Snags

By Elizabeth Pearce

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

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

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

Paul, 2014, Ronnie van Hout

Paul, 2014, Ronnie van Hout

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

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

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

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

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

All in good taste

By Elizabeth Pearce

Painter, 1995, by Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy, regularly tops our list of works most hated by Mona visitors. I have avoided writing about it for a long time, because that would entail sitting through the whole thing: fifty minutes of unpleasant muttering and groaning, thrashing wildly around with paint, pissing in pot plants and squeezing shit out of an oversized tube onto a canvas, topped off with a really (sorry to be a prude) distasteful bum-sniffing montage at the end.

Left: Painter, 1995, Paul McCarthy Right: Paul, 2014, Ronnie Van Hout Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Left: Painter, 1995, Paul McCarthy
Right: Paul, 2014, Ronnie Van Hout
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Painter-Paul Mccarthy-1995-2Needless to say, I find it difficult too. I think it’s got some merit, though. For me, it’s the sheer weirdness of the thing, the angsty-funny, sex-fiend-in-a-clown-costume atmosphere it generates; and, on a more cerebral level, the way it exposes and exploits the myth of the male artistic genius.

So, obviously Painter is a parody of the process of making a painting. It comments specifically on the American ‘action painters’, also known as the abstract expressionists: the group of artists, led by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others, who came to prominence after World War II, shifting the centre of the artworld from Paris to New York. The title character in Painter (who is McCarthy himself of course) chants ‘de Kooning’ under his breath as he works, channeling his spirit, or trying to free himself from his daunting legacy. In contrast, the scene of the interview with the inert European collectors shows them mindlessly listing their trophy-buys. ‘What Rothko do you have?’ asks the dullest interviewer on earth. ‘A brown one,’ the male of the pair replies. ‘It’s red actually’ says his wife.

This kind of commercial cynicism is common to the artworld of course, but it juxtaposes especially sharply with the central objective of abstract expressionism, which is to externalise an authentic inner reality. Among diverse styles and techniques was the common goal to express an interior psychological state – delivered via the medium of movement as much as paint. Putting paint on the canvas was a kind of performance, and the resulting painting a document of an authentic moment in time. This was ripe for myth, in part because it taps into our intuitive feelings around art and authenticity: underneath our suspicion of the pretentions of ‘the artworld’, we like to imagine there is such a thing as submerged essence of genius, just waiting for release.

This collective fantasy took shape around the macho dudes of the movement. ‘If the women could see me now, oh boy…’ says McCarthy’s painter – but he’s less potent than pathetic, a child saddened and enraged by the unwillingness of the universe to revolve around himself. ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ he cries on repeat, in a way I find especially uncomfortable; he might mean painting, or life. The other major hallmarks of the action-painting myth are present as well, in his emotional volatility (sobbing and whining one moment, calling on God for inspiration another), physicality (hacking, pumping, jabbing maniacally at the canvas), and diva demands. ‘I want all the money right now,’ he shouts at his gallerist. ‘I want shows all over Europe, and I want big, big catalogues!’ ‘You’re acting like a spoilt child,’ she replies, ‘You’re going through a stage. All the artists who get famous go through this. You’re just a human being. Stop this ridiculous tantrum!’

This is self-parody, too, of course; McCarthy himself came to prominence in the 1990s, around the time Painter was made. The aesthetic of his work – sort of like a cross between a porn set and Disneyland, in which at any moment the characters will start rubbing themselves on each other or chopping off their rubber limbs – is a reflection on his sense of place, of the difficulties of making original and meaningful film and performance work alongside the Hollywood dream machine. His intention, too, to comment on mainstream American culture is shown in his trademark use of foodstuffs like ‘ketchup’ (as they call it), mayonnaise, and chocolate sauce (stand ins, he says, for blood, semen and poo). McCarthy has been using these foodstuffs in paintings and performances since the 1970s. This connects him to the Viennese Actionists of that time, the difference being (as McCarthy himself has made clear) that they were using real bodily fluids, and causing themselves real physical and psychic pain. McCarthy is more interested in buffoonery than trauma, I think, and yet a sense of trauma is, for me, most certainly conveyed.

