More Mona

By Elizabeth Pearce

When the museum first opened, this artwork, by Jon Pylypchuk, was displayed alongside a ‘spin’ painting by Damien Hirst. It was an odd coupling, one that seemed somehow to demand that I think about the myriad reasons people make and look at art.

You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

Foreground: You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk
Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

We sold the Hirst and some other works recently, part of David’s scheme to raise money to make MORE MONA – another wing to house his James Turrell fetish.

There’s three artists – Hirst, Pylypchuk, and Turrell – who illustrate the trinity of creativity at the heart of the phenomenon we call ‘art’.

Turrell is a craftsman and magician, tapping into our innate preference for the numinous. If you’ve been to the museum recently you could hardly miss his rooftop spectacular, Amarna.

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Hirst is hard. It’s so easy to dismiss him as a charlatan and to point out that he has approx. zero talent as a painter; no actual, nameable, hands-on skill or craft to speak of. But look harder – or in a different way – and he is a deeply traditional artist, in the sense that he is expressing his reality using the most relevant, up-to-date tools available at that particular time; what humans have been doing since they started making marks on the walls of caves with their hands. In post-Thatcher, empire-burn-out Britain (that is, in Hirst’s time), individual virtuosity was subsumed by the economic and nationalist nihilism of the era. In this context, the reverence with which we regard the figure of the artist – as a harbinger of authenticity, specialness, and truth about ourselves – was more than irrelevant, it was simply untenable. Art has always been packaged and delivered to us in a culture industry that stands in awkward (and sometimes arbitrary) relation to the fact of the artist’s actual talent. But for the first time, in turn-of-the-century Britain, the culture industry swallowed the artist and his talent entirely. Damien Hirst was clever enough to run with, rather than against, this sorry state of play, and in doing so made: a) A shit load of cash, and b) Us reconsider what it is we want from art. How far we are prepared to go to defend it. I posit that Hirst’s career ended with his debut as a traditional painter at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009. The public reaction to his exhibition of blue-themed, Francis-Bacon rip-offs – the Telegraph called it ‘one of the most unanimously negative responses to any exhibition in living memory’ – gave us a definitive answer to the question around which Hirst’s entire career had hitherto revolved. Are painting, drawing and individual skill important to us? Yes, they are.

What has this to do with Jon Pylypchuck’s collection of creatures doing unnatural things to trees? First, a little background. Pylypchuck came to art via laziness and apathy. At the time, he was trying to avoid getting thrown out of uni (University of Manitoba, Canada), and had ‘no interest at all’ in making art. Then he just started making this stuff he calls ‘scrap art’ with his friends, and thinking up stupid titles to make each other laugh. I don’t know. It just works. It’s weird and funny, that’s it. The weight of Turrell’s hope for humanity and of Hirst’s disorientating nihilism is crushed beneath its coolness.

David is philosophical about selling the Hirst work, but I am sad. Not because I loved that particular piece but because I have almost forgotten what it was like, in Mona’s early days, to have no set opinions on art, to be trying to work out what it’s all about. Thankfully I’ve still got Jon Pylypchuck here to remind me.

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.

Perfectly meaty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from ‘Alien’

Scene from ‘Prometheus’

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

-Luke Hortle

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

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