First world problems

By Elizabeth Pearce1

I was halfway through Middlemarch when I got (‘fell’) pregnant. I’m not suggesting there’s a connection. I have only just been able to pick the book up again, and when I say ‘pick the book up’ that is not a metaphor (or metonymy) for reading it; I literally have been unable to look at it or touch the cover due to the powerful association I have built between it, and the all-day, all pervasive morning sickness that promptly followed my ‘falling’ and that, frustratingly, led to no actual vomiting, meaning that it wasn’t even classed as bad in the scale of things. ‘The scale of things’. That means the scale of my wonderful, privileged life, the one in which I can get pregnant when I want to, distinguishing me from lots of other women and couples who have to go through all sorts to get to that point; and distinguishing me, further, from the rest of the world for which getting pregnant and having morning sickness are not significant problems at all, in the scale of things.

I have been wondering a lot lately (ever since I realised I was not going to dedicate my life to saving the world or even, as I had planned when I was younger, to easing the suffering of sick or exploited animals) about the quality of suffering. Is the suffering I rate in my own ‘scale’—that of drug addiction, divorce, loneliness, cancer, failure to express oneself or to fulfill ambition—made of the same stuff, boast the same blood and tendon, as that suffering, unimaginable to me, of war, famine, genocide, or the suppression of human rights? I know that it differs in magnitude: we should be more horrified by, say, the exploitation of children in sweatshops than by the physical degradation and social isolation of old age. Or should we? Is suffering just suffering, regardless of whether its source lies with barbarity (in the first instance), or inevitability (in the second)? Do the scales shift, giving us an ever-relative experience of pain? But the reason that I frame the question, I confess with some shame, is that I want to be able to justify (or not) my ongoing decision to do nothing at all to put a stop to that second-order variety of human atrocity. For instance: two of my friends dedicate a lot of their spare time and energy (and who has much of that?) to raising money to educate children in Benin, and traveling to that country when they can. I could do something like that, but I don’t.

I believe I was sincere in my plans, at a younger age, to ‘do something’, and I don’t think my decision now not to fulfill those plans has anything to do with loss of innocence (even now I rail against the you’ll-grow-out-of-it dismissals we perpetuate on the idealistic young). Hmm. Perhaps my inaction does have something to do with the fact that I recognise, having lived a little longer, that ‘goodness’ is infinitely contingent: there are no essentially decent acts (due to immeasurably complex consequences), but only decent intentions – which are, in turn, shadowed by any number of murkier motivations. (Brian Boyd writes in his book On the Origin of Stories about the fact that, in evolutionary terms, the best way for a socially competitive organism like a human to conceal its intentions from others is to not know them itself. The truth as I see it is that we never really know why we do things and we shouldn’t waste our time trying to find out. Instead we should focus on trying to control the impulses we know from imagination or experience lead to the suffering of ourselves or those around us). Being privy to the childhoods of others (my husband’s boys) has taught me a great deal about the contingency of good and bad: each boy is very different to the other. It is easy for me to see, from my privileged adult vantage point, that they are often, in conflict, both right at once; they do wrong to each other just by (rightly) being themselves. I wish I could explain that to them in words they’d understand. It would truly, I believe, set them up to better know the world and so to make the best of it.

What do you do with the suffering in the world? is a question asked by many (everyone, perhaps); among them, Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Like Dorothea (at least as her character stands in the first half of the book. What I am doing now—writing about a book only half-read—is an atrocity in my book, but I hope, given the circumstances, you’ll forgive me this once?)… Like Dorothea, I am prone to over-empathy, that scourge her admirer Will Ladislaw (do they get together?) calls ‘the fanaticism of sympathy’. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say with Dorothea that ‘it spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it’; but I have been prone to the recurring, tormenting thought: Why should I be happy when that other person can’t be?

