Goya and The Disasters of War

-By Elizabeth Pearce

We own one small etching by Francisco Goya, part of his famous series The Disasters of War. It has recently gone on display in the museum.

Esto es peor (This is worse); plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Esto es peor (This is worse);
plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

My colleague Jane Clark writes in her ‘art wank’ text that Goya is referencing not just the Napoleonic invasion and occupation of Spain, but violent conflict in general. In our plate, she writes, ‘the mutilated body of a Spanish fighter is impaled like ghastly fruit in a tree’. The nude figure

derives directly from the antique: the Hellenistic marble Belvedere Torso sculpture which Goya had sketched during a visit to Rome years before.  Where 18th-century cognoscenti saw ruined antiquities as evidence of a noble Classical past, Goya saw ruin as ruin and human nature as unchanging. There is no glory here. War, he suggests, is as timeless and innate a human trait as art.

I know about Goya mostly via a pair of young-ish British artists called Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994), we recently sold. The Chapman brothers obsessively revisit Goya in their work; ‘like a dog’, as they put it, ‘returns to its vomit’.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

©Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994, Jake Chapman & Dinos Chapman
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!); plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!);
plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

Evidently, Goya is the kind of artist that makes a permanent mark on the mindscape of his descendants. What kind of mark? That’s impossible to say, because acts of creativity multiply upon inception, mingle and spawn, in ways that are not easy to discern.

I’ve recently been reading a great book (meaning one of universal significance) called The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, an account of the way man’s pleasure in his own skill and knowledge has drawn him ever upwards toward the heights of empathy and liberty of which he is capable. (We can talk another time about where all the women were during this ascent; I think watching Dr Phil). Bronowski’s is a nourishing, optimistic view of our kind, but he is at pains to point out that human cultural evolution is not a series of finished, polished cultural artefacts – the arch, the plough, the Theory of Relativity – but a ceaseless unfolding, a repetition and multiplication of ideas that infect the minds and behaviour of the human species as a whole.

Goya’s idea, here, is especially infectious. And that idea, as I see it, is not simply that ‘war is bad’, nor even that humans are capable of terrible acts of violence towards each other, although I agree that this is an important part of what he has to say. For me, Goya is telling us something astonishingly modern about ourselves, something he had no right to see so clearly at the turn of the nineteenth century, and something that is capable of fundamentally (gradually) changing who we are: violence is a kind of de-humanisation. I mean that in the general sense, in that to hurt someone is to deny their equal claim to life and liberty, their freedom from unreasonable pain. But I also mean that to be human is to be forever striving to balance what you want for yourself – the latent violence of your base desire – with what you want for the human race. It is in that way that being human is itself a process; a quick, and not a static, state. At our best, the spatial metaphor for the human condition might be a ladder, an ascent; at our worst – as we see, here, through Goya’s eyes – it is a dreary circle, terror numbed by repetition. Consider the titles of the Disasters of War etchings, sampled at random from the eighty-two in total:

The way is hard!
And it can’t be helped.
They avail themselves.
They do not agree.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There is no more time.
Treat them, then on to other matters.
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.

Goya began the series at the age of 62; it was only published in 1863, thirty-five years after his death. For him, the weight of human suffering was too great; his career in many ways marks his descent from firm faith in order and reason into chaos, fear and disillusionment. But in the process he shows us that which sits at the seat of the human ‘ascent’: self-knowledge.

 

Current exhibitions

Making fun: Mona and Buchel

– By Elizabeth Pearce

The Christoph Buchel exhibition closes next month. It’s notable that it made it thus far. Buchel was incensed at our decision to remove the ‘Are you of Aboriginal descent?’ faux-genetic testing, which he felt damaged the artistic integrity of the project; at one point, it looked like we might have to deinstall the lot: the Southdale shopping centre, the C’MONA Community Centre, and the installation in the south-west national park. (It was too late to consider pulling the Australian Fair for Freedom of Belief and Religion. Did you realise that was part of Buchel’s work as well?) Obviously we didn’t want to cut short the exhibition, not only because we think it’s excellent, but because its genesis was so painful for everyone involved. So I’m happy to say our curators, Nicole, Jarrod and Olivier, worked it out with him.

During the multi-phased debacle, David made it very clear the genetic testing would not be reinstated. I agree with that. However, I don’t think we should have taken it down in the first place. This is not because I’m concerned about Buchel’s artistic integrity (if he was so worried about that, he should have let us name him as the artist from the outset instead of letting David and the curators cop the flak) but because I think the genetic testing is satire, and effective satire, and that Aboriginal people and history are appropriate subjects for satire in some contexts, as I will explain below.

