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.

Just a story

By Elizabeth Pearce

Tessa Farmer’s The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum will be de-installed on Tuesday. The work is part of The Red Queen exhibition, which opened in June last year; it has taken me since then to find a way of putting into words Tessa’s startling, fun and funny way of looking at her role as an artist. It’s simple, really. She just tells a story. But the unique part, the part that makes it all so loveable, is the way she elides her role as the creator, watching the narrative unfold with the detached curiosity of any other bystander. In another artist, this might seem pretentious, a rhetorical trick to get attention. In Tessa, it’s a pleasure.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Her work revolves around an army of tiny fairies – made from the roots of plants found in her mother’s garden – terrorizing poor, stuffed critters: cats, hedgehogs, foxes and, in this case, a Tasmanian brushtail possum. I interviewed her twice, in London in 2009 and more recently in Hobart in the lead-up to the opening of the Red Queen. One of the questions I always ask in my interviews is, ‘How do you define success as an artist?’ Both times, Tessa told me her ultimate objective is for the fairies to take over the world. She says it with a smile – of course she knows they can’t really take over the world – but still, the objective of her art unfolds within the internally cohesive, closed-loop narrative world of her own making. The same goes for the fairies themselves. In 2009, I asked her: ‘Why are your fairies so mean?’ expecting an answer along the lines of, ‘Historically, the figure of the fairy has been anything but sweet and innocent. I’m interested in drawing out those more macabre elements’, or, ‘My work is a fable about the ferociousness and futility of human conflict’, or, ‘I am making a statement about the way we wage war on the natural world’. Instead, I got: ‘Because they’re ambitious, because they’re greedy. They’ve got to eat’. From that interview:

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you on their side?

Tessa Farmer: I suppose so. That sounds a bit mean, but – yeah, I suppose I feel responsible for them. I’m satisfied by their progress. It makes me happy.

EP: So you’d feel guilty if they went hungry?

TF: Oh, I wouldn’t mind so much…  I really don’t know very much about them, to be honest. It’s a bit frustrating. People keep asking me about their social structure.

EP: That’s their business, really, isn’t it.

TF: Yeah. Like do they have a queen? I don’t know. Do they mate? I don’t know, I don’t really want to know. It’s embarrassing.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

In The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum, the fairies are conquering a bees’ nest. ‘They learnt to control bees in Britain, and they seem to be controlling the honeybees here in Tasmania quite well, too,’ Tessa told me when I spoke to her in June. They are apparently using some sort of unspecified mind-control to do so:

TF: I think it might be pheromones, and maybe dancing – you know, like how bees dance to communicate where flowers are. Lots of insects communicate through pheromones.

Once enslaved, the bee-sting power is sublimated to more sinister use: the torture and destruction of a (taxidermied) Tasmanian brushtail possum. (‘Wouldn’t the wasps evolve behaviours to counteract the predation of the fairies?’ worries Tessa momentarily, before brushing the thought aside).

TF: I thought the possum would be quite easy to overcome, but they make these horrific noises and have these big claws. When it actually arrived [from a taxidermist in Launceston], I realised what thick fur it had, and wondered whether the bees would be able to get to the skin of the possum to sting it. It might all be completely futile.

Which bit, I wondered later, might ‘be completely futile’? Is this an existential, or entirely pragmatic matter?

TF: They’ve developed a mutation where they have – this sounds so ridiculous, sorry, I’m just mentally telling myself to shut up.

EP: No, don’t.

TF: The fairies have developed a mutation so they have crab claws on their heads, to grab the wasps with. We collected the crab claws a couple of weeks ago at Lewisham [Tasmania]. They’re really tiny because the fairies are only one centimetre in size.

EP: Amazing. And I’m correct in saying the fairies are anatomically accurate?

TF: Yes.

EP: I remember when I spoke to you last time you were worried because they didn’t have kneecaps.

TF: Yes, but I’ve gotten over that. I have to learn to stop putting myself down.

