O death, where is thy Sting?

By David Walsh

Who’d have thought thirty year ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?

Monty Python, Four Yorkshiremen, 1974

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon

The Police, Walking on the Moon, 1979

In late ’79 or early ’80 I first heard Walking on the Moon, at a bar at Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, in the very early, desperate days of my gambling. I was stunned by the song, not the first time that The Police had that effect on me. But I said to my mate, ‘Why would your legs be more likely to break on the moon, just because the reduced gravity makes you take giant steps. It’s ridiculous.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it isn’t ridiculous. If you had been on the moon for some time, your bone density would be considerably reduced, so breakages would be more common when exerting the same forces, like the ones that allow you to take normal-sized steps on Earth, and giant leaps on the moon.’ Chastened, I listened to the rest of the song, and from then on paid more attention to Sting’s career.

Thirty years later I name dropped into an alternate universe when I found myself drinking (proverbial) Château de Chasselas with Sting and his wife, Trudie. They came to Mona and asked to have lunch with me. Fortunately, and coincidentally, I had seen Sting in concert (for the first time) about a week before so I had something to talk about. He had something to talk about too – he had read my book. But unlike others who claim to have read my book, he had read my book. In particular, he was interested in the chapter on the organisation and management of capital (‘The evolution of investment’) and he thought I should form a political party based around those ideas. I was gratified, of course. I have thought about entering politics a great deal but decided against it because: I don’t know that I can achieve any more ‘inside the barrel pissing out than outside the barrel pissing in’ (to quote my brother); I don’t like living to someone else’s schedules; I don’t like the idea of living in Canberra; I don’t handle criticism well; and I don’t know what I’m talking about (some might suggest that that last point means I’m ideally suited to politics).

When Trudie suggested that it was time for them to leave I asked, ‘What time is your flight?’ Trudie and Sting glanced at each other but said nothing. Later I realised that they said nothing because the only thing they could have said would have been, ‘Whatever time we want. It’s our plane’, but they were much too polite to say that.

Interval the first.

Donna Smith: Donna was my housekeeper, and my friend. I knew her for eight years and yet never had a reason to be annoyed with her. Conversely, she had many reasons to be annoyed with me, but never was. Three days before she died of breast cancer, I picked up her daughter Celeste so she could spend some time with my daughter, Grace. Donna was sick, but defiant. She had been told the end was near but insisted she could have handled more chemo. My wife, Kirsha, and I were then about two months away from the birth of our daughter Sunday. Donna wanted to talk about that. She told me to have two children, quickly. She thought that that made each child more balanced. She thought a lot about my welfare. Three days before she died she was still concerned about the concerns of others.

Mark O’Rourke: Mark worked for a gambling services company that used to place bets for us. His metal-head, swinging, pill-popping, party lifestyle never interfered with his professional performance or competence, but it may have interfered with his life expectancy.

At one of his swingers parties Mark introduced a colleague to an attractive young lady, who was to become his kept mistress. His wife became aware of his perfidious behaviour, however, because his opportunistic paramour wrote a book about their affair, titled Sugarbabe. (Holly Hill?)

Although he pushed boundaries Mark managed to elude epic failures of this type (until his death), because he was unfailingly respectful of other’s choices.

Interval the second.

Kirsha, an American in Tasmania, was astonished to find that the beautiful River Derwent is contaminated with heavy metals. Unlike locals (me) she could not take the state of the river for granted and she launched into a series of awareness-generating art projects. When the University of Tasmania architecture school failed to give her the support she desired, her response was to contact M.I.T. Her temerity astonished me, but I was more astonished when M.I.T. readily agreed to participate in her project.

I wrote a poem about life and death, and Donna and Mark. I liked it and I sent it to my erstwhile collaborator, Dean Stevenson. He didn’t reply. Embittered by Dean’s indifference, but emboldened by Kirsha’s arrogance, I sent my poem to Sting, the biggest musical name for whom I could conjure an email address, asking if he would set it to music. To my astonishment and delight, he agreed to be my musical M.I.T.

