The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Art gal­leries and mu­se­ums in the mod­ern world, ex­cept in rooms de­voted to the dis­play of frag­ile works on pa­per, are usu­ally brightly lit with white or neu­tral walls, en­vi­ron­ments that repli­cate the ef­fi­cient, ra­tio­nal and sani­tised ideal of modernist ar­chi­tec­ture. In the tem­po­rary in­stal­la­tions of con­tem­po­rary art, how­ever, we of­ten find the op­po­site: dark­ened rooms or cor­ri­dors lead­ing into spa­ces for the pro­jec­tion of im­mer­sive video works.

Oddly enough, this dark­ened set­ting is much closer to the way that much art of the past was orig­i­nally seen: al­tar­pieces, for ex­am­ple, stand­ing lu­mi­nously in gloomy chapels. And it is cer­tainly the pre­ferred ex­hi­bi­tion style at MONA in Ho­bart, where dark­ened cor­ri­dors are clearly used to take vis­i­tors out of the ev­ery­day world and pre­pare them for the en­counter with some­thing un­usual and mys­te­ri­ous.

For its cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion, On the Ori­gin of Art, MONA con­fronts the visi­tor with four dif­fer­ent door­ways, as in those leg­ends and fairy­tales where the hero must choose which door to en­ter or in­deed, as in The Mer­chant of Venice, which cas­ket to open. Each of the four open­ings leads into a labyrinth of dark­ened cor­ri­dors and rooms in which one of four guest cu­ra­tors has been asked to se­lect ob­jects that il­lu­mi­nate the univer­sal hu­man in­stinct to make art.

The labyrinths into which we ven­ture con­tain a fas­ci­nat­ingly di­verse range of im­agery and ob­jects, from pho­to­graphic or graphic nat­u­ral his­tory il­lus­tra­tion to sculp­ture, ce­ram­ics, prints, oil paint­ings and var­i­ous forms of con­tem­po­rary art. Each set of ob­jects is meant to cor­re­spond to a dif­fer­ent the­sis about the ori­gin of art, but the ob­jects them­selves are far too se­man­ti­cally rich and am­bigu­ous to be lim­ited to any one ar­gu­ment, and so one set in­evitably over­laps with the next, one the­ory partly co­in­cides with an­other.

Per­haps the first thing that strikes us is there are phe­nom­ena in na­ture that seem in some sense cog­nate with the aes­thetic fac­ul­ties and yet pre-date by an im­mense length of time the hu­man ac­tiv­ity of mak­ing art and in­deed the hu­man species it­self. The per­cep­tion of some­thing like beauty is the most im­por­tant of these, seen in the most ele­men­tary and yet end­lessly won­drous form in the colours and shapes of flow­ers de­signed to at­tract pol­li­nat­ing in­sects.

Even more strik­ing is the na­ture of sex­ual at­trac­tion. The prim­i­tive and in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion to beauty is based on the fact the healthy, strong, sym­met­ri­cal, well-formed in­di­vid­ual will prob­a­bly be a bet­ter mat­ing part­ner than an un­healthy, weak, mal­formed and un­fit one.

For hu­mans, as it hap­pens, things are not quite as sim­ple as that: be­cause in­tan­gi­ble qual­i­ties such as in­tel­lect, strength of char­ac­ter, moral up­right­ness and qual­i­ties of so­cia­bil­ity are more im­por­tant than sim­ple phys­i­cal fitness for suc­cess in hu­man com­mu­ni­ties, and in­creas­ingly so in more de­vel­oped civil­i­sa­tions, at­trac­tion is not cal­i­brated to beauty and phys­i­cal strength in a straight­for­ward way; so­cial sta­tus, wealth and power — or even kind­ness, ide­al­ism, and other ap­peal­ing char­ac­ter traits — may be­come de­ci­sive fac­tors for dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

Things are sim­pler for in­sects, and one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing pieces in the ex­hi­bi­tion is a video of the mat­ing rit­ual of a kind of tiny fly. As a fe­male ap­proaches, the male be­gins an elab­o­rate dis­play, rais­ing a brightly coloured ab­domen and, even more re­mark­ably, lift­ing two feather- like forms that ap­pear to be nei­ther legs nor wings but look for all the world like arms that he is wav­ing in the air to at­tract her at­ten­tion. In com­bi­na­tion with the dead­pan ex­pres­sion of eyes de­void of in­ner life or con­scious­ness, the ef­fect is un­in­ten­tion­ally hu­mor­ous.

(c. 1921) by Solomon J. Solomon, above left; In­dia (Frost) (2013) by Ryan McGin­ley, above right; an im­age by Marc Quinn, left

Hu­man sex­ual at­trac­tion is evoked in a num­ber of works, but par­tic­u­larly in a se­ries of Ja­panese erotic Shunga prints — with their mon­strously over­sized phal­luses and vul­vas, evok­ing the world of car­nal pas­sion hid­den, but so eas­ily re­vealed, be­neath the grace­ful re­fine­ment of tra­di­tional Ja­panese dress.

A four-screen video an­i­ma­tion by JeanJac­ques Lebel, a vet­eran French artist, was put to­gether over decades of col­lect­ing im­ages of women, from high art to erotic pho­tographs. The fig­ures are made to morph from one to the other in a dizzy­ing and kalei­do­scopic evo­ca­tion of the dream of de­sire, which is strik­ing for a cou­ple of rea­sons.

The first is that it re­minds us how the mod­ern world — per­haps the world since the end of tribal life — has em­pha­sised the face as the


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