In the days after the exhibition opened, we were moved by feedback from some Tasmanian Aboriginal people that the genetic testing was hurtful because it objectified them, and shocking because they had not been consulted. I was (and am) deeply sorry for the offense. Buchel had high-tailed it back to Europe, our sense of abandonment assuming a distinctly postcolonial air. This – Tasmania – is our community, harbour of our dark history, much as we machinate our legitimacy with European art-world credibility. David did not deliberate: the work was taken down. I wasn’t asked for my opinion, but at that time, it concurred with his. (I’ve since changed it. Why is changing your mind considered a weakness, in our politicians for instance? As David points out in his blog post apology for the genetic testing incident, single-mindedness is an arsenal away from totalitarianism and dystopia.) When we opened the museum in 2011, we expressly wanted controversy, and as you know, we didn’t get any. But this was shaping up to be a thin kind of controversy, unsatisfying for us, in the sense that we were conflicted about parts of the project in the first place. If David had believed from the start in the artistic merit of the genetic testing, neither he nor it would have budged an inch.

So common among us at Mona was (and is) a desire for solidarity with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. But you and I know – as thoughtful, postcolonial citizens – that ‘the Tasmanian Aboriginal community’ is not a monolith, no more than ‘the Swiss’ or, indeed, ‘the staff at Mona’. If this slipped my mind momentarily, I was promptly reminded of it by the strong, varied response to the removal of the work and to David’s abovementioned apology. He was criticised on multiple fronts: for permitting the erection of the work in the first place (hurtful), for authorizing its removal (patronizing), and for censoring the artist’s message (draconian). Greg Lehman is right: the affair is a ‘measure of how tender the wounds left by the British ­invasion of Tasmania still are’. But so, too, is it a measure for the importance of representation of self and others in the process of healing those wounds. For me, this comes down to the right to engage with conventions such as humour, satire, hyperbole, irony, farce… no mere literary trifles, but rather, central modes of human identity-construction and expression. I believe it is appropriate to engage Aboriginal experiences in a satirical mode because those experiences are not tangential to, special cases of, the human experience. We should not be afraid to include Aboriginal people when we make fun of ourselves, and in doing so, come to see ourselves more clearly. Indeed, maybe ‘making fun’ is a measure of our humanity.

Further, the satire’s surrounding context establishes a productive, as opposed to malicious, intent. The Buchel project is about the nature of ethnicity; it pivots on the irony of Tasmania’s history of displacement and erasure (the fantasy of terra nullius was no where more bloodily enacted) alongside the dream, courtesy of one Critchley Parker, to replace the traumatised Jewish people in the wake of the holocaust. The Critchley story also feeds into the great Australia tradition of dying in the bush, itself a part of the man vs. nature drama at the heart of our national identity. In the past that drama has precluded Aboriginal presence, or subsumed it into the ‘natural’ forces to be overcome; the possession of the ‘empty’ Australian landscape has itself been cast as part of the natural and inevitable march of human progress. Buchel knows this and incorporates it into his broader intention, which is to juxtapose the absurdity of the Critchley dream with the silent horror of holocausts both near and far, the Jewish-inflected commercial imperialism of the shopping mall, and the ambivalent idealism of the community centre at the heart of the Mona enterprise – itself an impossible dream come true, but one that, some argue, has its own cultural imperialist implications for Tasmania. I believe, in this context, that the point of the satire is not Aboriginal identity itself, but the absurdity of trying to abstract, quantify, and objectify that identity – which is precisely what non-indigenous Australians have sought to do, in one way or another, since settlement.

My reading is consonant with my interpretation of other elements of the project. Consider C’MONA. On opening night, a colleague came streaming out of the Community Centre declaring offense on behalf of the persons participating (performing?) within. ‘They don’t know they’re a work of art,’ she said. ‘I am offended by that.’ She was referring to the people who had responded to our invitation to take part in what our website describes as ‘a fully functioning community centre… located on the bottom level of the museum’. ‘We seek to engage the full spectrum of the Tasmanian community,’ the brief continues (I know because I wrote it), ‘and invite proposals for workshops, events and activities representing a broad field of engagement and endeavor, including art and craft, discussion and debate, education, music and dance…’ There’s a St Vinnies, a library, and a children’s playground (my friend took her toddler there and sardonically enquired whether letting him wriggle down the slide was akin to artistic exploitation). The enthusiastic response includes groups like Students Against Racism, Community Health Knitting Group, the Tasmanian Suicide Prevention Community Network, and many more. On opening night, I was thrilled with unease as I toured the C’MONA ‘exhibition’. At first I thought it was because of the creepy-comical simulacrum of ‘the real’ that was taking place: C’MONA emphatically is a real community centre, and at the same time, a work of art, because what – after Duchamp – determines something as a work of art, other than its presence in a gallery? But my colleague’s expression of distaste – her sense that the participants were being objectified – has gradually revealed to me the depth of my ambivalence, and of C’MONA’s artistic significance.

It is in this way that controversy is valuable to us as consumers of art: because in the fallout, we clarify what is important to us. But is C’MONA art? Perhaps the question gives words too much power. It is what it is, whatever we label it. But then again, we need to answer the question in order to locate the power exchange that’s taking place. If C’MONA isn’t art, there is no abuse of power taking place, no exploitation or objectification; the people participating are not serving themselves up as fodder for us gawping art-world types. If it is art, that’s because it is located at Mona, and not in a town hall in Bridgewater (or wherever). The participants were not duped or blindfolded; they know where they are, and why. What makes us think they are not entitled to participate in their own objectification for the purposes of artistic expression? Why, again, is satire – or more specifically in this case, the use of metaphor – reserved for the elite? Or: does the permission to use and exploit the power of metaphor (C’MONA at once ‘stands for’ a community centre and actually is one) confer elite cultural status in the first place?