Here’s the poem:

Donna Smith died today
Not in a dramatic way
Gentle into the night she went.
Now she is just chemistry
Yesterday a complex entity
When death has this proximity
Sentimentally, I lament

That something so complex, something so whole
Could no longer be, makes it easy to see why so many
Cling to the notion that they have a soul
Immortal, immutable, incorruptible – indisputably
It just must be so – if it isn’t what’s the point, they need to know.
But there isn’t a purpose, life’s a circus, no one gets a safety net,
And I say all that without regret.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Mark O’Rourke died last week
His death preserved his mystique
Against the night his rage maintained
Now he is just bone and skin
Force of life not within
The times, they sure are changin’ him
And with his end, I’m changed.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

And you’ll die one day soon
Hemingway in the afternoon
Or Agatha, dead, in denial
But until then we’ll live a lie
Act as though we’ll never die
Seasons not in short supply
Never go out of style.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Why is it that we worry?
Our history makers are not forgotten
Their tombs are grand, their remains are rotten.

Plato, Sappho, and Galileo
Picasso and Caravaggio
Newton’s gone and Einstein too
And millions with Chairman Mao.
People died of influenza
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
(But not Oskar Kokoschka
He lingered on a little longer.)
Lincoln and London and Lenin and Lennon
The Strength of the Strong to Imagine no heaven.
In World War Two and in World War One
Men lived by the sword, died by the gun
Died like heroes, or on the run.
Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

But…
For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her.

Sting stymied me by sending back sheet music. I can’t read music. But I have friends that can. Here’s what Dean, now a willing participant (‘With all due respect, I’m not doing a shit job on a Sting tune’), made of Sting’s delightful gesture (with a little help from his friends):

So, here I am, fortunate to not be dead, fortunate to have had my time on Earth overlap with Donna’s and Mark’s and fortunate to have collaborated with someone I admire who needs only one name. Elizabeth, my blog colleague, opined that having done this, I should never do anything again.

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.

Goya and The Disasters of War

-By Elizabeth Pearce

We own one small etching by Francisco Goya, part of his famous series The Disasters of War. It has recently gone on display in the museum.

Esto es peor (This is worse); plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Esto es peor (This is worse);
plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

My colleague Jane Clark writes in her ‘art wank’ text that Goya is referencing not just the Napoleonic invasion and occupation of Spain, but violent conflict in general. In our plate, she writes, ‘the mutilated body of a Spanish fighter is impaled like ghastly fruit in a tree’. The nude figure

derives directly from the antique: the Hellenistic marble Belvedere Torso sculpture which Goya had sketched during a visit to Rome years before.  Where 18th-century cognoscenti saw ruined antiquities as evidence of a noble Classical past, Goya saw ruin as ruin and human nature as unchanging. There is no glory here. War, he suggests, is as timeless and innate a human trait as art.

I know about Goya mostly via a pair of young-ish British artists called Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994), we recently sold. The Chapman brothers obsessively revisit Goya in their work; ‘like a dog’, as they put it, ‘returns to its vomit’.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

©Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994, Jake Chapman & Dinos Chapman
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!); plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!);
plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

Evidently, Goya is the kind of artist that makes a permanent mark on the mindscape of his descendants. What kind of mark? That’s impossible to say, because acts of creativity multiply upon inception, mingle and spawn, in ways that are not easy to discern.

I’ve recently been reading a great book (meaning one of universal significance) called The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, an account of the way man’s pleasure in his own skill and knowledge has drawn him ever upwards toward the heights of empathy and liberty of which he is capable. (We can talk another time about where all the women were during this ascent; I think watching Dr Phil). Bronowski’s is a nourishing, optimistic view of our kind, but he is at pains to point out that human cultural evolution is not a series of finished, polished cultural artefacts – the arch, the plough, the Theory of Relativity – but a ceaseless unfolding, a repetition and multiplication of ideas that infect the minds and behaviour of the human species as a whole.

