Perfectly meaty

‘We try for purity but still we’re glorious blobs of meat.’ Michael McClure

I really love this quote. I picked it up in a book about the Beat generation in the Mona Bookshop. It’s from a piece called ‘Love Me For the Fool I Am’. It illustrates our collective striving for a utopian ideal (of the body, of a society, of a sexual encounter) and contrasts it with the ridiculous and gross reality of our meaty forms. It’s a delicious idea, to think of human bodies as so many slabs and slices of flesh. That being said, I don’t enjoy zombie films. I find the cultural framework they utilise to fetishise the body intellectually titillating, but visually disgusting. In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, one character is talking about either making out or having sex as a young person (it’s ambiguous; it’s postmodern rooting). He says, ‘We were kids. It was too early in the cultural matrix for actual screwing’ (it’s on page 80, if you care). This is one of those perfectly drawn moments in the novel, and I think it’s very similar to the quote from McClure. There’s imperfection there, an inadequacy of experience determined by our own ability (or inability) to understand our own warped subjective moment in time.

Matrix, 1999, ©Jenny Saville/Licensed by Viscopy Copyright, 2012

Eye of Sauron, scene from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy.

There’s lots of rape in the museum. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m a guy, so maybe that’s a really awful thing to say (particularly after US Congressman Todd Akin’s recent and painfully insensitive remarks about ‘legitimate rape’). I’m also gay, although I’m not sure that’s important here or not. In the context of the museum, with its many artistic representations of sexual violation, I think rape extends its trajectory beyond any one and highly traumatic sexual event; we all become complicit with the ‘rapist’ (whomever that might be) in our position as viewer, as voyeur. The cultural matrix expands for us. We can look at things and our looking is condoned. The model in Jenny Saville’s Matrix lies back, sex bared in fleshy, meaty strokes (with undeniable similarities to the Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings films – tell me you don’t see it) as our eyes rake the body spread on the canvas. Sidney Nolan’s Leda and the Swan paintings are beautiful depictions of horrific events; Nolan makes rape beautiful. But it’s an ambivalent and undecidable beauty, much like the myth of Leda and the Swan is both hauntingly archetypal and quietly violent. If anything, artistic representation runs the risk of paralysing sex within its own physicality. It can lock a body upon the wall, splayed, static and open for scrutiny, like a lepidopterist’s moth or a cadaver. Dead things. Silent. Bloodless. Think of Cunts and Other Conversations, with over a hundred vaginas ranged along a dark corridor like so many dinner plates, excised from any body, intelligence or human presence. I think it’s necessary to consider the politics of looking at images of bodies, sex and rape. If you don’t, you run the risk of becoming just plain fucking creepy. You end up just seeing the meat.

A while back I went to see Prometheus, the much awaited not-a-prequel-ok-it’s-kind-of-a-prequel follow up to the 1979 classic Alien. ‘It was so … what’s the word? Rapey,’ my friend Amy said afterwards. (Just to be clear, ‘rapey’ is not actually a word.) We sat in a restaurant on the waterfront, trying to finish our desserts whilst periodically pawing at our throats as we remembered particularly gruesome scenes from the film. The Alien films beg their audience to fixate on moments of violently hybridised human/alien sexual encounter. (Think of that iconic scene in Alien, when the alien first explodes out of John Hurt’s ribcage as a bloody, penile muppet in a kind of visually reversed penetration.) In Prometheus, a worm-like alien bites its way into one of the character’s spacesuits, before burrowing its way into the character’s mouth. His eyes roll back in his head as the audience in the cinema groans with disgusted pleasure.

Scene from ‘Alien’

Scene from ‘Prometheus’

It was a disgusting scene, but Amy and I were talking about it with a kind of horrified relish. This awful depiction of death by face-rape was somehow enjoyable, even titillating. I’m still not sure what to make of our reactions to the film. I know our viewing of this sexual violence is condoned (the Alien films are a staple of pop culture), but I can’t work out how to move beyond that initial reaction. A comment on masculine sexual anxiety and the male’s inherent fear of penetration? I’m not convinced. A deep-seated desire to watch violently sexual fantasies play out on the silver screen? Let’s hope not. Maybe it’s just too early in my cultural matrix for this kind of screwing.

-Luke Hortle

Luke thinks that he might be a writer, but wonders if the term might also be synonymous with ‘wanker’. He has recently discovered fennel, the New Yorker and Girls (the tv show). He works at the Mona Bookshop.

