Hooks

By David Walsh

Elizabeth tells me Jannis Kounellis is dead. I already knew that, obviously. It demoted Putin and Trump to the second page of the National Enquirer. She wanted me to write a blog. Coz, you see, I like death. And Kounellis, who was alive, now isn’t. But I don’t really like death that much, and even though I’ve only met him twice, and haven’t seen him for years, I would prefer him to be alive.

Untitled, 1991–201, Jannis Kounellis Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Untitled, 1991–2011, Jannis Kounellis
Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

He came to Mona, and he put a knife and a couple of goldfish in a bowl. People complain incessantly about that. Because the only reason that we should torture animals is for food. Entertainment, or social commentary, or art—that’s just indulgent. Our goldfish go home to a bigger tank, but that isn’t good enough. Our fish atrocity would only be appropriate if we ate them. There is no other way, as we all know, to get calories. No one has ever survived longer than six seconds without eating meat. Did you know that six seconds is the attention span of a floret of broccoli?

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis Image: Mona/Leigh Carmichael

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis
Image: Mona/Leigh Carmichael

Kounellis also ruthlessly sacrificed lassos to the temple of art. The aesthetics are irreproachable, and we rarely take that work down. Elizabeth said that work, and the fish and the knife, are free of the ravages of metaphor. Knife constrains fish, rope restrains bull, art maintains ethics. Except when art persecutes goldfish.

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis
Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Or meat. Occasionally, when perverse whim pervades, loops of rope are replaced by sides of beef. Few moral issues here. The meat was made to be murdered. A few sides of beef among the millions bred to be cooked medium rare. But hung on the Mona wall carpaccio. Just to show our sophistication.

Kounellis is dead. But he is so recently dead he is still meat. If his body, his corpse, the meat of him, were here, I would hang him from a hook. But it wouldn’t be him, it would be a metaphor for him: his art, his life, his greasy greatness.

There on the hook, not wriggling, not creating. There would be all that remains of a man, an artist, a husband, an adopted Italian, a Greek denier, who taught me to look beyond the superficial. He helped me to see the links in the chain that bind us to iniquity, but are all the more stifling because of their invisibility.

Eat your meat. Dine on Jannis Kounellis’s corpse. But be sure to free the goldfish.

Clown physics

By David Walsh

When we went to see the LHC there were a few Large Hangovers Colliding. We acquired these hangovers the previous night, celebrating Olivier’s birthday (‘What’s good for a hangover? Drinking a lot the night before’). Olivier is a curator at Mona, but he lives in Geneva, so we were in Geneva, which is just down the road from CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN employs 12,000 people to do fundamental scientific research. It was at CERN that the Higgs boson was discovered a couple of years ago. That’s a big deal, a Nobel Prize-winning deal, because the Higgs is the particle that allows mass in the universe (but not in the church, despite the press calling it the God Particle).

Before I go into detail about what CERN is up to let me tell you a story. A couple of clown doctors were collecting money for the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Clown doctors are what they sound like – people dressed up as clowns pretending to be doctors. But my wife didn’t think they were pretending to be doctors. She made a donation, and then asked them to write her a prescription.

I’ve read a few books on physics; perhaps clown doctors have read a few books about medicine (maybe an anatomy text that describes people with pathologically big red noses). Essentially I’m a clown physicist, and I don’t really know what I’m on about. With that proviso, here’s my prescription:

The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) collides charged particles at near the speed of light. Occasionally the artifacts of these collisions are extremely interesting to physicists because they confirm or falsify theories. In particle physics there is something called the Standard Model, which uses all the known particles and forecasts the properties of forces like electromagnetism. Under the standard model particles would have no mass without the existence of the Higgs boson, but the Standard Model predicts that the Higgs is a heavy particle. Supersymmetry (the thing that this exhibition is named after) predicts heavier partners for each of the Standard Model particles. These heavy particles could cancel out the contribution of the Higgs mass from their Standard Model partners, and that means that the Higgs could have a low mass (which it does). It also explains why groups of particles with very different properties exist. The upshot – Supersymmetry is looking pretty good.

We left CERN inspired and confused in equal proportion. We took with us the remnants of our hangovers and a couple of t-shirts (which didn’t say, but should have – ‘I went to CERN and all I got was this lousy tumour’. Or: ‘I went to CERN and all I got was this lousy Nobel Prize’).

