04 July, 2017
Is David Walsh a total arse or the self-reflexive orchestrator of a critical farce? And does it even matter?
Dark Mofo 2017 was on from 8 - 21 June in Hobart, Tasmania. The Museum of Everything is on 10 June 2017 - 22 April 2018 at MONA.
“I actually thought that was a joke”, she replies, as we wait for the ferry to come and take us back from a trip around the exhaustive exhibition of art by institutional ‘outsiders’ that opened at MONA for the Dark Mofo crowds.
“What?” I ask, brows creasing and eyes widening. That’s the last interpretation I’d ever give James Brett’s passing remark on The Museum of Everything audio commentary.
“I think he was joking about how MONA is known for just going for provocative stuff. And maybe that’s fetishising, I’m sure they’ve been critiqued for that, but he’s hamming it up.”
“So you think he’s actually performing ignorance as a kind of self-reflexive critique?” I ask, still incredulous but trying to meet my interlocutor halfway.
She nods and maybe starts to say something else but I interrupt her, in a display of rudeness I’d usually control. I’m almost at the end of my Dark Mofo trip and after witnessing culturally insensitive (and culturally confused) pseudo-pagan burnings, a lack of women directors in the all-male film program and an out-dated performance by headliner Hermann Nitsch, I’m at my wits end.
“Yeah, I just didn’t read it that way at all. I mean a white, British, male curator saying nothing about a sculpture of an intersex person on his audio commentary other than ‘they said hermaphrodite and we said “yes please!”’ is an objectifying and offensive remark, even if it’s meant to be critique. But on top of that I don’t think he was joking. I mean you saw the whole exhibition, right? We’re talking about a man whose critical commentary on a big sign that says ‘divorce whores not allowed’ is nothing but a quick, really reductive remark about how the man who wrote that sign was left by his wife, and he really loved her, so Brett feels sorry for him. Like, seriously?”
I have no doubt that I was even less… generous in my critique than usual, precisely because Brett’s The Museum of Everything, an exhibition of his collection that’s ‘occupying’ MONA for about a year, is made all the more sinister by the shadow of David Walsh that looms overhead. Having two white, male, curatorial clichés making cliché mistakes – under-representing women, overwhelmingly portraying desire as heterosexual and male-driven aside from a few deviations which are seemingly traded for provocation and titillation, navigating race with nowhere near enough care – within the same institution just compounds the effect of their work. The sum is greater than the total of its parts.
The Museum of Everything is a show that, for me, crystallises the problematic attitudes underpinning the faux-radical curatorial logic of MONA as an institution that profits off creating an anti-museum identity while perpetuating the toxic conventions that make the museum: sexism, primitivism, spectacle, and so on. The MONA section of Dark Mofo exemplifies what we’ve also seen in this year’s Dark Mofo festival at large; there was a striking lack of diversity and blatant use of primitivist tropes to create an erotic atmosphere that just highlighted the very way in which the male gaze, the white gaze, the colonial gaze and the capitalist gaze, all intersect in a falsely pleasurable and insidious way in conventional museum culture.
A few weeks post-Mofo, I had the chance to speak to Jane Clark, Senior Research Curator at MONA and I ended up reconsidering the idea that maybe MONA and Dark Mofo are meant to be, or at least should be, read as a critical farce – and maybe Walsh is partially aware of this in his provocations. Jane and I had a lengthy discussion, but what surprised me most was that she didn’t shy away from the fact that both David Walsh and his temporary guest at MONA, James Brett, are showmen, and that showing their collections is, in part, about showing their “peacock feathers”. She said David himself would probably call it that.
If Walsh is at least semi-aware of how obnoxious and egotistical he looks when he builds a museum around himself and refers to himself as God in the nameplate for his parking spot, then what else is he aware of? Is the joke on us? When on MONA’s website Walsh frames his museological work as “one man’s crusade to piss off art academics”, is he trying to show work that he thinks the institution won’t like or is he trying to reveal, theatrically and maybe hyperbolically, the enormous ego’s, colonialism, sexism, audacious displays of wealth and problematically provocative spectacles that the museum itself has always and often continues to rely on – which us art professionals are complicit in?
And whether or not he’s in on the joke, what does it mean to read Walsh’s work at MONA and Dark Mofo as an act of over-identification that exposes the widespread, insidious problems with museum culture through an exaggerated performance of wilful ignorance? More than one person I spoke to wanted me to read Walsh’s festival this way and I was tempted to, but surely institutionalising institutional critique to that extreme completely devalues it? I mean, is critique that’s absorbed by the institution (either the museum or the industry of professionals who hold it up) politically productive or just a self-congratulatory play for cultural capital?
As much as Walsh and Brett make me angry, what really enrages me is the lack of critical response from the art world. Walsh throws down the gauntlet every year with Dark Mofo and a lot of the exhibitions at MONA. I know that many of the artists that are programmed are fantastic in their own right. But how many of us are critiquing their position within Walsh’s particular curatorial nightmare and how many of us are just buying two tickets to the posh pit on MONA ferry?
Emma Size is a writer who tends to incite eye rolls from people because she sees everything as political. Believe it or not, she’s also very fun at parties.