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

A letter of apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people (and anyone else we have offended).

Last week Mona opened Southdale/C’Mona, an exhibition that explores, among other things, the unintended consequences of created utopias. The colonisation/invasion of Tasmania by Europeans, and the debilities that resulted for its inhabitants, are among the areas explored. Another was the potential establishment of a Jewish nation in southwest Tasmania. That project, however, didn’t come to such a fraught conclusion, since it disappeared, as did its major proponent.

The artist who devised the exhibition is Christoph Buchel. Because the project was presented as an intervention he wasn’t named at its inception. He, and we, thought that the impact would be enhanced if the project was taken at face value. Since his identity was exposed by the Australian newspaper at the weekend (and they obtained their information from his dealer’s website, and not from us), I don’t feel that, at this point, we are breaking any confidences by revealing the artist’s identity. However, not naming Christoph before meant that we at Mona could appear to be endorsing a presentation that we are uncomfortable with. In the event, that is what happened.

I certainly had warnings. During the exhibition planning, Christoph proved to be uncooperative to a point I had not hitherto encountered. When an idea was rejected, the next day he would present the same scheme again, as if it were new. But we ploughed on, although on a few occasions we categorically rejected some of his material. I have discovered since the exhibition opened that, in at least one of these cases, he proceeded to print and distribute some of this inflammatory material despite our veto.

We believe that much of Christoph’s exhibition is relevant, clever and funny. But he thinks it all is; I’ll get back to that point in a moment. Christoph holds the intellectual property for the exhibition, and when we offered (threatened?) to take down some material we were uncomfortable with, he maintained his confrontational viewpoint. In his opinion, the exhibition is a conceptual whole. His position: if we take any of it down we must take it all down. Obviously, that puts us in a difficult position.

Christoph has demonstrated (for the most part) the facile nature of certainty. Those who believe in utopias, and attempt to engineer them, repeatedly fail and generate unintended consequences. They fail because their path becomes the only path, and the required outcome, the end, is sought regardless of the means. Christoph’s hypocrisy is that he parodies that position while taking the same view. He knows what he wants, and while he pursues his goals he doesn’t care what the consequences are for others.

We do. We will engage with affected individuals and redress the situation. If Christoph fails to approve our action he will have the right to legal process, of course. We know he knows about that. He has been involved in a long legal action concerning the failure of a previous show.

We’re sorry we pissed some people off. And we will find a way to resolve reasonable unaddressed issues.

David Walsh

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

At the arsenale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Elizabeth Mead


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

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.

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

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

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

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

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

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

-Elizabeth Mead

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

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

Interview with Meghan Boody

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

Elizabeth Mead: Is your work autobiographical?

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

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

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

EM: Does that work for you?

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

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

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

EM: What’s the story?

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

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

MB: Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM: Do you give yourself a hard time?

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

The Mice and Me
2008-12

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

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

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

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

EM: Was this the child of a friend?

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

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

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

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

EM: I know, it’s so cool.

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

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

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

EM: That’s pretty creepy.

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

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

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

Deluxe Suicide Service
2004

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

EM: Like a pinball graveyard.

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

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

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

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

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

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