When it comes to a painful past – the fingers of which stretch out to hold us in the present and the future – satirising, objectifying, making fun, are fraught. But so, too, is not making fun, locking members of our (human) race into a stagnant, stultifying, straight-faced literalism; not permitting them the privilege to laugh and to be laughed at, nor to turn the painful joke to political use. I have a sneaking suspicion, and not for the first time, that the joke is on us – Mona. Perhaps this is overdue. And perhaps it is the kind of controversy we’ve been wanting after all.

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

 

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

The truth about Cinderella

By Elizabeth Pearce

I have stepchildren, and I am one. I suppose it is for this reason that I picked up The Truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love, by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. According to the authors of this potent little tome, a child is one hundred times more likely to be hurt or killed by a step than a genetic parent; this fact has been aggressively shushed, they argue, in an apparent attempt to suppress unpalatable truths about parental love. Lacklustre investment in non-genetic offspring makes good evolutionary sense. Parenthood carries with it an onerous commitment; the genes ‘for’ indiscriminant nurturing could not be favoured by natural selection. Indeed, infanticide is a regular feature in species such as langurs and lions. In humans, the ambivalence and conflict that tends to characterise step-relationships is

the predicable consequences of putting people who [have] no human reason to love one another into a relationship that [is] structurally analogous to – and [has] to serve as a partial substitute for – the most intimate of loving relationships, namely that of parent and child.

Ouch. I appreciate the urge to suppress such sentiment. In my early step-days I picked up a book, a manual of sorts, and was so traumatised by the terrible things it told me about step-life that I burned it.1 Had I encountered Daly and Wilson’s book at that time I probably would have had some sort of emotional and psychological meltdown. Most people, as they are quick to point out, try really hard to be good to their partner’s sproglets, and most feel bonded to them at least some of the time. No one wants to be told they are a stiff breeze away from bludgeoning them to death. (Actually, I did tell my step-sproglets about the likelihood of me bludgeoning them and they thought it was brilliant, and immediately set about brainstorming ways to ‘set me off’.) There is an argument – empirically unsound, but perhaps defensible on grounds of human sensitivity – that we’re best not to talk about such things. Stepfamilies need all the help they can get. ‘Cinderella’ – and the plethora of similar tales that exist in cultures the world over – doesn’t help.

To say, in those early days, that I had a lot riding on getting along with the sproglets is putting it mildly. Of course my nascent family harmony was at stake – but so, too, I felt, was my very human decency. And in hindsight, I was right. It was. Not because step-parenthood is (or should be) the same as the ordinary variety of parenthood (which was what I believed at the time), but precisely because it is different.

Common wisdom dictates that genetic parenthood is an expression profound selflessness, an apotheosis of sorts. Even Daly and Wilson describe it as ‘the most nearly selfless love we know’. I don’t get this. For me, motherhood is distilled selfishness, in the sense that I am slavishly following the dictates of my most basic desires. The outcome looks selfless in that it benefits my child at apparent cost to myself, but that ‘cost’ is really my own benefit. Such is the circuitousness of human motivation. Motherhood, while intensely pleasurable for me, has not improved my self-esteem so far. Step-parenthood, on the other hand, has been an unequivocal source of pride for me personally, and a well of assurance about the basic goodness of human nature in general. You see – and sorry to state the obvious – humans are not langurs and lions, in that our complex social lives necessitate a keen awareness of the consequences of infanticide and other gratuitously self-serving behaviour. More than that, we are powerfully driven – again, by natural selection – to want to do ‘the right thing’, whatever that might mean at any given time and place. To that end, it is just as ‘natural’ to overcome ambivalent feelings towards step-kids, and to offer them kindness and companionship, as it is to have those ambivalent feelings in the first place. The fact that there’s a step (ha) in between (or up, if you will)… That’s the real apotheosis, and one that we, people, can be proud of.

1I didn’t burn it.

Me boss’ missus

By Elizabeth Pearce

Me boss and his missus are on their honeymoon in Istanbul. Which reminds me: I told me boss’ missus I was planning to write a blog about their wedding, which I attended in March. Here it is.