There’s a wolf in your head

As children, my sister and I would go to stay the night at our grandparents’ house on Chapel Street, Glenorchy. I’m not sure how old we were and only have a hazy memory of the house itself. What I do remember of Chapel Street, and vividly, is what lay beneath the house. Whilst our parents were drinking coffee with Nanny Grace in the kitchen, Grandad would take Erin and I to venture under the house-proper, a terrifying place reached through an ancient wooden hatch-door. Erin and I would steel ourselves to take a few shuffling footsteps into the gloom, the air thick with the reek of cold bricks and bristling possums. These monster marsupials would freeze, staring us down with their glinting eyes, electrified marbles in the darkness.

Being taken to look at the possums under the house was a regular occurrence. The memory of these visits is like part of a story, one that I sometimes remember is true. (I also suspect that it has lead to my inability, as an adult, to be able to sit through any werewolf film; my childish impression of these possums is suspiciously lupine). The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that fear, or terror, is an inescapable part of being a child (how else are we to pave the psychological foundations for the neuroses that emerge later in our lives, those behavioural and mental patterns that make us so attractive and repellent to other people?). Just read Treasure Island, a quintessential childhood novel, and note how much of the book Jim Hawkins spends in a state of paralysing terror. Proper fairytales, not that saccharine Disney tripe, are drenched in gore; ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ arguably means so much more when someone has escaped ending up dismembered in a bathtub full of blood and hacked limbs. The deep, dark woods of storytelling are not a very nice place. Everything is not going to be alright. Chances are the big bad wolf is going to fuck granny, suck her bones dry, screw the axeman and then sit around discussing morals with you over a hot cup of tea.

‘I’m going to tell you a story,’ my Grandad would say. Erin and I would be tucked up in bed in the spare room at Chapel Street. Scratchy sheets pulled tight to our chins. Grandad would begin his tale.

‘There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham …’

We would instantly be filled with terror, unable to move and equally unable to stop listening to the tale of Jim. (Like a visit under the house, we knew this awful poem very well). These opening lines paint a fairly innocuous picture, even a pleasant one. What a lucky boy that Jim is. His friends are so nice to him, even if they do display a slightly disconcerting penchant for feeding him. But, oh, what horror the latter lines of Hilaire Belloc’s poem hold. Shit gets real when Jim escapes Nursie’s hand whilst at the zoo. Alas, his freedom is short-lived when he runs straight into the jaws of Ponto, a rather hungry lion. (One has to wonder if Ponto had brokered a deal with those suspicious feeder-friends of Jim’s. ‘Feed him up,’ Ponto might’ve snarled over the phone. ‘Feed up the little porker then send him my way.’ Who knows; maybe Nursie was in on the deal too. Jim must’ve been a real little twat).

‘Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!’

Mr. Belloc, just like my Grandad, seemed to relish these deliciously metred lines. We did not. Oh, the horror. (NB: Grandad’s recital of the poem was very much a performance piece, and a brilliant one, complete with requisite snarling). We were powerless before the hypnotic drawn out terror of this tale, a carefully measured concoction of words, tone and pace. Trapped within its iambic rhythm, Jim’s fate (and ours) would be sealed from the beginning as the lines galloped along. The story of Jim (which I have included below in full) has an important place within the mythology of our family. It is a common literary trauma embedded within us. Erin has also written about listening to ‘Jim’; for us, there’s something there that we need to revisit and deal with.

There is a piece in the museum called The Blind Leading the Blind, by Belgian artist Peter Buggenhout. It is a sculpture. One of the materials used to create it is household dust. It hangs from the ceiling, looming out of the shadows. It fills me with anxiety, with dread; my diaphragm tightens, the skin of my neck crawls and I dare not turn away from this twisted black mass. Is it part of the ceiling? No; it is a wolf. This art piece shocks me, and the shock is one of recognition.

The Blind Leading the Blind
Peter Buggenhout
Image courtesy of the Museum of Old and New Art

Most people, I think, are haunted by certain dreams. The brain is a bizarre bowl, and nightmares return to fill it with a weird and paralysing soup. I recognise the Buggenhout sculpture as a set-piece from a recurring nightmare I had as a child. I’m trapped amongst shifting piles of twisted metal. The piles grate together, slick with water and oil. Suddenly, I am sitting in a cinema watching a large count-down on the screen. The numbers tower, white and flickering. God’s voice booms, reading the numbers as they flash before me. And that’s it. It sounds relatively innocuous now that I read it back, but then again, the real terror of a dream doesn’t often lie in its literality or immediate appearance. Maybe it’s narcissistic for me to recognise a part of my own dream in The Blind Leading the Blind. It’s creepy too. It’s as if Buggenhout knows what is in my own skull.

