Bark and bite: MONA's Theatre of the World

Jul 03, 2012

by SUSAN SKELLY, Editor, Qantas The Australian Way

Walls of Pacific Island bark cloths, a prayer mat woven with an image of a Kalashnikov rifle, bible bombs, art from the trenches, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, a miniature Mercedes-Benz coffin, Damien Hirst’s canvas of resin-rocked flies Theatre Of The World, the latest exhibition at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, taps into the sense of random collectivism that is the gallery’s guts and glory.

With their often glorious isolation, gourmet supplies and adventurous design, Tasmania’s deluxe retreats rewrite the short-break rule book.

MONA's exhibitions are becoming signature sells. Like Monanism, which opened the maverick gallery in 2011, and the solo exhibition of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye later in the year, the latest $4m drawcard was launched with an abundance of food, art, and beautiful people. And like Monanism and the Delvoye showcase, they are provocative, creative and cheeky, lending themselves to either deep contemplation or flip commentary. Egalitarianism triumphs over academia at David Walsh’s bat cave by the Derwent.

Or, as Wassily Kandinsky is quoted as saying on MONA’s iPod-style audio, O, (offering “art wank” perspectives or Walsh’s own “gonzo” pronouncements on the art): “Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”

There’s always a sense of feasting at MONA. At the June 22 opening, local and imported artists, curators, art lovers, media, and politicians thronged around banquet tables of skewered quails, suckling piglet, high marble-score meats and falafels as big as frisbees. The entry point to Theatre Of The World, collated as “Epiphany”, is like a degustation menu of rich, tasty morsels: Sidney Nolan’s Dog And Duck Hotel, a stuffed owl, an electric fan, a Qing Dynasty coin hoard, Egyptian amulets, clocks, the odd primate skeleton.

Where Monanism was overt - the giant, panelled Nolan Snake; the mechanical human waste machine, Cloaca; the stuck Mack truck; the installation of butchered meat Theatre Of The World is about threads that pull together culture, crafts and communities.

“Scope” focuses on eyes: from Picasso’s Weeping Woman to tunics, slippers and dance bags embellished with eyes made from tiny glass beads by Nigeria’s Yoruba people, to the photograph by Juul Kraijer of Untitled woman sucking on an eyeball.

Then there are ideas around artistic beginnings (“Genesis” – Brett Whiteley’s The Naked Studio lives here); the body (“Corpus”); death and the afterlife (“Beyond”) and predators and the relationship between man and beast (“Domesticate”).

The “Contention” grouping is an observation of war and weapons: the war rug genre of Afghanistan that is a legacy of Russian invasion; Wim Delvoye’s image of Osama Bin Laden tattooed on pig skin; the Gregory Green depiction of bombs hidden in bibles (Torah, Koran and a Russian Orthodox bible); and a trench sculpture fashioned from a cannon shell and bullets.

French museum director Jean-Hubert Martin has curated the exhibition. It was his cross-cultural sensibilities at the 2007 Venice Biennale exhibition Artempo that led David Walsh to invite him to curate an exhibition at MONA. Many of MONA’s “house” collection pieces have been recontextualised for Theatre Of The World; other pieces have been borrowed from galleries at home and abroad and, as it turned out, some of Martin’s greatest inspiration came from the nearby Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), in particular its rare and impressive collection of bark cloth from the Pacific Rim.

In a room referred to as “Majesty”, are 70 such tapa from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, dating back to the 1850s and used in ceremonies and funerals, as gifts, clothing and matting. They recline comfortably on sloping black magnetic walls, magnets holding them in place to respect their fragility. A precursor to their graphic magnificence is the corridor that gently notes how geometry is found in the simplest of cultural art and design: squares and triangles stitched, baked or drawn onto hats, armbands, teapots and paper.

The “theatre” of the title, then, means many things: it’s a nod to the theatre of war, of make believe, of artifice and spectacle, and to the world stage. The chambers of Theatre Of The World carry with them a sense of belonging, achieved not just by the curatorial groupings, but by evoking the communities many of the items relied on for their existence. The juxtapositions might also remind a MONA viewer that what might seem primitive now was as cutting-edge then as, say, Wayne Hudson’s gothic leather Chaise, of black leather bolsters and vampire teeth feet in svelte wood.

Theatre Of The World is at MONA until April 8, 2013

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