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

First world problems

By Elizabeth Pearce1

I was halfway through Middlemarch when I got (‘fell’) pregnant. I’m not suggesting there’s a connection. I have only just been able to pick the book up again, and when I say ‘pick the book up’ that is not a metaphor (or metonymy) for reading it; I literally have been unable to look at it or touch the cover due to the powerful association I have built between it, and the all-day, all pervasive morning sickness that promptly followed my ‘falling’ and that, frustratingly, led to no actual vomiting, meaning that it wasn’t even classed as bad in the scale of things. ‘The scale of things’. That means the scale of my wonderful, privileged life, the one in which I can get pregnant when I want to, distinguishing me from lots of other women and couples who have to go through all sorts to get to that point; and distinguishing me, further, from the rest of the world for which getting pregnant and having morning sickness are not significant problems at all, in the scale of things.

I have been wondering a lot lately (ever since I realised I was not going to dedicate my life to saving the world or even, as I had planned when I was younger, to easing the suffering of sick or exploited animals) about the quality of suffering. Is the suffering I rate in my own ‘scale’—that of drug addiction, divorce, loneliness, cancer, failure to express oneself or to fulfill ambition—made of the same stuff, boast the same blood and tendon, as that suffering, unimaginable to me, of war, famine, genocide, or the suppression of human rights? I know that it differs in magnitude: we should be more horrified by, say, the exploitation of children in sweatshops than by the physical degradation and social isolation of old age. Or should we? Is suffering just suffering, regardless of whether its source lies with barbarity (in the first instance), or inevitability (in the second)? Do the scales shift, giving us an ever-relative experience of pain? But the reason that I frame the question, I confess with some shame, is that I want to be able to justify (or not) my ongoing decision to do nothing at all to put a stop to that second-order variety of human atrocity. For instance: two of my friends dedicate a lot of their spare time and energy (and who has much of that?) to raising money to educate children in Benin, and traveling to that country when they can. I could do something like that, but I don’t.

I believe I was sincere in my plans, at a younger age, to ‘do something’, and I don’t think my decision now not to fulfill those plans has anything to do with loss of innocence (even now I rail against the you’ll-grow-out-of-it dismissals we perpetuate on the idealistic young). Hmm. Perhaps my inaction does have something to do with the fact that I recognise, having lived a little longer, that ‘goodness’ is infinitely contingent: there are no essentially decent acts (due to immeasurably complex consequences), but only decent intentions – which are, in turn, shadowed by any number of murkier motivations. (Brian Boyd writes in his book On the Origin of Stories about the fact that, in evolutionary terms, the best way for a socially competitive organism like a human to conceal its intentions from others is to not know them itself. The truth as I see it is that we never really know why we do things and we shouldn’t waste our time trying to find out. Instead we should focus on trying to control the impulses we know from imagination or experience lead to the suffering of ourselves or those around us). Being privy to the childhoods of others (my husband’s boys) has taught me a great deal about the contingency of good and bad: each boy is very different to the other. It is easy for me to see, from my privileged adult vantage point, that they are often, in conflict, both right at once; they do wrong to each other just by (rightly) being themselves. I wish I could explain that to them in words they’d understand. It would truly, I believe, set them up to better know the world and so to make the best of it.

What do you do with the suffering in the world? is a question asked by many (everyone, perhaps); among them, Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Like Dorothea (at least as her character stands in the first half of the book. What I am doing now—writing about a book only half-read—is an atrocity in my book, but I hope, given the circumstances, you’ll forgive me this once?)… Like Dorothea, I am prone to over-empathy, that scourge her admirer Will Ladislaw (do they get together?) calls ‘the fanaticism of sympathy’. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say with Dorothea that ‘it spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it’; but I have been prone to the recurring, tormenting thought: Why should I be happy when that other person can’t be?