Kirsha hasn’t changed her surname to ‘Walsh’, but has kept it as Kaechele (KASH-el-a).1 This is not for feminist reasons. She didn’t like the harsh repetition of consonants: KirSHA WalSH. Her august mate, David, was against Kirsha changing her name, but for more politically motivated reasons: apparently patriarchal re-naming is perniciously retrograde. My own view is that our cultural lives are rich in retrograde gestures, especially where ceremony is concerned. The etymology of the word ‘woman’ is itself profoundly sexist: from the Old English wimman, meaning ‘woman-man’. In other words, ‘man’ is the neutral designation, the standard human, and everything else is an add on, an exception. (‘Wimman’ also seems to be an alteration of wifman, meaning female servant. Even worse.) To call ourselves ‘womyn’, as some feminists advocate, is a token gesture, and token gestures are worse than nothing, the noise in the machine that doesn’t disrupt its operations. Ross Chambers argues that empty oppositional gestures actually strengthen inequality – contribute to the machine’s smooth running – by fooling us into thinking we’ve made a real difference, and hence falsely satisfying our sense of social responsibility. (And he said that before the advent of Facebook ‘share if you agree’ campaigns.) I feel the same way about those bullshit ‘I just want to acknowledge the traditional owners of this parking lot/cinema/primary school…’ that accompany civic ceremony. If you really want to acknowledge the traditional ownership of the land, get off it and give it back. I am comfortable to call myself by my husband’s name (getting married is in itself ludicrously old-fashioned) because I know in my heart and in my behaviour I am womyn, through and through. I haven’t asked Kirsha, but I suspect she feels the same way. For her, though, aesthetics wins the day.

Enough of that. I think what Kirsha would really like (I’d like to write something nice for her. I like her, she’s my friend. And my patron’s mistress, let’s not forget) (I mean ‘mistress’ to mean ‘a woman in a position of authority or control’ rather than a participant in adultery)… What I think she would like is a description of the lascivious and licentious – positively salubrious – succession of ceremonies and celebrations that accompanied their exchange of ‘I do’s. This is not mere sentiment: Kirsha is what she calls a ‘life artist’, which means that she practices a sort of boundless aestheticism that gathers around acts of personal and social significance. In more practical terms: she turns events like dinners and parties, as well as more modest community-based gatherings, into living installation art, as well as bringing together art, architecture, commerce and ecology in projects such as the Heavy Metals campaign and, of course, the Moma Market.

It also means that her own identity, on a day-to-day basis, is often shot through with performance. One of my favourite memories of her (that sounds weird, like she’s dead, but I’m not sure how else to phrase it): in Versace, Fifth Avenue, on a work trip to New York when we were supposed to be looking at the Whitney Biennial. (We did later and it was horrid. I hate art.) Kirsha put on a stellar performance of the spoiled rich man’s wife, throwing a pretend tantrum (although the sale’s assistant was none the wiser) because David would only agree to buy her one dress, not two. ‘This is abusive!’ she squealed, stomping her stiletto. ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!’ Another time, at the Birdcage Bar at Wrest Point Casino, Kirsha and her super hot Yankee friends were playing dumb for a large group of drooling, dorky conference scientists. ‘Tell me, Michael’ (batt, batt, batt go the lashes): ‘what exactly is surface chemistry?’ Somehow, someone ended up flashing a nipple. Not sure how it happened. Next thing, we were being thrown out, the whole hot-Yankee contingent, for improper exposure (it really was just a lonesome hot-Yankee nipple, nothing more); in protest, Kirsha and her friends did a full Spring-Break style topless parade around the bar and back before being manhandled out onto Sandy Bay Road. It was gold. I’ll wager that not a day goes by without those surface chemists thinking of it.

Here are some photos of the wedding (I’ve never been much good at descriptive writing). Have a nice life, Mr. and Mrs. Kaechele.

Kirsha Kaechele and David Walsh Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele and David Walsh
Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Bridesmaids and bride.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele Image credit:  Jonathan Wherrett

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David Walsh and Kirsha Kaechele's wedding.

Vows.
Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha's Wedding.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha: the reception.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha's Wedding.

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Party. Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

David and Kirsha's Wedding Party

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

Kirsha Kaechele

Mrs Kaechele.
Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett

1Later she corrects me: KE-sha-la. Basically I have no idea to pronounce her last name. Or her first, let’s be honest.

Just a story

By Elizabeth Pearce

Tessa Farmer’s The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum will be de-installed on Tuesday. The work is part of The Red Queen exhibition, which opened in June last year; it has taken me since then to find a way of putting into words Tessa’s startling, fun and funny way of looking at her role as an artist. It’s simple, really. She just tells a story. But the unique part, the part that makes it all so loveable, is the way she elides her role as the creator, watching the narrative unfold with the detached curiosity of any other bystander. In another artist, this might seem pretentious, a rhetorical trick to get attention. In Tessa, it’s a pleasure.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Her work revolves around an army of tiny fairies – made from the roots of plants found in her mother’s garden – terrorizing poor, stuffed critters: cats, hedgehogs, foxes and, in this case, a Tasmanian brushtail possum. I interviewed her twice, in London in 2009 and more recently in Hobart in the lead-up to the opening of the Red Queen. One of the questions I always ask in my interviews is, ‘How do you define success as an artist?’ Both times, Tessa told me her ultimate objective is for the fairies to take over the world. She says it with a smile – of course she knows they can’t really take over the world – but still, the objective of her art unfolds within the internally cohesive, closed-loop narrative world of her own making. The same goes for the fairies themselves. In 2009, I asked her: ‘Why are your fairies so mean?’ expecting an answer along the lines of, ‘Historically, the figure of the fairy has been anything but sweet and innocent. I’m interested in drawing out those more macabre elements’, or, ‘My work is a fable about the ferociousness and futility of human conflict’, or, ‘I am making a statement about the way we wage war on the natural world’. Instead, I got: ‘Because they’re ambitious, because they’re greedy. They’ve got to eat’. From that interview:

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you on their side?

