero. Or it didn’t exist before, and he’s the first human being ever to think of it, which would deserve vastly more credit because then he’s triumphed over all of humanity forever. But no, this time, when he actually did something that no one ever thought of before, this time he’s a fucking fool because he was wrong. You’ve got to be right to be called a genius.

TJ: Another possibility is the comparator doesn’t work and I’m just a really great painter.

DW: It’s an uncanny coincidence that almost every good undiscovered artist has been to the gallery in the last two weeks and it’s all going to fall apart.

EP: David you wrote in the [Hound in the Hunt] catalogue – and I think it was just a joke, an off-hand comment – that in the unlikely event that this exhibition isn’t a complete fiasco, there’s going to be a second volume of the catalogue. What would constitute a complete fiasco for you?

DW: Yes, it was a throwaway line. What I was trying to do was not have the formality of ‘Volume two, with our conclusions, will follow’. In science, experiments that fail used to not be published, for the most part. They now do a number of things, such as citation analysis, meta studies. For instance we only have studies of cigarette smoking that show it’s dangerous, because the two or three per cent that should, statistically, have shown that it wasn’t dangerous, don’t get published. If you look back at the literature you can do the maths and you can find that in the 1950s exactly the opposite happened. So when you do a scientific study you have data and you publish a paper. You are committed to making that data available, right? Someone did a very – in my opinion – genius study of scientific fraud. They just picked thousands of papers at random and wrote to the authors and asked for the data. If they didn’t get it, they asked again. If they didn’t get it, they asked again. Sixty five per cent of people never sent the data. Conclusion? Sixty five per cent of papers are actual fraud – and that’s not the ones that are just self-deceiving. I was thinking when I wrote that off-hand remark that if we don’t prove anything we just won’t publish, like everybody else.

TJ: That’s not very admirable by the way.

DW: At least I admit it. Well, at least I’m conscious of it. At least when I’m a fraud, I’m a conscious fraud.

EP: If you had discovered this technology and you were in Vermeer’s place, would you have used it and tried to get away with it?

DW: Listen, I have discovered a technology that’s relatively simple, that’s made me outrageous amounts of money, right, and I don’t tell anyone how I do it.

EP: Are we about to get a scoop?

DW: And it’s not just because it made an outrageous amount of money. It’s also because, in fact, there’s not much ingenuity there at all. At the moment I’m a black box, a black swan box, and people go, ‘Gee, he’s clever’. They keep telling me I’m a mathematical genius. I employ dozens of mathematicians and they’re all better than me. Why would I employ someone who wasn’t? Yeah, so the mathematical genius thing is quite funny for me and occasionally I run with it.

TJ: But you thought of this technology, and maybe more importantly, you recognised it?

DW: I didn’t even think of it. Phil Turner, who’s a complete wastrel, thought of it, but because he’s a complete wastrel, no one will ever know, except for the eight people that ever read this interview.

TJ: Well, since nobody’s paying any attention, you can tell us what it is, right?

EP: Tim, I’m going to assume that you would also have indulged this technology, had it come to you and you had the opportunity.

TJ: And would I have hidden it? I’m not sure. I like to think I’m an honest person…

EP: Aha, so you clearly do think it’s dishonest.

DW: She’s slaughtered you. We might as well stop here. In fact, cut.

TJ: I try to do the right thing, like a lot of people…

DW: Here’s the evidence that Tim would have cheated. Apparently, if we believe someone who isn’t him – an art historian, Roberta – everyone did it. Titian did it, Velasquez did it. And there is no documentation of it. Now, I’m sure some of them were honest men. The reality is that Tim would have kept it a secret because we have statistical evidence that everyone did. For whatever reason, they did. Or, the whole thing is a load of crap.

TJ: I would say that they wouldn’t have perceived it as being wrong.

DW: And neither would have you.

TJ: Maybe. That’s stipulated in my premise. Had I known it would be wrong, I would have tried to do the right thing.

EP: You seem very hesitant to commit that kind of historical fallacy.

TJ: Anthropologists are famous for projecting their modern ideas on ancient cultures and I think that’s a real danger here.

DW: Have you read The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond?

TJ: It’s on my list.

DW: Well, he doesn’t do that. He is wonderful.

TJ: You have to keep an open mind and not just accept things that you can’t prove, when there’s not much information.

DW: If you’re one of the eight people reading this… now am I breaking the fourth wall?

TJ: Sure.

DW: If you’re one of the eight people reading this and you happen to have gone to the end first, don’t read the rest of it, just go and read that book, because it will change your life, and nothing we are ever going to say will.

TJ: So he doesn’t have a hound in the hunt?

DW: He’s got a greyhound in the poodle race.

EP: I read that book just after I had Jack and I wanted to reverse engineer justification for having him sleep in bed with me – everyone kept telling me it was dangerous to have your baby sleep in bed with you, but I read the parenting chapter of that book and it said, ‘Yes, you can do it.’

DW: I’m not sure if it’s relevant to our discussion but he looks at the parameters of human behaviour, various things you can do and be measured, and finds that the interesting thing about Western culture is that it is always at one end of the behavioural spectrum. So if you investigate one thousand cultures, whatever the parameter, we are either the most conservative or the most liberal, but never in the centre of the distribution.

TJ: Wow.

DW: And if it’s true it is such an incredible, important insight. He’s a fucking genius.

EP: Cut. That’s the end of my questions.

TJ: Those were great questions.

EP: Thank you.

DW: She’s very clever. If she were a bloke she’d be a genius.

EP: I’d be a big swinging dick. Or I’d have one, I don’t know. Speaking of being a genius, were you recording that? Because I forgot.

TJ: Oh dear.

DW: If you were a bloke you wouldn’t have forgotten.

TJ: You can remember all that, I’m sure. The strange thing is David probably does remember all that.

DW: No. I remember the bit where I said I was a genius.

TJ: I don’t remember that part.