Goya’s idea, here, is especially infectious. And that idea, as I see it, is not simply that ‘war is bad’, nor even that humans are capable of terrible acts of violence towards each other, although I agree that this is an important part of what he has to say. For me, Goya is telling us something astonishingly modern about ourselves, something he had no right to see so clearly at the turn of the nineteenth century, and something that is capable of fundamentally (gradually) changing who we are: violence is a kind of de-humanisation. I mean that in the general sense, in that to hurt someone is to deny their equal claim to life and liberty, their freedom from unreasonable pain. But I also mean that to be human is to be forever striving to balance what you want for yourself – the latent violence of your base desire – with what you want for the human race. It is in that way that being human is itself a process; a quick, and not a static, state. At our best, the spatial metaphor for the human condition might be a ladder, an ascent; at our worst – as we see, here, through Goya’s eyes – it is a dreary circle, terror numbed by repetition. Consider the titles of the Disasters of War etchings, sampled at random from the eighty-two in total:

The way is hard!
And it can’t be helped.
They avail themselves.
They do not agree.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There is no more time.
Treat them, then on to other matters.
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.

Goya began the series at the age of 62; it was only published in 1863, thirty-five years after his death. For him, the weight of human suffering was too great; his career in many ways marks his descent from firm faith in order and reason into chaos, fear and disillusionment. But in the process he shows us that which sits at the seat of the human ‘ascent’: self-knowledge.

 

Current exhibitions

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 exploded infant

By Robin Fox

‘… sit[ting] within a huge all-color jewel while this every colored jewel spoke the music of one’s soul ….’
—Mary Hallock-Greenewalt on the experience of playing the colour organ

I don’t have synaesthesia, or at least I don’t think I do, but it has been in my life since the beginning … before the external beginning, even … since the womb. My mother was a synaesthete. She associated colour, numbers and sound (particularly pitch), so my joke now is that I couldn’t burp or fart at the dinner table without her telling me it was the number ten, a slightly murky orange and a B flat. We could always test the latter at the piano but the other two seemed peculiar to the rest of us and a deep truth only to her.

I didn’t think much of it over the years of my youth; it wasn’t important to me that my birthdays always had colours attached and that the numbers that mum had for notes didn’t match their position in the diatonic scale. I was busy in headphones thrashing away on my cheap drum kit trying to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria album with one hand tied behind my back and committing far more to the aesthetic of self destruction that came with bad hair metal than to the rudiments necessary to actually get any good on the skins. But I remember the music that she composed and that she sang. She became interested in atonal music when I was a child, so I have memories of her rehearsing Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (her score is one of my more treasured relics from her life) and, more importantly in relation to synaesthesia, she loved to sing the Klangfarbenmelodie (sound colour melody) of Anton Webern; melodies constructed from timbre difference. The timbre is often called the ‘colour’ of sound. In the early eighties, she made computer music on mainframes when computers were the size of apartments and the turn around on six seconds of sound was twenty-four hours in the lab. In some of these works she would morph her voice into the sound of a bird attacking a beetle, among other things.

But I digress; this is becoming a eulogy. I guess what I’m saying is that all of these factors contributed to my obsession with joining the senses of sight and hearing together in my work. There were other factors of course. When I was studying composition at university I was in the odd position, eventually, of being able to compose music without really being able to read it. Weird? Maybe. But it’s a language like any other and you can learn the rules of construction and say intelligible things etc., etc. In the end, the linguistic side of music didn’t sit well with me and later in my degree I branched off to write about visual notation, graphic scores, musical gestures represented in abstract visual gestures rather than notated instructions. I guess I was moving toward a situation where the relationship between musical and visual gesture wasn’t causal anymore, but so simultaneous that you couldn’t separate the two. I found this symbiosis through electrical signal, but it has just occurred to me now that what I am talking about is the essence of live performance—that essential link between physical (visual) action and sonic outcome that allows for virtuosity through the constant challenge to the limits of these physical systems.

The way that the sound and light equivalence started for me was with the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope. I was making some quite harsh, angular noise pieces years ago and I happened to have a CRO in my studio. I had heard that you could feed sound into them and ‘see’ the results so I plugged the left channel into the X-axis and the right channel into the Y-axis to see what my noise looked like. For the most part it was pretty uninteresting and unsatisfying … except for one three-second snapshot where the sound and light locked together and I felt like I was looking straight at the geometry of the sound signal. It was a ‘eureka’ moment for me and has defined my audio-visual work since. I studied that three seconds and started to build a library of sounds and techniques that had interesting visual outcomes. The results fascinated me. The more harmonic the spectrum of the sound, the messier the visual result. Pure tones worked beautifully and distortion (overloading the system) was amazing. The important revelation for me was that sound is geometry, not in the ‘Bach-ian’ sense either of geometric patterns composed as pieces of music, but that sound is geometry.