Tessa Farmer: I suppose so. That sounds a bit mean, but – yeah, I suppose I feel responsible for them. I’m satisfied by their progress. It makes me happy.

EP: So you’d feel guilty if they went hungry?

TF: Oh, I wouldn’t mind so much…  I really don’t know very much about them, to be honest. It’s a bit frustrating. People keep asking me about their social structure.

EP: That’s their business, really, isn’t it.

TF: Yeah. Like do they have a queen? I don’t know. Do they mate? I don’t know, I don’t really want to know. It’s embarrassing.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

In The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum, the fairies are conquering a bees’ nest. ‘They learnt to control bees in Britain, and they seem to be controlling the honeybees here in Tasmania quite well, too,’ Tessa told me when I spoke to her in June. They are apparently using some sort of unspecified mind-control to do so:

TF: I think it might be pheromones, and maybe dancing – you know, like how bees dance to communicate where flowers are. Lots of insects communicate through pheromones.

Once enslaved, the bee-sting power is sublimated to more sinister use: the torture and destruction of a (taxidermied) Tasmanian brushtail possum. (‘Wouldn’t the wasps evolve behaviours to counteract the predation of the fairies?’ worries Tessa momentarily, before brushing the thought aside).

TF: I thought the possum would be quite easy to overcome, but they make these horrific noises and have these big claws. When it actually arrived [from a taxidermist in Launceston], I realised what thick fur it had, and wondered whether the bees would be able to get to the skin of the possum to sting it. It might all be completely futile.

Which bit, I wondered later, might ‘be completely futile’? Is this an existential, or entirely pragmatic matter?

TF: They’ve developed a mutation where they have – this sounds so ridiculous, sorry, I’m just mentally telling myself to shut up.

EP: No, don’t.

TF: The fairies have developed a mutation so they have crab claws on their heads, to grab the wasps with. We collected the crab claws a couple of weeks ago at Lewisham [Tasmania]. They’re really tiny because the fairies are only one centimetre in size.

EP: Amazing. And I’m correct in saying the fairies are anatomically accurate?

TF: Yes.

EP: I remember when I spoke to you last time you were worried because they didn’t have kneecaps.

TF: Yes, but I’ve gotten over that. I have to learn to stop putting myself down.

EP: Yes, I must say the lack of kneecaps is not a major issue for me. What are they going to do with the possum once they have it?

TF: Eat it and use its bones to make bigger, more elaborate ships and architecture, and probably use its fur, I think.

EP: Do you want the viewer to take away some kind of environmental or social message from your work?

TF: No. I wouldn’t mind if they did, but that’s not my intention. I’m far too involved in the story.

‘I’m far too involved in the story’, she says. I have recently encountered a theory (de rigueur in some circles) that has liberated me: we are more viable, evolutionarily speaking, when we create sweet stories about ourselves, and believe them. Others – both competitors and mates – are more likely to be deceived by us, to find us funnier, sexier, kinder and better parents than we really are, if we are deceived by ourselves. This gives me chills a bit. I didn’t really need to read it in a book to know that it is true. (To what extent it is useful to discuss in terms of natural selection I will leave to others to decide.) The notion has helped me accept the stories of the people around me, as opposed to trying to get them to ‘see the truth’: that their worlds are not autonomously animated by mysterious forces (God, the fairies, fate), but a result of a series of choices that seem natural and invisible to each individual because those choices obey a secret, powerful inner logic. Is the conflict we see all around us – most intensely between loved ones as opposed to strangers; those of overlapping but conflicting interests – the result of stories in collision? When others act outside our plot, refuse to play the part assigned to them, or, worse, call into question our own heroic role, this hurts and angers us; obstacles on the path to our true destiny (to ‘take over the world’, whatever that means on an individual basis). Interestingly, I have noticed that the traits people are most self-critical about are often not the ones that cause others the most pain (‘I have to stop putting myself down’, says Tessa). That’s the nature of self-delusion. The more you squint at it the more it recedes into abstraction, like those hidden-image stereogram patterns that were popular when I was a kid. The best we can aim for, I think, is a modest self-consciousness, an ability to momentarily see ourselves from without (‘this sounds so ridiculous…’).

Listening to the recording of my interviews with Tessa, they are full of laughter. I am laughing at her (gently) and she is joining in. This is the difference between the best and worst of us, I think. It is also the difference between a friend and someone who means nothing to us: the willing suspension of disbelief. Occasionally it has occurred to me to beg my friends to tell me what my self-deceiving stories are, but that’s not the nature of friendship. They might, perhaps, remind me when I’m a little ‘too involved in the story’; but mostly, I am lucky enough to have friends who laugh and cry in all the right places, reassuring me with their very company that it’s not ‘completely futile’ after all.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Human beings

By Elizabeth Pearce

Gee Americans are swell. We just had Steven Pinker and Mark Changizi visit us at Mona. I was expecting Pinker to be arrogant (he’s pretty famous and important) and possibly Changizi, too (he’s not famous but he’s terrifically clever) but no, both were delightful and polite. I know Yanks get a bad rap, what with all the cultural imperialism and ‘Nam and whatnot. But they sure know how to act like human beings in public, don’t you think?