It is something of a cliché perhaps to recall that Mother Theresa said, when asked what we should do to promote world peace, ‘Go home and love your family’. (She also said in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize lecture that ‘the greatest destroyer of peace today’ is—abortion. Actually she said it twice. I don’t even find the sentiment that offensive because it is just too weird. I was asked recently if my impending-mother status impacts how I feel about the issue. Yes it does. I have always supported free choice but my own experience has intensified my feelings of indignation—yes, outrage—at the audacity of any group or individual to have any say at all over the completion or otherwise of a pregnancy. It is an intensely personal business, a figment of my body, a biological quirk—at least, up until a certain point in time.2 On my way to work I walk past an abortion clinic, outside which Christian protestors gather each morning; one elderly man wears a sandwich board-style contraption sporting life-size models of fetuses that I could, if I wanted to, pop out and hold. I used to find these religious folk amusing, and even say good morning to them—who am I to discriminate against them on the grounds of their beliefs? They think they’re doing right in the world. But the thought, now, of the things those women must feel as they enter that building, each with their inherently worthy reasons for terminating their pregnancy—I don’t believe any person would make that choice for casual reasons—has put an end to my congenial tolerance of the protestors. I feel seriously pissed off with them instead. And by the way, if you want to you can buy from the internet a number of Mother Theresa abortion-quotation bumper stickers). But what I wanted to say, with or without Mother T, is that the advent of family, mature love, and the understanding that everyone—even people with seemingly everything—suffers, has perhaps been the biggest reason for the non-emergence of the world-saving zeal I looked forward to in youth. I offer this neither as excuse nor justification, merely the truth. Instead of posing navel-gazing questions like, ‘Can I justify my existence?’ I intend to do as much as I can to extend sympathy to the people in my life, friends and strangers, who are inevitably suffering their own silent, first-world scale pain. It is either enough or it isn’t (and of course it isn’t, how could it be?). I will think, as well, of the people around me whose strength, happiness and decency have rubbed off on me when I have been weak, miserable and ignoble. As Will Ladislaw would have it:

The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery?3

And I’m going to finish Middlemarch.

1 I got hitched.

2 If this is neither a scientifically, nor morally, nor philosophically coherent estimation of the beginning point of human life, that is because we humans are incoherent entities. And I’m not saying that ‘the beginning point of human life’ is automatically equivalent to the point at which abortion should be illegal.

3 Middlemarch quotes are taken from page 219 ‘in case you care’ – to paraphrase my co-blogger Luke Hortle.

At the arsenale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Elizabeth Mead

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

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

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

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

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

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

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

-Elizabeth Mead

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

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

Hand-jobs in the post-humanist age

Gild the lily

1. To adorn unnecessarily something already beautiful.
2. To make superfluous additions to what is already complete.


On Saturday a man who is much cleverer than me asked what angle he should take in his write-up of our exhibition, Theatre of the World. The exhibition opened on Friday. Actually, it opened on Saturday, but the party was on Friday. I didn’t enjoy the party until near the end because there were too many people I knew in one place. I find it very difficult to remember how everyone relates to each other, and what sorts of things are acceptable to talk about in each situation. For instance, two of my good friends standing on either side of me who don’t really know each other: my in-jokes and way of interacting is totally different for each and I have to think, on the spot, under pressure, not only what their names are so I can introduce them but what conversation topics will be relevant to them both. Really the problem is having to mobilise discrete parts of my personality at once. I don’t understand people who are the same in every context, ‘She’s always herself’; how do people know this of each other, anyway? I refuse to accept that this means I’m inauthentic or dishonest with myself: I quite simply feel differently around some people compared to others. With Anica, puns are funny, but not with Simon. With David, it’s perfectly permissible to express opinions on other people’s undertakings using violent terminology like ‘kill’, ‘bullet’, ‘appalling’, ‘horrific’; Amy’s company makes me sense the inherent value in people’s creative pursuits, regardless of the quality of the output. With Kate (I promise this is the last comparison) I have high expectations of myself; Corinne makes me like my frailties. The other reason I wasn’t having fun was that my feet were hurting. That concrete is really effing hard on heels.

