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