Ryoji Ikeda was already one of my favourite artists before I saw this astounding thing in London. After all, he lit us all up with spectra, at the first Dark Mofo. Supersymmetry, like spectra and all of Ryoji’s other stuff, grapples with the big issues. I went to CERN with a hangover, and left with a t-shirt. He went to CERN with an open mind, and left with the germ of a masterpiece.

supersymmetry [experiment], 2014, Ryoji Ikeda Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

supersymmetry, 2014, Ryoji Ikeda
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

spectra [tasmania], 2013, Ryoji Ikeda

spectra [tasmania], 2013, Ryoji Ikeda
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Gilbert & George: a critique

Elizabeth Pearce

I’ve been trying to work out what I think about the art of Gilbert & George. There is much that should not be taken at face value of course, but the democratic element of the work – their desire to speak as clearly to taxi drivers and café owners as to snooty gallery-goers – is genuine, and it is successful. (You shouldn’t call it ‘work’ though, it’s too wanky; they insist on ‘pictures’.) You don’t need any special knowledge to look at the pictures, nor even to think very hard. Their desire to be anti-elitist is borne out in their art critic of choice: a guy called Michael Bracewell, who has been writing about their art for years, and whose essays – no less than eleven – can be found in the catalogue on sale in our bookshop (and here), along with an introduction by David Walsh and foreword by Olivier Varenne. Sometimes, so-called anti-elitist artists are pipped at the post when it comes to criticism of their work: they insist on art wank in their catalogues and so forth, because they think it legitimates them, or something. Bracewell eschews such wank for a warm (if sometimes repetitive) humanism. And – like the artists themselves with their suits and ties and their pleases and thank-yous – Bracewell’s texts can be misread as quaint; in fact, they are progressive for their refusal to bow to the taste and fashions of the moment.

This brings me to probably my favourite thing about the Gs. They turn the idea of ‘radical’ on its head. They say the reason they adopted their trademark ‘conservative’ look and professed their love of Maggie Thatcher was to beat their own path, away from their bohemian peers. I am similarly irked by the seemingly compulsory politics of the gallery-going demographic, parts of which confuse ‘radical’ with ‘left-wing’. Of course, often, the two overlap. But ‘radical’, to me, is not a fixed set of beliefs, but a willingness to think things through independently, and to entertain an idea on the basis of its merit and not its popularity. They are not really old-fashioned and quaint of course, nor are they true lovers of Thatcherite politics – beyond, perhaps, a belief in the creative capacity of the individual (this is purely my reading, they have said nothing to this effect that I am aware of). But it was important, back in the 1960s when they met, to mark themselves as outsiders – for two reasons. Firstly because it emphasised their desire to break out from the uniform modernity of their art-school generation: the muted tones, the circles and squares, the denial of emotion. It’s easy to lose sight – when you’re looking back along the arc of art history – of how brave it is to do something different. (The extent to which this ‘something different’ matters to them is borne out by a fifty-year commitment… More on that below.) And secondly, in adopting the suits and the faux-stuffy manner, they are making a simple but effective point about the way in- and out-group boundaries are policed in the art world. To belong to the cultural elite, you must meet certain criteria, such as progressive politics, bohemian manner, and love for difficult and densely theoretical art. (For a hilarious take on this, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word). This is set up in opposition, as Wolfe points out, to stuffy middle class values: pretty pictures, politeness, conservative politics. This desire for elite cultural status on behalf of the viewer, along with the artist’s desire to be more and more radical, creates a kind of feedback loop that has a real impact on the cultural evolution of art (and, as we will consider in an upcoming exhibition, can be traced to our biological evolution as well).

To stopper this feedback loop, and go against the grain, was truly radical of Gilbert & George. But that was in the 60s. What about now?

Around the time of the exhibition opening a few people commented to me about how the Gs are such a perfect fit for Mona. I can see why they would say that – the subject matter, the bright colours, as well as the desire to ‘piss off academics’ as David would put it. But for much of this process, I have been preoccupied by the way they are different to us. And in thinking more about this, I have reached my conclusion about the art of Gilbert & George: I respect it, but ultimately, it’s not for me.