So at lunch, at The Source, the clever man asked me his question, and I answered him, and thought I should probably think about it a bit more and write it down, so that’s what this is.

The angle I would take is:

Art and post-humanism

Notably, my boyfriend (sitting on the other side of me) commented after my pitch to the clever man that I was ‘gilding a lily’. For him, humanism is not a threatening notion; the ‘post’, and its attendant chat, is an unnecessary adornment (I already knew this though because he likes to build things and I prefer to take them apart i.e. he studied architecture and I studied arts. I also knew it because his eyeballs make a grinding noise when he rolls them).

The truth is – I’m actually kind of sorry about the ‘post-humanist’ bit. [1] I don’t want to use an academic-sounding word, really, because I have enough respect for academia to know that I am therefore obliged to spend a lot of my energy discussing my terminology, and to lose my reader in the process. Nobody reads academic texts except other academics, and that means hardly anyone benefits from them, and the texts themselves benefit from hardly anyone’s influence, just a small circle of people with obscure and special knowledge. [2]

I’m talking about our concept of ‘the human’. The reason I’m suggesting it’s ‘post’ (which doesn’t mean ‘coming after’ so much as ‘in response to’, or ‘in reaction against’) is because just normal ‘human’ without the ‘post’ took a thorough beating in the second half of the twentieth century. As it should have. ‘Human’ seems inclusive, but actually it’s not, because it hinges on a standard and a type. Simply put, ‘human’ implicitly means a white man, and probably a pretty good-looking white man, and certainly not one that likes other good-looking men. He, that man (and of course I’m simplifying, ‘stylising’) was the standard against which other modes of humanity were measured. Darwinism was appropriated (inappropriately) for this cause: it was used to buttress the myth that humanity existed on a continuum of progress, at which degenerate types like Africans and Tasmanians represented the lowest ebb of human development. The Tasmanian bit is not a joke: according to nineteenth-century social Darwinist discourse the Tasmanian Aborigine was the lowest rung of evolutionary development. [3] Similarly, women – especially those who embodied an inappropriate or threatening form of femininity, like if they have a moustache or are wildly unimpressed by penises – have fought hard for admission to the human race. In my humble opinion, they’ve (we’ve) at least got our foot in the door. Privileged women like me are all the way through. On the other hand, Australian Aborigines only officially became people in 1967. We have a long way to go before Aboriginal becomes synonymous with human.

Nevertheless, the twentieth century’s fracturing of empires – imperial, sexual, ideological – gave birth to a kingless world of diffuse and relativised power. I will use my eye-rolling, skyscraper-dreaming boyfriend as an example. He is a bona fide WASP (bless him). [4] But he’s also a separated father. He’s a majority in the workplace, and at the ping-pong table (no one plays golf anymore); decidedly a minority when he takes his kids to school, and in the realm of family law. In this world, where minority and majority fuck around with each other a lot, [5] we don’t have to fight so hard to assert our differences, because we take those differences for granted. Of course many people don’t respect difference, but I’m talking about our dominant, collective cultural identity – according to which, overtly racist and sexist people are the deviant ones.

I argue that we can think in terms of ‘human’ again, because we’ve done the work required to break down the sexist, racist and homophobic implications of that term. It is only from this perspective – both fractured and inclusive – that we can sift though for some common human truths.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, MONA, Theatre of the World Exhibition

No title (Awelye), 1994, ©Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2012

Lucio Fontana, MONA, Theatre of the World Exhibition

Concetto spaziale, 1964 to 1965, ©Lucio Fontana/Licensed by Viscopy, 2012

Art, arguably, manifests such ‘fractures’ aesthetically. And Theatre of the World gathers them together. I find the idea a little outrageous. It raises my postcolonial hackles. Placing a line-painting by Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye alongside a European modern master like Lucio Fontana reeks of primitivism. Primitivism is one of the vehicles of the exclusive form of humanism I outlined above: the one in which non-European peoples represent an earlier, more idealized stage of human development. ‘See?’ The pairing of Fontana and Kngwarreye might (possibly) say. ‘We’re all the same’. And with this, the realities of the inequality faced by Aboriginal people slides out of focus, as does the very different way Aboriginal art operates within our commercial and cultural economy.