It is something of a cliché perhaps to recall that Mother Theresa said, when asked what we should do to promote world peace, ‘Go home and love your family’. (She also said in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize lecture that ‘the greatest destroyer of peace today’ is—abortion. Actually she said it twice. I don’t even find the sentiment that offensive because it is just too weird. I was asked recently if my impending-mother status impacts how I feel about the issue. Yes it does. I have always supported free choice but my own experience has intensified my feelings of indignation—yes, outrage—at the audacity of any group or individual to have any say at all over the completion or otherwise of a pregnancy. It is an intensely personal business, a figment of my body, a biological quirk—at least, up until a certain point in time.2 On my way to work I walk past an abortion clinic, outside which Christian protestors gather each morning; one elderly man wears a sandwich board-style contraption sporting life-size models of fetuses that I could, if I wanted to, pop out and hold. I used to find these religious folk amusing, and even say good morning to them—who am I to discriminate against them on the grounds of their beliefs? They think they’re doing right in the world. But the thought, now, of the things those women must feel as they enter that building, each with their inherently worthy reasons for terminating their pregnancy—I don’t believe any person would make that choice for casual reasons—has put an end to my congenial tolerance of the protestors. I feel seriously pissed off with them instead. And by the way, if you want to you can buy from the internet a number of Mother Theresa abortion-quotation bumper stickers). But what I wanted to say, with or without Mother T, is that the advent of family, mature love, and the understanding that everyone—even people with seemingly everything—suffers, has perhaps been the biggest reason for the non-emergence of the world-saving zeal I looked forward to in youth. I offer this neither as excuse nor justification, merely the truth. Instead of posing navel-gazing questions like, ‘Can I justify my existence?’ I intend to do as much as I can to extend sympathy to the people in my life, friends and strangers, who are inevitably suffering their own silent, first-world scale pain. It is either enough or it isn’t (and of course it isn’t, how could it be?). I will think, as well, of the people around me whose strength, happiness and decency have rubbed off on me when I have been weak, miserable and ignoble. As Will Ladislaw would have it:

The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery?3

And I’m going to finish Middlemarch.


1 I got hitched.

2 If this is neither a scientifically, nor morally, nor philosophically coherent estimation of the beginning point of human life, that is because we humans are incoherent entities. And I’m not saying that ‘the beginning point of human life’ is automatically equivalent to the point at which abortion should be illegal.

3 Middlemarch quotes are taken from page 219 ‘in case you care’ – to paraphrase my co-blogger Luke Hortle.

At the arsenale

This worm bears the face of its creator, Jan Fabre. What the worm says is: ‘I want to draw my head out of the hangman’s rope of history’. He says it in Flemish, because the artist is from, um, Belgium. He’s a bit of an artist rock star, making major works for biennales and staging sell-out shows at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, that sort of thing.

Zelfportret, als grootste worm van de wereld, 2008, ©Jan Fabre/Licensed by Viscopy Copyright, 2012

I saw a work of his at the Venice Biennale (I just want to say: that sounds really snazzy, and part of me rejoices that I’m so lucky to have been to Venice as part of my job, but another part remembers that I was intensely lonely at that particular time, and found traipsing around the obviously incredible, amazing etc. Venice on my own, in the shoulder season, abjectly depressing). Fabre’s work was out in the boat-building part of town, called the ‘arsenale’ (hot and dusty. I went back to Venice two years later with my boyfriend, and with David and Kirsha – a far pleasanter trip, although my boyfriend and I did have a massive argument, or rather, I sulked in a very energetic manner, because at dinner one night David had commented that he found Brazilian-waxed women ‘hot’ and my boyfriend agreed with him, and I was mortally offended because I find the whole thing a form of casual self-torture that everyone seems to be participating in except me [1]; but more than that, I took it as a form of personal rejection, basically his way of saying, ‘Haven’t you realised by now I find you repulsive’. It was early in our relationship and perhaps, in hindsight, I was being a little sensitive. Anyway, on this far-pleasanter trip to Venice my boyfriend took photos wildly of the arsenale, the big cranes and chains and docks and stuff like that. I guess he was imagining the hub of empire. I was thinking more about Shakespeare). So the Jan Fabre work that I saw (this is the lonely trip now, the first) was encased in a large closed-in space around which the visitor walks via a sort of elevated, wrap-around viewing platform. You look down into this pit-like mound of dirt or soil or something, where a silicone replica of the artist stands digging into an oversized – perhaps, Nissan Micra-sized – replica of his own head. So it’s a big Jan head, over which a normal-size Jan stands and digs with a shovel. Parts of his big brains are exposed.