– Luke Hortle

Luke works in the MONA Gift Shop, say ‘hello’ if you see him. This neurotic and talented lad aspires to be an editor, or writer, or PhD student, whichever comes first. He also has an overwhelming addiction to books. The Blog Mistress sometimes wonders if his eventual demise will be a result of being crushed under a teetering pile of tomes in a New York apartment. Fated to be a potential tale on a show such as A Life of Grime New York. A highly underrated show, frankly.

P.S. Here lies the story of Jim. Reader, beware; it does not end nicely.

Jim
By Hilarire Belloc

There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham,
And Chocolate with pink inside
And little Tricycles to ride,
And read him Stories through and through,
And even took him to the Zoo—
But there it was the dreadful Fate
Befell him, which I now relate.

You know—or at least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so—
That Children never are allowed
To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
Now this was Jim’s especial Foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!

He hadn’t gone a yard when—Bang!
With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!
No wonder that he shouted ‘Hi!’

The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
Though very fat he almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
‘Ponto!’ he ordered as he came
(For Ponto was the Lion’s name),
‘Ponto!’ he cried, with angry Frown,
‘Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!’
The Lion made a sudden stop,
He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
Snarling with Disappointed Rage.
But when he bent him over Jim,
The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim.
The Lion having reached his Head,
The Miserable Boy was dead!

When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:—
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ‘Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!’
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

Five prejudiced affairs with Mona (or, Anica and Mona, sitting in a tree)

1. The art of knowing whether you are flirting
or
The art of consuming modern art

You never know what to expect, when you first walk in. Something, nothing. Something that turns out to be nothing? Nothing that becomes something? But that’s part of it, it’s part of what you crave. The not-knowing, the possibility, the risk, the anticipation.

Or, you walk into it, always, knowing that you want something. Anticipating. Breath-held wonder and the greed for Meaning. For something Beyond. For Something.

Forgetting that you always bring something, too. Into that space filled with sound and furious signifiers. A look, a wink, a glance, a colour, an ellipsis of thought…

And sometimes it feels like there is a lot of empty space here. Whatever that means. It doesn’t mean space with nothing in it. It just means space where what’s in it isn’t something you know how to find. But that’s part of it too. And if you don’t crave that, then there’s no room for you to become anything else.

Every visit, every interaction has a memory of the last, and the last-but-one, and the very first, and all those between. And not just your own, but everyone else’s too. Whether that makes you feel good or not. You can never be independent of it. You don’t even have to listen carefully to hear it. There’s nothing new here, and nothing old either – everything exactly as you see it as you come to it at this moment: the wink, the shadows, the abstract moment, the ambiguous words.

You ignore what doesn’t speak to you. Dismissive. (And yet you still think you’re better than the girl beside you who snaps a photo, winks a wink, pretends to see something, sees nothing.) You sidestep around the arti/fact for a moment, you make it what you want it to be, you read it, you act on it, you understand it, you live by it, you love by it, you are – for those moments and their repercussive pre-dawn awakenings – defined by it, and it by you.

And then you turn a page, a corner, a blind eye, and you discover a new star (or disavow an old one – all your past loves are eventually Plutos).

I stop near the end, as always, to check that my heart is beating. As always, it’s not. As always, I pretend I don’t care.


Pulse Room, 2006
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

 

 

 

 

 

2. Don’t touch

There’s water dripping through the walls here. I’ve never noticed before. I’ve read about it, in all those things that people write, but I’ve never seen it. That interests me. To know about a thing and to touch a thing are not the same at all. At all. Peter Carey, in the voice of Lucinda, once said as much. I bookmarked it – a real bookmark, subcutaneous in the skin of a book, not a click on a word that once meant something real. Before ‘bookmark’ was a verb in my vocabulary. When it was still a noun I could touch. I held that page, with my bookmark, and came back to it over and over. And over. I could still find the page, I think, just with the curve of spine from so many visits.

Lucinda’s knowledge was about sorrow – about suffering and conceiving of suffering. Mine is about something else. About seeing what you want instead of what’s there. At least I think it is.

(Well, wouldn’t you touch that wet wall?)

3. The idea of absence

This place is just filled with your voice – literally, literarily. It’s all you. I can’t imagine how it feels to experience this place without you. On my own, with anyone else.

I think I’ll visit here when you die, and I’ll forget what it means to die: it won’t make any sense because you will be here and everywhere and I won’t understand the idea of absence.

