* Australian slang for a woman’s genital area.
The story so far:
Every nation has a place that underwrites the jokes and fears of its citizens. For mainland Australia, this is Tasmania, the triangular-shaped island to the south, last stop before the Antarctic, a place of legendary creatures and 12-fingered men, a watery world of seafarers and whaling ships and convicts, and since January 2011, site of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the $175 million dream of one man, the art collector, David Walsh.
This post is about the art. I was at MONA for over six hours and saw less than half the works. Many I got stuck on and kept going back for another look. Following are some of them.
There are two works I saw that day which I particularly admired.
The first is Dream of Migrants, 2005 by Chinese artist, Wang Qingsong. It’s a huge, hyper-realistic photo of an arranged tableau. At each window of a horrid grey besser-block building men and women appear, watching, talking, leaning out, embracing. The flag of the People’s Republic of China flies above. Below is an old sidecar motorcycle and scraps of rubbish and mud and overturned witches’ hats. To the right a couple conjugates in a broken down lean-to.
The artist talks of his experience moving from the Chinese countryside to the city. He tells of the Communist government and its long history of posing photographs of success; of buying in sheafs of wheat for the farmer to hold, smiling, in front of his plot.
The second is The Blind Leading the Blind, 2008 by the Belgian artist, Peter Buggenhout. What really works about MONA’s piece is that it’s shoved up next to the concrete coffered ceiling like something broken and formless and forgotten. Which is exactly what Buggenhout intended.
my intention is to declassify the thing.
Below is an example from the same series that appeared in another gallery without MONA’s imaginative positioning.
At MONA, a similar piece acquires a whole new intrigue.
When I first spotted it next to the ceiling I didn’t know what I was seeing. It was intensely black, huge, sinister and … “are those giant insect legs sticking out?”. Also, there was a smell.
Turns out Buggenhout’s sculptures are composed of many materials including household dust, and what I could smell was dust. While I was standing there gazing up with my mouth hanging open, the female attendant handing out the coins at the pinball machine told me it had just arrived at the museum.
To assemble it, she said, museum staff, as a finishing touch, had had to roll it in dust.
I asked her what she thought about it. She said,
Well, at first I couldn’t make it out, then I realised it was brought in just before the anniversary of Sept 11, so now I see it’s about a plane wreck.
I restrained myself from saying “Whaddya mean, plane wreck? What about those insect legs?”
At that moment a male attendant came up to relieve her while she went on a tea break. I asked him the same thing. He said, very sure of himself,
Of course, it’s all about dismantling perspective.
Well, sure, I thought, it’s dismantled my perspective, but that’s not what’s most interesting about it.
What’s most interesting about is that it’s the thing on top of the wardrobe.
The mummy of Pausiris, dating from the Ptolemaic to Roman period (100 BCE to 100 CE), is one of the museum’s show-stoppers.
There are several other mummy cases in the museum, but this one’s the full deal. The mummy is still within. And it’s very moving to look at the small figure with the glass eyes. Next to it, lying on a separate bier is a x-ray recreation of the remains under the stucco. You can see the figure’s skull, his chest bones, his feet.
The exhibit, the only one for which you have to queue because of the limit of two persons at a time, is mounted in spectacular fashion. The two biers, one holding the mummy, and other, the x-ray of the mummy, are located in a silent, pitch black room, the floor of which is covered in black-dyed water. To stand beside the mummy, the visitor navigates the flooded room using white granite stepping stones.
Like all his stuff I assume – though I’ve seen only the anaesthetised shark in the infamous 1996 London Sensation show, or was it a sheep? – I could show you a picture of the Damien Hirst but it would be beside the point. What counts about a Damien Hirst is what you say about it. And what’s extra good is what David Walsh and his curator say about it, as reported in the MONA catalogue.
Remember Coney Island? Luna Park? Those wooden UFO-shaped objects with a clump of kids sitting on the centre that spun faster and faster until everyone was flung off? Hirst’s got hold of something similar, painted it in dribbles and mounted it on the wall rotating slowly. It’s from 1995 and it’s called Beautiful Mis-Shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting.
When it arrived from the UK Walsh and his curator opened it to find spare cans of paint in case Walsh didn’t like the colour. As they’re unpacking it, the curator says to Walsh
This really is crap, isn’t it?
Walsh agrees, slightly nostalgic for his half-million.
Fast forward several months and it’s mounted in the svelte darkness of Walsh’s museum. Now, Walsh says, brightening,
I quite like its slow, determined cycling.
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