As everyone knows by now, David Walsh, the owner of the Museum of Old and New Art, is interested in power. The power of money, of sex, of death, of religion and of art. The fantasy of MONA – using your money to impose and incarnate your vision, to share it and to employ others to bring it to life, is at once messianic and amazing.
As is also well known, the small museum Walsh had before he started MONA in 2011 showed his collection of old things, but no one came. Heavenly Beings is said to be the first MONA show that features only old things, so Walsh has been building up to this for a while.
As a private museum, MONA’s attitude has always been one of freedom from rules and, to some extent, from words. At a time when long statements often appear with artworks to tell us what they are doing and what we should think, it is a relief to be free from them. There are no explanatory panels and no titles on displays in the new MONA exhibitions or throughout the museum, though since the beginning MONA has had “the O”, now available as an app on your phone, which has all the words you might need and records your trip.
Though there is something to be said for only using your memory and walking around in it while in an exhibition…
Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World is about religion, specifically Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The works on show come from Russia, Crete, Ethiopia, the Balkans, Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Greece. If nothing else, it’s a geography lesson – two big maps are included on the wall.
Though very scholarly and complex, Heavenly Beings is here presented as an immersive rather than educational experience. The icons range in date from 1350 to 1900 and are hung by theme rather than geography or chronology. The exhibition asserts that this work is living art made with a purpose. While from the Renaissance, the Western tradition went down the route of progress and perspective, oil painting and illusionism, icon-makers continued to paint with egg tempera on wooden panels for religious reasons, consolation and hope. Many works here remind you of the early Renaissance – it is the eyes and the faces and their directness of expression.
These vivid icons were mostly collected by a single private individual, former Australian diplomat John McCarthy, though the exhibition also includes works from MONA and the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Some were shown at the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 2014. The first iteration of Heavenly Beings curated by Sophie Matthiesson, who also co-curated the MONA edition with Jane Clark, was shown at Auckland Art Gallery in 2022.
You approach the icons through an antechamber of blue sky painted with clouds. The artworks are in darkened chambers with a choral accompaniment – a hushed atmosphere that asks for respect and silence. And maybe transcendence. They include images of Jesus, his mother and many saints as well as a recently acquired map of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. You are aware of many eyes looking at you and, in some works, the rich vermilion glow of cinnabar paint. The sometimes worn-by-devotion areas of gold leaf applied to the wooden surfaces of the icons with garlic juice have a visceral impact. These golden surfaces represent infinity.
The group of art writers who visited MONA included painter Leonard Brown, an ordained though irregular Russian Orthodox priest, who wore his official regalia for the tour. This made the occasion more resonant and Brown gave a few insights and informative talks during our passage.
The origin story of the icons connects them to the Fayum portraits for coffins made in Egypt, some of which date back to the first century BC. If you have never looked at them, check them out. They are very lifelike, unlike the stylised Egyptian art that we all know so well: it is almost as if the subjects are present. Each portrait is characterised by enormous dark, almost wet, eyes, which makes the viewer feel observed as well as observing. This gaze is present in most icons and explains much of their power. As Brown pointed out, they are not images of the divine: they are the divine. As are we all, of course.
Another of the summer exhibitions at MONA is Hrafntinna (Obsidian) by Icelandic musician Jónsi, of Sigur Rós fame. Obsidian is a soundwork about a volcano in his homeland, which he missed while stuck in the United States in 2021 because of Covid-19. There is not much to this work, which includes about 200 speakers surrounding a round structure that vibrates at times and on which you can sit or lie. The work also includes scent – a very faint, indefinable, smoky odour said to be amber. It’s a Claytons volcano – the one you have when you are not having a volcano. It was somehow underwhelming. The choir singing was rapturous and enjoyable – the rumbling of the volcano less so.
Obsidian emphasises the ongoingness of a volcano, the unpredictable grumbling of the Earth, the beauty of singing in a choir. Perhaps some Nordic movies will come back into your thoughts – the bleak but beautiful landscapes, the sense of elemental human life barely persisting amid the sky and the weather. And the resourcefulness, dourness, ingenuity and steadfastness of human cultures that have evolved to live in such insular places.
I thought of the 2020 Danish movie Another Round, where teenagers about to graduate are shown singing together at school where they probably know everyone and will for the rest of their lives. Obsidian shows the importance of singing in such cultures – the voice as an instrument that you can play in the dark, and that is sustaining and full of memories of childhood, family and communion.
And thence through the idiosyncrasies of cultures to Jean-Luc Moulène representing France, and art as a meaningless commodity. Minimalism through maximalism. Or is it the old trope of formlessness discussed by Georges Bataille and said to symbolise both danger and power? This trope – which had its fairly tedious day in Australia in the 1990s – is about ontological uneasiness and resistance to definition. In his artist’s talk, Moulène mentions “the blur”. I think this indicates the blur of meaning – he wants to evade meaning.
The works on show at MONA in Jean-Luc Moulène and Teams were made with the aid of computers and in collaboration with teams of professional art-fabricators and other workers in Tasmania and Queensland, beginning in 2018. They include Errata (2002-13), coloured steel cans made to his specifications in Mexico and stacked on pallets in a rather large block; and four large sculptures on plinths – one of synthetic wax named Wax Larva (2021), one of Huon pine named Hardwood Knot (2021), one of zinc named Fixed Zinc (2021) and one of sandstone named Sandstone Abstract (2021). Each material was altered in some way by his thoughts or acts, or those of machines or fabricators, but none intends to represent anything except a stone he once collected.
These works are flanked by Axe (Axis) (2016), a vertical cow bone in a vice that might be reacting (erecting?) to Les Trois Grâces (The Three Graces), a slightly gratuitous 2012 video of three slim, naked women standing in a field in Oxford, which Moulène said was a reference to Lucas Cranach’s 1531 painting of the same subject. The best part of this work is the unscripted bird that flies behind the women through the sky from side to side.
I mention this to the artist and he says the bird doesn’t know what art is. He seems to think that is a good place to be. Perhaps a video of the many black swans dipping their graceful heads in the water of the bay outside MONA could have been incorporated into the exhibition.
Stephanie Radok travelled to Hobart with the assistance of MONA.
Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World, Jean-Luc Moulène and Teams and Jónsi: Hrafntinna (Obsidian) are showing at MONA until April 1, 2024.
EXHIBITION Wurrdha Marra
NGV Australia, Naarm/Melbourne, from October 12
DANCE Architect of the Invisible
State Theatre Centre of WA, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, October 11-15
BALLET Swan Lake
Festival Theatre, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, until October 14
Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Meanjin/Brisbane, October 14-28
VISUAL ART Image/Object
Salamanca Arts Centre, nipaluna/Hobart, until October 24
Canberra Theatre Centre, Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, until October 8
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Windows to heaven".
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