In my capacity as writer for the Mona marketing team, I was a little slow to work out that the Gs wanted, basically, to colonise us: to implant their entire worldview onto Mona as a passive platform, in everything from text on our website, the style of font we use, eccentric punctuation, etc. This is part of their long-standing way of working: they design, curate and execute the entirety of their exhibitions, on the stated basis that they, not curators and gallery directors, know what the public wants. I found this a little bothersome at first but then I got the hang of it. It was good for us, I think, to try this different way of working: quite often we ask artists to join a choir in a sense, to let us sublimate (respectfully) their intention to the overall ‘experience’ of the museum. It was an interesting experiment, and one that prompted us to think more clearly about our usual methods.

But as the process wore on, I began to wonder why it was so important to them to be so unbending. It fits within the ethos of their work, which makes stasis (somewhat factiously) a kind of ideology. They famously eat at the same Turkish restaurant every night, and avoid cultural input like theatre and films, in case it distracts them from their distinctive view. And do the pictures themselves reflect stasis? The subject matter has changed a little over time, as has their use of colour and composition; they switched seamlessly to digital photographic processes in the early 2000s. But the essential idea remains the same. They pride themselves on this: ‘The world has changed,’ they tell us, ‘but our pictures stay they same.’ And I know what they mean. Think of the SCAPEGOATING PICTURES (they like it written in capitals) that dominate the space as you first enter the exhibition at Mona. Women in burkhas – neighbours from their home in London’s East End – stare at us or thwart our gaze, alongside the artists themselves, who are variously menacing, and/or fragmented into little pieces, as though destroyed by the ‘bombs’ that dot the pictures. They are not really bombs of course, but nitrous oxide canisters (hippy gas) that are apparently strewn around the streets near their home. In the wake of the recent Paris attacks, these pictures are breathtaking. They capture, for me, a central ambivalence at the heart of our western stupefaction in the face of extremism: How can we begin to reconcile our love of diversity and tolerance of difference with our creeping awareness that dogmatic thinking – including that which motivates religions of all kinds – closes down the free play of the human imagination, giving rise to totalitarianism and terror? I don’t know the answer but I am pleased the Gs are worrying about it with me. And I respect them for not running away from it – literally, in their commitment to live among and depict their multicultural and multiracial neighbours, and to inhabit all the hypocrisy and contradiction to which this gives rise. I sense, here, the beginnings of that ‘moral dimension’ they claim for their art.

Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London.
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

BOMBERS. 2006, Gilbert & George

BOMBERS, 2006
Gilbert & George
(Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London)
Mixed media
Courtesy of the artists and White Cube
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

But as I walk further through the gallery, my excitement wears off, and I start to be numbed by repetition. Perhaps this is part of their intention. I can’t help but ask: in not changing, are they missing something? Namely, the sense that ‘going against the grain’, beating your own path, means something very different today as it did in the 1960s. For a start, there is no ‘grain’ to go against. There are not paths of cultural evolution: it’s a web, in which we sometimes feel trapped, numbed by the words and images that surround us in the network era. Much of their work pivots on a juxtaposition and inversion of authorised and unauthorised discourse: graffiti and profanity alongside newspaper headings and government slogans. The distinction does not hold fast today. All writing is graffiti, and all is propaganda. No discourse is authorised any more than any other. And that is exhausting, to live in – and to look at, in art. I can’t help but be reminded of the guilt-ridden, social-media apathy that marks the moral landscape of my generation: torture, suffering, sign the petition; like, unlike, unsubscribe. They tell us their subject is the raw emotion of human experience: hope, love, sex, fear. But I don’t see these emotions so much as the idea of them. They are repeated and deferred, always just out of reach. They are speaking not (to me) of the human experience, but of the way that experience is abstracted and reiterated, spawning and breeding meaninglessly like AD Hope’s ‘teeming sores’. They don’t, in fact, speak to me at all, but only speak about speaking. But in doing so, they are, paradoxically, speaking about our modern malaise: about the way hope, love, sex, fear are trapped beneath the surface of the words and images, like a fly in a glass, trying to escape. This was prophetic in the 60s but now, we need to be shown the way out.

