MONA’s ‘On the Origin of Art’
My response to the email laying out the premise of this exhibition resembled that of an echidna: my spikes went up at the perceived threat of outsiders, namely scientists, shining their torches down my burrow and stealing that which I think of as mine. The tension I see between art and science relates to their similarities and key difference. Art and science both cautiously speculate; both are led by curiosity and to some extent chance. But art does all this without the ultimate goal of progress and absolute knowledge. Thankfully for this echidna, MONA’s latest exhibition, On the Origin of Art, leaves the hatch wide open as to whether and how art may be understood as a biological phenomenon; it has safeguarded against simplistic, absolutist claims by commissioning four curators – admittedly all males – with different if overlapping knowledge bases and interests.
Of the four curators Steven Pinker, a psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, is the best known. He describes art as a “pleasure technology” offering subtle and complex pleasures that we indulge in because we “can” rather than because we strictly “need” to. Brian Boyd, a professor of literature, emphasises art’s signalling functions – among artists, as within nature more broadly – that bring us together and allow us to form identities. Geoffrey Miller, a professor of psychology, focuses on sexual selection. In what feels like the most deterministic thesis – perhaps crudely illustrated with the likes of Jeff Koons’s Manet (1991), a large photographic print of the artist performing cunnilingus on his then wife, a former porn star – Miller remains closest to a Darwinian standpoint, emphasising art’s primary function as a means of attracting mates. Meanwhile, Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist and cognitive scientist, sees art objects as “stimulus artefacts” that in all sorts of sophisticated ways “harness” and mimic nature in order to increase the capacity of our brains to process the world around us. Each curator has assembled a discrete exhibition; each provides in MONA’s electronic museum guide lengthy explanations for their choices.
A thread connecting these four propositions is art’s role in community building. In the spirit of David Attenborough – the opening sequence to his BBC series The Tribal Eye (1975) features in Boyd’s exhibition – I became more aware than usual of the dynamics of assembly around art objects and exhibitions while visiting MONA. By this, I mean the informal conversations around artworks in which we somewhat awkwardly seek common ground and consensus or abruptly arrive at difference; on a deeper level, the connection between individuals or groups and particular artists, the feeling of knowing an artist through their work and the dramatic sense of loss we can feel when they come to pass.
I probably felt most at home in Boyd’s habitat, among its rich and physically grounding selection of art and non-art, of functional and non-functional. These included a French spear-thrower from 13,000BC, a deer giving birth carved painstakingly into its handle; a selection of 19th-century Japanese prints, including Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1830-32); a family of orchids, the flower Charles Darwin thoroughly pondered for his theories on natural selection, behaving in much the same way as surrounding works of art; an assortment of Native American, Mexican and Iranian plates and vessels; the experimental films of Len Lye, made by drawing directly onto film; and a delightfully puzzling animation by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, called An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour (1944).
If Boyd’s collection of works most readily seduced and provoked interest in the behaviours of fellow humans, it was Changizi’s ideas and terms of reference that have remained with me – in large part by linking up with my own experiences. In my understanding, Changizi proposes that we make art because it allows us to process and adapt to life, in terms of our physical bodies and the environments we live in. In other words, art provides a channel through which to take stock of life and better function as living beings.
Changizi’s term “nature-harnessing” finds powerful coherence in a couple of rooms that bring uncanny attention to the human form. In close proximity were Helmet Head No.2 (1955), a playful and spooky head-size bronze by Henry Moore; Forms in Majesty (1964), a pair of gaunt, hooded figures carved in Tasmanian oak by Clifford Last; and Berlinde De Bruyckere’s P XIII (2008), a life-size wax horse strung from the ceiling. Unsettling with its waxy sheen and grey and green flesh tones, the latter, a hulking mass slumping elegantly to within a few inches of the floor, pinpoints an obsession of unerring constancy in art: death. P XIII quite literally harnesses the equation of physical gravity and decay – that which we understand to be our limits – at once bringing the viewer into their body. Being switched on like this, if not turned on, surely benefits our chances of survival.
My echidna spikes had bristled in anticipation of art being reduced to arguments considered provable through second-hand data and a narrow selection of examples. I’m more familiar with tightly referenced explanations of art through cultural readings, in university departments, where artists often discourse their work into relativist oblivion, where critiques of power quickly become cliques of power: isolationist, factional, a bit constipated. This is what all too often happens when art gets explained through various microscopes: it gets quarantined from the anomaly-fuelled, constantly mutating mess of habitat. When we lose sight of the broader ecosystem of forces within which our interests exist, we begin to confuse values for facts.
Speaking of mess, Paul McCarthy’s Painter (1995) – showing in MONA’s main gallery – provides a fitting addendum to the theory and formulation downstairs. The video shows a man wearing gargantuan hands and nose, a hospital gown barely covering his backside, going about the filthy and filthily self-conscious business of conjuring and slopping paint around a canvas. It gets at the heart of a biological certainty we might learn through science but understand by merely being alive: we’re born full of shit and our physical and emotional survival relies on finding all sorts of ways to expel it.
On the Origin of Art brings fresh input to conversations about art. Like the museum, it appears this is an event to celebrate for the mere fact of its bringing something new to the table.
OPERA The Ring Cycle
Arts Centre, Melbourne, November 21-December 16
VISUAL ART A Life in Art: Albert Tucker
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until March 19
CABARET A Brief History of Burlesque
Brisbane Powerhouse, November 25-27
MULTIMEDIA Screen Space – Christian Thompson
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until February 26
CULTURE Bigger on the Inside: Collecting Dr Who
Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, until November 20
NATURE Highlands Bushfest
Bothwell Recreation Ground, Tasmania, until November 20
CULTURE Juniperlooza: The Australia’s First Gin Festival
Pilgrim Bar, Melbourne, until November 20
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Dissecting art". Subscribe here.