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

Interview with ZEE artist Kurt Hentschläger

Inside ZEE Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Inside ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you surprised by the amount of people having bad reactions to ZEE?*
Kurt Hentschläger: Yes. This is a very high rate. I’m not quite sure what to think of it. Usually, the statistics for photosensitivity – you can’t apply this globally because it must be different for different genetic groupings – in the States is one in four thousand people. That’s just generally, but for ZEE it’s much more, one in five hundred or so. The epileptic seizures are triggered by the flashes. It’s a very intense input, probably the most intense it could possibly be. In the first four days [of exhibiting ZEE in Hobart] we had three cases. That’s extreme. I’ve often contemplated whether I should stop showing it because I always dread that some day something really serious might happen. To have a seizure is very dramatic, but only a temporary event. It doesn’t mean you’ll have epilepsy from this point on or anything like that, it just means you’re allergic to stroboscopic light at that intensity and at certain frequencies. All these things that you do to begin with – sign a waiver and take all the precautions – form one half of the work, and then there’s the other half, the actual piece, which is quite benign. Really it’s a beautiful piece about the experience of the sublime.
EP: So for you, the piece is more about the sublime than about being terrified?
KH: I have no intention to make a terrifying piece, that would be boring. It is an intense piece, there’s no question about that. It demands a lot from you in that you have to overcome the initial moment of – to say the least – trepidation, when you enter this strange world. But once you are in it, it can be quite elevating. I must remember that you haven’t seen it [because you’re pregnant and therefore not permitted entry].
EP: Yes. I only get to see the first half of the piece, the introductory framework. I’m sitting here watching these queues of people snaking out the door – they’re like lemmings going to their death. I have been wondering whether you are affected by the seizures, and obviously you are. So what keeps you going? Why keep showing it?
KH: That’s a good question. There’s a rationalisation of an impetus to keep going because, built deep into our concept of civilisation is an illusion of safety – the idea that we can control our environment and, at least to some extent, have stability. You question that the moment you decide to take a risk in life – to make a leap of faith to experience something unfamiliar. I could compare it to hiking in the mountains. The higher you go, the more tired you get, the less oxygen you have, the higher the risk of sudden weather changes and exposure in a spot where there’s no shelter. The reward for taking the risk is that as you walk up you get this view – beautiful in the true sense. You’re lifting yourself out of everything.
EP: Does that feeling of risk motivate you as an artist more broadly?
KH: Yes, I think so. I grew up in the original punk days, when it was all about exhausting yourself with a visceral, crazy energy. What’s interesting about overwhelming stimuli is not that you are overwhelmed per se, because this feeling you can easily have in any blockbuster movie – you get bombarded and you’re excited, but then when you leave, you’re exhausted and you forget about it. This is an empty ritual of exhilaration, just to feel something. It’s not what interests me. What interests me is an emotional process, and a romantic notion of seeking to instil something that is bigger than life and that makes you see a wider concept or longer trajectory. In ZEE, what interests me the most is the idea of infinity. I often talk about perception, but it’s more about the habits than the mechanics of perception – the way we train ourselves from the beginning. Or maybe it’s better to say we don’t even train – it’s natural. When you’re born you’re this wide-open vessel, and everything is just pouring in. But only those things close to you. You don’t learn to see past a certain distance until you get older.
EP: So it’s about a rerouting, even momentarily, those worn channels of perception?
KH: Exactly. You can only do this so much, though. When you come out you’re back in what you know and what we all agree is the world around us. But we do know there are other things to our existence, like when we dream or like deep meditation or drug experiences. I read this book [Trance: From Magic to Technology by Dennis R. Wier] that said that one way or another we are living in a state of trance throughout our lives. The author made a distinction between productive trances and destructive trances, like addiction. Or think about working on a computer – you forget about time and space and that you are hungry or need to pee or whatever. Eventually you wake up because your urges have become too great and you’re taken from your state of trance. So what I’m saying is that perception is a malleable process. We define it over time throughout our lives to again support our ideas of stability. Everything becomes a habit, a ritual; a loop that we adhere to. One of the things that I do like about ZEE is that it takes you out of that loop, just for a moment.
EP: Some of the ideas that we’ve been looking at in The Red Queen exhibition at Mona relate to that notion of a comforting narrative or illusion of security. You can take it a step further and say that our entire sense of the ‘I’, the self, is a fiction, the function of which is to create an illusion of stability and coherence. What you’re saying is that you’d like to disrupt that illusion, to open a small gap for people to think in another way.
KH: Well, just to point to it. I have no expectation of making people change in big ways. That would be preposterous. But I think the important thing is that a lot of people find a strange joy in ZEE. I feel it still, even after all this time. Often when we’re installing there’s a moment of true, deep joy for me. It must be related to the intensity of the light in a complete void – what feels to me like a space, or rather a sphere, of pure light.
EP: You’ve been exhibiting your work since 1983. Did you know at that time what you wanted to achieve?
KH: No, but I did have clear interests. I did a body of work in those days with absurd machines, like machine sculptures. Then in ’89 I got my first computer and that changed my whole idea about the process of art making. I stopped drawing, for instance. [Visiting The Red Queen exhibition] was very inspiring because I saw a lot of drawings that I really liked. The drawing machine [by Cameron Robbins] is absolutely fantastic, and I think I have to pick up drawing again. Like, a hundred years later, go back to where I started.
EP: Technology is obviously a very important part of your work. Do you feel unfettered celebration about the speed at which technology is evolving? Or do you ever feel a sense of alarm?
KH: Yeah. I’m sick of it. I will not develop software anymore. I’m not going to go into any more serious engineering efforts because they take so much time and I think it often leads to an imbalance, where the technology is only half expressed, and the content itself is also half expressed. A long time ago I thought that what is now called ‘new media art’ was very interesting and exciting. There was a challenging discourse and so many brilliant people, and the scene was very experimental. Everything was wide open. Now, with the process of institutionalisation, there’s much more of it but a lot feels quite empty. Nowadays, if I order a computer or related tool I’m already annoyed because I know when it comes I will spend all this time preparing it, setting it up, checking whether it works and so on. Of course it’s part of the craft and I do think media technology is my particular craft. There’s no question I know a lot about it.
EP: You’ve grown with it, really, from the 80s onwards.
KH: I often say when I teach – and I don’t even mean it as a joke – that I come from before time. I was eight years old when my family got its first television. I’ve seen the whole thing come in ever-faster cycles. You can spend your whole day just trying to keep up. But of course, on the positive side, it is a huge and very powerful toolset and opens aesthetic possibilities that I still find interesting to some extent.
EP: It’s reconfigured, over the space of one generation, our very consciousness, our engagement with reality – language, thought, time and space.
KH: That was a very acute sense of mine in my mid 20s, even before I got the computer – that this would change pretty much everything. I wanted to inundate myself because I thought, ‘This is going to be the world, and I must know about it if I am going to be able to make any sort of informed artistic statement about it’. My early pieces with [audio-visual art collective] Granular-Synthesis – particularly Model 5 – were these single-frame, edited, resynthesised human heads. They were very intense, very aggressive, brutally loud. Model 5 would have been completely impossible without a computer. We used a non-linear editing system that had just come out. The system was a complete game changer, allowing us to do things in a month that would have taken maybe two years. So in that regard, certain technologies really bring about aesthetic progress, or certainly accelerate aesthetic processes. I don’t know whether it’s meaningful progress, but –
EP: The question of progress is a difficult one.
KH: Yes – whatever progress is. But this interest in what these media machines and networks will do to change the world, to change our behaviour, to change everything, has formed into the question: How do we operate and perceive to begin with? As for our immediate future it’s clear what will happen. It’s going to go further, and eventually there really will be cyborgs. Currently, everybody has this blue glow in their face [from the screen of a smart phone]. At the moment this [smart phone] is state-of-the art, but it’s still awkward. You have to carry it still. There will be something that will be smarter and more merged with the person.
EP: I admire what you said before about how when you first started getting into technology you decided to completely immerse yourself in it. I’m not interested in technology. How something like that works doesn’t capture my imagination. It’s a bit disturbing that I’m using things that are fundamentally changing my life, without understanding how. It happens, magically, inside the black box.
KH: Yeah, but on the other hand there are lots of things we use that we don’t understand – I was never interested in knowing how exactly a car works. In the beginning there were these huge boxes, modems, on the telephone that made these funny noises when you connected. It was very slow and there was always something not working, so you had to know a lot in order to be able to fix things quickly. But ultimately, like I said before, it takes too much time. What I want to do now for a while is wilfully slow it down, not change. Dig in, and work on something until it becomes substantial. I think at the end of my life I’m going to be a photographer and musician. I want to learn the accordion. I’d like to do something with my hands – direct, rather than just sitting in chairs, making these minimal, almost disembodied movements with a mouse.

