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.

Snags

By Elizabeth Pearce

Paul, 2014, is a creepy man-child self-portrait (of sorts), by Melbourne-based artist Ronnie van Hout.

His sleepwalking pose and little boy PJs cue us for cuteness, so the craggy face is discomforting. He is stunted in stature, and stands not on a plinth, like a worthy sculpture in a gallery normally would, but on an ordinary table placed at a wildly sloping angle – with some salamis hanging from the front. I have no idea what the salamis are about, but I feel the pose, the altered body scale, and the wonky table, together convey the artist’s sense of helplessness and inadequacy in the face of art history. This interpretation is aided by the fact that Paul, who bears the face of his maker, is named for the performance artist Paul McCarthy, who I wrote about recently. When Paul was originally exhibited at Darren Knight Gallery in 2014, he was shown alongside similarly stunted figures in discombobulating poses, called Ray, Mike and Dave. According to my colleague, Mona curator Jarrod Rawlins, Ray is probably the artist Charles Ray, and Mike is Mike Kelley, who collaborated with McCarthy. Dave, it seems, is the astronaut from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Insecurity and unstable identity are recurring concerns of van Hout. (He returns to these themes ‘like a dog’ – for some reason this phrase, from the title of an exhibition by the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, comes to my mind – ‘returns to its vomit’.) His body of work is populated by split, ambivalent manifestations of his ‘self’, as per the video Who goes there?, 2009, which shows van Hout repeatedly knocking on his front door and waiting for himself to answer. He obsessively depicts himself in altered form: as a sculpting dog or painting monkey; an Arctic explorer in crisis; dolls lined up in what might be coffins or display cases; or as a little boy in PJs (again), with one arm in a sling and the other stuck down his pants, a scowl on his adult face. His work has been described as ‘slacker art’: I don’t really know what that means but it seems to derive from the Richard Linklater film, called Slackers, that was seen to be a reaction to the hyper-materialism of the 1980s. A kind of meandering, lazy existentialism that to me seems inherently grotty and boyish, like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites, slumping around the apartment making scathing, Shakespeare-referenced comments about Winona Ryder’s yuppie boyfriend. (Sigh.) There’s a distinctly Aussie-NZ edge to it, though (he’s from Christchurch). In the same show that the Mona curators picked Paul from, there is this video where van Hout reads lines from the disturbing 1998 film The Boys, playing both characters (originally David Wenham and Toni Collette) simultaneously. The deliberately dorky re-reading places the menacing tone of the dialogue at creepy-funny remove, and draws out that slight cultural cringe we still feel sometimes when we hear Australian accents on screen. And the video work I’ve Abandoned Me, 2004, shows two Ronnies, one regaling the audience with the woes of his career as an artist, the other standing still, seemingly petrified, watching Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Paul, 2014, Ronnie van Hout

Paul, 2014, Ronnie van Hout

Paul was moved recently in our gallery, to a kind of art-prison that intensifies the sense of suffocating artistic influence: in his new spot, he is hemmed in on all sides by other works, and by a display-cage that reminds me a little of the way Francis Bacon boxed in the anguished masculine subjects of his paintings. I asked Jarrod if this was the reason for the move, and he said, ‘Wow, you really are becoming a wanker.’ Apparently they needed to fill a space left by Berlinde De Bruyckere’s melancholic, elongated wax horse, and Paul fit perfectly. So in he was popped.

 P XIII, 2008, by Berlinde de Bruyckere, is off display until our exhibition On the Origins of Art opens in November.

P XIII, 2008, by Berlinde De Bruyckere, is off display until our exhibition On the Origin of Art opens in November.

Later: Jarrod texted the artist about the salamis, and his reply was pleasingly circular: they ‘came with the sausage strings’ he ‘ordered from the States.’ He added: ‘I thought I’d add them as the “balls” of the table and a plumb bob showing the vertical.’ Roger that.

Jarrod also says (and he’s speculating now) that the snags might be a reference to McCarthy’s penchant to do weird and gross things with sausages, as in his performance works Hot Dog, 1974, Tubbing, 1975, or Heidi, with Mike Kelley, 1992. (I’m relieved I wasn’t a wanker enough to think of that on my own.)

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

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

Going out with a bang

By Luke Hortle

And, behold, I come quickly.
– Revelation, 22:12

So reads the back of this year’s Dark Mofo staff hoody. It’s from Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, which speaks, among other things, of the imminent apocalypse (literal or metaphorical—the jury’s still out) that will be unleashed with the Second Coming (Jesus: SURPRISE! Me again!). Revelation continues: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.’ The grandeur of such proclamations has always stunned me; it’s like something out of a Michael Bay film. But we’re accustomed to this kind of thing, wallow as we do in pop culture’s hot mess of apocalyptic imaginings. No one’s exempt; the metaphors will always out, despite the pretensions of high culture and militant snobbery.