Take the building blocks of electronic music for example. The sine wave. Take time out of a sine wave and fold it on itself and you have a circle; take time out of a square wave and you have a square; a triangle wave … you get the picture. What it means is that when we make sound we are producing complex combinations of these flowing geometries in the form of sound waves. Of course, this wasn’t a general revolution, it wasn’t entirely new at all (people had been working with optical soundtracks, for example, for decades) but it was new to me and it blew my mind and changed the way I worked with sound to this day.

It also led me to the rich history of artists working to forge a connection between sound and light. The ancient Greeks mused on it, and after Newton’s treatise on Opticks there was the sense that light and sound could share properties through wavelength and frequency. One of my favourite examples of an artist attempting to forge a connection is Louis Bertrand Castell’s Ocular Harpsichord (c.1730). It was basically a harpsichord but each key was attached to a system of pulleys that would open a small curtain to reveal a candle shining through coloured glass. Although beautifully simple, in modern OH&S parlance he had created a fire hazard and perhaps it is no surprise that there are no remaining physical examples of the instrument. Other pioneers in the field include Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, whose visual music phonograph (1919) was a record player with accompanying light show, and Thomas Wilfred, whose Clavilux Junior (1930) was definitely a psychedelic pre-cursor to the Xbox. For me, the grandfather of my work is Jules Lissajous, a French mathematician (1822-1880) who, in order to tune his tuning forks, devised an ingenious method for visualizing sound waves. He created a focused beam of light by placing a cover with a pinprick over a candle, then bouncing that light off tiny mirrors attached to the end of his tuning forks. He could see the reflected waves on the wall.  He essentially created a crude prototype of a laser projector.

What I produce when I make works where you see and hear the same electrical signal at the same time is a manufactured synaesthetic experience. There is no causality; the two things happen simultaneously so you don’t have time to think about which came first. Sight and sound become the same thing in time and space, like Lissajous’s patterns on the wall. This seems fascinating to non-synaesthetes. Why is that? Margaret Hollis alluded to one possible answer in her essay from the previous Synaesthesia program. I’ll restate it here in my own way. One theory of synaesthesia is that we are all born with it. Imagine a pre-language state (impossible, but try), what Lacan might call the condition of the ‘exploded infant’. All of our senses are one. Vibration in the form of sound, light, smell, even touch, swarm into us as an undifferentiated mass of pure experience. Gradually, through repetition and the establishment of concrete neural pathways, we segregate those sensations and attach perception to them, developing, in the end, our ‘sense perception’. Perhaps works of visual music or synaesthetic artworks draw us back toward that pre-language state, to a neural recklessness where everything is thrown in without deference to the emergent synaptic bureaucracy that parses our senses into organised and functional blocks. People frequently recount to me a sense of euphoria, ecstasy and the feeling of a chemical high after seeing synaesthetic artworks. I’ve certainly noticed that a much broader demographic of punters will sit through (and even enjoy) the kind of noise I generate in my shows when it is accompanied by its direct visual correlate.

Oddly though, one of the most interesting things about synaesthesia is its idiosyncrasy. Each synaesthetic person experiences it in a unique way. It’s an intimate condition, born of the interior and unknowable to others, private. By claiming to manufacture it homogenously in a group of people, am I some kind of cross-modal fascist? Before she died I had the chance to ask my mother more probing questions about her condition. Though it had clearly been a huge aid to her in her musical life, guiding her through fiendishly difficult atonal vocal works, she spoke of it primarily as an affliction, a chorus of often unnecessary and unwanted correlations that she could never switch off. So maybe synaesthesia is something wonderful to behold and to experience from the outside. A fleeting reconnection of now disparate parts of the brain, but would we want it all the time? I’m not so sure.

Audio-visual artist Robin Fox is a repeat performer at MONA FOMA and Dark Mofo. We can’t wait to experience his latest offering at our two-day sound-art spectacular, Synaesthesia+, at Mona (where else?) on August 16 and 17, 2014. Did you get this far without realizing this was a plug? Get your tickets pronto.

