For many people museums are uncomfortably similar to mausoleums – repositories of dead animals, dead art, dead ideas. Even those of us who spend their lives in these institutions experience moments when everything feels too dull or predictable.
At heart, museums are educational organisations, competing for attention with an ever-increasing range of distractions. But the museum offers one important thing that can’t be found on the television or the internet: the first-hand experience of an object. Success or failure in a museum today is largely a matter of how well this experience is managed.
It helps to have a great masterpiece such as the Mona Lisa or Las Meninas, which will always draw the crowds, but the majority of museums are obliged make the most of their limitations. Among obstacles to be overcome may be the patchiness of a collection, the slenderness of a budget, or even the geographical isolation of the venue.
This brings us to David Walsh’s unique Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), in Hobart, which has managed to put Tasmania on the world art map in the space of eighteen months. From the perspective of Paris or New York, one could barely imagine anything more out-of-the-way. Nevertheless, MONA can currently claim a higher international profile than any of Australia’s leading public galleries.
This is partly because of the money Walsh has spent on lavish openings, eye-catching acquisitions and publicity, but mostly because MONA has captured everyone’s imagination by challenging all the conventions of a museum we tend to take for granted. The walls are painted black, there are no wall labels. The displays are a provocative mixture of artworks and objects that range from Greek coins, Egyptian sarcophagi and Pre Columbian carvings to contemporary video and installation.
The new MONA exhibition, Theatre of the World, takes this policy of visual democracy into a new dimension. Guest curator, Jean-Hubert Martin, sums up the idea in a catalogue essay titled ‘The Museum of Enchantments Versus the Docile Museum’. Most of the museums we know belong to the latter category – grouping works into neat packages according to age, style or nationality. This historical, quasi-scientific approach is the basis of modern curatorship, and perhaps one of the reasons why the field is so roundly conformist. Nobody wants to do anything that departs from the mainstream.
The ‘museum of enchantments’ takes a contrary path, refusing to impose an artificial order on the things of this world. Martin suggests that rather than using an object to illustrate a particular category of knowledge, there is a visual knowledge to be gleaned from the object itself. We are invited to use our imagination, to find relationships between seemingly disparate pieces and see them differently as a consequence.
Martin is known as the curator of a controversial exhibition called Magiciens de la terre, held at the Centre Pompidou in 1989. It was an attempt to counteract the narrowness of western exhibition practices that he described as “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth.” He chose works by one hundred artists – fifty from Europe and the United States, and fifty from the co-called margins – Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America.
The show was much criticised at the time, but has proven to be prophetic. Nowadays large, international exhibitions – such as the current Sydney Biennale – make strenuous efforts to include art from all over the world.
In 2007, Martin collaborated with Mattijs Visser and Axel Vervoordt on the exhibition, Artempo: Where Time Becomes Art, held at the Palazzo Fortuny during the Venice Biennale. This time the idea was to create experimental relationships between artworks and objects from different periods and places. The range was encyclopaedic, and the show was a huge hit. One of its fans was David Walsh, who would invite Martin and Visser to work on a similar exhibition for MONA.
The result is not a re-run of Magiciens de la terre or Artempo, but a fascinating collaboration between MONA and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), which allowed Martin’s team to forage in its collections, looking for works that might be used in entirely novel displays.
The show takes its title from an eccentric ‘memory theatre’ constructed by the Italian scholar, Guilio Camillo (1480-1544) for the French king, Francois I. It was an attempt to give concrete form to all branches of human knowledge in a structure that resembled a semi-circular theatre. This eccentric idea preoccupied Camillo for most of his life, bringing him a fame that has not lasted.
Theatre of the World is Camillo’s monument, adapting his methods of analogical thinking for contemporary purposes, but the scope of the project is much broader than the Renaissance version of ‘universal knowledge’.
There are more than 300 objects in this exhibition, but the heart of the display is an astonishing, vault-like room draped with more than 80 antique barkcloths (or ‘tapas’), from many parts of the Pacific. Standing at one end is an Egyptian sarcophagus, at the other an emaciated bronze figure by Giacometti. All the barkcloths come from the TMAG collection, and have not been shown for years. The patterns are meaningful, but we can only guess at the stories embedded in them. The origins of many pieces, and the secrets they contain, have been lost.
Our urge for understanding may be thwarted but the visual impact of this room is staggering. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in a museum. The inspired addition of the mummy case and the Giacometti sends us richocheting from ancient Egypt to post-war Paris and back, in a room crowded with secret, sacred knowledge from the opposite side of the planet.
This is the most spectacular part of the show, but every gallery contains unlikely juxtapositions that oblige us to see familiar objects in a new light. To give structure to this display, which Martin compares to the “ordered chaos” of a private collection, each room has a theme. There is a room devoted to the eye, to the body, to death, to animals, and so on. One darkened room has a large wall covered in masks illuminated momentarily by spotlights. By the time we have focused on a mask, it has faded and another has appeared as if by magic.
In another room is a work by Jason Shulman that consists of only a thin candle with a circular aura, created, so I’m told, by the shape of the enclosure. The twists in a shell are echoed by a spiralling arrangement of coloured beetles. The red lines of an Emily Kngwarreye painting are mirrored by a sample of red crystals. A panel encrusted with dead flies by Damien Hirst finds a cousin in a solid block of Chinese coins retrieved from the ocean floor. A waxy, elongated torso by Belgian artist, Berlinde De Bruyckere is exhibited alongside another Egyptian sarcophagus, and a Minoan burial casket from c.1300 BCE.
Elsewhere, John Dempsey’s watercolour portraits of the British working classes from 1823-24 are paired with grotesque photos of the Russian underclass by Boris Mikhailov. Two craggy faced figures in a painting by Albert Tucker are compared with two dogs in a video by William Wegman. In one photo, Gunter Brus holds and axe to his head; in another, Gordon Matta-Clark splits a house in two.
If you’re thinking that much of this sounds whimsical, the charge is undeniable. Some of the relationships are obvious, some cryptic, but Martin and his colleagues have gone about their task in a shamelessly subjective manner. There is a lot of humour in this show, as if to make us conscious of the exaggerated reverence with which most museums display their treasures. We are encouraged to view each object as a feat of the human imagination, not a holy icon. We are also made aware that our sense of an object comes as much from the way it is displayed as from its own material qualities.
Some of the most striking examples are Sidney Nolan’s African paintings, which have never played a leading role in assessments of this over-productive artist’s career. In Theatre of the World, these paintings have a presence and power that I’d not previously suspected.
Martin realises that this kind of exhibition will never replace the standard museum model. It is an interruption: a chance for us to stand back and explore a different form of visual experience. “The pleasures of a museum,” the curator argues, “should be like that of a concert-hall or theatre.” In other words we should go to enjoy ourselves – to experience the rapture of the moment and leave the educational anxieties to a later date. Needless to say, we’re learning all the time in a museum, even if it happens to be fun.
Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, June 23 – 8 April 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 30, 2012