*Since opening on June 14, 3185 people have visited ZEE; ten have required medical attention as a result.

Entering Zee Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Entering ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Interview with Meghan Boody

New York artist Meghan Boody’s bizarre pin-ball death machine, Deluxe Suicide Service, is on display in the museum at the moment. She’s been making a new work for us in her stunning Tribeca tower (i.e. apartment), where she lives with her son and works with her familiars (assistants) on her art works: photographs, installations and sculptures that memorialise her psychic states, and trace her transformation from one mode of being to another. It’s all deeply Freudian, but in a glamorous earth mother, as opposed to Woody Allen, kind of way. The new work is called The Mice and Me. It depicts herself as a child, encaged, in a pretty frock, with mice lapping at the drool that leaks from her silicone mouth. It’s fully weird, and pretty amazing. It has recently arrived here in Hobart and will be on show at the museum soon.

Elizabeth Mead: Is your work autobiographical?

Meghan Boody: Yes. I think that any blob of paint or dab of sputum has to be categorised as autobiographical. Some artists like to admit it and some don’t.

EM: But I mean directly, self-consciously autobiographical.

MB: Mine is consciously that way, because what I try to do with my work is piece together things that I want to achieve in my life. They’re almost like guide books of how to proceed. I try to figure out ways of transforming myself, to make myself happier.

EM: Does that work for you?

MB: It has. Well for instance, in the Psyche and Smut series, I was very interested in getting pregnant. The series is about these two girls that start off as diametrically opposed twins, and they gradually merge to become one person. So it’s about harmonising the warring factions of one’s mind, and becoming a more integral, powerful person. There’s a cluster of eggs that have been fertilised – that’s that blue mass in the background. This was my way of meditating about being fertile. And I did get pregnant while making the series.

EM: Do you always have such a clear idea about what you’re trying to achieve, or are some works more explorative?

MB: It’s both. The more I do it the clearer my objectives become, and each work builds on the past. It continues to distill. Often I start with a very different game plan than what I end up with. But ultimately it just ends up telling the same story.

EM: What’s the story?

MB: The story is about how to switch from one type of person to the next. Self-transformation. My hope is that by studying it in myself and giving myself guidelines, some of this will filter off to somebody else and be helpful.

EM: I’ve never met an artist who is so able to pinpoint what it is they’re trying to do.

MB: Really?

EM: No, never. Can you remember the first time you felt the inkling of that objective?

MB: I think it was with the Henry’s Wives series. I did a series based on the wives of Henry VIII. Each piece was devoted to one of the six queens – leading up to a seventh and last image where they have been resurrected and are celebrating Henry’s demise. Each piece is titled after the motto that each queen had during her reign. So Katheryne Howard had the motto, ‘No other wish but his’. The historical fact acts as an armature for my fantasy.

That’s one way of perceiving the series. But also, each image is devoted to a different alchemic phase. Putrefaction, sublimation, coniunction… I felt like there were definitely things I wanted to change about my life, so I engaged in a process that studied alchemy, took to heart the lessons behind each process, and devoted a piece to it, in the hope that this would generate change in my life.

EM: It sounds like an unhappy part of your life…   

MB: Sure, you could say that. I was married to somebody who I was very unhappy with…

EM: Yes, clearly. Can you remember the first time you wanted to be an artist?

MB: I think it was like an escape hatch for me, growing up. I had a very solitary childhood. I used to escape into my room and make stuff. I lived for those moments, and then whenever there was a rap on my door it was like doomsday. And then of course my parents said, ‘Oh, you’re so artistic’, and I rebelled against that and said, ‘I don’t want to be an artist’. It took me quite a long time to come back to it. In college I thought I was going to be a writer, then I tried my hand at fashion design, and I finally fell into photography, not purposefully.

EM: Is photography the medium in which you feel most yourself?

MB: Photography is my base medium, but then it bleeds into sculpture. I go back and forth between the two, and combine them.

EM: Is ‘diorama’ the term you’d use to describe some of this stuff?

MB: You could definitely say that, or tableau. I do the same thing whether it’s in photography or sculpture. I’m creating worlds, physical realms that are like little parallel universes I can slip into. They give me respite from this particular level of reality.

EM: So you want the viewer to go into that world with you?

MB: Definitely, yep. I hope that that’s what ends up happening. I feel like if it’s believable for me, and if it’s a place that I want to go to, other people might want to go there too.

EM: Where do the visual, aesthetic elements of these worlds come from? Do you draw on a wide range of sources from literature and film?