Synaesthesia Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Synaesthesia, 2012
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast 2013 'White Beam', Robin Fox   Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast, 2013
‘White Beam’, Robin Fox
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Going out with a bang

By Luke Hortle

And, behold, I come quickly.
– Revelation, 22:12

So reads the back of this year’s Dark Mofo staff hoody. It’s from Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, which speaks, among other things, of the imminent apocalypse (literal or metaphorical—the jury’s still out) that will be unleashed with the Second Coming (Jesus: SURPRISE! Me again!). Revelation continues: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.’ The grandeur of such proclamations has always stunned me; it’s like something out of a Michael Bay film. But we’re accustomed to this kind of thing, wallow as we do in pop culture’s hot mess of apocalyptic imaginings. No one’s exempt; the metaphors will always out, despite the pretensions of high culture and militant snobbery.

Dark Mofo Staff Hoody 2014

This revelatory snippet on the staff hoody—it has me thinking. It heralds the end of the world, instantly recognisable as a story of persistent human curiosity, but one that is endlessly open to interpretation. It proclaims the apocalypse, yes, but also confesses a propensity for premature ejaculation—a perhaps ‘world-ending’ event for some people and of a different variety. In perhaps not an entirely unpredictable manner, our interpretations of death—both big and little, planetary and personal—echo and warp as we mobilise them. Our photographer suggested the phrase for the hoody design, having seen the slogan adorning a painting of a lion and a lamb at the Odeon Theatre, before Dark Mofo took up residence there, when the theatre was home to a born-again Christian church. (Food for thought, perhaps, when you’re mid-debauchery at the Odeon for Dark Faux Mo. Remember, God’s always watching #catholicguilt.) The slogan has an irony in this churchy context, but I’m not going there. Self-deprecation is the order of the day, and it’s certainly not the first time MONA has co-opted a belief system for its own purposes (and I doubt it’ll be the last). In the painting, the mature-looking lion gazes fondly at the fluffy young lamb (would it be wrong to describe the lamb as nubile?), as ‘Behold, I come quickly’ intimates his intent (apocalyptic, carnal or otherwise). Poor little beast. Coincidentally, a Dark Mofo sign at the waterfront flashed, ‘WATCH FOR PEDS’, for the duration of the festival. Bright lights, creep city.

Behold I come quickly picture

But recently the apocalypse, and its related scenario of a threatened and vulnerable world, has taken on a different texture. Politically, environmentally and geologically, the planet is being reframed, as humans rethink how they read the globe’s skin and viscera. ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene,’ proclaims The Economist, reporting on the early twenty-first century uptake of the term originally suggested by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in the early 2000s. Basically (and I’m cheating—it’s not basic at all; it’s vast and complicated), the Anthropocene describes how Earth has entered a new geological epoch. Following on from the Holocene, the Anthropocene recognises the human species as an influential force of nature. Imagine a future where humans are extinct, goes the anecdote frequently used to describe the Anthropocene; if there was a geologist present in such a future, they would be able to trace the lasting human impact on the planet. Our marks, as they are, are here to stay. How do you like that for your vanity?

This is not to suggest that the Anthropocene explicitly envisages apocalypse (although, it is interesting to consider how that anecdotal extinction might eventuate). Rather, it frames a whole swag of political agendas1 and cultural fantasies2. But why imagine the end of the world as we know it? As a species, maybe we’re just plain freaking morbid, intent on sharing the love with an hysterical death drive. Freud might agree, which is alarming in itself.

The pay off, surely, is some sort of projected collective solace. Getting in early, before one hell of a punch line. On the opening night of Dark Mofo Films, I went to see David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic road movie, The Rover. Guy Pearce, with that hypnotic gravelly voice of his, posed a question to Anthony Hayes’ character:

‘Feeling the air when you wake up in the morning, when your feet touch the floor, or before that, when you’re lying there, thinking about your feet hitting the floor—the feeling you have. What does that feel like for you?’

Maybe it was just Guy’s voice. Or maybe—forgive me—it tapped into something incisively and embarrassingly human. The desire to apprehend, and be apprehended by, another person. To escape your personal neuroticism and self-obsession, to imagine (if only for a moment) what it is like to be alive as somebody else and in their particular version of a material human body. It’s darker than empathy, somehow. And far more interesting.

Deep. Apologies. Is there anything more awkward than the expression of sincere sentiment?