EP: Yes, I must say the lack of kneecaps is not a major issue for me. What are they going to do with the possum once they have it?

TF: Eat it and use its bones to make bigger, more elaborate ships and architecture, and probably use its fur, I think.

EP: Do you want the viewer to take away some kind of environmental or social message from your work?

TF: No. I wouldn’t mind if they did, but that’s not my intention. I’m far too involved in the story.

‘I’m far too involved in the story’, she says. I have recently encountered a theory (de rigueur in some circles) that has liberated me: we are more viable, evolutionarily speaking, when we create sweet stories about ourselves, and believe them. Others – both competitors and mates – are more likely to be deceived by us, to find us funnier, sexier, kinder and better parents than we really are, if we are deceived by ourselves. This gives me chills a bit. I didn’t really need to read it in a book to know that it is true. (To what extent it is useful to discuss in terms of natural selection I will leave to others to decide.) The notion has helped me accept the stories of the people around me, as opposed to trying to get them to ‘see the truth’: that their worlds are not autonomously animated by mysterious forces (God, the fairies, fate), but a result of a series of choices that seem natural and invisible to each individual because those choices obey a secret, powerful inner logic. Is the conflict we see all around us – most intensely between loved ones as opposed to strangers; those of overlapping but conflicting interests – the result of stories in collision? When others act outside our plot, refuse to play the part assigned to them, or, worse, call into question our own heroic role, this hurts and angers us; obstacles on the path to our true destiny (to ‘take over the world’, whatever that means on an individual basis). Interestingly, I have noticed that the traits people are most self-critical about are often not the ones that cause others the most pain (‘I have to stop putting myself down’, says Tessa). That’s the nature of self-delusion. The more you squint at it the more it recedes into abstraction, like those hidden-image stereogram patterns that were popular when I was a kid. The best we can aim for, I think, is a modest self-consciousness, an ability to momentarily see ourselves from without (‘this sounds so ridiculous…’).

Listening to the recording of my interviews with Tessa, they are full of laughter. I am laughing at her (gently) and she is joining in. This is the difference between the best and worst of us, I think. It is also the difference between a friend and someone who means nothing to us: the willing suspension of disbelief. Occasionally it has occurred to me to beg my friends to tell me what my self-deceiving stories are, but that’s not the nature of friendship. They might, perhaps, remind me when I’m a little ‘too involved in the story’; but mostly, I am lucky enough to have friends who laugh and cry in all the right places, reassuring me with their very company that it’s not ‘completely futile’ after all.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

New York I love you, but you’re making me cringe

By Luke Hortle

A while ago, I met a photographer from The New Yorker at the museum. I can’t remember his name because I was too busy swooning (he was European and painfully handsome in that rugged and forlorn manner that Europeans often are) and feeling inadequate, because we didn’t have a book with kangaroos in it. But this sensation of inadequacy (and it was a sensation, a bodily one; I could feel it drenching my limbs) leached beyond this one apparently minute interaction. Horror of horrors, I felt grateful to have met this man. Not because of his aquiline features, but because of all that other cultural currency that he’d brought with him, from Europe, from New York, and now he was talking to me, in Hobart, on this island, and I felt inferior, somehow ashamed, immodestly thrilled. Enter the cultural cringe.