MB: I do. But sometimes I back into it. Like Henry Darger for instance – I didn’t even know he existed. Then I came across a book on him and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is so what I’ve been doing’, so then I very consciously adopted some of his ideas. And there are certain things that I’m crazy about – Peter Greenaway for instance. I love the way he puts great attention into the frame of his movies – images within images, a layered story. And also, he and I are both very interested in old master painting.

EM: There are obvious similarities. Maybe you’re both creating worlds that are internally consistent, even though you can’t discern the values or logic that has put that world together in the first place.

MB: Yes, exactly. That’s what I think is so important. No one’s going to know about the alchemy – well, maybe now they will – but no-one’s really going to have a clue that that was an underpinning of the work. But I think that just because it’s there, as an underlying structure – that gives it some kind of integrity.

EM: How can you tell when you’ve been successful in making something?

MB: If I like it. Because I’m so stringent and difficult, and a perfectionist. So if I don’t despise it then chances are it’s okay.

EM: Do you give yourself a hard time?

MB: I do, incessantly, and I’m actually thinking that maybe I could let up on myself a little bit, because it’s rather onerous and it takes a really long time for me to make things. That’s why it’s taking me so long to make The Mice and Me – because I have to have the perfect chandelier and pendants, and garments for her to wear. I have to make sure it’s flawless.

The Mice and Me
2008-12

EM: What do you say to yourself when you’re giving yourself a hard time?

MB: ‘That’s disgusting, I hate it’. ‘This is foul, it can’t possibly exist’. I become outraged, and woe unto those who work for me because I’m just like, ‘How dare you, this isn’t right’.

EM: Can you please tell me how you made The Mice and Me?

MB: Sure. The first thing I did was find my model. I was looking for somebody that could emulate myself as an eight or nine year-old child. So we found her and encased her body in silicone to make a mold. We did not do her head because that was sculpted freestyle from photographs of myself as a child.

EM: Was this the child of a friend?

MB: It was, and it was actually quite gruelling for her because she had no idea, and I had no idea, that it was going to take so long for the silicone to set up. It took about two hours, so she had to be perfectly still. This was a nine year-old girl and she was practically in tears. I felt so terrible – we were feeding her chocolate and ice cream and singing to her, whatever it took.

And then there’s the positive made of the silicone mold, out of clay.  Then you make another mold out of something very tough called Aqua-Resin, and that is what allows me to make additions. And then once I have that mold, I have a silicone casting made by special-effects people from the film industry. So all of the hairs have to be hand-punched individually, as do the eyebrows and eyelashes. It’s all about the translucency of the skin and getting the pigments just right.

Then I [adjusted] the original cabinet and attached the old fire extinguisher – that’s where the water reservoir and pump live. Then we got an electrician to wire the timer, lights and pump. And then the doors – they were bronze, and then coated in chrome. The chicken wire had to be chrome-plated too.

Then one of the big things to calibrate is the drool, and I’m so thrilled that we finally got that to work today.

EM: I know, it’s so cool.

MB: Oh, thank you. Well let’s just make sure it doesn’t flood. And then finally it’s all about her outfit…

EM: Is it creepy to sculpt a face in the image of yourself?

MB: Not for me. I find it very comforting, nostalgic. I grew up here in New York City, on 64th street. I often feel a strange tug or presence when I walk by the apartment where I grew up. I look up into the window of my bedroom – and wouldn’t it be wild if I saw myself as a child looking back down?

EM: That’s pretty creepy.

MB: So that’s the kind of thing that fascinates me, that we all… How far away am I from that little girl that I once was? I think about all of the things that made me the way I am now, but I think of her separately from myself, as somebody that I’m interested in and I have great affection for. I guess it’s positive if you can get to the point where you like that young person who is still living inside you.

She’s in this enclosure, and it’s unclear whether this is self- imprisonment or whether she’s been put in there. Is this a little fairy bower paradise for her? Is she happy in there? But I like to think of it as an enclosed biosphere, a self-sustaining environment where she is providing nourishment for her little companions, the mice, and they’re keeping her company. Now that I think about it, this is more like an ode to staying forever young. But I think if you can just accept that desire, and the impossibility of it, that it frees you from it, and allows you to grow up.

EM: So the other work we have, Deluxe Suicide Service – how did that come about?

Deluxe Suicide Service
2004

MB: That came about because I was always fascinated with games and machines, different arcade contraptions. I was always roaming around bric-a-brac shops, antique shops, anything, looking for something to insert my photographs into. I was also often going to a pinball bar at the time, playing a lot of pinball machines, and I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be so cool…’ So I went to a pinball machine warehouse where old machines were waiting to be sold to bars or restaurants…

EM: Like a pinball graveyard.

MB: Kind of, yeah, and it was unbelievable how cheap they were. Everybody wants the newest, best thing. I picked a machine whose components I liked, but one simple enough for me to add on to. Like some of the sounds are integral to the original game and some of them I added. The images are of friends commingled with found photographs, with several self-portraits sprinkled in. I got a lot of the sea imagery from old National Geographic magazines and the coin slot images are Bellini Madonnas. The score panel shows my subjects transposed against boudoirs of Victorian harlots from early Daguerreotypes. The numbers refer to the game score as well as referencing serial numbers of prisoners’ mug shots.

I think of this piece as either a mobile crematorium or a life support system. It is unclear whether the electrodes and X-ray cables fastened onto the image of the prone girl are sucking the life out of her or restoring her vital fluids. The whole basis of Deluxe Suicide Service is playing a game, alluding to the game of life. Is it possible to gain mastery over one’s life? It’s really, in this case, an ode to the Id, and all sorts of dark impulses and drives.

EM: What’s the answer? Is it possible to gain control in that way?

MB: I think that if you can gain the illusion of control, that’s just as good as getting control. It’s all about identifying what those dark drives are and not fleeing from them. And the more you know them, the less likely they’re going to come up and get you from behind.

EM: It makes me think of Shakespeare’s Prospero: ‘This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine’.

MB: I love that line, yes. And all of my work is about that: aligning oneself with one’s beast so it doesn’t overpower you. If you don’t know who you are, if you don’t know about your dark compulsions, therein lies the road to insanity.

Interview with Vernon Ah Kee

Vernon Ah Kee, a Brisbane-based artist, is co-founding member of the Aboriginal artist collective proppaNOW. His pencil portrait ‘unwritten #8’ is on show in our exhibition Theatre of the World.

Aboriginal art, Mona, Theatre of the World

Unwritten #8, 2008
Vernon Ah Kee

Elizabeth Mead: Why did you start a group of exclusively Aboriginal artists?