Except this doesn’t happen, I don’t think, in Theatre of the World, and part of the reason is that we’re ready, collectively, to think about how two artists like Fontana and Kngwarreye might be compelled by comparable human motives, each enmeshed as they are in a complex matrix of personal, social and historical forces. We’re ready to see them both as both radically unique, and shockingly the same.

Maybe. I’m pretty sure my favourite WASP chimed in at this point, charmingly, with his gilded lily.

Speaking of which:

The other thing the clever man asked me, at the party this is, on Friday night: how come no one talks about sexual technique anymore? Indeed, it’s all about self-esteem, connection, maintaining a work-life-sex balance; what to do if your boyfriend compares your labia to Wiener schnitzel (or any other crumbed meat product). [6] Take this example from the sex column in The Age.

Q. After we’ve done the family thing in the morning, my husband and I plan to spend Christmas Day in bed, awake! Can you recommend some sexy gifts we can unwrap together?

Massive cares. This is a sex advice column? What about, ‘How do you give a good hand job?’

Which is precisely the knowledge contributed by my friend’s ‘shy’, cherub-faced girlfriend who, joining in the conversation with the clever man and myself at the party, informed us that the appropriate manner in which to manually stimulate one’s partner’s penis is to the beat of ‘Wangaratta’, where the hard syllables correspond to the up and down strokes respectively:

WAN-ga RAT-ta!
WAN-ga RAT-ta!
WAN-ga RAT-ta!

And so forth. I added the exclamation marks myself.

That’s that then. Not much left to say, really, except perhaps to come up with some other place names, perhaps some relevant to us Tasmanians. Ouse? [7] Sorry. My WASP will be horrified.

-Elizabeth Mead


[1] Although, without it, my angle would just be ‘Art’ and that’s a bit general.

[2] A comment from David: ‘In science it isn’t like that. A paper on, say, giant magnetoresistance might not mean anything to anyone, except for the guys that use it to build the big hard drives that we put our porn videos on (such as the ones demonstrating hand jobs).’

[3] I first encountered this argument in Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest; I was reminded of it rather powerfully more recently, when the Brisbane-based artist Vernon Ah Kee told me of the way he and other Aboriginal people are taught not to ‘reach for an upper rung, let alone to grasp it’. You can see Ah Kee’s work in Theatre of the World.

[4] He comes from the sort of family that produces senators and architects; the sort that gets the kids skiing early so it comes easy to them later on. I never learned to ski: my leisure time as a kid was taken up with watching my mother’s bulimic, ‘singing deck-hand’ boyfriend perform ‘Under the boardwalk’ for the weekend harbor-cruise  passengers. She kicked him out eventually, after he stole her watch; her parting advice was to ‘skip the middle bit, and throw the food straight down the toilet’. Happily, I inherited my mother’s sense of sarcasm and not her taste in men.

[5] This idea is taken (and bastardised) from Ken Gelder and Jane M Jacobs’ Uncanny Australia: sacredness and identity in a postcolonial nation.

[6] From Marie Claire magazine, February 2009: ‘I was already feeling slightly body conscious when he reached down and put his hands between my legs and suddenly started laughing. “Wow!” he exclaimed, as he tugged on my inner labia. “You’ve got a couple of Wiener schnitzels here!”’

[7] Say it ‘Ooze’ (for non-Tassies). Also – please note that the correct pronunciation of Launceston is LON-ceston.

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.

‘Why sex matters so much to men’

The word ‘rape’ is pretty potent. It can shut down discussion just like ‘racist’ can. I am guilty of using the r word (both of them in fact) to bully my conversation opponent into submission. I didn’t realise how much it hurt actually, until it happened to me the other day. I was accused, indirectly, of advocating rape.

