By David Walsh

There is a lot to protest in Turkey. Injustice is rife, with crony capitalism at its heart. Geza Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in European Istanbul, was earmarked to be sacrificed for a shopping centre, and the company awarded the contract has links to the government. And then there was the mining disaster, which happened shortly after the opposition party complained that safety standards were being flouted.

So last night tens of thousands of people marched up Istiklal St, towards Taksim Square and Geza Park. Kirsha and I were there too. We had gone, not to check out the action, but to find a dress for Kirsha that is Islam friendly, not a feature of her regular wardrobe. We arrived before the protestors marched. There were armoured vehicles and police everywhere.

After a drink at in a rooftop bar we returned to the street. By then the chanting crowd was moving up the street, making an enormous racket. Many were wearing mining hats and gas masks, a reference, I assumed, to the dead miners. It was all rather exciting. I asked an English-speaking onlooker what it was all about. He told me it was ‘political’.

Kirsha wanted to go further up the street to Taksim Square, the obvious centre of the action. I thought that unwise. While we were arguing a young lady told Kirsha to cover her mouth, since the police had started using tear gas. I found a raised vantage point, and I could see the water cannons further up the street. The crowd careened down the hill. We soon felt the water cannons, and saw the sparks and heard the snare drum crack of the tear gas canisters being fired. Moments later we tasted the canister’s rather unpleasant contents. So we became part of stampede. We tried to hide down a side street, but it proved to be a dead end. As we returned to the main thoroughfare the surreality of our predicament was both underlined and alleviated when a taxi disgorged a passenger on the corner. It must have battled up the hill against the human tide, the driver doing his job as always, facing yet another of the apparently surmountable obstacles that the Istanbul streets presented.

So we got in the taxi. The driver headed down the street at the same speed as the panicked protestors, and even though the tear gas was choking us he (nonchalant as the best taxi drivers around the world always are) drove with his window down, down the hill to safety. As we crossed the Golden Horn, the gas in the air dispersed until, halfway across the bridge, the protestors gave way to elderly fisherman casting their lines into the Bosphorus hopeful of reeling in their dinner, while history passed them by, as it always has.

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)
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)
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)
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Beautiful Silence

By David Walsh

Forty years ago I remember waking up in recovery, and squealing like a child (which causes no shame, for I was a child) to be taken back to the ward. What the dismal, antiseptic-smelling, chicken pox-inducing children’s ward of The Royal Hobart Hospital had to offer is not clear to me, all these years later, but that was where I wanted to be. They took me back there, as they always intended when I awoke. I can’t remember if I was satisfied. I had appendicitis then, resolved with professional disinterest, but with sufficient credibility to maintain my childlike faith in intervention, which fed, through the intervening time, my scientific soul’s confidence in evidence-based medicine.

But forty years later, or two days ago, I remember the recovery room only because the orderlies pointed it out to me as they wheeled me through to theatre. A long, empty room, but not empty of all things; empty of the beds which obviously should fill it. I was on one of those beds later, wheeled in after my disk replacement, but I don’t remember.

This ward, the ward of two days ago, was worth shouting for. A single room with a door outside, into the garden. The most desired room at Calvary, the hospital manager told me. My room, because I was lucky, or more probably, because I was getting very special treatment.

The day after the operation I went through the door into the garden, already feeling ok, the tour of the garden in no way diminished by the noise of the traffic on Augusta Road, nor by the waft of stale cigarette butts flicked into the garden by those too sick or lazy to use the bin. I loved the garden then, one day ago, and even more when I stepped through the door into the garden today to leave the hospital. I loved it because it was there and I could see it, and walk around it, not perfectly steadily I admit, but I could walk around it without pain.

I went to the hospital to have my neck operated on, because my shoulder hurt. The MRI, taken on my wedding day two weeks and a few days ago, showed my disk was exactly where it should be but the rest of me about half a centimetre off, to the left. My shoulder hurt like fuck, and Mr Hunn concluded, with the aid of the MRI and my demonstrable weakness, that my spine was misplaced. Mr Hunn offered to fix it, to replace the displaced disk with a mechanical contrivance, an M6c, an American device not yet approved for sale in America, and therefore exported to the antipodes, to be implanted in me. I accepted his offer.