Vernon Ah Kee: One of the reasons was that, as artists, we were being largely ignored. We felt that we were making art that had something to say. But because of the context that we’re making our art in, the context that we live our lives in as Aboriginal people, and the subject matter that we wanted to talk about, we were being ignored. So we wanted to start up an artists’ group to say that we know that our ideas are valid because there are several of us who think like that. If we band together we’ll have a much more compelling voice.

EM: What characterises that collective voice?

VAK: We all have similar backgrounds in that we’re Aboriginal artists who come from a politically aware history, and have politically active families. We’re also conceptual artists. We’re trained to think that way. We don’t shy away from what we want to say. There’s a lot of internal critique of each other’s work, because another reason that we had to make a group was due to the lack of critique of Aboriginal art.

EM: If you speak with a unified voice, is there a risk of homogenising, or putting pressure on your artists to create certain kinds of work?

VAK: No. We’re trying to combat the homogenisation of Aboriginal art. We’re trying to demonstrate that ‘Aboriginal art’ can be as complex as ‘Australian art’. It can be as complex and diverse – as dynamic and evolving and fluid and liquid – as any kind of identity-based art. Australian art is not frozen in time. When you look at the colonial artists of the 1800s, you lock it in the 1800s. Aboriginal art seems to be frozen in the stone age. People want to talk about it in those terms. It’s crazy, when we don’t live like that. It’s unrealistic to the point of being utopian.

EM: But if you want to get across the idea that Aboriginal art is as diverse and contemporary as non-Aboriginal art, do you run the risk of saying the opposite, if you group everyone together? Would you aim, one day, to just be ‘an artist’ as opposed to ‘an Aboriginal artist’?

VAK: Look, I think I am. But this country would never allow me to be that. When I travel internationally, I’m received as a conceptual artist. When I get back to this country, I am reduced to being an Aborigine, and that colours the way I’m received.

EM: Do you feel like you have to wear your identity politics more blatantly in this country than you do overseas?

VAK: No, I demonstrate who I am overseas, too. I’m just myself. It’s just that in this country, what I demonstrate, how I express myself in terms of who I am, is very often oppositional to the way people think of themselves. So it comes off as political, it comes off as reactionary, when really it’s Aboriginal. I don’t think of myself as the one with the problem.

EM: So you become political just by being yourself?

VAK: No. I don’t even think I’m political. I think I’ve made about half-a-dozen political artworks, where the intention is to be political. Mostly my practice is built on work that is produced within the context of my being Aboriginal. It’s made with the idea that my family reads my work, that they understand what it’s about, and that they see themselves in it. That’s the context that I make my art in. Other people get to make work about their lives and their family’s history, and it’s not political. It’s just that when I make work about my family and articulate it clearly, and it demonstrates the polarities that exist in Australian society, it’s construed as firstly oppositional, and then political.

EM: In the broader context of this country, the question of who is and isn’t Aboriginal is a fraught one. Do you ever face that problem in your group? Do you have to police that boundary somehow?

VAK: Our only stipulation as a group is that each of our members expresses themselves fully, and we mean like – to the limit. We have Gordon Hookey in our group and he is a prime example of that philosophy of taking your ideas right to the edge. He’s not afraid. Going too far is not far enough for him. There’s an imprimatur on everybody to go as hard as they want. We are very disappointed when our members don’t do that.

EM: Is that your own objective too – to go hard, and take your ideas to the edge?

VAK: It is, yeah. I’m at the point in my career where I will have an idea and that idea gestates and sits in my head for a while, until it articulates itself. Then the framework builds and kind of solidifies. Then I will think of what platform serves the idea. I’ll go out and discuss it with my friends until I have a very, very set idea. So the platform might be video, printmaking, painting, sound, photography, sculpture, or some other digital form. Within our group we [pool our] expertise. If I can’t develop the skills I need within myself, then I’ll go and source people that can help me. By that time, the idea is solid and will continue to sharpen. You just hone the blade.

EM: If you start with an idea and then you find the appropriate platform, that’s truly conceptual art, isn’t it?

VAK: It’s definitely one kind of conceptual art. Richard Bell – he’s almost a pure conceptual artist. He’s only interested in getting his idea from his head onto some platform. Once he’s satisfied that that idea is there, even if it looks like crap, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t even wrap his canvasses. He does nothing. He doesn’t care if the canvasses get water-stained or they have marks on them from grabbing onto the sides. Once he’s satisfied that the idea has been achieved, he doesn’t even think about the painting anymore. That’s a conceptual artist.

EM: Do you care about those things?

VAK: I’m interested in design and composition. My background is in drawing and I used to be very, very meticulous and pedantic about my drawings. I also did a year of design before I did fine art. So that’s the aesthetic that I source for myself. It’s a little luxury that I take on, that I like my works to be clean and concise. I like using beauty as an aesthetic and a tool.

EM: You think of your craftsmanship as a luxury?

VAK: Not necessarily – not if, as I was saying before, it provides entry into the work. All good conceptual artists will have a good, solid idea, and design the work to have different points of entry according to who you want to see it. So the large portraits [such as the one shown at Mona] – the subject matter is portraiture, and Aboriginal people – so there’s an entry for my family and for Aboriginal people generally. But they have to be beautiful drawings – the beauty-aesthetic provides another entry point. Also, the reduced palette offers people nothing else outside of it, especially in black and white – charcoal drawings on paper. Drawing is the best tool for conceptual artists, because it’s just lines, one line next to the other and nothing in between. There’s no hiding. Your ideas have to be strong, your composition has to be strong, and your discipline has to speak for itself.

EM: If that’s how you feel about the immediacy of the message – why art at all? Why not just write something?

VAK: Well I’ve written a few things over the years. But art, as you would be aware, is the least censored of all the creative forms. Writing is one of the most censored.

EM: In what way?

VAK: In getting things published. There are very stringent editorial and publishing processes that suffocate some writers.

EM: But surely the internet age must have loosened that stranglehold?

VAK: It does, but it’s about building the audience and the platform, and designing your writing style for that too. You have to have very, very broad appeal if you want access on that level. I’ve read some pretty good art blogs, but I don’t know how big their readership is. You have to pick your style and stick with it if you want to build your audience. Art’s not like that.

EM: You have a pretty ambivalent relationship to the culture industries you work in, especially the commercial aspects. How do you negotiate that as a professional artist – one who has to sell work to support his family?

