Perfectly meaty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from ‘Alien’

Scene from ‘Prometheus’

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

-Luke Hortle

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

There’s a wolf in your head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Luke Hortle

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

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

Jim
By Hilarire Belloc

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Happiness

I mentioned in my interview with Daniel Mudie Cunningham meeting the artist Nell (no surname) the same day. I left it in the transcript because I wanted to segue into this.

Nell’s currency for us lies in the fact her silver poo has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition at Mona.

© NELL, Everyday Happiness

The exhibition is large, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, in collaboration with TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery). The thrust of the show is silent aesthetical resonance: to not teach anything about art history, but to place the onus of pleasure on the viewer, via their visual register. Homi Bhabha calls this register the ‘scopic drive’, in reference to the desire to visually possess and categorise that which is different to the self. Homi Bhabha is a postcolonial theorist. I mention him because the show raises some hair-raising questions about power relationships between France and Tasmania, TMAG and Mona, indigenous and non-indigenous art. I’m not sure where to start with those yet. In the meantime, I missed a vital piece of information: the show places all sorts of art and artefacts, zoological, historical, decorative, functional, from different periods and places, alongside each other, under the rubric of visual congruence. It’s called ‘Theatre of the World’.

So Nell’s silver poo comes from a long line (or, not that long) of her other things with smiley faces on them – tombstones for instance. Hmm. I’m not sure how I feel about the smiley poo. I’m not sure how I feel about Nell’s work in general, namely:

Me: I’ve seen bits and pieces of your work and I cannot for the life of me pick a thread. Is there something that holds it all together?

Nell: Yeah. Me. I’m different every day. I think people end up with signature styles, kind of an accent in a way, but my accent is just who I am. Maybe it’s not really so good in the market place, but it’s just who I am and what I do. I feel like I can do anything or be anything in a really freeing way. 

Please note: my first ‘I’m not sure about’ is a euphemism for ‘I don’t like’; my second means what it says. Her answer, above, helped me understand and categorise.

Me: There’s obviously so many different ways in which people make art – if it’s conceptual, like if you really want to pose an argument or raise questions about the world we live in, you find a way to do that. Or if you just compulsively draw as a child, and then one day people start to buy them. How did that happen for you?

Nell: I think because when I grew up I was pretty bored for stimulation.

Me: In Maitland?

Nell: Uh huh. I went straight from high school to art school, and just tried to be curious about everything. Maybe it just came from that part of my nature, I’m not sure. Then I heard this quote that says, ‘The job of a Buddha is just to be awake’. And I thought, okay, just to be awake, just to be awake. So my job is just to be awake, twenty-four hours a day, just to be awake and open to things. That was the defining moment of how I wanted to live my life, and my art practice is the same.   

I like this. I feel the need to say, I’m no Buddhist. I asked Nell a bit more about happiness, forgetting, really, that that was the name of her work, the smiley little poo. Some say you make better work, better works of creation, when you are unhappy. I have been wondering lately, in happiness, whether I would still want to write about anything, for instance. David my boss says he keeps things incomplete because he needs to let human feeling seep through the cracks. He said this when he was going out with a woman who made him unhappy; I wonder if it’s still true.

The other currency, that’s running out fast as time passes, is that Nell performed for us at MOFO this year: she put on a triptych, a three-paneled piece, that included a chanting group performance, an installation, and a truck-ride through Hobart singing ACDC’s Long Way to the Top.

Image: Chanting To Amps © NELL

Image:  Let There Be Robe © NELL

Image: Long Way To The Top © NELL


The cohering motive of the triptych, she says, is ‘kind of that simple: I love rock and roll. Rock and roll and church were my first aesthetics, and Buddhism was my later one, and they all just mish-mashed’. She said she had always wanted to play music, but had ‘absolutely zero’ musical aptitude:

Nell: I thought, well if I can make mosaic and tapestry and make bronzes and glass works and all these other things, why can’t I just apply that same open-hearted, open-minded mindset and get people to help me, and just learn how to play?

Me: When you get in a cab and the cab driver goes, ‘So, what do you do?’ what do you say?

Nell: I say I’m an artist. I imagine most people you interview would say they are artists, right?

Me: It splits, it goes either way. If you think about making art as looking askance at the system, or being sensitive to the system in a way that directly creates something, then to identify professionally, ‘That’s my career’, it can be a bit of a conflict. But you don’t seem to be conflicted by much.

Nell: No. I’m not sitting here torturing myself. When you pay studio rent – that’s when you know you’re an artist. 

Me: Right. It makes me think about last time I was in Sydney when I interviewed Del Kathryn Barton, and she was saying the exact opposite of what you’re saying, that it’s all about self-torture, that’s her whole game with herself. 

Nell: I know. You know she’s my best friend, don’t you?

Me: Oh really?

Nell: Yeah, she gave me my [bunny necklace]. Yeah, she’s my bestie. No, we’re very similar, and very opposite. I told her, ‘When you learn to be lazy in your paintings you’re going to be a really great painter’. 

Me: But maybe that just works for her. Maybe self-torture works for her.  

Nell: Of course.

Anyhow, so the poo’s in the show, and we’ll see with what it visually resonates when things kick off in June. In the meantime, we’ve just hung some fresh Bartons.

-Elizabeth Mead

Funeral Songs – Daniel Mudie Cunningham

On display in the museum at the moment is Daniel Mudie Cunningham’s Funeral Songs. It is a jukebox compilation of songs people want played at their funeral – joyous, defiant, self-aggrandizing, melancholic etc.

It reminds me of my current greatest fear: that my (partner/boyfriend; always awkward because he’s too old for ‘boyfriend’ and ‘partner’ is stupid) will die before me. In fact, I am certain he will die before me, because men always do, don’t they, and plus he’s fifteen years older than me. Don DeLillo has written a book about this. I know that because I read the blurb on the back cover – and put it back immediately because I don’t want to read about something I find so terrifying. I also confronted this fear when I watched The Iron Lady recently, about Maggie Thatcher. Forget the Faulklands and Poll Tax – I had to stuff my scarf into my mouth to keep from making sobbing noises in the bit when old Maggie put her dead husband’s shoes in garbage bags. The point of the scene was that she was a tough lady and tough enough to come to terms with even this, at even her advanced age, on the edge of death herself. The thing I’m hanging onto is that somehow I will mature into an acceptance of death, his and my own. It seems a long way off (the acceptance. The death itself seems imminent).  I have only just come to terms with the fact that I’m alive. That sounds more philosophically pretentious than I mean it to: said boyfriend/partner’s seven-year old said recently from the backseat, ‘I can’t believe I’m a person,’ and I promise, he is not philosophically pretentious. How long until I start to see the glimmer of a beginning of imagining how it could be possible for me to not exist? Will it be a relief, or will I not notice it creeping up on me?

There’s also the anger factor. I said to my friend David, the one who owns the museum, about six months ago, when I had just moved in with b/p: ‘I am scared [b/p] will die before me,’ and he said very quickly, ‘There’s at least a fifty per cent chance you’ll break up before then,’ and I said, ‘Thanks David.’ Then I told him, which is the truth, that I am seriously pissed off about it, because it seems like the fact of his death renders null and void everything he can say and do now. Nothing he says or does means anything considering that he is on the way to not existing. I can’t believe he can even look me in the eye.

I told my friend Amy a version of this, namely, ‘I find it hard to imagine that conversations continue after I’ve left the room,’ and she suggested I may be a little self-centred.

-Elizabeth Mead

P.S. The song I want played at my funeral is ‘What’s New Pussy Cat’.

Funeral Songs
Daniel Mudie Cunningham
2007 to 2012