This woman, Bettina Arndt, gave a talk at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last week. I didn’t know until later that she was famous or notorious in the arena of sexual sociology; I just heard the title of the talk and thought it sounded interesting: ‘Why sex matters so much to men’. Male/female sexuality, in short, other people’s sex lives, is a topic of endless fascination to me. I can’t get enough.

As it turns out I missed the talk because I was watching my colleague Jane Clark address the NGV Women’s Association on the topic of ‘The Modern Medicis’. Is David Walsh a modern day Medici? No, said Jane. But they’ve both got balls.

I looked up Arndt’s talk on the Wheeler Centre Facebook page later that day, where I was provided with a video recording and told that Arndt had ‘stirred the ire’ of many.

Bettina Arndt, ‘Why sex matters so much to men’, video.

She’s basically giving voice to – authorising, through the discourse of sociology – the commonly accepted truth that lots of men have a higher sex drive than the women they are committed to, have children with, and love. There are plenty of exceptions, of course there are, just like you could say that generally men are taller than women, but I can think of a fair few men who are shorter than me. I think this is a brave and important thing to do, this ‘giving voice’. I also think it needs to be a woman’s voice for now, because it’s less threatening: it seems that if you acknowledge that sometimes things are hard for men, you are taking something away from women, robbing from their pile of woe. Dan Savage, America’s leading sex columnist, has been discussing this and related matters for years. He talks about the GGG principle: the need for all lovers to be ‘good, giving and game’ in order to hold out hope for happy monogamy. I can’t see why women would be magically exempt from this. We’re past special treatment I think. I don’t need it, thank you.

The depth of feeling on this matter was brought home to me when I tried to express my interest in the topic on the Wheeler Centre site, which was soliciting opinion. I found bitterness there, directed at Arndt, who was described as ‘loathsome’ and ‘revolting’. I lodged a comment asking what they meant, and asking why it was so abhorrent to express sympathy for men in sexless relationships, or men who live their lives trying and failing to get enough sex to make them happy. (Just think for a second: this would be so horrid! Imagine being constantly sexually frustrated and rejected. There’s no way I could be happy like that. The history of feminism tells me I don’t have to put up with anything that makes me unhappy).

Sure, it may be that angrier people are more likely to comment on these online forums, but no one ‘Liked’ my comment. No one liked it at all. Instead:

Oh I’m sorry I was unaware that white middle class heterosexual men were so marginalized. Poor things struggling with their overwhelming unfulfilled desires. […]

Poor men in sexless relationships! Oh no! […]

What’s that word for when you coerce someone into having sex with you when they don’t want it… Hmm… Oh yeah, rape.

As if things were not hard enough.

I hope such sentiment is not as widely held as it is deeply felt. If so, feminism must be in a rather sorry state (and I struggle to believe it is!) This much anger and defensiveness can only come from a position of weakness. I don’t accept that most women today – the relatively privileged ones for whom this research was conducted, and to whom the subsequent discussion is directed – are as weak and vulnerable as these comments suggest. Perhaps it’s a generation thing; perhaps these women, and especially the last one, are significantly older than me. The women I know wouldn’t infer ‘rape’ from this discussion, I’m sure, because they have so thoroughly internalised the knowledge that violence and exploitation are never acceptable, and haven’t been for a long time.

That goes to the heart of what I really want to say. To be truly liberated is to know that you, too, wield power. The things women want – career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination – shape our sexual and social realities just as much as the things men want (career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination). If you just take love, for a start: women make up half of it (in heterosexual terms). We’re needed. We’re also needed for sex, and for most men, sex is essential for happiness. We know, or should know, a lot about women’s needs, because of the first and second waves of feminism. We are strong enough now to think of our others’ needs as well. (Again, I’m talking about those who enjoy a certain social privilege. Poverty, lack of education and wide-spread violence, as seen in society’s most underprivileged groups, are issues of human rights and human suffering, and don’t have a place in this discussion).