It worked, and I can walk in gardens only fifty-two hours after the operation. Nineteen days after my wedding I am married, all of me, not just the part of me that said yes, or I do, but all of me. Now no part of me is incessantly screaming ‘I’m in pain’ into my right ear, drowning out bewitching words from Kirsha, and allowing only bewildered words from me.

Again, I have no pain now, and there is nothing to prevent me smelling the pungent shouts of the show-off flowers, nor hearing the beautiful silence of the written word.

Human beings

By Elizabeth Pearce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with The Skywhale artist Patricia Piccinini

Patricia Piccinini with her children. Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Patricia Piccinini with her children.
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Elizabeth Pearce: 25 years ago, when you first went to art school, what did you think you were getting yourself into? Did you have a clear objective?
Patricia Piccinini: Twenty-five years ago I thought that I was going to drink red wine and have a studio and walk around with flowing dresses on with a canvas under my arm. That’s what I thought being an artist was back then. Then I went to university to study art history and economic history, and then to art school. When I left art school I realised that painting wasn’t the best way to express the ideas I was interested in – it seemed anachronistic. I was, and still am, really interested in ways of seeing the body. My husband, who was studying architecture, said to me, ‘You can just work with other people’. He was used to the idea of working with other people – architects don’t go out and build buildings, they work with a myriad of people to create something. I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do that. I can work in the world of ideas,’ which was what attracted me to the art world in the first place.
EP: What kind of experience do you want to offer your viewer?
PP: When I see an artwork I am looking for something that moves me or challenges my ideas about the world. That’s what I hope The Skywhale offers people. What I’m interested in doing with my work is putting forward these propositions. Often they have a strong narrative. I put them out into the world and see what sort of discussion they generate. I certainly don’t try to shock people – and actually, I am shocked myself when people are shocked. I don’t know why anyone would find The Skywhale offensive or ugly. To me, she’s a figure of wonder. She’s also got all these ways into her as an idea, which I feel that people can connect with. On one level, this work is my reflection on the sublime quality of nature. On another level, she is sort of a test. She is this being that I offer to the public to see if they can embrace her or not. It’s a challenge to the viewer’s ability to accept something strange. All my creatures are quite vulnerable like that.
EP: Are you expressing your own vulnerability through these creatures?
PP: I feel that I am incredibly vulnerable because I really deeply care about them. I could tell you about each one, where it comes from, what it’s trying to say. I think a lot of what they’re trying to say is really relevant to the times we live in.
EP: In what way?
PP: It’s about how we consider nature, which is crucial at this point, but looking at it from the point of view of how we imagine our relationship with nature and with other creatures. The idea that nature is only important if it is useful to us is a very strong one, which suggests a biblical sort of power structure with us at the top with ‘dominion over the birds’ and that sort of thing.1 It also translates as how we relate to other people – our xenophobia that reacts so strongly to any sort of difference.
EP: And you want to express that in a – I don’t know if ‘passive’ is the right word. You want to express it in a generous way?
PP: I’m not going to make a work that’s saying, ‘You’re the culprit, you white man in your business suit raping the land…’ I wouldn’t want to make a dogmatic piece telling people what to think, because I also know that everyone benefits from what we’re doing to the environment. I don’t exclude myself from that. The issues are so complex and contradictory. Even the fight against climate change has an element of self-interest. What I do think is that it has to be discussed in a way that people can connect with and that allows them to generate their own answers. Being in the art world’s pretty interesting because people expect artists to be very wise and their work to be ‘true’. It is very difficult to be ‘true’, so being obscure is often the next best thing. I’ve actually been criticised for my work being too accessible.
EP: Maybe some people get confused between popularity and cheapness.