Someone who doesn’t yet know how to behave like a human being, in public or otherwise, is my four-month old, Jack, who is a fairly constant addendum to my person, an ‘external fetus’ as I have heard young babies described. I’m pretty sure I came across this description on one of the many websites I have read in my endeavor to find evidence to support my chosen parenting style, which I’d describe as ‘attachment lite’. Basically, the idea is that human babies are born prematurely in their development in order for their big melons to fit out our pelvises (no words to describe this experience. I’m pre-verbal, traumatised, a veritable infant; and that was with an epidural). As a result they are ill equipped to deal with any sort of sustained separation from the mother’s (or other primary caregiver’s) body, including at night, for at least the first three months of life outside the womb. Furthermore, human breast milk is low fat and, like other mammals’, designed for frequent snacking as opposed to the infrequent meal-sized bursts that better suit our modern lifestyles. Like I said, this is justification for something I’m going to do anyway: hold my baby a lot, feed him whenever he is hungry, and sometimes sleep with him in my bed, despite the fact that this is not recommended by that bastion of parental terror, SIDS and Kids. (This all may seem banal but we first-timers are told to put the baby down as much as possible, feed it according to a schedule, and that people who put their babies in their beds are mentally ill, evil and so forth.)

The reasons I am sharing my irrelevant-to-everyone-but-me opinions on parenting are:

  1. I had to take the baby with me to work to meet Pinker and Changizi, as opposed to having him babysat. I’ll come back to this in a sec.
  2. At lunch with the Americans, baby in tow, I was asked by David (the one with the wacky taste in art) whether Jack could be considered human yet.

This (2) reminded me of, and was possibly a deliberate reference to, an argument presented in Pinker’s The Blank Slate (discussed in a previous post, wherein I also suggested parenting style didn’t matter much. What can I say. I’m hedging my bets). The argument is as follows: there is no essence to us, no ‘ghost in the machine’ that sets in at a certain moment in our development. The self or soul ‘inheres in neural activity that develops gradually in the brain of an embryo [and] breaks down piecemeal with aging and disease’. We have chosen the moment a baby exits its mother’s body to grant it human citizenship; other cultures in other times and places sit that marker elsewhere in the human life span, at puberty, for instance, or the onset of language. We are always in the process of becoming, or un-becoming, human. There is no clear line in biology to tell us when it is ethical to affect an abortion, or to turn off the life-support machine, or that stem cell research is permissible; that it is ok to kill ants but not horses.

There is no solution to these dilemmas, because they arise out of a fundamental incommensurability: between our intuitive psychology, with its all-or-none concept of a person or soul, and the brute facts of biology, which tell us that the human brain evolved gradually, develops gradually, and can die gradually.

This doesn’t mean we thrown in the towel or surrender to absurdity, only that we should know how to separate (respectfully) our emotions and our reason; more specifically, to ‘reconceptualise the problem: from finding a boundary in nature to choosing’ one. The choice should revolve around minimising pain and maximinsing happiness. A slippery little sucker.

My answer to wacky-taste Walsh was that yes, Jack is human now. At about three months I could sense the seat of his sentience. He began to think, I think (without words, which is weird). And the whole ‘attachment’ thing began to cramp his style.

So the tot came to Mona with me, airing his fresh humanity.

I am conducting an experiment, you see, in caring for a baby and working at the same time. Literally the same time. Now, I’m no feminist for doing so: as Sarah Hrdy has shown, women have been taking their babies to work with them throughout human history (the 1950s ideal of the stay-at-home mum was a short-lived anomaly). The difference in today’s world lies in what Marx would call the modern alienation of ‘man’ from ‘his’ labour: in a capitalist mode of production, work is abstracted from our basic human needs. In short, you can take your baby berry-hunting in the bush nearby but not into meetings with investors in the city (or whatever it is you people with real jobs do).

This generates a moral, personal and economic problem. Most people want to procreate and the bulk of childcare usually falls to women. It’s not fair, and not good for productivity (work harder, Boxer!), that as a result women fall behind in the workplace and suffer loss of income as well. An employer’s attitude to working mothers and the opportunities afforded them is surely one the last bastions of first-world feminism, and beejesus an important one. A sister-concept to the human-as-a-gradual-process notion outlined above is that of our expanding circle of who is afforded proper human rights and citizenship. The female experience, which usually involves motherhood, is not a subset to the human experience. Working mothers should not be thought about as special cases or problems to be solved. Industry itself should adapt to make them the norm: bringing your baby to work, if that’s practical; childcare on site, working from home, flexible hours. (A friend of mine came up with the idea of forced paternity leave: in one fell swoop evening up mothers’ opportunities in the workforce and fathers’ in the home. A smidgen draconian but I like her style regardless). I don’t think employers should be asked to tolerate low-achieving workers, that’s not the way the world works (it turns out, after all this time, I’m not a socialist, I’m a capitalist lite!): the response of Wacky Walsh to my request for understanding re: combining work and childcare was something along the lines of ‘As long as you do the job you are paid to do’ (I remember he used the ‘f’ word but I can’t for the life of me imagine how. That’s dedication for you).

