Art

Two exhibitions recently opened at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art highlight the ability of works to create new hypotheses. They also prompt viewers to ponder fiscal imperatives and the so-called ‘MONA effect’. By Lauren Carroll Harris.

The Everted Capital and Your Shadow Rising

A video still from ‘It’ll Soon Be Over (Exquisite Corpse)’ and ‘The Human Engine’ by Toby Ziegler.
Credit: MONA / Jesse Hunniford

“It’s the whole thing of [Slavoj] Žižek saying that it’s harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world,” Fabien Giraud says. Black-clothed, beanie-clad, the artist appears like some French theory-informed art ghost, parachuted into the Museum of Old and New Art’s empty underground cinema from far away to explain other ways of thinking and living.

The Paris-based artist is speaking to me at the launch of his new exhibition, The Everted Capital, made with his collaborator, Raphaël Siboni, commissioned by MONA’s owner, David Walsh. Accompanying it is a second show by British artist Toby Ziegler titled Your Shadow Rising. Together, the two exhibitions form a strange, beguiling subversion of history’s grand narratives.

The Everted Capital was presaged earlier this year by The Unmanned, Giraud and Siboni’s radical retelling of the history of computation, in reverse. Along the duo’s reconfigured time line was a video series of technological traumas beginning in 2045 with the speculated death of Ray Kurzweil, the prognosticator of “the singularity”, in which human and artificial intelligence will merge as one, and ending in 1541, with Spanish conquistadors riding into the place now known as Silicon Valley. With each video, Giraud and Siboni posited how history doesn’t work – it isn’t made by great men, it isn’t an inevitable ascent to progress, it isn’t all revolutions, it isn’t settled. History is contested. It’s happening. We can rethink it and remake it.

Now, when we talk of history, we often talk of dystopia – of a slide towards fascistic tendencies, of losing the Earth. With The Everted Capital, Giraud and Siboni hurtle beyond the end of the Earth, to second extinction on another newly colonised planet. The sun is dying, and the community is searching for more salt, which is their imagined society’s currency. It’s a work beyond documentary and beyond fiction. Shot in real time with a GoPro – for a horror-like, handheld, spotlit feel – it was filmed just two months ago in the same space of its exhibition.

A low mechanical whirr is dissected by a high cutting screech. Dialogue floats above it all, something about “the world that we’ve grown to accept”. The settlers of the future are modelled on New Australia, a settlement of Australians in Paraguay in the 1890s, and yet The Everted Capital is a deeply unearthly, witchy vision. Ahead of the main video work is a shorter video of objects that have been used as forms of currency in human history: feathers, beetles, plants. Through a craggy hole smashed in the museum wall, the exhibition space also houses the invented artefacts that feature in the main video. Mould will grow on these sculptures as the show progresses, water will drip, time will tick on.

Before we cross the threshold into all of this, a fellow arts journalist murmurs to me that this is her favourite part of any exhibition – that flash of anticipation ahead of actually seeing the art. There’s also something about the way art lingers, that feeling of walking away and letting the work echo within you. The Everted Capital isn’t a pleasurable show to spend time inside. It has an alienating aesthetic that trails its austere themes. But the ideas contained within took hold of me in the following days. Politics is so dispiriting, so numbskulling, yet Giraud and Siboni have found a way to riff on dystopia that can seduce new thinking beyond the stalemate of now.

Giraud believes this is art’s mandate. “Art has the function to create new hypotheses,” he says, “new hypotheses that are so strong that they are able to change our subjectivities. Because a hypothesis is not just a dream for a potential world. Whatever you hypothesise changes you, it makes you become what you dream of. Which is the biggest problem of the present – that there is no speculation about a potential future except some kind of doomy, gloomy dystopia.” He comes back to the Žižek quote: “I’m trying to think about the end of capitalism.”

