February 2012

The Nation Reviewed

The Art of Ideas

By Amanda Lohrey
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Wim Delvoye at MONA

The phenomenon that is Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is a Plato’s cave of multi-layered subterranean space where shadows of the real in the form of artworks are installed within vaults of Triassic sandstone. Since the museum’s opening in January 2011 it has lured a staggering 400,000 visitors, of whom it is estimated 5% are of international origin, 57% local and 38% from interstate.

Anecdotally, the word in Hobart is that MONA alone propped up the faltering Tasmanian tourist industry over a difficult winter, and the locals are grateful. Its owner, professional gambler and art patron David Walsh, tells me he is surprised at the degree to which the public in Tasmania has taken ownership of the museum, that people give him a thumbs up in the street or stop to thank him. The goodwill towards MONA reminds me of the Sydney public’s enthusiastic embrace of Jørn Utzon’s opera house, and it seems peculiarly and demotically Australian that both opera house and art museum should have been funded by proceeds from gambling.

One of Walsh’s favourite artists is Belgian Wim Delvoye, who is the focus of the museum’s first solo exhibition. In MONA, Walsh wanted to construct a temple to atheism based on the scientific worldview and Delvoye is nothing if not irreverent and quirkily experimental. Among the 100-plus works on display are items of mock folk art in the form of Delftware patterns painted onto gas cylinders and shovels, anal kisses in lipstick on hotel stationery, ornately carved tyres, a concrete mixer carved from teak, a full-size cement truck of laser-cut corten steel, and pigskins tattooed with icons (Osama bin Laden) or luxury labels (Louis Vuitton).

Delvoye now lives in China where he keeps a pig farm and tattoos live pigs (sedated) but his prize tattoo exhibit is human, a young London-based Swiss known as Tattoo Tim who can be observed at MONA sitting on a plinth (he also gives tours of the museum). In 2006 Delvoye tattooed Tim’s back and sold the work to a German art collector for 150,000 euros ($205,000). Tim is obligated to exhibit his back up to four times per year and the tattoo will be the collector’s to keep after Tim’s death.

In an informal talk given at his opening Delvoye described his work as democratic and socialist. Tattooing is a democratic art because “only a certain class of people wants it” and it shows that “everyone is an artist”. Art is about “class struggle” he says. “I can only see rich people showing off their wealth” and “discrimination [against the poor] is never far off when it comes to art”. In 2003 Delvoye consulted lawyers about the possibility of selling convertible shit bonds, allowing people to invest in the turds made by his Cloaca machine, an enormous clinical apparatus that mimics the human digestive system so that food is fed in at one end and excrement produced at the other. This, said Delvoye, was his comment on the euro.

A version of Cloaca was installed for MONA’s opening last year. Since then Cloaca has registered with visitors as the most disliked work exhibited at the museum, although according to the information device visitors can listen to as they stroll through the gallery, and which tracks their movements, it is also the one where they spend the most time. “It’s a universal approach to art,” says Delvoye, “the idea that everyone shits, and you don’t have to do it well or poorly – it just gets done.”

In 2005 Delvoye installed another version of Cloaca in China and he describes it as a “truly cosmopolitan socialist piece”. The Chinese are not shocked, he says: “They don’t have a western art education, don’t care about prestige or being in the in-crowd”. At MONA several of these so-called shit machines, in various sizes, are exhibited in a large room of mirrored walls with the aim of immersing the viewer in a “scatological nightmare”. The effect, however, is clinical and mundane. With its bright lighting and glossy surfaces, the installation looks like a science lab; as an assemblage of machines Cloaca is less interesting or provoking than a motor show.

Delvoye’s work is sometimes described as ‘ideas art’ but since ideas are inherent in all art, his work might be more aptly described as ‘statement art’. The risk with this kind of enterprise is that the idea will be more interesting than its visual execution, or that the idea itself is banal and reductive (the human body is a shit machine). The viewer ‘gets’ the idea in the first few seconds of viewing the exhibit … and then what?

Of more interest are Delvoye’s ironic takes on Catholic iconography, though these too tend to suffer from obviousness. There is the Viae Crucis (Stations of the Cross), 14 X-ray images of ghostly crucifixes in which mice are substituted for the human form. There is a 6-metre Gothic-style, laser-cut tower hanging from the ceiling and a series of silver double-helices made up of intertwined figures of the crucified Christ. There are also some traditional stained-glass windows depicting excrement, copulating couples and X-ray images of rats. Walsh has commissioned Delvoye to design and build a 12-metre-high chapel that will feature similar windows beneath which couples can be married. This will complement MONA’s already existing small cemetery where for a price you can have your ashes interred in ornately designed urns.

The last thing Walsh wants is for MONA to become “just some picture gallery”; he wants it to be a platform “whether a launching pad or a Tower of Babel”. While he is surprised and pleased at the public response – and the embrace of MONA by the Australian arts community – he is disappointed at the level of critical attention. Most critics have reviewed the museum favourably, but “very few have attempted to distil MONA’s goals and assess whether they have been met,” he says.

The Delvoye ‘introspective’ will be at MONA until 2 April after which some of it is due to be exhibited at the Louvre. Then the artist is off to Mumbai where his new exhibition will be accessible on YouTube and where he will inaugurate “the world’s first design-based religion”, a religion with no dogmas and better, he says, than Scientology, “which, after all, was invented by a comic-book artist”.

After my tour I walk upstairs to where guests of the opening are eating slices of spit-roasted pig on hamburger buns (both Walsh and Delvoye are vegetarians). I go to the museum shop to buy the Delvoye catalogue but am soon distracted by other items. There’s a 6-inch doll of the Queen with a small solar panel that, when fired up, induces her to give the royal wave. I buy it for a friend who is an environmental activist. I think it will make him laugh.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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