In the process of writing this, I started to go down the rabbit hole of art history, and it occurred to me that I might be becoming a wanker. (That’s a nice mixed metaphor: wanking in a rabbit hole.) Claiming to like and ‘get’ difficult conceptual art is a marker of the ‘in’ group, as distinct from the taste and preference of ordinary people. This very discrepancy is part of what drives the trajectory of modern art history. Quentin Bell (following Thorstein Veblen) identified the phenomenon of ‘conspicuous outrage’: I have so much cultural capital, I can afford to flout ‘good’ taste. I decided to send my essay to David for feedback. Maybe I should have stuck to my initial reaction to Painter, and not worried about this artworld palaver. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier draft:

I don’t like Painter because: it looks kind of crappy, like a student porn film; the squeaky voice is annoying and creepy; nothing really happens; the painter character is sad and pathetic; the prosthetic noses freak me out; the bum sniffing at the end is really, really gross.

And another:

I feel anxious when I watch it, and sad, like being confronted with the inherent loneliness and ridiculousness of ‘the human condition’ (that old chestnut) – and I don’t agree, and even if I do on some days, I don’t want to be reminded of it. I don’t see that scraping the barrel of our doubt and insecurity just for the sake of it is valuable, nor that shattering taboos is inherently worthwhile. I sound like a thousand other ranters on the internet. I am getting old.

And finally:

Just so you know, this is not going to be one of those ‘she does like it, after all, because it shows her the underside of her own fears and desires’ or some such rubbish. I’m pretty sure I will still hate it after I’ve finished writing this, and that will be because it’s crap, not because of some character flaw of mine.

Works like Painter reflect, in part, a process by which the cool group selects the most outrageous art to represent it, pushing artists to invent more and more outrageous means to stay ahead of the curve. McCarthy knows this, and therein lies the strength of his work. But in the meantime, the work is still ugly and unlovable. It dares me to embrace my authentic response. The only reason I started to think more deeply about Painter, to try harder to like it, is that it has been sanctioned as ‘significant’ – by art history, and by the gallery that employs me. But then I did, truly, start to like it more. ‘Truly’. Is it really ever possible to approach a work of art in and of itself, without the surrounding social and cultural context? Art isn’t just sensory input, after all – patterns and colours and pretty shapes. It tells human stories, and humans are cultural and social – intensely so. Surely an ‘authentic’ response should embrace this as well?

David wrote back to confirm that yes, I was becoming a wanker. But he also added this:

My mother used to tell a story about World War II army rations. One wasn’t allowed to complain about the food; the penalty was to be assigned cheffing duties. A ‘chef’ attempted to get his duties reassigned. He cooked camel turd. One person exclaimed, ‘This tastes like shit,’ and then, collecting himself, continued, ‘but the servings are substantial.’

McCarthy’s marvellous parody has tension because he is biting the arse that feeds him. Art (and the art market) can be shit, indeed. But the servings are substantial.

Thanks, David, for summing up what I think I’m trying to say, and also for adding another metaphor to this overloaded essay. But mostly for letting me… um… bite the arse that feeds me… Oh Lord. I think I’m done.

Gilbert & George: a critique

Elizabeth Pearce

I’ve been trying to work out what I think about the art of Gilbert & George. There is much that should not be taken at face value of course, but the democratic element of the work – their desire to speak as clearly to taxi drivers and café owners as to snooty gallery-goers – is genuine, and it is successful. (You shouldn’t call it ‘work’ though, it’s too wanky; they insist on ‘pictures’.) You don’t need any special knowledge to look at the pictures, nor even to think very hard. Their desire to be anti-elitist is borne out in their art critic of choice: a guy called Michael Bracewell, who has been writing about their art for years, and whose essays – no less than eleven – can be found in the catalogue on sale in our bookshop (and here), along with an introduction by David Walsh and foreword by Olivier Varenne. Sometimes, so-called anti-elitist artists are pipped at the post when it comes to criticism of their work: they insist on art wank in their catalogues and so forth, because they think it legitimates them, or something. Bracewell eschews such wank for a warm (if sometimes repetitive) humanism. And – like the artists themselves with their suits and ties and their pleases and thank-yous – Bracewell’s texts can be misread as quaint; in fact, they are progressive for their refusal to bow to the taste and fashions of the moment.