Historians often draw on art to interpret the past: cave drawings, Indigenous rock sculptures, even science-fiction films that reflect the anxieties of their era. Giraud and Siboni reverse that pattern, using art to interrogate how we construct historical narratives. So too does Toby Ziegler, blowing apart traditional modes of painting, video and sculpture in the next exhibition space with Your Shadow Rising.

“It’s difficult to do it now,” Ziegler says, “to be an artist and make things with your hands. When I left art school I was finding it very hard to find a way to make a painterly gesture that didn’t feel like a totally macho cliché. So that’s where computers came in for me and that opened it up again.”

The centrepiece of his show – a sculpture of a giant, slowly spinning, diamond-like Perspex hand – has an art history reference point, “an etching by a Renaissance artist named Hendrick Goltzius,” Ziegler tells me. “His hand was in a fire, he lost one-and-a-half fingers, and he claimed that it made him a better artist. The trauma somehow improved him. My sculpture of his hand was modelled on a computer – pure geometry, dots in space, locating the form in the simplest possible way.

“The computer and the body are the same, these devices become almost an extension of our bodies. People are nervous of being usurped by digital technology, while at the same time wholeheartedly embracing it.”

Behind it is a video work across two screens, made using a reverse image search. “On the left, I’ve put six source images,” explains Ziegler. A hand, a fire and other images of bodies from old paintings scroll past, with an increasingly staccato drumbeat. “And on the right are the related images [that Google found]. It’s like a game of Chinese whispers. Through a process of abstraction, the images get less and less related to the original.” It’s a graceful, rhythmic, exacting body of work.

“It reveals so much about how humans are so motivated to find meaning in things,” says Ziegler of his Google-generated video, and yet it is motivated by his own disillusionment about art’s function and meaning. “It’s funny how you wouldn’t necessarily ask a poet to deconstruct their poem or explain what it means, because it’s all about finding your own meaning in the space between the words.” This notion of art having no authoritative meaning is as radical as Giraud and Siboni’s prompts to get their audiences dreaming of alternative futures.

As is typical for MONA, the VIP launch of The Everted Capital and Your Shadow Rising was a Gatsby-meets-Wonka affair, a giant triangular sheet of flavoured powder was just one of the items to sample at the cocktail brunch before dipping into Giraud and Siboni’s bunker artwork of apocalyptic breakdown. Such cognitive dissonance defines the MONA experience. The paradoxical nature of the work and the surrounds – that the activities of the uber-rich, under-regulated owners of capital manifest the dystopia Giraud and Siboni fear – felt largely ignored.

So much of MONA’s deserved artistic success has been spurred by David Walsh’s singular vision. But the decision to locate the museum in Australia’s most economically moribund and isolated state has also given Walsh and his institution an impact and mythology to rival the country’s few other art magnates, such as Judith Neilson, Gene Sherman and John Kaldor.

It’s within this context that MONA propels a utilitarian purpose for art – as a trigger for tourism to get Tassie humming (much as hidden tourism imperatives drive the frequently inscrutable Biennale of Sydney). At the exhibitions’ launch, the media pack was continually reminded that Hobart’s international visitors are up by 21 per cent from last year.

The oft-spoken-of “MONA effect” is real – Hobart’s rebranding as a boutique art city, abundant in food and drink and kooky sexy art, continues to kindle tourism’s growth as a major economic booster. The new buzzword is “dispersal”. There are concerted efforts to get tourists traipsing deeper into the rest of the wild green island, including the migration of the MONA FOMA festival to Launceston for the first time next year.

For decades, the worth of Australian film policy has been prescribed by this type of business-speak. Industry over art form. Dollar values over cultural values. And now, those same measurable economic outcomes are beginning to determine discussions about art’s future in this country, ahead of the more profound, hypothetical imaginings that MONA’s own artists speak of so eloquently. Perhaps that shift in values, from the intangible to the fiscal, is the true meaning of the MONA effect. Whatever would Žižek say?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "History for the taking". Subscribe here.

Lauren Carroll Harris
is a writer, artist and broadcaster.