I was told once that I should stop writing about my family because it wasn’t very Mona, not radical enough. I do not consider myself especially radical. I order my Huggies from Woolworths online and my second-favourite actor (other than Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Jennifer Aniston (my friends mock me for this and you may, too. But I dare you, I dare you! to look deep into that woman’s eyes, a la Ross, and surrender to the tender empathy you find there). I would like to point out that Mona’s objective was never to be radical, either; simply to clear the path to expression uncluttered by convention. In this case, it has achieved its goal. Wacky Walsh isn’t being a radical feminist by allowing me to do my job in whatever manner suits my maternity. He’s just treating me like a human being.

Another one’s gone

By David Walsh

I put ‘pen to paper’ the day of Nelson Mandela’s demise. My intention was to celebrate a life I thought worth celebration. And then I kept my thoughts to myself; others would have more to say. Of course, they did. And I felt that apparently idolising Mandela, or anyone, is promoting the notion that some of us do better by force of will. Mandela did do better, but luck, as always, played a part. His earlier response to injustice, which may itself have been unjust, led to an incarceration that forced introspection. While he was jailed, a community rallied around him, he an undead martyr, and a myth was made.

I went to South Africa for a few months in 1992. I had a recently dead brother, a new girlfriend, a South African resident racist soon-to-be-ex-friend, and inadvertent access to circumstances that were about to make me an art collector.

South African cities confused me. I couldn’t breathe Joburg’s air, couldn’t comprehend Durban’s kitsch, and couldn’t help but be mesmerised by Cape Town’s complicated cultivation.

In South Africa, it was easy to start up a conversation, and to make friends. All one had to do was mention Nelson Mandela. By then Mandela had been released, but not elected. Almost everyone I spoke to told me that South Africa was heading for a better place, and most thought Mandela would be the pilot.

Even then it was clear that a comprehensive political peace would advantage both the disenfranchised and the empowered. Attending the horse races in Durban, we discovered three grandstands, receding in orderly fashion from the finish line, for whites, for coloureds, and for blacks. This level of service duplication cannot be constructive, even for those who benefit from inequity.

Societal violence is sufficiently infrequent that, even in those societies that are riven by conflict, the chance of a visitor witnessing an incident is low. Nevertheless we did witness such an incident, at a union march (COSATO) in Cape Town. Corralled into a route by closed streets and buildings, the marchers were spat on by some (seemingly very few), who decanted their puerile commentary from upper-story windows fronting the streets. The result, a near-riot, quelled by rifle fire and accompanied by a few fatalities. The level of South Africa’s dysfunction, though, was best illustrated on another occasion in another city. A newspaper headline read ‘Maritzburg policeman dies of natural causes’.

It was obvious that something needed to be done.

I read, and have read, about Mandela’s humanity. Those who knew him, his friends, his jailers, his political enemies and rivals, even his would-be assassins, spoke of his honour, decency and integrity. I am most fascinated, however, by his unswerving commitment to change. Prior to his prison days he clearly thought violence was a legitimate path to justice. Perhaps because violence failed, or perhaps through a moral transformation, he wholeheartedly embraced an altered strategy, one of inclusion, negotiation and forgiveness. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, he behaved like a decent human being while seeking a political end. That seems to have gotten the job done.

When there is an adult around, kids don’t squabble. Will we still behave, now that the adult has left the room?

It didn’t look good for a while. Even before he was dead his family used the court system to promote absurd agendas concerning rival burial sites. At his funeral a psychotic signer substituted farce for solemnity. Blogs appeared, vilifying him, ostensibly for his early support of violence, while promoting their own vitriolic racist manifestos. Through all this, Mandela stayed honourably dead.

I notice, again and again, that we hold our principles most steadfastly at times of introspection. And we are most introspective at times of loss. Not loss through being affronted, though. That just motivates a desire for revenge. The losses that we learn from are the unfortunate, and the inevitable.

Nelson Mandela may have learned what to value in the twenty seven years when, for him, action wasn’t an option. Did we learn a lesson about taking time out? His death caused us to pause, but soon after, we went on our way. Do we need a Mandela to die every day? Was this the point that the disciples of Christ were trying to make? If so, why did they poison the chalice with polarities, and thus sow the seed for schisms? Perhaps they should have had Christ die of natural causes. And stay dead. In the meantime, I do hope no one proclaims Mandela our saviour.

…And another one

By Elizabeth Pearce

Philip Seymour Hoffman was my favourite actor. The only thing I remember about that memorable movie Boogie Nights is the look on his face (he played Scotty the porno-techie) when he sees Dirk Diggler’s willy for the first time. I think I must have been a teenager at the time because the look captured the essence of nascent sexuality, adolescent in my case and homosexual in Scotty’s: ambivalent longing and fear, and the combination of self obsession with the thoroughgoing belief that no one, ever, anywhere, could possibly find you attractive in return. Well, that’s how I felt anyway, but to be honest I was a little bit chubby. As was Scotty, and Philip Seymour himself.