That’s assuming that you die first. And I don’t know why you would. Maybe I’ll die first. And if that’s what happens, then I’ll come here after I die. I’ll haunt your words and your presence here and then you won’t know what it’s like to be here without me.

4. The blind leading the blind (after Peter Buggenhout)

A great hulking thing hangs above me. I think maybe it’s art. Or maybe dread. Or maybe love. It is huge and blackish in the blackness, embarrassed by its own size. An apologetic, deformed monster trying desperately and writhingly to disappear backwards into cracks nonexistent: a mutant spider, an octopus, without the proper experience of its species, to disappear into cracks. For every limb it squeezes into one corner, two more vomit themselves out of another: messy, dripping, scrabbling for purchase on the surfaces, alive yet utterly inert. Grasping at the ceiling, ashamed of its own clumsy bulk, its corners are impotent and its curves broken. Its rusting creaking groaning strength is a kind of unkind joke against its ludicrous body. It is Kafka’s Gregor, horrified by its own existence. I am afraid to stand beneath it. It is some kind of nightmare – to itself?

And also I want nothing more than to be closer to it in the half-light, for it to somehow ingest me, excrete me, validate me.

5. Why shouldn’t we?

I finally manage to book in for one of Tattoo Tim’s tours of the Wim Delvoye exhibition – his third-last tour. He’s had a few days off, and he says he hasn’t been so nervous in a long time. He’s buzzing. He greets us all individually, welcomes us, tells us that he’s not here to explain the art, but just to tell us a story. His story is his way of giving us the gift of recognising what he calls the ‘beautiful absolute irrelevance of our existence’. And somehow I think I understand what he means.

He talks to us for seventy minutes, in between the pigskins and the sharp points of the laser-cut steel. He is funny, self-deprecating, self-important, performative, honest, naive, cynical, charismatic, entrancing, exploding with energy. I suppose he has a lot of time to come up with clever things to say, sitting for five hours a day on his plinth with his tattooed spine towards his audience, his eyes on his one small white speck in the middle of the black window shade. During the tour, we never once see the tattoo. But we see the impact of it on his life, on his experience of being in the world. And it’s bizarre and mundane all at once.

Everything he says to us is engaging. But at the end, in the dark room standing against the projected reality of Delvoye’s Art Farm, where the tattooed pigs grunt and shove and scratch and sleep, he gets to the part that hits me most. He orates a kind of fanatical frisson of absolute adoration for Mona, and that’s part of his story now too. He tells us, from the outside, that ‘everything has changed here in the last 14 months’ – this city isn’t the same one it was before. I could not be more convinced by his arguments.

At the end of Tim’s tour, I’m shaking. He’s articulated a passion for this place that I’ve heard around me since the museum opened. I hear it everywhere – in the museum, away from the museum, on airplanes, interstate, in supermarkets, everywhere. It’s an uncontainable and weird sense of ownership, pride, excitement, gratitude, wonderment. I feel it too, and I resent it. I hate feeling so sentimental and I don’t want to be one of the anonymous masses who somehow feel that since it has entered our lives, we now have some righteous connection to this place. Last year I went for the first time to MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Neue Gallerie, The Dali – so many wonderful American museums, but all the time I was holding this secret smugness that I live in the place where there is Mona. I couldn’t wait to come back and visit. It feels unsophisticated to experience so much joy about a place, especially this place. I am embarrassed by my passion for this place. But why shouldn’t we feel in love – what’s so incredibly wrong with being joyful?

Mona has done something to me that nothing in my life has ever done before. It’s connected me to people I don’t know and don’t ever want to meet. It’s torn a gash in the emotional, creative, psychological space/time continuum – a great fissure that allows glimpses into everything we dream of, and forget to dream of, beyond the everyday. The things we search for in love, in religion, in our unknown selves. Meaning, connection, extraordinary grief and extraordinary radiance, and – more vitally – things wholly intangible, but so deep that they lift us away from everything else.

I thank Tim; he hugs me. I walk away fast, because I need to find a dark space to be alone and cry my guts out, because I can’t remember the last time anything made me feel so alive.

When I come back outside into the air, the steady rain takes me by surprise. But I don’t remember, anyway, what kind of day it was when I went inside. It was a million years ago. As always, when I leave here, I’m new. Better. Taller. Hungrier. More alive. More certain. More uncertain.

That’s all.

-Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Anica is a writer, editor and critic. She has an ellipsis tattoo and if you notice it and identify it correctly, she might fall in love with you. We don’t know how to pronounce her name.

Tim, 2006 – 2012 (ongoing), with various pigskins
Wim Delvoye
Photo Credit: MONA/Remi Chauvin