This brings me to probably my favourite thing about the Gs. They turn the idea of ‘radical’ on its head. They say the reason they adopted their trademark ‘conservative’ look and professed their love of Maggie Thatcher was to beat their own path, away from their bohemian peers. I am similarly irked by the seemingly compulsory politics of the gallery-going demographic, parts of which confuse ‘radical’ with ‘left-wing’. Of course, often, the two overlap. But ‘radical’, to me, is not a fixed set of beliefs, but a willingness to think things through independently, and to entertain an idea on the basis of its merit and not its popularity. They are not really old-fashioned and quaint of course, nor are they true lovers of Thatcherite politics – beyond, perhaps, a belief in the creative capacity of the individual (this is purely my reading, they have said nothing to this effect that I am aware of). But it was important, back in the 1960s when they met, to mark themselves as outsiders – for two reasons. Firstly because it emphasised their desire to break out from the uniform modernity of their art-school generation: the muted tones, the circles and squares, the denial of emotion. It’s easy to lose sight – when you’re looking back along the arc of art history – of how brave it is to do something different. (The extent to which this ‘something different’ matters to them is borne out by a fifty-year commitment… More on that below.) And secondly, in adopting the suits and the faux-stuffy manner, they are making a simple but effective point about the way in- and out-group boundaries are policed in the art world. To belong to the cultural elite, you must meet certain criteria, such as progressive politics, bohemian manner, and love for difficult and densely theoretical art. (For a hilarious take on this, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word). This is set up in opposition, as Wolfe points out, to stuffy middle class values: pretty pictures, politeness, conservative politics. This desire for elite cultural status on behalf of the viewer, along with the artist’s desire to be more and more radical, creates a kind of feedback loop that has a real impact on the cultural evolution of art (and, as we will consider in an upcoming exhibition, can be traced to our biological evolution as well).

To stopper this feedback loop, and go against the grain, was truly radical of Gilbert & George. But that was in the 60s. What about now?

Around the time of the exhibition opening a few people commented to me about how the Gs are such a perfect fit for Mona. I can see why they would say that – the subject matter, the bright colours, as well as the desire to ‘piss off academics’ as David would put it. But for much of this process, I have been preoccupied by the way they are different to us. And in thinking more about this, I have reached my conclusion about the art of Gilbert & George: I respect it, but ultimately, it’s not for me.

In my capacity as writer for the Mona marketing team, I was a little slow to work out that the Gs wanted, basically, to colonise us: to implant their entire worldview onto Mona as a passive platform, in everything from text on our website, the style of font we use, eccentric punctuation, etc. This is part of their long-standing way of working: they design, curate and execute the entirety of their exhibitions, on the stated basis that they, not curators and gallery directors, know what the public wants. I found this a little bothersome at first but then I got the hang of it. It was good for us, I think, to try this different way of working: quite often we ask artists to join a choir in a sense, to let us sublimate (respectfully) their intention to the overall ‘experience’ of the museum. It was an interesting experiment, and one that prompted us to think more clearly about our usual methods.

But as the process wore on, I began to wonder why it was so important to them to be so unbending. It fits within the ethos of their work, which makes stasis (somewhat factiously) a kind of ideology. They famously eat at the same Turkish restaurant every night, and avoid cultural input like theatre and films, in case it distracts them from their distinctive view. And do the pictures themselves reflect stasis? The subject matter has changed a little over time, as has their use of colour and composition; they switched seamlessly to digital photographic processes in the early 2000s. But the essential idea remains the same. They pride themselves on this: ‘The world has changed,’ they tell us, ‘but our pictures stay they same.’ And I know what they mean. Think of the SCAPEGOATING PICTURES (they like it written in capitals) that dominate the space as you first enter the exhibition at Mona. Women in burkhas – neighbours from their home in London’s East End – stare at us or thwart our gaze, alongside the artists themselves, who are variously menacing, and/or fragmented into little pieces, as though destroyed by the ‘bombs’ that dot the pictures. They are not really bombs of course, but nitrous oxide canisters (hippy gas) that are apparently strewn around the streets near their home. In the wake of the recent Paris attacks, these pictures are breathtaking. They capture, for me, a central ambivalence at the heart of our western stupefaction in the face of extremism: How can we begin to reconcile our love of diversity and tolerance of difference with our creeping awareness that dogmatic thinking – including that which motivates religions of all kinds – closes down the free play of the human imagination, giving rise to totalitarianism and terror? I don’t know the answer but I am pleased the Gs are worrying about it with me. And I respect them for not running away from it – literally, in their commitment to live among and depict their multicultural and multiracial neighbours, and to inhabit all the hypocrisy and contradiction to which this gives rise. I sense, here, the beginnings of that ‘moral dimension’ they claim for their art.

Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London.
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

BOMBERS. 2006, Gilbert & George

BOMBERS, 2006
Gilbert & George
(Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London)
Mixed media
Courtesy of the artists and White Cube
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

But as I walk further through the gallery, my excitement wears off, and I start to be numbed by repetition. Perhaps this is part of their intention. I can’t help but ask: in not changing, are they missing something? Namely, the sense that ‘going against the grain’, beating your own path, means something very different today as it did in the 1960s. For a start, there is no ‘grain’ to go against. There are not paths of cultural evolution: it’s a web, in which we sometimes feel trapped, numbed by the words and images that surround us in the network era. Much of their work pivots on a juxtaposition and inversion of authorised and unauthorised discourse: graffiti and profanity alongside newspaper headings and government slogans. The distinction does not hold fast today. All writing is graffiti, and all is propaganda. No discourse is authorised any more than any other. And that is exhausting, to live in – and to look at, in art. I can’t help but be reminded of the guilt-ridden, social-media apathy that marks the moral landscape of my generation: torture, suffering, sign the petition; like, unlike, unsubscribe. They tell us their subject is the raw emotion of human experience: hope, love, sex, fear. But I don’t see these emotions so much as the idea of them. They are repeated and deferred, always just out of reach. They are speaking not (to me) of the human experience, but of the way that experience is abstracted and reiterated, spawning and breeding meaninglessly like AD Hope’s ‘teeming sores’. They don’t, in fact, speak to me at all, but only speak about speaking. But in doing so, they are, paradoxically, speaking about our modern malaise: about the way hope, love, sex, fear are trapped beneath the surface of the words and images, like a fly in a glass, trying to escape. This was prophetic in the 60s but now, we need to be shown the way out.

Gilbert & George Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to get to know the pictures better. The impressive scale of them, and of the artists’ commitment: this must be respected. But still, I want more. I think I’ve become a little old-fashioned. And I think Mona has the capacity to be that way, as well – to gravitate towards art that truly engages that moral dimension, even if, in doing so, it also shows us the darkest parts of ourselves.

Making fun: Mona and Buchel

– By Elizabeth Pearce

The Christoph Buchel exhibition closes next month. It’s notable that it made it thus far. Buchel was incensed at our decision to remove the ‘Are you of Aboriginal descent?’ faux-genetic testing, which he felt damaged the artistic integrity of the project; at one point, it looked like we might have to deinstall the lot: the Southdale shopping centre, the C’MONA Community Centre, and the installation in the south-west national park. (It was too late to consider pulling the Australian Fair for Freedom of Belief and Religion. Did you realise that was part of Buchel’s work as well?) Obviously we didn’t want to cut short the exhibition, not only because we think it’s excellent, but because its genesis was so painful for everyone involved. So I’m happy to say our curators, Nicole, Jarrod and Olivier, worked it out with him.

During the multi-phased debacle, David made it very clear the genetic testing would not be reinstated. I agree with that. However, I don’t think we should have taken it down in the first place. This is not because I’m concerned about Buchel’s artistic integrity (if he was so worried about that, he should have let us name him as the artist from the outset instead of letting David and the curators cop the flak) but because I think the genetic testing is satire, and effective satire, and that Aboriginal people and history are appropriate subjects for satire in some contexts, as I will explain below.

In the days after the exhibition opened, we were moved by feedback from some Tasmanian Aboriginal people that the genetic testing was hurtful because it objectified them, and shocking because they had not been consulted. I was (and am) deeply sorry for the offense. Buchel had high-tailed it back to Europe, our sense of abandonment assuming a distinctly postcolonial air. This – Tasmania – is our community, harbour of our dark history, much as we machinate our legitimacy with European art-world credibility. David did not deliberate: the work was taken down. I wasn’t asked for my opinion, but at that time, it concurred with his. (I’ve since changed it. Why is changing your mind considered a weakness, in our politicians for instance? As David points out in his blog post apology for the genetic testing incident, single-mindedness is an arsenal away from totalitarianism and dystopia.) When we opened the museum in 2011, we expressly wanted controversy, and as you know, we didn’t get any. But this was shaping up to be a thin kind of controversy, unsatisfying for us, in the sense that we were conflicted about parts of the project in the first place. If David had believed from the start in the artistic merit of the genetic testing, neither he nor it would have budged an inch.