PP: I agree, or they think that work must be obscure in order to be serious. I’d like to think that my work offers more beneath the obvious visual narratives, but if all they take away from it is a feeling, then I am ok with that. What I don’t want is for them to just shrug and walk away from it without thinking. The Skywhale was a commission, essentially a public sculpture, so I felt I had an obligation to make an object that people could really connect with. When I go to an art gallery I want to be moved. I actually want to experience something. I want to think. I want my life to be somehow different when I leave. I don’t always get that when I go to art galleries, and when I do I really value it.
EP: Do you think your own work offers that experience?
PP: I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. But it’s definitely one of my aims. When it came to The Skywhale, one of the difficulties was using a medium that’s generally associated with commercialism, because balloons are used as advertising. I had to overcome that association. It needed to be something where the balloon-ness was very much secondary, where it was a creature first. It had to be something that seemed almost conceivable – and conceivable at that scale, not something small blown up. Its movements needed to make a certain sense.
EP: I like the fact that there’s an element of harnessing nature’s power, but in a child-like way. It’s hopeful. For the commemoration of the centenary of Canberra, I would expect something harder, more static and monolithic. But The Skywhale is the opposite of that – it’s gentle and maternal.
PP: When [Creative Director] Robyn Archer said, ‘Make me a balloon,’ I said, ‘I’ll do it, but it has to be part of my practice. It has to be something that’s integral to the rest of what I do. I can’t just make you a Walter Burley Griffin head.’ And to her credit, she said yes. Really, the work is about the wonder of nature. Which sounds a bit naff I know, but every time you come in contact with nature there is something there that is wonderful. We know that whales, these seagoing mammals, came from the sea, and then became these hoofed mammals, and then went back into the sea and grew enormous and intelligent. They swim deep under the water and even suckle their young down there. Is that path any more unlikely than them having evolved to fly, or staying on the land? Their adaptability is the wondrous thing, as is our own. I’d like people to look up at her and wonder about these things. But some people just see her mammaries, and it seems to freak them out.
EP: Yes, a lot of the response has centred around her bosoms. Why did you include them and why do you think they’ve been such a talking point?
PP: I included them because I wanted a benign, maternal figure. All female mammals have breasts, that’s why they’re called mammals. How could I leave them out – it would be weird. I certainly never imagined they would be such an issue.
EP: Do you think people have reacted like that because we have an idea of what breasts look like – they look a lot perkier than the Whale’s, and there’s only two of them?
PP: Lots of creatures have multiple nipples. It’s confounding for me because I just think it looks beautiful and I know it would be really functional. But apparently breasts on animals is not the stuff of art. It’s becoming increasingly easy to be disconnected from your bodily functions and to objectify the body, especially a woman’s body – and I haven’t even made a woman’s body! I think it’s worrying.
EP: Have you been hurt by some of the things that people have said?
PP: At times I’ve been appalled at people’s vulgarity. I think, ‘Wow, that’s really base’. But I see that as a reflection of them, not of my work.
EP: Are you talking about the political element? I’ve got a quote here from ACT Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Hanson, who says, ‘I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s an embarrassing indulgence only a fourth term government would contemplate.’
PP: No, that’s a different issue. I’m talking about the sorts of comments that you see at the end of articles or videos online – stupid stuff about tits or whatever. On the other hand, some of the stuff is actually quite funny. Who can’t laugh when terms like ‘Hindenboob’ get used in Parliament. I mean, it’s ridiculous. However, much of the political opposition – like from Jeremy Hanson, who I don’t even know – is not about my work. They’re using my work as leverage. The arts are always a soft target. On the other side of that, there was something in Wired a few weeks back – the comments section started with the usual ‘It’s too weird, check out the boobs’ crap, but was followed by three paragraphs of reasoned defence by some other anonymous poster. That’s what makes my day – that someone wanted to take the time to come to her defence.
EP: The Whale is a meme now, a unit of cultural meaning.
PP: Yeah, exactly. [On Twitter the other day] someone said about the Eurovision contest: ‘This is boring. It needs more Skywhale.’ So she’s become a thing in her own right, beyond my control.