VAK: I think as a professional, and I have a gallery that represents me. Look, I’m the first one to say that I had a bit of good fortune in that I was picked up by a good gallery out of art school. I just make whatever I like and it’s the gallery’s job to sell it. [My dealer] Josh Milani sells my work to the point where I can have a living off it, and I’m sure he does very well off it. I don’t know. At the end of the day I make work to please myself and if it sells, it sells. Mind you, it’s one thing to have good luck, but you have to perform. You can have one good show, then you have to produce another one the next year, and then another one.

EM: We were talking before about problems with the reception and criticism of Aboriginal art. Do you think your own work is free of those problems?

VAK: Not at all, because this country is hung up on my being an Aborigine. If it set that aside – but I mean, my whole practice is produced within the context of my being Aboriginal. Now nobody criticised Brett Whiteley for making work completely in the context of being a white Australian. Nobody has a go at Ken Done for it. He gets criticised for being touristy and simple, and he’s probably much better than that. But nobody criticises these paragons of Australian art for being white Australians and making work completely in the context of that.

But as I said already, my being Aboriginal clouds the way people see my work. It also clouds the way people want to view history, and society, and themselves, and art, and art practices, and the way we frame art. It clouds the way Aborigines should frame themselves and frame their work. I don’t pander to those kinds of stereotypes. I don’t feel like I should lock myself into the stone age. I wasn’t born into the stone age.

EM: If you had the chance to augment the discourses around Aboriginal art – is that what you would say? Stop locking Aboriginal people in the past?

VAK: Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey and I were saying that 10 years ago and we were being laughed off, ignored, shouted down. Richard says that 30 years ago we were faced with this. And it’s still valid – horribly and unfortunately and terribly and disgracefully so.

EM: Can you tell me more about the Unwritten portraits please?

VAK: All the portraits start from the idea that you have these formless faces on human bodies, but with no features. These are Aboriginal people, just ordinary people like me, like my family, like my friends. But the way that I’m portraying them in the drawings is how white people see us, how the country sees us.

So it’s this idea that we have no eyes, no ears, no mouth, no discernable features at all. So we are dumb, in that we can’t see, can’t speak, can’t hear, and we’re held static, benign, silent and bound. So the very early ones had lines going across the face. They looked like they were emerging, but being held back, tied back, and pushed back into the surface. So they’re always becoming human, but never being allowed to be fully human, never reaching that point. The only aspects of humanity in the features are western. So in some of them I will emphasise a brow or the nose or cheekbones, to demonstrate this aspect of the western ideal. Like what’s happened with Christ. Underneath is a fully realised human, representing a fully realised people.

See I was born three months before the referendum in 1967, and so for the first three months of my life I was a non-person. I was property of the state. The history of Aboriginal people in this country, Australia, has been a history of always becoming human. We were written out of the Constitution when it was first written. There’s the doctrine of terra nullius, which wrote us out of existence. So that’s why these drawings are unwritten.

Interview with Robyn McKinnon

Robyn McKinnon is a Tasmanian painter. Her work Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, part of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) collection, will be shown in our up-coming exhibition, Theatre of the World. Theatre is curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in collaboration with MONA and TMAG.

Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, 2007
Acrylic paint on canvas

Elizabeth Mead: Do you generally not like to talk about your work?

Robyn McKinnon: Generally not. The title is about as far as I get. The title’s the clue, it’s a bit of a crossword. You’ve got the clue, work out the rest for yourself.

EM: That makes perfect sense to me.

RM: Does it?

EM: Yep. But you did change your mind about this interview. You said no at first, and then you decided to.

RM: Yes. I thought about it, and I thought that if I want to actually put myself in a position where I’m not ignored, then just do it. I also spoke to Allanah from Handmark [Gallery] and said, ‘Should I do it or not?’ They’re not mentors for me, but they look after the business stuff that I don’t know how to look after.

EM: Are you ambitious?

RM: Yeah. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. It doesn’t mean that I want to rule the world or anything, but I’d like to feel, apart from the personal satisfaction of succeeding for myself, that there’s someone else who thought I succeeded.

EM: So that would be your determination of whether you’d been successful or not?

RM: No, no, no. My determination of whether I was successful or not is how I feel about it, if it moves me. If it moves me, I can put it out there. If it doesn’t it gets painted over.

EM: Being a painter comes with the pressure of putting yourself out there in the world, with a financial impetus. Do you find it hard to manage your position as a professional artist?

RM: I just usually leave it up to the gallery or in a lot of cases, destiny. I do it because I love it, and the rest of it is really a bit of a pain in the bum. Allanah is really good. I’d say, ‘Well if I’ve got to pay the rates, and the rates cost $200, then the painting costs $200’, and she says, ‘You can’t do that’. So I don’t want to know.

EM: I don’t imagine that you think much of the culture that goes along with the display and production of art – ‘the art world’, whatever that means.

RM: Yeah, not a lot. It’s ok, it’s important, it’s like all strains of society. There are people that you choose to get on with, and people you don’t choose to get on with. You run the gamut, and if you know that those people are no good for you, then move away. They all make up the community. But I stayed away, there’s not enough time. I taught for 27 years. And when I turned 50 I thought, ‘That’s it mate, no more’.

EM: No more teaching?

RM: Nope.

EM: Did you enjoy the teaching?

RM: No, not really. I used to get nervous about it, feel sick in the stomach before every class, until I got the lessons down pat. And then it got boring. And I didn’t want to tell kids that what they were doing was wrong. You can’t do that, I don’t think. ‘You need a ticket’, my father said. The ticket was art teaching, and the rest was mine.

EM: How did you come to be an artist?

RM: I’ve always done it. I don’t know, I can’t remember when I didn’t do it. It was probably when I came back from Europe, I was about 29 and I thought, ‘No, this is no good, I’ll just do what I have to do, what I like to do’. So probably when I turned 50 and gave up teaching, I actually took it on as a profession. Yeah, so for the last nine years I’ve just applied myself in that way.

EM: Have you enjoyed having all that time to just focus on…

RM: I just love it.

EM: That’s wonderful. You’ve earned it.

RM: Well, yeah, I think so. And it’s just great. This really old house that is falling down and needs painting and stuff like that, that’s where I go every morning, front room, at whatever time get up. If I have something on in the day I get up at 3am and work until 10.   

EM: You get up at 3?

RM: Yeah but I go to bed at 7.

EM: Impressive.

RM: No, it’s not impressive, but that’s what I do. It’s eased off a bit. There’s been several catastrophic things that have happened over the last seven months that don’t warrant talking about. So I’m having a holiday. This morning I got up at 5:30.