From the feet to the brain, 2009, ©Jan Fabre

What I’m trying to say is that this artist is pretty interested in excavating his own mortality. It’s a back-handed form of massive-egoism: an artist like Jeff Gabel – whose work flanks the worm in our gallery – isn’t obsessed with his own insignificance because it comes as less of a shock. It’s less of an affront, or insult to his intelligence. I’m siding with Jan here. I get weak-kneed shock each time I think about the fact that I’m going to one day not exist, but I’ve banged on about that enough by now. Maybe one day, the thought will begin to bore me. As an aside: Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, which I read (some of) in preparation for writing some marketing material for our concert Synaesthesia (Nabokov was a synaesthete) begins like this:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

See also: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more…’ – Becket, Godot. Nabokov continues:

Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged – the same house, the same people – and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell.

That ‘young chronophobiac’, surely dead by now, was probably fairly self-centred.

Anyhow, the additional factor, of course, is that this worm work is not just about mortality, but about art and its history. Jan knows he is but a worm before the greats of European culture, whose names are emblazed (via some sort of entomological code) on the tombstones over which the worm debases himself (ok, that was a little dramatic, but still). Like all great egoists, this artist knows his place and is horrified.

I have felt some sort of Shakespearean reference agitating at the edges of my memory in relation to that work; if that sounds a little pretentious, perhaps you’ll like me more if I tell you the reference finally emerged (as in, just then, as I wrote the last paragraph) via my memory of a scene in a cemetery from the Steve Martin film LA Story (it’s got Sarah Jessica Parker in it and it’s brilliant). In this scene, the guy from Honey I Shrunk the Kids is grave-digging, and the actor playing Steve Martin’s love interest starts quoting Hamlet:

A fellow of infinite jest…
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
Where be your gibes now?
Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?

I think what I’m saying is that Jan Fabre, like Steve Martin and everyone else, knows everything is shit compared to Shakespeare. Except maybe Nabokov.

The other encounter I had with Jan Fabre (other than when I interviewed him and he told me he felt sorry for the people who had to listen to my interviews, no joke) was when Olivier, Mona curator, took me to one of his said shows at Queen Elizabeth Hall, called ‘Orgy of tolerance’. It was during my first term as a Mona employee, and Olivier hadn’t quite worked out whether I had been sent to London as ‘a spy’. He took me to the show and I didn’t like it at all, although everyone else sure did. There was an extended group masturbation scene that transposes polite conversation with flagrant flogging of logs and so forth, which everyone but me found uproariously funny. Anyway it turns out Olivier was angling to bring the show to Tasmania for Mona Foma, and my reply to an email question from David – ‘Did you like the Jan Fabre show?’ – that no, I didn’t, I thought it was tacky and unfunny, contributed somewhat to David’s decision to can it. Olivier didn’t speak to me for a week. But when he did, his rage scorched my eyelashes. As it turns out I think David would probably have loved the Fabre show: he loves Balletlab, which similarly, I can’t stand.

One of the things Fabre said to me in the I-feel-sorry-for-your-listeners interview was that he believed in the ‘sacred bond’ between artist and viewer. He ‘trusts the public’, he says, to interpret his message and appreciate his creation, which we should not ‘dirty too much’ with our comments and interpretation. Whoops.

-Elizabeth Mead


[1] ‘But absolutely everybody gets Brazilians’ – My beautician, the other day.