Finally, I must confess my own indiscretion in bandying about the ‘r’ word, and in doing so, apologise to my ‘victim’: we were talking in a restaurant about women who want children when their male partners don’t. This man said that in a such a case the woman should ‘just do it’ anyway and once it was done it was too late, and he’d be ok with it, because it’s a new life after all. I compared this to rape: the taking of something essential from someone, with potentially catastrophic consequences, without their consent. The men I know would feel this violation very deeply indeed. As I said before, it was an extreme comparison and one that overlooks the physical pain and violence attendant to the standard definition of the word. But my point, then as now, is that every woman has the power to grant and withhold the ingredients of others’ happiness and well-being, as well of course, her own. Only a liberated woman can know that.

-Elizabeth Mead

Something for Easter

Eleanor has asked me to write something about Easter. Eleanor is our Blog Mistress.

I was wildly disappointed with Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. I usually like de Botton very much, and this book was bland and preachy.

I have been prepared lately to consider the uses of religion: for social cohesion, community-mindedness, and a structure for kindness, for instance. My argument so far has been thus: if you pick and choose the bits to believe in – that it’s good to be good to your neighbour, and to feed the poor, but not good to admonish gay people, because come on, it’s the twenty-first century – you prove to yourself that you didn’t need religion in the first place. Moral relativism and responsibility is encoded in us naturally. All you’re left with, without God, is the problems with religion – obviously the wars and stuff, but also sloppy mindedness and waiting patiently for happiness.

So, like I said, I have lately been prepared to consider the other side. Not of course that God exists but that religion might be good for us. Consider: Richard Dawkins said, at a conference I’m hideously ashamed of myself for attending, that gratitude is imbued in us by evolution. Just like being co-operative can be a passive, unconscious ‘strategy’ for our genes to cycle into the next generations. The conference was for atheists. Guess what, stupidity and atheism are not mutually exclusive. Worse than the lynch-mob jeering the placard-bearing Christian soldier out the front of the Melbourne Exhibition Centre was the presentation on ‘Feminism and atheism’. Who cares, went the argument, chicks rule (cheer) and God’s dead (woo hoo). It was hideous.

Anyhow, the reason I’m thinking about whether religion might be healthy somehow is basically because I’m getting old and conservative. (Comparatively). I’m mostly worried about people being nice to each other, except for Mummy Bloggers, who I despise and wish to put an end to, a final end. I also really like watching rom-coms; I routinely veto films in which a parent dies or any pets are sick or sad (emotionally scarred by Dumbo).

I’ve teased (and tested) my friends a bit too, about the possibility of finding Jesus – me, who is known to her loved ones as a ‘fascist’ and ‘zealot’, and also ‘aggressive and arrogant’, when it comes to preaching about why religion isn’t good for us. A particular sticking point for me, at least me in my pre-rom-com state, is ‘tolerance’: if you believe in magic, I will think you’re weird and stupid. Why should I ‘tolerate’ you? Dressing up your belief in magic with words like ‘spirituality’ and ‘fate’ will make me ‘tolerate’ you even less for your sloppy logic, i.e. if you are going to believe in fate, have the guts to call it God.

Apparently, if I do eventually locate Jesus, I won’t have many friends left, not even a boyfriend (‘It’s a deal-breaker’). Those of my friends who were at my eighteenth birthday a decade ago know that I once knew Jesus very well. My mother decided that my birthday party was the perfect time to wheel out the religious poetry I wrote when I was ten: God gave me hands to touch the earth / Beneath the moonlight sky/ And eyes to see the little birds / flying in the, um, sky. Funnily enough, should I ‘fall’ again, my boss David would probably let me keep my job, and might even stay my friend. After all, he employed me and was nice to me when I was in the throws of cult hysteria (i.e. at university) and thought it was funny when I told him that postcolonial and feminist theory were not, in fact, a way of thinking, but a religion.