1 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
—Genesis 1:28

Does my brain look big in this?

Yves Netzhammer’s The Subjectivisation of Repetition is on display at Mona now. It is a prelude to our exhibition The Red Queen, which opens on June 18.

By Luke Hortle

It’s the interiority of it. The quietness. Like being underwater. But I think that’s its intention (one of them, at least). With The Subjectivisation of Repetition, Yves Netzhammer cuts together this mesh of vignettes, these lyrical short scenes that shrug off conventional ways of meaning to instead offer an internal panorama of a human mind. Whether this mind is intensely personal or inclusively collective, I’m not sure. But I’m not sure this matters entirely, either. It works both ways, answering and unfolding itself to one consciousness at the same time that it holds quietly and firmly to its de-individuation. The first time I saw the work, I tried to organise my thinking about it by overlaying it with an explanatory narrative. It didn’t work. It was an imposition, but perhaps a forgivable one (an elaborate, gestalt-inflected knee-jerk). There’s no endpoint here. I see that now. There never was.

The Subjectivisation of Repetition, 2007 to 2013  Yves Netzhammer (Schaffhausen, Switzerland, 1970)

The Subjectivisation of Repetition, 2007 to 2013
Yves Netzhammer (Schaffhausen, Switzerland, 1970)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Suddenly the title jars. It’s another imposition, warping the structure by which I understand this artwork and imbuing it with grandeur and deflection. It’s self-aggrandising and knowing, and it seems to promise a final answer that is at complete odds with the guts of the work: this quietly precise consideration of human interiority. I wonder if the title, with its implicit refusal to make its meaning clear, seeks to align the work with the art world and art criticism more broadly, with their (perhaps not so) unspoken dictate of insular exclusivity and all that frustrating pomp and vagueness. I don’t want to encounter this artwork so publicly. I don’t want that context. No back-story, please. I want to meet it in a darkened room. I want to forget my own contours. I want to overlay my own interiority, my own panopticon of thought, with the installation’s precise and elegant shadows. I want to do this unashamedly and without the self-importance that the title seeks to impose.

It’s necessarily subjective, of course it is; how could it not be? It’s curious to think about how all this stuff, this torrent of information that slams silently into us with every second, becomes part of our own idiosyncratic ‘thought imagery’ (Netzhammer’s own term). As bio-cultural structures of information and patterns and biases and quirks, humans devour their surroundings and cannibalise their memories. We’re helpless against this insatiable and subcutaneous greed. Information gluttons. Endless recapitulation. It’s ugly, but it’s a leveling move, and I’m more aware of myself within this violent playing field of information exchange.

Netzhammer’s work repeatedly interrogates this process of encounter and exchange, of how humans, animals and environments come into contact and the associated fall-out of these interactions. Gaze upon the walls with their enveloping black and white miscellany. But within this, how does one thing encounter another? What’s involved? How does a mind decide what to do, what to discard, what to imbibe? How is the violence undertaken? A faceless automaton slices open the thigh of its shadow-self and fills the bloodless cavity with teeth. Human figures crouch outside a rustic building, and then suddenly collapse. Static fingers snap fresh from apples. Innards are just more surface, just another artificial crimson plane. A mosquito sucks at a disembodied vein; perhaps it’s a root system, reaching out to burrow itself into that black mass. Someone holds a whale’s eye in their arms. It’s horrifying and unaccountably sad. What I’m trying to say is this: I’m unconsciously feasting on everything around me, digesting it in my skull and I’m unaware. It makes me feel less evolved than I think I should be. Like I’m only partly in residence of my body. I’m pissed off that I’m not conscious of this process. Why can’t I be privy to the whole interiority of my brain and mind, the whole psychological kit and caboodle? The frustration is exhausting, and I feel cheated. I was given access to pages of installation blueprints for Netzhammer’s piece, along with a huge email conversation between various curators, exhibition designers and the artist. One line from Elizabeth: ‘the whole thing gives me a headache.’ For a fortnight, I was trapped in this mesh of lancing computer-etched lines and badly punctuated emails. It was my first encounter with the artwork and I felt ripped off. The point is, it was supposed to be a clarification of the work. It wasn’t. Noise. Excess fat. Communication breakdown. (I need to listen to more Led Zeppelin.) Mutual consciousness can be synonymous with white noise, and then everyone’s screwed. Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up. Fetch me the paracetamol, stat.

What I’m struggling with is the gradual piecing together of this work. It refuses to submit, to yield itself, to unfold completely, to remain splayed in the air and ripe for scrutiny. I don’t know where it begins. I can’t work out what to privilege. Those walls have bloomed silhouettes. Black cords ribbon from the plaster in perfect, looping lines. Teacups sink into the floorboards. The precision of it, of all of it, is shocking. It’s changed again. Expanded. I’m surrounded. (I was going to write this: ‘It’s impossible to watch. It becomes untenable to maintain that distance between yourself and the work. Impossible to watch because the verb itself becomes inadequate; this installation is something to be entered.’ But apart from that hideous act of trite italicisation—ugh, typographical gag—it sounded far too, um, penetrative. Which is just wrong; although for something so overtly sexless, the installation is refreshingly seductive. Don’t bother with dinner; Netzie, I’m yours.) I wonder if I’ve become the focal point, the empty centre. I’m worried about this, about the possibility of my subsumption. It’s problematic. Potentially. Things (ie. me and what I hold to constitute myself) can be swept under the carpet. Effacement is one bitch of a broom, and I resent that; I resent the idea that I might need to be emptied out, disembowelled, at the feet of a great work of art. I won’t lie; I shan’t. I’ve been coaxed into bed and I don’t know which way to turn. The uneasiness of it. I’ll insist, resolutely, that I’m still here. Meshed thoughts. My limbs. Brain, belly, cock and soles. It’s hypnotic.