EM: Oh wow, that’s pretty slack. So back when you came back from Europe that time, and you started to be more focused about making art, did you have a sense of your motivation or objective? Was there something you wanted to communicate?

RM: I think it was probably more instinctive. It was actually not knowing what you were going to create, that was what it was. When I finished at teacher’s college, I did a secondary art-teacher thing. When I finished there I went to art school at night so I could find out more about art. It was easy, if you know what I mean – I didn’t have to push myself to do anything. All these other kids were racing to get work in on time, but I’d have it done, for no reason other than I liked to do it.

EM: So what was motivating you was the sense of exploration, of not knowing what was going to happen?

RM: Yeah, and you don’t, because you’re just the vessel. You start a painting with some sort of idea in your head – no, it’s not the idea of the painting, it’s an emotion, it’s sensibility, a vision, a leaf falling, just these tiny things. And all of a sudden, this painting starts to grow, and then you think about what the painting reminds you of, and then you know. You’ve got to sort of smell it, go with it, and then you think, ‘Shit, how come that happened?’

EM: When you say that you’re the vessel – what’s filling it? 

RM: I think it’s a sensibility that you have. People know more than they choose to know. What they choose to know is pretty banal, usually. What they don’t know scares them, so they prefer to know the banal rather than the scary. It’s not really scary, but it’s a bit unnerving to think that a silly little person like yourself can make – that. That’s not to say it’s great, but where did it come from? I think as you get older, the visionary aspect of understanding a little bit more about yourself helps you to question why you respond to things the way you do. Not why you did it, but why you responded in that way.

EM: What have you learned about yourself over all those years of painting and teaching?

RM: Well, I’m still a stubborn Scot… I couldn’t put that knowledge into words. I like that, because each of my experiences is different, and it doesn’t matter where I go, I think.

You look at a painting, and it activates something in you. Sometimes it might activate a sense of sadness, or happiness, it depends on the painting. And if it does that, then it half fills the purpose – well, for me it just about fills it.

EM: So the only hope that you have for someone viewing your work is that it activates something for them?

RM: That would be the main hope. Also that they would actually choose to come back and look at it again, and maybe question the feeling that they had in the first place, and then think, ‘Oh, I wonder why I feel differently about that’. And maybe it’s them that has changed, and not the painting.

Sometimes – there was one painting in particular last year I put up on the wall, and I couldn’t take it down. And it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about that, it was about every time I looked at it I could be in it. The water was so churned up, and rough. It wasn’t scary and you could breathe in the water. When I took it down a felt a bit sad. I put it away, and then someone actually walked in and bought it from Handmark and the amazing thing was that that fellow had gone through a similar situation to the one I’d gone through when I was looking at that painting. It’s weird. It’s not weird, but I think a lot of people find it scary. I don’t know, it’s a bit like an echo.

I can explain it: this lady, her son had committed suicide. She cleaned for the accountant that I take my stuff to and Darren, the accountant, said, ‘Why don’t you take some stuff [of your son’s] to Robyn, she might be able to do something with it’. So she knocked on the door, and she told me about her son – this is ‘talk back’, I get goosebumps, all the way up my arms – and I said to her, ‘I’ll do you four drawings’. She gave me free range, and I took four illustrations to her. And after that – that ‘talk back’ sort of thing – it’s like a connection.

EM: So you think that your work is a part of that process of ‘talk back’?

RM: Not quite sure. But if it does talk back to people, then I’d like it to be part of a healing process.

EM: And does it form part of your own healing processes?

RM: I think it must do. I like people, they’re alright – but in the workshop, I’m really happy because I don’t have to talk to anyone. I always feel content to be there. There are very few days where I pace up and down and go, ‘I hate being here’. Maybe it actually gives me a truer sense of myself, my old self, as I was as a child, not as I have to be socially, or talkatively, or stupidly, as people see me, you know. I don’t know.

EM: So how do you feel about Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen?

RM: Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen – it’s probably a childhood memory. My brother had pyjamas with little trucks on them that looked exactly like that. He was born in 1956 and I was born in 1953, so if you can imagine – summer pyjamas in Queensland. I thought people were being too hard on themselves – I thought about this after I painted the painting. I thought, it’s sort of a soft painting, it’s reminiscent of old-fashioned curtains, old-fashioned pyjama material, stuff like that. And it also reminded me of screen-savers. I thought that maybe if people actually saw it as a screen-saver they’d relate to it as something more gentle, something you could actually relate to and say, ‘Oh look at that little pot, things haven’t changed much’. I just felt that when I’d done it. It felt busy, but if felt quiet. Because of the size, too, of the objects, they become more intimate. And it felt like that intimacy thing where you could actually just look at one object and not the whole lot. Yeah, and I thought, ‘It’s fun, that will do’. I felt like it was calming. There’s nothing aggressive about it, except that Mrs Vermeer has too much stuff.

EM: Who is Mrs Vermeer?

RM: Well that’s the other question. Johannes Vermeer’s wife, Vermeer the Dutch master. Mrs Vermeer – you never hear about her. You know The Milkmaid, and the ones with the virginals, and all the pictures he did – she was stuck in the kitchen somewhere. And I don’t even know if he had a wife [laughs].

There’re some jugs in there – the Dutch jugs that you see in his paintings. That’s probably the only reference. Along with that there’s beaters, which Mrs Vermeer would never have know about in a million years. Yeah, it was just to ask the question, ‘Well who was Mrs Vermeer?’ She’s every other woman as well.

EM: How would you feel if someone described you as a feminist artist?

RM: I wouldn’t like it much. If I hear that I think of someone’s work – like eX de Medici. I think tampons, the lady who used tampons in her work, that was probably the height of feminism in Australia. Can you remember things like that? Teabags and tampons hanging off little bits of weaving on walls, and I think, ‘Oh, for god’s sake’.

EM: No I don’t know that one, but it reminds me of Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

RM: Yeah, all that sort of stuff. I don’t know whether that was to shock. I think of someone like Tracey Moffatt, she’s strong as anything, she’s amazing. But if you think about feminism and the power that women can have, it’s neither here nor there in the arts, I don’t think. It sounds like you cry poor if you want to be named a feminist artist. You’re an artist, that’s it.

EM: Yep. So, potentially, someone like Tracey Moffatt, who’s a strong woman, and a strong artist – to relegate her to ‘feminist artist’ could almost weaken her?