Clearly we have tendencies in that direction: gratitude, spirituality, a greater purpose for us. That’s ok (see how grown-up I am). We also have tendencies in the direction of violence, sexual exploitation of each other, and not liking people who look different to us; being ferally competitive about our children, or worse, revealing to others the details of their eating and sleeping habits. There was a letter in the Age last week, to the sex therapy agony aunt, that said something like: ‘Help – I’m a feminist, but I want my husband to spank me!’ Clearly grown-ups should, in this order: respect such urges (to be sexist / grateful to God / write mummy blogs) and then, promptly, quarantine them – to the bedroom, in the case of the spank-me feminist. That’s what makes us civilized.

So spanking is akin, then, to celebrating Easter? The safe expression of a baser urge? Not quite sure how I ended up here but there you go, something for Easter.

-Elizabeth Mead


Blog Mistress here – that sounds kinkier than it is, particularly in an afterthought to a blog that compared a good spanking to celebrating Easter. I feel that it’s my duty to let the blogosphere know that the Wim Delvoye exhibition ends on Monday 9 April. It’s an appropriate closing weekend, and not just because there’s a four-day holiday, if you’ve seen the exhibition you’ll know why, if you haven’t, then you should visit this weekend and find out.

Also, I think I tend to agree with Mead in that maybe religion does have something to offer. Although I do firmly believe in her first argument on religion, before she was older and more conservative, that the good bits are nice because they’re nice ways to behave towards your fellow human, and what you’re left with is an excuse for the bad stuff; wars, hate crimes, greed, closed mindedness and rejection of that which is considered ‘other’. But maybe that’s the same for any societal group, religious or otherwise. Anyway, her post prompted me to think about this, in time for Pesach (Passover).

Technically, I’m Jewish, on my mother’s side: Judaism is generally considered matrilineal; if your mum was a Jew then you are too. This makes sense to me because, let’s face it, it would have been a lot easier for people to be more certain of who your mother was than who your father was. Anyway, when both of my grandparents passed away recently I experienced my first Jewish funerals. They were vastly different to any other funeral I’ve been to. There were no hideously expensive coffins, no elaborate bouquets of flowers, no dressing of the deceased in their ‘Sunday best’ – none of which relate strictly to other religious funerals, by-the-by. Instead the bodies are stripped naked of all of their material belongings, wrapped in a plain white shroud and laid to rest in an unadorned, simple casket. Firstly, this seems like commonsense again – I like Judaism’s practicality – because, I’m dead and I don’t give a shit what I’m buried in. Sure, if it makes you feel better about it all then go ahead, but personally I’d rather you gave the money to people who were still alive and could enjoy it and benefit from it (take note future offspring). But that aside, what this process is meant to symbolise is that we are all equal in death, and I like that idea too. Whether you were a king or a pauper you’re one and the same once you’re dead. That’s the nice part of the religious ritual that I took away from the experience. However, after I extracted that I was left with the problems, some of which are what have made me decide to steer clear of Judaism, or any other religion, since I escaped mandatory ‘religion classes’ in (public) primary school and my mother’s fleeting and halfhearted attempts to introduce me to the religion as a child. The women and men were segregated, sitting on opposite sides of the funeral home, the men closest to the deceased. After the burials, first of my grandfather and then a few weeks later of my grandmother, came their respective Shivas, traditionally seven days of mourning, during which there were prayers for the deceased’s soul. The catch, though, is that we needed an orthodox Minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish males who are aged thirteen years or more. Women’s prayers don’t count for much, apparently. We had a tough time wrangling up ten capable Jewish gents at my grandparents’ nursing home. We managed, so I hope their souls benefitted. I left enjoying the really beautiful aspects I took from the experience, while missing my grandparents terribly, but also feeling like Judaism remains horribly sexist.

I also find it weird that I feel odd and put out when people mention the holocaust and being stingy, and when I studied The Merchant of Venice. Oh, and that I don’t purposely buy pig products or shellfish.

That’s a long afterthought. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I agree with Mead, don’t I?

You might not, feel free to let us know.

Either way, go and see the Wim exhibition before it ends.

-Eleanor Robb (aka Blog Mistress)