New works (in progress): Jeff Gabel and Jan Fabre

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA. Untitled detail (work in progress), ©courtesy of the artist, 2012

Jeff Gabel lives in New York and works in a library. He makes art when he can, ‘because he can’; ‘and just because you can means that you probably should’, he says of art writ large. The same goes for drinking on the job (the art job, not the day job): he routinely, when working on a show for a gallery, sips beer as he works, being careful not to peak too early and have the hangover set in before his day’s work’s done. The beer is ‘for fun’ and because you’re not allowed to drink beer all day in other areas of life. At Mona we’ve decided to supply him with Moo Brew for the duration of his installation of his work; if you squint your eyes, you can almost convince yourself it’s an important part of his creative process. He just asked politely what he should do when his issued carton started running low, which would be ‘by the end of today’. I told him just to let Nicole know. The truth is, he seems more interesting in his art than he does in real life. I don’t mean that as an insult at all, it’s just that he does seem very interesting indeed in his art, and in reality he’s – not at all normal, but operating according to the objectives surely common to us all: to do what seems right at the time, with a vague and patchy sense of how things will pan out long term, remembering when we can to attend to the supposed lessons of the past. I guess sometimes it seems, when the outcome is novel and surprising, that the work of an artist is imbued with a more embracing purpose, such as to help us better understand something about ourselves, the audience.

The source for his new work for us – an illustrated narrative, evolving (as I write this) on a wall in the museum – is the short novel Amras by Thomas Bernhard (1964), written in German, and imperfectly translated into English by Jeff. He likes the book because the sentences are notably complex and difficult, rather than for its content, which is horrendous: a family tries to commit suicide to escape the torture of epilepsy (which they all suffer from) and two of the sons are saved against their will. They live in a tower for a while thinking intensely about how life is supremely shit and then one of them kills himself and that’s the end. So this story as I said has been translated mostly on the spot, and in an amateur manner because Jeff doesn’t actually have the skills of a professional translator at all, and anyway that’s not the point (if there is a point that’s not it). He might also draw on a novel by Carl Zuckmayer, the title of which translates to English as The Moons Ride Over (1935). This one he’s read a million times in languages he both does and does not understand, which seems a pretty strange and unpleasant thing to do. He has created an online lived reality (as such) for Zuckmayer’s book: each character, from the protagonist Thomas Stolperer to a policeman with a walk-on one-liner, has a Facebook account and interacts variously with the other characters (Thomas is in an ‘it’s complicated’ relationship with the waitress Mena Morandell). Apparently this is not art at all, it’s ‘just for fun’.

The drawing, like I said, is unfolding as we speak (if you’re in the gallery please approach him for a chat, he loves it when people do that). It flanks another new work we’ve dragged out of the archives: a mess of tombstones over which crawls a giant silicone worm bearing the face of the artist (the Belgian Jan Fabre), muttering the words which translate from Flemish as: ‘I want to draw my head out of the hangman’s rope of history’. David first saw this work at the Louvre, surrounded by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer. It’s decidedly shitter here, how could it not be? But still, we like it a lot, and hopefully you do too.

-Elizabeth Mead

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

Foreground: Zelfportret, als grootste worm van de wereld, 2008, ©Jan Fabre/Licensed by Viscopy/Copyright, 2012
Background: Jeff Gabel at work. Untitled (work in progress), ©courtesy of the artist, 2012

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.

Hand-jobs in the post-humanist age

Gild the lily

1. To adorn unnecessarily something already beautiful.
2. To make superfluous additions to what is already complete.

—thefreedictionary.com

On Saturday a man who is much cleverer than me asked what angle he should take in his write-up of our exhibition, Theatre of the World. The exhibition opened on Friday. Actually, it opened on Saturday, but the party was on Friday. I didn’t enjoy the party until near the end because there were too many people I knew in one place. I find it very difficult to remember how everyone relates to each other, and what sorts of things are acceptable to talk about in each situation. For instance, two of my good friends standing on either side of me who don’t really know each other: my in-jokes and way of interacting is totally different for each and I have to think, on the spot, under pressure, not only what their names are so I can introduce them but what conversation topics will be relevant to them both. Really the problem is having to mobilise discrete parts of my personality at once. I don’t understand people who are the same in every context, ‘She’s always herself’; how do people know this of each other, anyway? I refuse to accept that this means I’m inauthentic or dishonest with myself: I quite simply feel differently around some people compared to others. With Anica, puns are funny, but not with Simon. With David, it’s perfectly permissible to express opinions on other people’s undertakings using violent terminology like ‘kill’, ‘bullet’, ‘appalling’, ‘horrific’; Amy’s company makes me sense the inherent value in people’s creative pursuits, regardless of the quality of the output. With Kate (I promise this is the last comparison) I have high expectations of myself; Corinne makes me like my frailties. The other reason I wasn’t having fun was that my feet were hurting. That concrete is really effing hard on heels.