Gilbert & George Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to get to know the pictures better. The impressive scale of them, and of the artists’ commitment: this must be respected. But still, I want more. I think I’ve become a little old-fashioned. And I think Mona has the capacity to be that way, as well – to gravitate towards art that truly engages that moral dimension, even if, in doing so, it also shows us the darkest parts of ourselves.

Stuff we are planning to do

David Walsh

There is an old Soviet joke that insists that ‘the future is certain. It is the past that is unpredictable’. Despite my endless rambling about the pointlessness of prediction, I thought I’d highlight a bunch of projects that Mona has on the go, for the self-serving reason that I want to establish our tourism credentials in the light of Federal Hotel’s tactic of promising expenditure conditionally on their pokies licence being extended.

Mona is here for good (in at least one sense). None of these projects are contingent on the casino going ahead (including the casino), but Monaco might make it a little easier to pay for all this. However, they are contingent on many other things, like planning and building approval. And me not shuffling off this mortal coil. (I heard that Rene Hidding, when told that I was planning for the consequences of ‘being hit by a bus’, said: ‘That won’t happen. I’ve had a word with our bus drivers and they are going to be very careful’.)

As an aside, when I first opened Mona, I expected to see some services (coffee shops, restaurants etc.) cropping up in the area. I don’t know why that hasn’t happened, except that there may be some zoning issues, but Local Pizza recently opened in Claremont, and it is exactly the sort of business I was hoping for. I hope it is the vanguard of more quality, consumer-oriented businesses to come. So, start selling stuff in the Glenorchy region. I’m buying.

For us, the first cab off the rank will be an extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works. As James’ works always are, these will be light works, but not lightweight works. Also in the extension will be a bar and restaurant, possibly serving tapas, which will double as another function venue. The whole thing cantilevers off the tunnel between the museum and the Round House. It would extend about 20 metres over the Derwent. Astute observers might notice from the plan that there is a dead-end tunnel going back towards the winery. That will eventually (five-seven years?) connect to a much larger extension, west of the winery, that will house some offices (our staff is growing, but not our facilities) and a museum gallery extension. This will be a large building, and I suspect it will cost about as much as the original museum. If it never gets built, the tunnel to nowhere might well cause some wild speculation on the part of future archeologists. Aliens will have been involved in some capacity, I’m sure.

An extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works.

An extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works.

We are also pretty advanced in designing a hotel for Mona, HOtelMOna, or HOMO. In fact we have now mooted the plans for more than twenty hotels for the site, starting long before Mona opened, but we finally have something that we feel justified in building. I believe a hotel should make exactly the sort of statement that Mona avoided: it should shout where Mona whispered. The building will house a decent library (I think the Mona library isn’t a design triumph, and we have a great deal of rare books and autograph manuscripts that we have never displayed [Stop Press: last night I bought an early edition of The Origin Of Species autographed by Darwin]), function centre, restaurant, bar, a theatre, some retail, and a spa, as well as around 160 rooms. Some of the rooms will be designed by artists: Marina Abramovic and James Turrell have agreed to participate, as well as our own Brigita Ozolins.

HOtelMOna, or HOMO.

HOtelMOna, or HOMO.

The casino is a different beast, or more precisely, a different flower. I’ve engaged a Mexican organic architect, Javier Senosiain, who seems to understand the sort of thing I want, despite neither of us understanding the other. Casinos are closed edifices of steel and gloss. That’s not what I want. I want an open garden. Our customer base could never be that of the standard casino world, but it is a big world, and we need very few customers. And when we don’t have customers, I’d like the casino to be worth a visit, just from an art and architecture point of view. Anyway, it might never be licenced, so it needs to function at a level beyond that of a cash palace. These early models don’t quite intersect with the present hotel, because they were designed for a slightly earlier iteration. The principle will remain, however.

Monaco

Monaco

On top of the Turrell extension I am planning a playground from Toshiko MacAdam. Although this isn’t very far along the design path, here I enclose the work that encouraged us to pursue this artist. We imagine something similar.

One of the best works of art I’ve ever seen is the Richard Wilson work 20:50. I liked it so much I wrote about it in my autobiography. And now it’s mine (nearly, I paid a deposit). As yet, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, so it won’t surface for a few years.