I don’t bother with the title. I don’t nit-pick at the bastardisation of language. I walk into the gallery and stand beneath that concrete pentagon. It’s an aquarium of thought. The visibility is average, or the clarity of the content, visually at least, appears shifty to begin with. The Shurer’s hypnotic; I try to decide whether or not to resent this. I used to know this space, this artificial cheap wooden forest on an oil-aged wooden floor, with its crap technicolour sun spinning gracefully in the gloom. I’ve spent hours in this dark structure, now unfamiliar and haunted by blueprints. I don’t know where to stand; the periphery flickers relentlessly. It makes me want to overtly interrogate what’s swimming about in the tank of my skull and what that stuff (the conscious stuff, not the meat and fluid) could look like, what it might manifest itself as, thrust exterior to bodily confines. There it is, lanced to the walls, over-determined already by its own projection. It fails, instantly, at the moment of its success. I’m perennially shocked to realise that other people have their own internal realities and that they might be the same as my own. I’m embarrassed, and yes, I have a headache.

Interview with Robyn McKinnon

Robyn McKinnon is a Tasmanian painter. Her work Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, part of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) collection, will be shown in our up-coming exhibition, Theatre of the World. Theatre is curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in collaboration with MONA and TMAG.

Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, 2007
Acrylic paint on canvas

Elizabeth Mead: Do you generally not like to talk about your work?

Robyn McKinnon: Generally not. The title is about as far as I get. The title’s the clue, it’s a bit of a crossword. You’ve got the clue, work out the rest for yourself.

EM: That makes perfect sense to me.

RM: Does it?

EM: Yep. But you did change your mind about this interview. You said no at first, and then you decided to.

RM: Yes. I thought about it, and I thought that if I want to actually put myself in a position where I’m not ignored, then just do it. I also spoke to Allanah from Handmark [Gallery] and said, ‘Should I do it or not?’ They’re not mentors for me, but they look after the business stuff that I don’t know how to look after.

EM: Are you ambitious?

RM: Yeah. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. It doesn’t mean that I want to rule the world or anything, but I’d like to feel, apart from the personal satisfaction of succeeding for myself, that there’s someone else who thought I succeeded.

EM: So that would be your determination of whether you’d been successful or not?

RM: No, no, no. My determination of whether I was successful or not is how I feel about it, if it moves me. If it moves me, I can put it out there. If it doesn’t it gets painted over.

EM: Being a painter comes with the pressure of putting yourself out there in the world, with a financial impetus. Do you find it hard to manage your position as a professional artist?

RM: I just usually leave it up to the gallery or in a lot of cases, destiny. I do it because I love it, and the rest of it is really a bit of a pain in the bum. Allanah is really good. I’d say, ‘Well if I’ve got to pay the rates, and the rates cost $200, then the painting costs $200’, and she says, ‘You can’t do that’. So I don’t want to know.

EM: I don’t imagine that you think much of the culture that goes along with the display and production of art – ‘the art world’, whatever that means.

RM: Yeah, not a lot. It’s ok, it’s important, it’s like all strains of society. There are people that you choose to get on with, and people you don’t choose to get on with. You run the gamut, and if you know that those people are no good for you, then move away. They all make up the community. But I stayed away, there’s not enough time. I taught for 27 years. And when I turned 50 I thought, ‘That’s it mate, no more’.

EM: No more teaching?

RM: Nope.

EM: Did you enjoy the teaching?

RM: No, not really. I used to get nervous about it, feel sick in the stomach before every class, until I got the lessons down pat. And then it got boring. And I didn’t want to tell kids that what they were doing was wrong. You can’t do that, I don’t think. ‘You need a ticket’, my father said. The ticket was art teaching, and the rest was mine.

EM: How did you come to be an artist?

RM: I’ve always done it. I don’t know, I can’t remember when I didn’t do it. It was probably when I came back from Europe, I was about 29 and I thought, ‘No, this is no good, I’ll just do what I have to do, what I like to do’. So probably when I turned 50 and gave up teaching, I actually took it on as a profession. Yeah, so for the last nine years I’ve just applied myself in that way.