So at lunch, at The Source, the clever man asked me his question, and I answered him, and thought I should probably think about it a bit more and write it down, so that’s what this is.

The angle I would take is:

Art and post-humanism

Notably, my boyfriend (sitting on the other side of me) commented after my pitch to the clever man that I was ‘gilding a lily’. For him, humanism is not a threatening notion; the ‘post’, and its attendant chat, is an unnecessary adornment (I already knew this though because he likes to build things and I prefer to take them apart i.e. he studied architecture and I studied arts. I also knew it because his eyeballs make a grinding noise when he rolls them).

The truth is – I’m actually kind of sorry about the ‘post-humanist’ bit. [1] I don’t want to use an academic-sounding word, really, because I have enough respect for academia to know that I am therefore obliged to spend a lot of my energy discussing my terminology, and to lose my reader in the process. Nobody reads academic texts except other academics, and that means hardly anyone benefits from them, and the texts themselves benefit from hardly anyone’s influence, just a small circle of people with obscure and special knowledge. [2]

I’m talking about our concept of ‘the human’. The reason I’m suggesting it’s ‘post’ (which doesn’t mean ‘coming after’ so much as ‘in response to’, or ‘in reaction against’) is because just normal ‘human’ without the ‘post’ took a thorough beating in the second half of the twentieth century. As it should have. ‘Human’ seems inclusive, but actually it’s not, because it hinges on a standard and a type. Simply put, ‘human’ implicitly means a white man, and probably a pretty good-looking white man, and certainly not one that likes other good-looking men. He, that man (and of course I’m simplifying, ‘stylising’) was the standard against which other modes of humanity were measured. Darwinism was appropriated (inappropriately) for this cause: it was used to buttress the myth that humanity existed on a continuum of progress, at which degenerate types like Africans and Tasmanians represented the lowest ebb of human development. The Tasmanian bit is not a joke: according to nineteenth-century social Darwinist discourse the Tasmanian Aborigine was the lowest rung of evolutionary development. [3] Similarly, women – especially those who embodied an inappropriate or threatening form of femininity, like if they have a moustache or are wildly unimpressed by penises – have fought hard for admission to the human race. In my humble opinion, they’ve (we’ve) at least got our foot in the door. Privileged women like me are all the way through. On the other hand, Australian Aborigines only officially became people in 1967. We have a long way to go before Aboriginal becomes synonymous with human.

Nevertheless, the twentieth century’s fracturing of empires – imperial, sexual, ideological – gave birth to a kingless world of diffuse and relativised power. I will use my eye-rolling, skyscraper-dreaming boyfriend as an example. He is a bona fide WASP (bless him). [4] But he’s also a separated father. He’s a majority in the workplace, and at the ping-pong table (no one plays golf anymore); decidedly a minority when he takes his kids to school, and in the realm of family law. In this world, where minority and majority fuck around with each other a lot, [5] we don’t have to fight so hard to assert our differences, because we take those differences for granted. Of course many people don’t respect difference, but I’m talking about our dominant, collective cultural identity – according to which, overtly racist and sexist people are the deviant ones.