Dark Mofo Staff Hoody 2014

This revelatory snippet on the staff hoody—it has me thinking. It heralds the end of the world, instantly recognisable as a story of persistent human curiosity, but one that is endlessly open to interpretation. It proclaims the apocalypse, yes, but also confesses a propensity for premature ejaculation—a perhaps ‘world-ending’ event for some people and of a different variety. In perhaps not an entirely unpredictable manner, our interpretations of death—both big and little, planetary and personal—echo and warp as we mobilise them. Our photographer suggested the phrase for the hoody design, having seen the slogan adorning a painting of a lion and a lamb at the Odeon Theatre, before Dark Mofo took up residence there, when the theatre was home to a born-again Christian church. (Food for thought, perhaps, when you’re mid-debauchery at the Odeon for Dark Faux Mo. Remember, God’s always watching #catholicguilt.) The slogan has an irony in this churchy context, but I’m not going there. Self-deprecation is the order of the day, and it’s certainly not the first time MONA has co-opted a belief system for its own purposes (and I doubt it’ll be the last). In the painting, the mature-looking lion gazes fondly at the fluffy young lamb (would it be wrong to describe the lamb as nubile?), as ‘Behold, I come quickly’ intimates his intent (apocalyptic, carnal or otherwise). Poor little beast. Coincidentally, a Dark Mofo sign at the waterfront flashed, ‘WATCH FOR PEDS’, for the duration of the festival. Bright lights, creep city.

Behold I come quickly picture

But recently the apocalypse, and its related scenario of a threatened and vulnerable world, has taken on a different texture. Politically, environmentally and geologically, the planet is being reframed, as humans rethink how they read the globe’s skin and viscera. ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene,’ proclaims The Economist, reporting on the early twenty-first century uptake of the term originally suggested by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in the early 2000s. Basically (and I’m cheating—it’s not basic at all; it’s vast and complicated), the Anthropocene describes how Earth has entered a new geological epoch. Following on from the Holocene, the Anthropocene recognises the human species as an influential force of nature. Imagine a future where humans are extinct, goes the anecdote frequently used to describe the Anthropocene; if there was a geologist present in such a future, they would be able to trace the lasting human impact on the planet. Our marks, as they are, are here to stay. How do you like that for your vanity?

This is not to suggest that the Anthropocene explicitly envisages apocalypse (although, it is interesting to consider how that anecdotal extinction might eventuate). Rather, it frames a whole swag of political agendas1 and cultural fantasies2. But why imagine the end of the world as we know it? As a species, maybe we’re just plain freaking morbid, intent on sharing the love with an hysterical death drive. Freud might agree, which is alarming in itself.

The pay off, surely, is some sort of projected collective solace. Getting in early, before one hell of a punch line. On the opening night of Dark Mofo Films, I went to see David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic road movie, The Rover. Guy Pearce, with that hypnotic gravelly voice of his, posed a question to Anthony Hayes’ character:

‘Feeling the air when you wake up in the morning, when your feet touch the floor, or before that, when you’re lying there, thinking about your feet hitting the floor—the feeling you have. What does that feel like for you?’

Maybe it was just Guy’s voice. Or maybe—forgive me—it tapped into something incisively and embarrassingly human. The desire to apprehend, and be apprehended by, another person. To escape your personal neuroticism and self-obsession, to imagine (if only for a moment) what it is like to be alive as somebody else and in their particular version of a material human body. It’s darker than empathy, somehow. And far more interesting.

Deep. Apologies. Is there anything more awkward than the expression of sincere sentiment?

I’m in the museum and I’m standing in front of Patrick Hall’s artwork, When My Heart Stops Beating, and it seems appropriate3. It’s my favourite work in David’s collection. Visitors to the museum have gotten engaged in front of this artwork, which I cannot for the life of me comprehend—do they see a hopeful sense of romance here?—because When My Heart Stops Beating seems to be more interested in the past than in an anticipated future. For me, it’s irreconcilably creepy and sad, and touching in a darkly bittersweet way. But it’s more than any ambivalent mess of feelings I might experience in front of these gleaming cabinets. It’s about what is no longer around and coming to terms with that; it’s an attempt, if you will, to rectify such a predicament. Absent speakers intone their disconcerting chorus of ‘I love you’, just as absent writers reveal their intimate stories on the cabinet drawers (drawers that open like those of a morgue). The sense of loneliness is shocking, and it really hits me given the sheer constructed-ness of the artwork itself—those intricately built drawers and the façade of the cabinet fixed upon the wall. I’m embarrassed, now, to admit it’s my favourite. I sound like a total emo.

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall
Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

It’s like bearing witness to something, absent now whether through death, apocalypse or otherwise. I indulge myself even further, and imagine I’m that future hypothetical geologist, witnessing the earthly marks of the Anthropocene with its indelible remainders of previous lives. Marking time is a peculiar thing, whether romantic and sexual, or geological and planetary. A flippant, throwaway remark comes to mind, and it’s not so flippant anymore; it’s a genuine question, posed to the possibilities of a quickly coming future: ‘Who gives a fuck?’

1Here’s lookin’ at you, Tony.

2For example: cli-fi, or climate fiction, is an actual thing. What an unfortunate abbreviation.

3The other week, I went to MONA’s new community centre, and saw that When My Heart Stops Beating is no longer on display. Go home, Southdale, you’re drunk and you’ve ruined my blog.

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.