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"Theatre of the World".



Alternately described as a Bond villain's lair or a subversive Disneyland for adults, MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, has been serving up an anachronist's menu of dismembered culture since opening in 2011. The museum was founded in Hobart, the southernmost city in Australia, by the gambling millionaire David Walsh as a home for his collection of antiquities, artifacts, and contemporary art. Cut directly into a promontory on the Derwent River, the complex resembles a network of bunkers, a museum for the end of the world in every sense. "Theatre of the World," MONA'S current show, features artworks from Walsh's personal collection combined with ethnographic and historical a objects from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, an institution that Walsh haunted as a teenager when he was supposed to be attending a Catholic Mass. The exhibition is curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in 's collaboration with the exhibition designer Tijs Visser and the MONA staff. Martin and Visser's ability to extract an almost musical tension and harmony out of arrangements of objects first caught Walsh's attention at their "Artempo" exhibition in Venice in 2007: a palazzo filled with a surreal mixture of old masters, Enlightenment curiosities, and major twentieth-century works. What appealed to Walsh was that, as he put it, they had created a strange and powerful museum "without a shred of commitment to any practiced method for seeking truth." There were no chronologies, no taxonomies, no themes, no single organizing principle that could reduce the pleasure of associations to any blundering pedagogic outcome.

Likewise, "Theatre of the World" is more carefully calibrated for the gratification of the imagination than for understanding. At the opening doorway, as a kind of clue, Martin has placed a plan of Giulio Camillo's memory theater, the mnemonic device he constructed for Francis 1 in the early sixteenth century. The memory theater was a Renaissance machine for thinking, according to which every object in the cosmos could be classified under a planet and an element, and was designed as a nearly magical tool of rhetoric, one that would grant monarchs celestial powers of persuasion. The theater, with its analogical reasoning and suggestive power, is used by Martin as an enabling conceit rather than a rigid rule, one that allows him to place heterogeneous objects in the same room without deferring to any positive taxonomies.


What immediately follows is a room full of eyes; Picasso's Weeping Woman, 1937, is coupled with a ritual shield from Papua New Guinea. Then a room about sex, in which Marina Abramovie's Breathing In Breathing Out, 1977, sits at the end of an ornate wooden bed under the enormous, sybaritic Brett Whiteley diptych The Naked Studio, 1981. In this context, the eye-spot, a dot with a circle around it, becomes a fertilized egg. Put another circle around it and you have a map of the world--as demonstrated in the concentric rings of both a Dala from the Solomon Islands and a seventeenth-century navigator's chart. Following its own peculiar logic, the exhibition begins to unfold, culminating in a hall lined with rare Pacific Island tapa cloths, within which an Egyptian sarcophagus confronts Giacometti's terrifyingly thin Grande Figurine (Femme Leoni), 1947. As a coda, the exhibition ends in intricately fabricated bombs concealed in sacred books by Gregory Green, juxtaposed with bulletproof glass retrieved from a firearms test in a local prison. Through the careful counterpoint of more than three hundred objects, the curators set up a parallel history of the world characterized by desire, design, brute force, and contingency.

What is definitely not accidental is that Martin's conjunction of a Picasso painting and a Papuan shield brings to mind the entire altercation between Tom McEvilley and William Rubin over the Museum of Modern Art's 1984 "Primitivism" show. McEvilley accused Rubin of reducing ritual devices and magical fetishes to mere stylistic precursors of contemporary art. What Martin does in "Theatre of the World" is precisely the reverse--he elevates modern and contemporary artworks to the status of fetishes, power objects on the same footing as grave goods and sacred icons. It is this context that allows us to see Picasso's Weeping Woman as more animated and more vigilant than the guard paid to watch over her
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Author:Jasper, Adam
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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