EM: Have you enjoyed having all that time to just focus on…

RM: I just love it.

EM: That’s wonderful. You’ve earned it.

RM: Well, yeah, I think so. And it’s just great. This really old house that is falling down and needs painting and stuff like that, that’s where I go every morning, front room, at whatever time get up. If I have something on in the day I get up at 3am and work until 10.   

EM: You get up at 3?

RM: Yeah but I go to bed at 7.

EM: Impressive.

RM: No, it’s not impressive, but that’s what I do. It’s eased off a bit. There’s been several catastrophic things that have happened over the last seven months that don’t warrant talking about. So I’m having a holiday. This morning I got up at 5:30.

EM: Oh wow, that’s pretty slack. So back when you came back from Europe that time, and you started to be more focused about making art, did you have a sense of your motivation or objective? Was there something you wanted to communicate?

RM: I think it was probably more instinctive. It was actually not knowing what you were going to create, that was what it was. When I finished at teacher’s college, I did a secondary art-teacher thing. When I finished there I went to art school at night so I could find out more about art. It was easy, if you know what I mean – I didn’t have to push myself to do anything. All these other kids were racing to get work in on time, but I’d have it done, for no reason other than I liked to do it.

EM: So what was motivating you was the sense of exploration, of not knowing what was going to happen?

RM: Yeah, and you don’t, because you’re just the vessel. You start a painting with some sort of idea in your head – no, it’s not the idea of the painting, it’s an emotion, it’s sensibility, a vision, a leaf falling, just these tiny things. And all of a sudden, this painting starts to grow, and then you think about what the painting reminds you of, and then you know. You’ve got to sort of smell it, go with it, and then you think, ‘Shit, how come that happened?’

EM: When you say that you’re the vessel – what’s filling it? 

RM: I think it’s a sensibility that you have. People know more than they choose to know. What they choose to know is pretty banal, usually. What they don’t know scares them, so they prefer to know the banal rather than the scary. It’s not really scary, but it’s a bit unnerving to think that a silly little person like yourself can make – that. That’s not to say it’s great, but where did it come from? I think as you get older, the visionary aspect of understanding a little bit more about yourself helps you to question why you respond to things the way you do. Not why you did it, but why you responded in that way.

EM: What have you learned about yourself over all those years of painting and teaching?

RM: Well, I’m still a stubborn Scot… I couldn’t put that knowledge into words. I like that, because each of my experiences is different, and it doesn’t matter where I go, I think.

You look at a painting, and it activates something in you. Sometimes it might activate a sense of sadness, or happiness, it depends on the painting. And if it does that, then it half fills the purpose – well, for me it just about fills it.

EM: So the only hope that you have for someone viewing your work is that it activates something for them?

RM: That would be the main hope. Also that they would actually choose to come back and look at it again, and maybe question the feeling that they had in the first place, and then think, ‘Oh, I wonder why I feel differently about that’. And maybe it’s them that has changed, and not the painting.

Sometimes – there was one painting in particular last year I put up on the wall, and I couldn’t take it down. And it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about that, it was about every time I looked at it I could be in it. The water was so churned up, and rough. It wasn’t scary and you could breathe in the water. When I took it down a felt a bit sad. I put it away, and then someone actually walked in and bought it from Handmark and the amazing thing was that that fellow had gone through a similar situation to the one I’d gone through when I was looking at that painting. It’s weird. It’s not weird, but I think a lot of people find it scary. I don’t know, it’s a bit like an echo.

I can explain it: this lady, her son had committed suicide. She cleaned for the accountant that I take my stuff to and Darren, the accountant, said, ‘Why don’t you take some stuff [of your son’s] to Robyn, she might be able to do something with it’. So she knocked on the door, and she told me about her son – this is ‘talk back’, I get goosebumps, all the way up my arms – and I said to her, ‘I’ll do you four drawings’. She gave me free range, and I took four illustrations to her. And after that – that ‘talk back’ sort of thing – it’s like a connection.

EM: So you think that your work is a part of that process of ‘talk back’?

RM: Not quite sure. But if it does talk back to people, then I’d like it to be part of a healing process.

EM: And does it form part of your own healing processes?