I’m in the museum and I’m standing in front of Patrick Hall’s artwork, When My Heart Stops Beating, and it seems appropriate3. It’s my favourite work in David’s collection. Visitors to the museum have gotten engaged in front of this artwork, which I cannot for the life of me comprehend—do they see a hopeful sense of romance here?—because When My Heart Stops Beating seems to be more interested in the past than in an anticipated future. For me, it’s irreconcilably creepy and sad, and touching in a darkly bittersweet way. But it’s more than any ambivalent mess of feelings I might experience in front of these gleaming cabinets. It’s about what is no longer around and coming to terms with that; it’s an attempt, if you will, to rectify such a predicament. Absent speakers intone their disconcerting chorus of ‘I love you’, just as absent writers reveal their intimate stories on the cabinet drawers (drawers that open like those of a morgue). The sense of loneliness is shocking, and it really hits me given the sheer constructed-ness of the artwork itself—those intricately built drawers and the façade of the cabinet fixed upon the wall. I’m embarrassed, now, to admit it’s my favourite. I sound like a total emo.

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall
Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

It’s like bearing witness to something, absent now whether through death, apocalypse or otherwise. I indulge myself even further, and imagine I’m that future hypothetical geologist, witnessing the earthly marks of the Anthropocene with its indelible remainders of previous lives. Marking time is a peculiar thing, whether romantic and sexual, or geological and planetary. A flippant, throwaway remark comes to mind, and it’s not so flippant anymore; it’s a genuine question, posed to the possibilities of a quickly coming future: ‘Who gives a fuck?’

1Here’s lookin’ at you, Tony.

2For example: cli-fi, or climate fiction, is an actual thing. What an unfortunate abbreviation.

3The other week, I went to MONA’s new community centre, and saw that When My Heart Stops Beating is no longer on display. Go home, Southdale, you’re drunk and you’ve ruined my blog.

A letter of apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people (and anyone else we have offended).

Last week Mona opened Southdale/C’Mona, an exhibition that explores, among other things, the unintended consequences of created utopias. The colonisation/invasion of Tasmania by Europeans, and the debilities that resulted for its inhabitants, are among the areas explored. Another was the potential establishment of a Jewish nation in southwest Tasmania. That project, however, didn’t come to such a fraught conclusion, since it disappeared, as did its major proponent.

The artist who devised the exhibition is Christoph Buchel. Because the project was presented as an intervention he wasn’t named at its inception. He, and we, thought that the impact would be enhanced if the project was taken at face value. Since his identity was exposed by the Australian newspaper at the weekend (and they obtained their information from his dealer’s website, and not from us), I don’t feel that, at this point, we are breaking any confidences by revealing the artist’s identity. However, not naming Christoph before meant that we at Mona could appear to be endorsing a presentation that we are uncomfortable with. In the event, that is what happened.

I certainly had warnings. During the exhibition planning, Christoph proved to be uncooperative to a point I had not hitherto encountered. When an idea was rejected, the next day he would present the same scheme again, as if it were new. But we ploughed on, although on a few occasions we categorically rejected some of his material. I have discovered since the exhibition opened that, in at least one of these cases, he proceeded to print and distribute some of this inflammatory material despite our veto.

We believe that much of Christoph’s exhibition is relevant, clever and funny. But he thinks it all is; I’ll get back to that point in a moment. Christoph holds the intellectual property for the exhibition, and when we offered (threatened?) to take down some material we were uncomfortable with, he maintained his confrontational viewpoint. In his opinion, the exhibition is a conceptual whole. His position: if we take any of it down we must take it all down. Obviously, that puts us in a difficult position.

Christoph has demonstrated (for the most part) the facile nature of certainty. Those who believe in utopias, and attempt to engineer them, repeatedly fail and generate unintended consequences. They fail because their path becomes the only path, and the required outcome, the end, is sought regardless of the means. Christoph’s hypocrisy is that he parodies that position while taking the same view. He knows what he wants, and while he pursues his goals he doesn’t care what the consequences are for others.

We do. We will engage with affected individuals and redress the situation. If Christoph fails to approve our action he will have the right to legal process, of course. We know he knows about that. He has been involved in a long legal action concerning the failure of a previous show.

We’re sorry we pissed some people off. And we will find a way to resolve reasonable unaddressed issues.

David Walsh