So common among us at Mona was (and is) a desire for solidarity with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. But you and I know – as thoughtful, postcolonial citizens – that ‘the Tasmanian Aboriginal community’ is not a monolith, no more than ‘the Swiss’ or, indeed, ‘the staff at Mona’. If this slipped my mind momentarily, I was promptly reminded of it by the strong, varied response to the removal of the work and to David’s abovementioned apology. He was criticised on multiple fronts: for permitting the erection of the work in the first place (hurtful), for authorizing its removal (patronizing), and for censoring the artist’s message (draconian). Greg Lehman is right: the affair is a ‘measure of how tender the wounds left by the British ­invasion of Tasmania still are’. But so, too, is it a measure for the importance of representation of self and others in the process of healing those wounds. For me, this comes down to the right to engage with conventions such as humour, satire, hyperbole, irony, farce… no mere literary trifles, but rather, central modes of human identity-construction and expression. I believe it is appropriate to engage Aboriginal experiences in a satirical mode because those experiences are not tangential to, special cases of, the human experience. We should not be afraid to include Aboriginal people when we make fun of ourselves, and in doing so, come to see ourselves more clearly. Indeed, maybe ‘making fun’ is a measure of our humanity.

Further, the satire’s surrounding context establishes a productive, as opposed to malicious, intent. The Buchel project is about the nature of ethnicity; it pivots on the irony of Tasmania’s history of displacement and erasure (the fantasy of terra nullius was no where more bloodily enacted) alongside the dream, courtesy of one Critchley Parker, to replace the traumatised Jewish people in the wake of the holocaust. The Critchley story also feeds into the great Australia tradition of dying in the bush, itself a part of the man vs. nature drama at the heart of our national identity. In the past that drama has precluded Aboriginal presence, or subsumed it into the ‘natural’ forces to be overcome; the possession of the ‘empty’ Australian landscape has itself been cast as part of the natural and inevitable march of human progress. Buchel knows this and incorporates it into his broader intention, which is to juxtapose the absurdity of the Critchley dream with the silent horror of holocausts both near and far, the Jewish-inflected commercial imperialism of the shopping mall, and the ambivalent idealism of the community centre at the heart of the Mona enterprise – itself an impossible dream come true, but one that, some argue, has its own cultural imperialist implications for Tasmania. I believe, in this context, that the point of the satire is not Aboriginal identity itself, but the absurdity of trying to abstract, quantify, and objectify that identity – which is precisely what non-indigenous Australians have sought to do, in one way or another, since settlement.

My reading is consonant with my interpretation of other elements of the project. Consider C’MONA. On opening night, a colleague came streaming out of the Community Centre declaring offense on behalf of the persons participating (performing?) within. ‘They don’t know they’re a work of art,’ she said. ‘I am offended by that.’ She was referring to the people who had responded to our invitation to take part in what our website describes as ‘a fully functioning community centre… located on the bottom level of the museum’. ‘We seek to engage the full spectrum of the Tasmanian community,’ the brief continues (I know because I wrote it), ‘and invite proposals for workshops, events and activities representing a broad field of engagement and endeavor, including art and craft, discussion and debate, education, music and dance…’ There’s a St Vinnies, a library, and a children’s playground (my friend took her toddler there and sardonically enquired whether letting him wriggle down the slide was akin to artistic exploitation). The enthusiastic response includes groups like Students Against Racism, Community Health Knitting Group, the Tasmanian Suicide Prevention Community Network, and many more. On opening night, I was thrilled with unease as I toured the C’MONA ‘exhibition’. At first I thought it was because of the creepy-comical simulacrum of ‘the real’ that was taking place: C’MONA emphatically is a real community centre, and at the same time, a work of art, because what – after Duchamp – determines something as a work of art, other than its presence in a gallery? But my colleague’s expression of distaste – her sense that the participants were being objectified – has gradually revealed to me the depth of my ambivalence, and of C’MONA’s artistic significance.