RM: I think it must do. I like people, they’re alright – but in the workshop, I’m really happy because I don’t have to talk to anyone. I always feel content to be there. There are very few days where I pace up and down and go, ‘I hate being here’. Maybe it actually gives me a truer sense of myself, my old self, as I was as a child, not as I have to be socially, or talkatively, or stupidly, as people see me, you know. I don’t know.

EM: So how do you feel about Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen?

RM: Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen – it’s probably a childhood memory. My brother had pyjamas with little trucks on them that looked exactly like that. He was born in 1956 and I was born in 1953, so if you can imagine – summer pyjamas in Queensland. I thought people were being too hard on themselves – I thought about this after I painted the painting. I thought, it’s sort of a soft painting, it’s reminiscent of old-fashioned curtains, old-fashioned pyjama material, stuff like that. And it also reminded me of screen-savers. I thought that maybe if people actually saw it as a screen-saver they’d relate to it as something more gentle, something you could actually relate to and say, ‘Oh look at that little pot, things haven’t changed much’. I just felt that when I’d done it. It felt busy, but if felt quiet. Because of the size, too, of the objects, they become more intimate. And it felt like that intimacy thing where you could actually just look at one object and not the whole lot. Yeah, and I thought, ‘It’s fun, that will do’. I felt like it was calming. There’s nothing aggressive about it, except that Mrs Vermeer has too much stuff.

EM: Who is Mrs Vermeer?

RM: Well that’s the other question. Johannes Vermeer’s wife, Vermeer the Dutch master. Mrs Vermeer – you never hear about her. You know The Milkmaid, and the ones with the virginals, and all the pictures he did – she was stuck in the kitchen somewhere. And I don’t even know if he had a wife [laughs].

There’re some jugs in there – the Dutch jugs that you see in his paintings. That’s probably the only reference. Along with that there’s beaters, which Mrs Vermeer would never have know about in a million years. Yeah, it was just to ask the question, ‘Well who was Mrs Vermeer?’ She’s every other woman as well.

EM: How would you feel if someone described you as a feminist artist?

RM: I wouldn’t like it much. If I hear that I think of someone’s work – like eX de Medici. I think tampons, the lady who used tampons in her work, that was probably the height of feminism in Australia. Can you remember things like that? Teabags and tampons hanging off little bits of weaving on walls, and I think, ‘Oh, for god’s sake’.

EM: No I don’t know that one, but it reminds me of Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

RM: Yeah, all that sort of stuff. I don’t know whether that was to shock. I think of someone like Tracey Moffatt, she’s strong as anything, she’s amazing. But if you think about feminism and the power that women can have, it’s neither here nor there in the arts, I don’t think. It sounds like you cry poor if you want to be named a feminist artist. You’re an artist, that’s it.

EM: Yep. So, potentially, someone like Tracey Moffatt, who’s a strong woman, and a strong artist – to relegate her to ‘feminist artist’ could almost weaken her?

RM: I think so. It sounds really crazy, but culturally she’s an icon, isn’t she. So how can she be a feminist as well? What does feminism really mean? Someone said once, ‘If you don’t call yourself a feminist, you’re not a woman’, and I thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.

EM: Well, to me, feminism doesn’t mean everything under the sun to do with women, it means something quite particular. But it’s become so diverse and so imprecise that, as you say, you almost have to identify as a feminist just to be a worthwhile woman. But lots of women are making art, and being a woman is their reality-filter. So for you, whatever it is you’re drawing on…

RM: I’m drawing on where I live, and experiences I’ve had, millions of things…

EM: … the filter for that reality is that you’re a woman, and so therefore someone could come along and label that ‘feminist’. Is there a place for art to perform a social or political duty, do you think? 

RM: I think if art chooses to do that, it does it. I don’t think you can actively decide. Or maybe you can. I’m not the sort of person who actively decides that, I let destiny decide that. People see my work – I don’t invite them in, they just see it, and maybe it fits. If it doesn’t, don’t feel bad about it, just press on.

EM: Do you ever think about artists having a duty?

RM: I think you’ve got a duty to yourself. Again, without ego: if you love what you do, and you know that you can actually better yourself through what you’re doing, then the duty lies there, otherwise you’ve failed as a person. If you give up you’re never going to get anywhere. It’s just a little edge, it’s a little gift, a little bit more than someone else might have. And if you don’t use it, you’re a loser, you waste it. And that’s how I’m ambitious.