I am a new mother (thank you for your kind enquires as to the health and wellbeing of my vagina. You know who you are) so forgive me, please, some soppy sentiment (which is the reason for my absence these months: my mind runs in tired, soppy circles; not good blogging material. And I don’t mean ‘tired’ as sleep-deprived, to be honest that’s all a big beat up, boo effing hoo.1 I mean tired as in utterly sick of my own obsessive thoughts about my baby’s wellbeing. He’s fine, thanks. And he’s, like, totally advanced, and everything he does is massively fascinating). My soppy sentiment is this: I cannot stop thinking about how Philip Seymour’s mum must feel. I don’t know anything about his mother; I could google but I don’t want to, it doesn’t matter. Cf. I haven’t eaten today because I am so nervous about taking my baby for his four-month injections. And that’s serious because for me, as I intimated above, eating is no casual pastime.

It is an unfortunate habit of mine (I’m working up to the point of this little appendage, pun intended, to David’s essay) (I’m not saying David has a little appendage; according to Kirsha, his wife-to-be, his portrait in our book Monanisms does him no justice at all. Cold day etc.) to periodically assume and discard various prophets and doctrines on my road to self-knowledge. Prophets so far, in order:

  1. Jesus.
  2. My headmaster, Mr. d’Ath; my older brother dubbed him ‘Dr. Death’, which I found gravely offensive.
  3. Postcolonial theory.
  4. My obstetrician.

And others but I’m bored of this now, the point is that my current prophet is Steven Pinker, which is good timing because he is about to pay us a visit at Mona to discuss the possibility of blessing one of our future exhibitions. I just finished reading his book The Blank Slate (2002), which is kind of dated now – and the reason it is kind of dated is because it is such a goddam powerful and convincing rhetorical tour de force that its ideas have ascended to – nay, shaped – our intellectual mainstream. Yes, there is a human nature. Some highlights:

  1. The drama of our nature resides in the tension between our ultimate (evolutionary) and proximate (immediate, apparent) motives. Eating high-fat food / going on a diet, for instance.
  2. Self-deception is adaptive, natural; and also lies at the root of our suffering.
  3. It is as human to be kind and forgiving as it is to be vengeful and cruel.
  4. Boys and girls are different. I know. Shocking.
  5. People of different races are not very different.
  6. ‘Natural’ and ‘right’ are not the same thing.
  7. Postmodernism has slaughtered – slaughtered, I tell you! – the arts. I must admit it fills me with glee to discover that the artists he uses to exemplify this slaughtering are represented at Mona: Chris Ofili (he specifically mentions our Holy Virgin Mary) and Andres Serrano, who is, incidentally, the artist who took the nudie shot of David I mentioned above. And of me. David thinks I’m being unfair to Pinker here, taking his argument out of context: the book is a work of advocacy, a statement – necessarily polemical, even strident – against the powerful doctrine of ‘the blank slate’: the belief that we are infinitely malleable, and that society can be born anew, if only we would try. Well, we can ask him in a week or two what he really thinks of postmodern art. We are especially interested in whether or not it is appropriate to take into account non-traditional art forms (including postmodern and conceptual) when considering the possibility that art is an evolutionary adaptation. (This is the subject of a future exhibition, in which we are very much hoping Pinker will take part).
    And finally, the most significant revelation for me, and the point of my appendage:
  8. Children turn out the way they are going to turn out, the good and the bad, regardless of how they were raised. Genes play a significant (but not totalising) role and their chosen peer groups do as well. But as parents, we neither ‘make’ nor ‘ruin’ the men and women they become.

This is both disappointing, and liberating: I am not centre stage in my child’s life, and I am not centre stage in my child’s life. My friend Amy (another prophet, I forgot her) also told me when my baby was born that there’s no A+ for parenting, only pass or fail, a C (for trying your best) or an F for otherwise. Which amounts to the same thing, really, as what Pinker is on about. Is all this love going to waste? Of course not. As Pinker points out, parent-child is a real human relationship, and (this is me now) relationships are all that really matter in the end. Perhaps all a parent can do is make the first phase of life as happy as the child’s nature will allow; to offer it a chance to become the best possible version of him or herself.2

I couldn’t resist it, I googled, and it seems that’s just what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mother did for him. His Oscar-acceptance speech for his role in Capote:

My mom’s name is Marilyn O’Connor and she’s here tonight, and I’d like if you see her to congratulate her, because she brought up four kids alone. We’re at the party, Ma, you know? And she took me to my first play and she stayed up with me and watched the NCAA Final Four, and her passions became my passions. And, you know, be proud, Mom, because I’m proud of you and we’re here tonight and it’s so good.

Regardless of the terribly sad way it turned out, those memories and pleasures are real. I wish I could tell her it wasn’t her fault, and that she has more than earned her C.


1 It’s been over three weeks since I sobbed hysterically at 3am or googled ‘can you die from lack of sleep’ (you can).

2 My kingdom for a gender-neutral pronoun!