I argue that we can think in terms of ‘human’ again, because we’ve done the work required to break down the sexist, racist and homophobic implications of that term. It is only from this perspective – both fractured and inclusive – that we can sift though for some common human truths.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, MONA, Theatre of the World Exhibition

No title (Awelye), 1994, ©Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2012

Lucio Fontana, MONA, Theatre of the World Exhibition

Concetto spaziale, 1964 to 1965, ©Lucio Fontana/Licensed by Viscopy, 2012

Art, arguably, manifests such ‘fractures’ aesthetically. And Theatre of the World gathers them together. I find the idea a little outrageous. It raises my postcolonial hackles. Placing a line-painting by Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye alongside a European modern master like Lucio Fontana reeks of primitivism. Primitivism is one of the vehicles of the exclusive form of humanism I outlined above: the one in which non-European peoples represent an earlier, more idealized stage of human development. ‘See?’ The pairing of Fontana and Kngwarreye might (possibly) say. ‘We’re all the same’. And with this, the realities of the inequality faced by Aboriginal people slides out of focus, as does the very different way Aboriginal art operates within our commercial and cultural economy.

Except this doesn’t happen, I don’t think, in Theatre of the World, and part of the reason is that we’re ready, collectively, to think about how two artists like Fontana and Kngwarreye might be compelled by comparable human motives, each enmeshed as they are in a complex matrix of personal, social and historical forces. We’re ready to see them both as both radically unique, and shockingly the same.

Maybe. I’m pretty sure my favourite WASP chimed in at this point, charmingly, with his gilded lily.

Speaking of which:

The other thing the clever man asked me, at the party this is, on Friday night: how come no one talks about sexual technique anymore? Indeed, it’s all about self-esteem, connection, maintaining a work-life-sex balance; what to do if your boyfriend compares your labia to Wiener schnitzel (or any other crumbed meat product). [6] Take this example from the sex column in The Age.

Q. After we’ve done the family thing in the morning, my husband and I plan to spend Christmas Day in bed, awake! Can you recommend some sexy gifts we can unwrap together?

Massive cares. This is a sex advice column? What about, ‘How do you give a good hand job?’

Which is precisely the knowledge contributed by my friend’s ‘shy’, cherub-faced girlfriend who, joining in the conversation with the clever man and myself at the party, informed us that the appropriate manner in which to manually stimulate one’s partner’s penis is to the beat of ‘Wangaratta’, where the hard syllables correspond to the up and down strokes respectively:

WAN-ga RAT-ta!
WAN-ga RAT-ta!
WAN-ga RAT-ta!

And so forth. I added the exclamation marks myself.

That’s that then. Not much left to say, really, except perhaps to come up with some other place names, perhaps some relevant to us Tasmanians. Ouse? [7] Sorry. My WASP will be horrified.

-Elizabeth Mead

Footnotes

[1] Although, without it, my angle would just be ‘Art’ and that’s a bit general.

[2] A comment from David: ‘In science it isn’t like that. A paper on, say, giant magnetoresistance might not mean anything to anyone, except for the guys that use it to build the big hard drives that we put our porn videos on (such as the ones demonstrating hand jobs).’

[3] I first encountered this argument in Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest; I was reminded of it rather powerfully more recently, when the Brisbane-based artist Vernon Ah Kee told me of the way he and other Aboriginal people are taught not to ‘reach for an upper rung, let alone to grasp it’. You can see Ah Kee’s work in Theatre of the World.

[4] He comes from the sort of family that produces senators and architects; the sort that gets the kids skiing early so it comes easy to them later on. I never learned to ski: my leisure time as a kid was taken up with watching my mother’s bulimic, ‘singing deck-hand’ boyfriend perform ‘Under the boardwalk’ for the weekend harbor-cruise  passengers. She kicked him out eventually, after he stole her watch; her parting advice was to ‘skip the middle bit, and throw the food straight down the toilet’. Happily, I inherited my mother’s sense of sarcasm and not her taste in men.

[5] This idea is taken (and bastardised) from Ken Gelder and Jane M Jacobs’ Uncanny Australia: sacredness and identity in a postcolonial nation.

[6] From Marie Claire magazine, February 2009: ‘I was already feeling slightly body conscious when he reached down and put his hands between my legs and suddenly started laughing. “Wow!” he exclaimed, as he tugged on my inner labia. “You’ve got a couple of Wiener schnitzels here!”’

[7] Say it ‘Ooze’ (for non-Tassies). Also – please note that the correct pronunciation of Launceston is LON-ceston.