It is in this way that controversy is valuable to us as consumers of art: because in the fallout, we clarify what is important to us. But is C’MONA art? Perhaps the question gives words too much power. It is what it is, whatever we label it. But then again, we need to answer the question in order to locate the power exchange that’s taking place. If C’MONA isn’t art, there is no abuse of power taking place, no exploitation or objectification; the people participating are not serving themselves up as fodder for us gawping art-world types. If it is art, that’s because it is located at Mona, and not in a town hall in Bridgewater (or wherever). The participants were not duped or blindfolded; they know where they are, and why. What makes us think they are not entitled to participate in their own objectification for the purposes of artistic expression? Why, again, is satire – or more specifically in this case, the use of metaphor – reserved for the elite? Or: does the permission to use and exploit the power of metaphor (C’MONA at once ‘stands for’ a community centre and actually is one) confer elite cultural status in the first place?

When it comes to a painful past – the fingers of which stretch out to hold us in the present and the future – satirising, objectifying, making fun, are fraught. But so, too, is not making fun, locking members of our (human) race into a stagnant, stultifying, straight-faced literalism; not permitting them the privilege to laugh and to be laughed at, nor to turn the painful joke to political use. I have a sneaking suspicion, and not for the first time, that the joke is on us – Mona. Perhaps this is overdue. And perhaps it is the kind of controversy we’ve been wanting after all.

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

 

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

The truth about Cinderella

By Elizabeth Pearce

I have stepchildren, and I am one. I suppose it is for this reason that I picked up The Truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love, by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. According to the authors of this potent little tome, a child is one hundred times more likely to be hurt or killed by a step than a genetic parent; this fact has been aggressively shushed, they argue, in an apparent attempt to suppress unpalatable truths about parental love. Lacklustre investment in non-genetic offspring makes good evolutionary sense. Parenthood carries with it an onerous commitment; the genes ‘for’ indiscriminant nurturing could not be favoured by natural selection. Indeed, infanticide is a regular feature in species such as langurs and lions. In humans, the ambivalence and conflict that tends to characterise step-relationships is

the predicable consequences of putting people who [have] no human reason to love one another into a relationship that [is] structurally analogous to – and [has] to serve as a partial substitute for – the most intimate of loving relationships, namely that of parent and child.

Ouch. I appreciate the urge to suppress such sentiment. In my early step-days I picked up a book, a manual of sorts, and was so traumatised by the terrible things it told me about step-life that I burned it.1 Had I encountered Daly and Wilson’s book at that time I probably would have had some sort of emotional and psychological meltdown. Most people, as they are quick to point out, try really hard to be good to their partner’s sproglets, and most feel bonded to them at least some of the time. No one wants to be told they are a stiff breeze away from bludgeoning them to death. (Actually, I did tell my step-sproglets about the likelihood of me bludgeoning them and they thought it was brilliant, and immediately set about brainstorming ways to ‘set me off’.) There is an argument – empirically unsound, but perhaps defensible on grounds of human sensitivity – that we’re best not to talk about such things. Stepfamilies need all the help they can get. ‘Cinderella’ – and the plethora of similar tales that exist in cultures the world over – doesn’t help.

To say, in those early days, that I had a lot riding on getting along with the sproglets is putting it mildly. Of course my nascent family harmony was at stake – but so, too, I felt, was my very human decency. And in hindsight, I was right. It was. Not because step-parenthood is (or should be) the same as the ordinary variety of parenthood (which was what I believed at the time), but precisely because it is different.

Common wisdom dictates that genetic parenthood is an expression profound selflessness, an apotheosis of sorts. Even Daly and Wilson describe it as ‘the most nearly selfless love we know’. I don’t get this. For me, motherhood is distilled selfishness, in the sense that I am slavishly following the dictates of my most basic desires. The outcome looks selfless in that it benefits my child at apparent cost to myself, but that ‘cost’ is really my own benefit. Such is the circuitousness of human motivation. Motherhood, while intensely pleasurable for me, has not improved my self-esteem so far. Step-parenthood, on the other hand, has been an unequivocal source of pride for me personally, and a well of assurance about the basic goodness of human nature in general. You see – and sorry to state the obvious – humans are not langurs and lions, in that our complex social lives necessitate a keen awareness of the consequences of infanticide and other gratuitously self-serving behaviour. More than that, we are powerfully driven – again, by natural selection – to want to do ‘the right thing’, whatever that might mean at any given time and place. To that end, it is just as ‘natural’ to overcome ambivalent feelings towards step-kids, and to offer them kindness and companionship, as it is to have those ambivalent feelings in the first place. The fact that there’s a step (ha) in between (or up, if you will)… That’s the real apotheosis, and one that we, people, can be proud of.

1I didn’t burn it.

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

Human beings

By Elizabeth Pearce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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