At MONA FOMA last year, I went to see PJ Harvey. In a break between songs, clouded in the beer-breath and radiant bodily steam of PW1, Eleanor whispered to me that seeing PJ perform was ‘like a religious experience.’ I thought she was being overly dramatic and told her to finish her beer. This moment has been nagging me ever since, the implication being that we were somehow not quite worthy to be in the presence of this woman wreathed in feathered black. That we ought to have been grateful. This really pissed me off, because I wanted to be in thrall to PJ Harvey (did you know that ‘thrall’ comes from an Old English word for ‘slave’?) and not think about the experience in terms where I came off with an inferiority complex. Later that night at Faux Mo, I kept hearing people say things like ‘Are we still in Hobart?’ And I was guilty of thinking similar things. I couldn’t comfortably integrate where I was with what I was thinking. (What I can remember from Faux Mo: You’re in. Bass thumps skywards, leaching out of the winding alleyway; who even knew it was there? Bulging lights bloom in the brickwork. You manage to jump the line. Paris Wells is there. The really hot guy from BalletLab is there, sans feathers and twigs. You think that BalletLab was great, but so fucking weird. You should definitely be drinking gin. Bordello-red flickers against crumpled aluminium curtains. People are dancing like it’s windy.) The city, the island, kept intruding in my fantasies, fantasies which constantly gestured away from where I was, geographically, culturally, far-flung connections sketched with alcohol-induced similes.

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MONA/Remi Chauvin

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MOFO/Rémi Chauvin

I can’t seem to escape the fact that geography matters. It’s dished up to me on a daily basis. Customer after customer will find a way to tell me, as they purchase their catalogue, postcards, cunt soap, whatever, that ‘this [museum, art, estate, the whole deal] is a great thing for Tasmania.’

A brief interlude from that guy in the bookshop

‘Do the postcards come with envelopes?’
No. Of course they don’t; they’re fucking postcards. From Wiki: ‘A postcard or post card is a rectangular piece of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing without an envelope.’
‘Do you have a book on the architecture?’
No. We really don’t. I promise. And (shockingly, eye-poppingly shockingly, I know) you are not the first person to ask for one. And even if you do tell me for the next half an hour how great such a book would be, and how you can’t believe that there isn’t one for you to take home in your eager paws, I still won’t be able to provide one for you. So fuck off already.
‘Do you still sell the angina soaps?’
No words.

Invariably, their assessment of the museum becomes inextricable from its geographical locale. And inherent within these assessments of the museum is a commensurate assessment of Hobart and Tasmania more broadly; that we’re lucky to have the museum where it is, because of the entrenched view that the state is culturally inferior, a backwater, next stop Antarctica. And now I’ve just gone and written that and perpetuated the stereotype in print. Oh great. Maybe this doesn’t matter though, and maybe I’m just projecting my own (recently discovered) cultural cringe onto these social interactions. It (projecting potentially/completely incorrect assumptions onto a situation/conversation/relationship) does sound like something I would do.

I can’t seem to write about this cringe response without falling into the trap that the very construct tries to describe: ie. I end up cringing, through my attempts to elucidate what was happening when I met that photographer. (Clarification, obfuscation; potato, po-TAR-to.) My point: I live on an island, and sometimes this fact, and its corresponding sense of islandness, of being so bounded by a place, by a body, is suffocating.[i] Maybe this is my postcolonial penance. It’s undoubtedly constitutive too, which makes me uncomfortable (which is weird, because I’m an identity politics enthusiast). I’ve been told I can be quite neurotic (‘amazingly’ might’ve been the word used, actually) and maybe this is why I like reading The New Yorker. But I suspect it’s also a reaction to where I am, geographically and culturally; as I hand over my cash, I know I’m buying into a particular type of identity, a particular type of self-image. It’s a performance, one in which I’m friends with Lena Dunham and live in a loft with Paul Auster and/or Oliver Jeffers and/or Michael Cunningham. Even as it’s a performance, it’s one performed from my particular moment in time and space, my ‘here’ and my ‘now.’ But I’m not completely shallow; I do enjoy reading the magazine. I just want people to see me reading it as well.

Luke once ran over a Blue-tongued Lizard with a lawn mower. It was awful, like a scene out of a Tarantino film. He still feels queasy/guilty about it. Luke works in the Mona Bookshop.


[i] I recently read a couple of pieces from an edition of Island magazine, an essay by Adam Ouston and a short story by Ben Walter. They’re great, they really are. You should go read them, right now. What I do know is that they made me feel better about being a man living on an island.

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.