Conrad Shawcross featured when Mona opened, and he will feature again when the hotel opens. The centrepiece work for the entrance chamber to the hotel is a giant, asymmetrical rope-making machine. That means nothing to you, of course, but it will be amazing. Conrad has been working on it for quite some time, but he still has nearly a year to go.

The night I met Kirsha, my then wife-to-be, in Basel, Switzerland, I also first encountered the art of Jean Tinguely, and he affected me almost as profoundly. His best works are Heath Robinson-esque assemblages of arbitrariness that expend a great deal of effort to accomplish very little. I recently acquired one of these and it will appear in the gallery one day soon.

The phenomenal highlight of the first Dark Mofo, Spectra, those optical towers of alliance, might come to Mona permanently, but only for a few days a year (maybe for a night each on the solstices and the equinoxes). We are in negotiation with the artist, Ryoji Ikeda, and he seems pretty keen for his masterwork to have a permanent home.

My favourite work from our Matthew Barney show will become part of the Mona collection. I saw this piece in his New York studio a couple of years before the exhibition, and it reminded me he is the real deal.

The Swiss artist, Thomas Huber, came up with a great proposal for us, which consists of a couple of giant paintings and a few smaller drawings and watercolours. This should be completed in a couple of years, and I can hardly wait.

A few years ago I admired the diaries of the noted Australian artist, Donald Friend. His flagrant parading of his illicit sexual congress with young boys made me ponder, as I had before and have since, the morality of art based on, or in, the abrogation of ethics. Most of us are still prepared to visit Chartres Cathedral, built on the broken backs of generations of near slaves, or enjoy the benefits of medicine perfected through the torturing of animals. Does a stunningly illustrated story in a corrupt artist’s original hand constitute good art? If not, would a printed copy be okay? Is my highlighting the moral ambiguity of collecting Donald Friend sufficient justification for that very collecting?

And while on the subject of moral ambiguity, is a Nazi war machine (this is an Enigma machine, used for encoding communications within the German military) an appropriate thing to collect? Is it more appropriate given the knowledge that the Polish/English decoding of messages sent between such machines may have contributed to the Allies’ victory?

Earlier I mentioned a plan for a playground. We are actually planning two sets of artistic play apparatus. The other will be by Tom Otterness, who did some wonderful stuff at Doha airport. Here’s a preliminary sketch of one of the proposed works. He is infamously morally compromised. One of his earliest artworks was a video of him shooting a dog. He is still copping shit about it nearly forty years later, presumably from people who abet the murder of 1.2 billion pigs and 400 million cattle per annum.

When I was about ten we went on holiday to the caravan park next to Mona (now known as Treasure Island, perhaps soon to be known as Moab, unless a better acronym comes along). We went there to holiday even though we lived in Glenorchy, and even though it was about a forty-minute journey. And that’s forty minutes on foot – our family didn’t have a car so we walked to our holiday. We had lots of fun. I hope to preserve its affordability, while enhancing the sense of adventure for future intrepid travellers that visit Mona’s near neighbour.

The planned Mona boardwalk is unique is three ways. It’s the only item on this list that is approved; I don’t want to pay for it since it is mainly a community service and I can’t see an external funding source. So it is the only item on the list that I want financial help for; it is therefore the least likely to be built.

Connecting the boardwalk and the Round House library is this potential commission from perennial Mona favourite, Wim Delvoye. Towers seem to be the flavour of the century in Hobart, and with the proposed light tower for Hobart, I hesitated before publishing it. But we’ve been working on it for years, and it’s kind of beautiful. Maybe Hobart, in the tradition of Tolkien, could use two towers?

The parlous state of the beautiful River Derwent due to heavy metal contamination is something I took for granted. My American wife, however, feels a need to do something about it, and together with many collaborators has instigated a number of art projects in an effort to generate awareness. One of the biggest is a thing we call the Heavy Metal Science Lab, designed by the local architectural firm, Room 11. A walking ring about 50 metres in diameter will (given approval is forthcoming) be constructed, supported by hydraulics, so it can be raised and lowered with the tide. The plan is to keep it just below the waterline, so that the procession around it requires gumboots, or bare feet, to provoke contemplation of the state of the water. A number of sampling experiments will also be conducted.