RM: I think so. It sounds really crazy, but culturally she’s an icon, isn’t she. So how can she be a feminist as well? What does feminism really mean? Someone said once, ‘If you don’t call yourself a feminist, you’re not a woman’, and I thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.

EM: Well, to me, feminism doesn’t mean everything under the sun to do with women, it means something quite particular. But it’s become so diverse and so imprecise that, as you say, you almost have to identify as a feminist just to be a worthwhile woman. But lots of women are making art, and being a woman is their reality-filter. So for you, whatever it is you’re drawing on…

RM: I’m drawing on where I live, and experiences I’ve had, millions of things…

EM: … the filter for that reality is that you’re a woman, and so therefore someone could come along and label that ‘feminist’. Is there a place for art to perform a social or political duty, do you think? 

RM: I think if art chooses to do that, it does it. I don’t think you can actively decide. Or maybe you can. I’m not the sort of person who actively decides that, I let destiny decide that. People see my work – I don’t invite them in, they just see it, and maybe it fits. If it doesn’t, don’t feel bad about it, just press on.

EM: Do you ever think about artists having a duty?

RM: I think you’ve got a duty to yourself. Again, without ego: if you love what you do, and you know that you can actually better yourself through what you’re doing, then the duty lies there, otherwise you’ve failed as a person. If you give up you’re never going to get anywhere. It’s just a little edge, it’s a little gift, a little bit more than someone else might have. And if you don’t use it, you’re a loser, you waste it. And that’s how I’m ambitious.

Everyday Happiness

I mentioned in my interview with Daniel Mudie Cunningham meeting the artist Nell (no surname) the same day. I left it in the transcript because I wanted to segue into this.

Nell’s currency for us lies in the fact her silver poo has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition at Mona.

© NELL, Everyday Happiness

The exhibition is large, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, in collaboration with TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery). The thrust of the show is silent aesthetical resonance: to not teach anything about art history, but to place the onus of pleasure on the viewer, via their visual register. Homi Bhabha calls this register the ‘scopic drive’, in reference to the desire to visually possess and categorise that which is different to the self. Homi Bhabha is a postcolonial theorist. I mention him because the show raises some hair-raising questions about power relationships between France and Tasmania, TMAG and Mona, indigenous and non-indigenous art. I’m not sure where to start with those yet. In the meantime, I missed a vital piece of information: the show places all sorts of art and artefacts, zoological, historical, decorative, functional, from different periods and places, alongside each other, under the rubric of visual congruence. It’s called ‘Theatre of the World’.

So Nell’s silver poo comes from a long line (or, not that long) of her other things with smiley faces on them – tombstones for instance. Hmm. I’m not sure how I feel about the smiley poo. I’m not sure how I feel about Nell’s work in general, namely:

Me: I’ve seen bits and pieces of your work and I cannot for the life of me pick a thread. Is there something that holds it all together?

Nell: Yeah. Me. I’m different every day. I think people end up with signature styles, kind of an accent in a way, but my accent is just who I am. Maybe it’s not really so good in the market place, but it’s just who I am and what I do. I feel like I can do anything or be anything in a really freeing way. 

Please note: my first ‘I’m not sure about’ is a euphemism for ‘I don’t like’; my second means what it says. Her answer, above, helped me understand and categorise.

Me: There’s obviously so many different ways in which people make art – if it’s conceptual, like if you really want to pose an argument or raise questions about the world we live in, you find a way to do that. Or if you just compulsively draw as a child, and then one day people start to buy them. How did that happen for you?

Nell: I think because when I grew up I was pretty bored for stimulation.

Me: In Maitland?

Nell: Uh huh. I went straight from high school to art school, and just tried to be curious about everything. Maybe it just came from that part of my nature, I’m not sure. Then I heard this quote that says, ‘The job of a Buddha is just to be awake’. And I thought, okay, just to be awake, just to be awake. So my job is just to be awake, twenty-four hours a day, just to be awake and open to things. That was the defining moment of how I wanted to live my life, and my art practice is the same.   

I like this. I feel the need to say, I’m no Buddhist. I asked Nell a bit more about happiness, forgetting, really, that that was the name of her work, the smiley little poo. Some say you make better work, better works of creation, when you are unhappy. I have been wondering lately, in happiness, whether I would still want to write about anything, for instance. David my boss says he keeps things incomplete because he needs to let human feeling seep through the cracks. He said this when he was going out with a woman who made him unhappy; I wonder if it’s still true.

The other currency, that’s running out fast as time passes, is that Nell performed for us at MOFO this year: she put on a triptych, a three-paneled piece, that included a chanting group performance, an installation, and a truck-ride through Hobart singing ACDC’s Long Way to the Top.

Image: Chanting To Amps © NELL

Image:  Let There Be Robe © NELL

Image: Long Way To The Top © NELL


The cohering motive of the triptych, she says, is ‘kind of that simple: I love rock and roll. Rock and roll and church were my first aesthetics, and Buddhism was my later one, and they all just mish-mashed’. She said she had always wanted to play music, but had ‘absolutely zero’ musical aptitude:

Nell: I thought, well if I can make mosaic and tapestry and make bronzes and glass works and all these other things, why can’t I just apply that same open-hearted, open-minded mindset and get people to help me, and just learn how to play?

Me: When you get in a cab and the cab driver goes, ‘So, what do you do?’ what do you say?

Nell: I say I’m an artist. I imagine most people you interview would say they are artists, right?

Me: It splits, it goes either way. If you think about making art as looking askance at the system, or being sensitive to the system in a way that directly creates something, then to identify professionally, ‘That’s my career’, it can be a bit of a conflict. But you don’t seem to be conflicted by much.

Nell: No. I’m not sitting here torturing myself. When you pay studio rent – that’s when you know you’re an artist. 

Me: Right. It makes me think about last time I was in Sydney when I interviewed Del Kathryn Barton, and she was saying the exact opposite of what you’re saying, that it’s all about self-torture, that’s her whole game with herself. 

Nell: I know. You know she’s my best friend, don’t you?

Me: Oh really?

Nell: Yeah, she gave me my [bunny necklace]. Yeah, she’s my bestie. No, we’re very similar, and very opposite. I told her, ‘When you learn to be lazy in your paintings you’re going to be a really great painter’. 

Me: But maybe that just works for her. Maybe self-torture works for her.  

Nell: Of course.

Anyhow, so the poo’s in the show, and we’ll see with what it visually resonates when things kick off in June. In the meantime, we’ve just hung some fresh Bartons.

-Elizabeth Mead