Once we have a hotel at Mona, we need an efficient way for people to get there, and back to Hobart. Running the giant ferry out of hours makes little sense, so I asked our expert ferry collaborators, Navigators, to consider Venice-style ferries. This is their collaborators’ design for a 25-person, million-dollar motoscafi.

We’ve also got lots of offsite projects: upmarket accommodation (on a very small scale) and facilities, including a cooking school at our farm near Marion Bay, a potential hotel collaboration in Hobart (about which I will say no more), the already announced research for Mac Point, and a recording school for disadvantaged rappers in New Orleans. But I’ll stop now, because I’m going to have a look at the tables that Kirsha and her friends are making for an artist’s dinner on Saturday. They will be full of alcoholic jelly, which will hopefully induce some generosity of spirit in those rich art wankers that we invited, on the off chance that they will contribute to as yet unpropounded projects in Mona’s ‘certain’ future. But maybe peer pressure, or the jelly, will inveigle them to do something different, something wonderful, that no one now can foresee.

Off-site projects Marion Bay

Off-site projects
Marion Bay

More Mona

By Elizabeth Pearce

When the museum first opened, this artwork, by Jon Pylypchuk, was displayed alongside a ‘spin’ painting by Damien Hirst. It was an odd coupling, one that seemed somehow to demand that I think about the myriad reasons people make and look at art.

You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

Foreground: You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk
Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

We sold the Hirst and some other works recently, part of David’s scheme to raise money to make MORE MONA – another wing to house his James Turrell fetish.

There’s three artists – Hirst, Pylypchuk, and Turrell – who illustrate the trinity of creativity at the heart of the phenomenon we call ‘art’.

Turrell is a craftsman and magician, tapping into our innate preference for the numinous. If you’ve been to the museum recently you could hardly miss his rooftop spectacular, Amarna.

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Hirst is hard. It’s so easy to dismiss him as a charlatan and to point out that he has approx. zero talent as a painter; no actual, nameable, hands-on skill or craft to speak of. But look harder – or in a different way – and he is a deeply traditional artist, in the sense that he is expressing his reality using the most relevant, up-to-date tools available at that particular time; what humans have been doing since they started making marks on the walls of caves with their hands. In post-Thatcher, empire-burn-out Britain (that is, in Hirst’s time), individual virtuosity was subsumed by the economic and nationalist nihilism of the era. In this context, the reverence with which we regard the figure of the artist – as a harbinger of authenticity, specialness, and truth about ourselves – was more than irrelevant, it was simply untenable. Art has always been packaged and delivered to us in a culture industry that stands in awkward (and sometimes arbitrary) relation to the fact of the artist’s actual talent. But for the first time, in turn-of-the-century Britain, the culture industry swallowed the artist and his talent entirely. Damien Hirst was clever enough to run with, rather than against, this sorry state of play, and in doing so made: a) A shit load of cash, and b) Us reconsider what it is we want from art. How far we are prepared to go to defend it. I posit that Hirst’s career ended with his debut as a traditional painter at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009. The public reaction to his exhibition of blue-themed, Francis-Bacon rip-offs – the Telegraph called it ‘one of the most unanimously negative responses to any exhibition in living memory’ – gave us a definitive answer to the question around which Hirst’s entire career had hitherto revolved. Are painting, drawing and individual skill important to us? Yes, they are.

What has this to do with Jon Pylypchuck’s collection of creatures doing unnatural things to trees? First, a little background. Pylypchuck came to art via laziness and apathy. At the time, he was trying to avoid getting thrown out of uni (University of Manitoba, Canada), and had ‘no interest at all’ in making art. Then he just started making this stuff he calls ‘scrap art’ with his friends, and thinking up stupid titles to make each other laugh. I don’t know. It just works. It’s weird and funny, that’s it. The weight of Turrell’s hope for humanity and of Hirst’s disorientating nihilism is crushed beneath its coolness.

David is philosophical about selling the Hirst work, but I am sad. Not because I loved that particular piece but because I have almost forgotten what it was like, in Mona’s early days, to have no set opinions on art, to be trying to work out what it’s all about. Thankfully I’ve still got Jon Pylypchuck here to remind me.

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