Exhibition in Tasmania, Australia: Science meets art at Mona with ‘On the Origin of Arts’

Think art and science do not mix? The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart explores art through biological frameworks

Feb 14, 2017 | By Nadya Wang
'Ko wai Koe (Who are You?)' (detailed view), Marian Maguire.

‘Ko wai Koe (Who are You?)’ (detailed view), Marian Maguire. (Photo courtesy of Marian Maguire)

Art is usually seen as a cultural construct but the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) is trying to change that stereotype. Their latest exhibition, ‘On the Origin of Art’, which runs from 5 November 2016 to 17 April 2017, proposes biological frameworks to understand and appreciate art. It is co-curated by the Mona team, with guest curators from the field of science: Steven Pinker, Canadian-American psychology professor and an experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist who wrote ‘The Language Instinct’ (1994) and ‘How the Mind Works’ (1997); Geoffrey Miller, American professor of psychology who wrote ‘The Mating Mind’ (2000); Brian Boyd, Professor of literature at the University of Auckland, and the author of ‘On the Origin of Stories’ (2009); and Mark Changizi, American evolutionary neurobiologist and cognitive scientist behind ‘The Vision Revolution’ (2009). Armed with their different theories, they seek to answer the question at hand: Is art adaptive?

Mona, founded by Tasmanian native David Walsh, has always pushed for new perspectives on art. For one, it takes the position that all art is contemporary. “Something from 10,000 years ago has survived and is here in the world now, and the way that we look upon it and view it has as much relevance as something being created today,” says Nicole Durling, Co-Director of Exhibitions & Collections and Senior Curator at Mona.

This viewpoint has resulted in an impressive collection of artworks that is thought-provoking and entertaining, presented to the public in Mona’s subterranean home in Hobart, a pilgrimage for contemporary art lovers. “The collection goes back to Neolithic arrow tips and spear points through to brand-new commissioned works,” says Durling. “It is in no way exhaustive of all types of creative human pursuits, but it is very eclectic and has in a true sense a connoisseur’s collection.”

'Anne Marie (Iguana)' (detailed view), Ryan McGinley.

Anne Marie (Iguana)’ (detailed view), Ryan McGinley. Image courtesy Ryan McGinley and gallery, inc.

‘On the Origin of Art’ is no less expansive in the timeframe of the artworks it offers, and visitors can look forward to 230 works of art, including pieces from Mona’s own collection, nine new commissions, as well as loans from some sixty lenders. Using these pieces, the curatorial team is examining art through the lens of science in an attempt to understand what it means to be human and, at the same time, challenge conventional concepts of art to push for new and potentially illuminating ways to think about art.

Art Republik speaks with Jane Clark, Senior Research Curator, to find out more about the exhibition.

Could you briefly introduce each of the four curatorial sections, and how you see them complementing each other for a coherent exhibition?

Whilst there are four parts to this exhibition, each conceived by a guest curator, the exhibition should be seen as a whole. Entry is through four open doorways leading into four black tunnels — so you have no idea whose exhibition you are entering until you are inside. And it doesn’t matter whose door you enter first. Each section is a series of rooms that will lead you back to where you began. The exhibition makes one overarching claim: that art is at least as much a biological as it is a cultural phenomenon.

What are the sub-questions that have arisen from the central question?

Why do we make art? How does aesthetics help us to survive? What are the deep biological roots of art — both art making and art appreciation? How are these adaptive biological foundations built upon, co-opted and harnessed in human culture? Even, what is art?

What are the different arguments put forward by the guest curators?

Steven Pinker argues that art is not an evolved trait in itself, but is a side effect of our aesthetic and emotional responses to fellow humans and our habitat. Geoffrey Miller believes art is primarily mating behaviour: showing off our mate-worthy genes. Mark Changizi puts forward that ‘stimulus artefacts’ including art, music and writing are shaped to fit our evolved cognition, mimicking nature “so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose”. And Brian Boyd beckons that art is a form of cognitive play with pattern, for learning, social cohesion and control.

'Japanese maple leaves stitched together to make a floating chain' (detailed view), 1987. Andy Goldsworthy.

‘Japanese maple leaves stitched together to make a floating chain’ (detailed view), 1987. Andy Goldsworthy. Image courtesy Galerie Lelong, Haines Gallery

Could you talk about the commissioned artworks?

The commissions range from a spectacularly enjoyable new Dots Obsession room by Yayoi Kusama, ‘Dots Obsession — Tasmania’; to an immersive room lined with gigantic images of X-rayed flowers by Aspassio Haronitaki; to an intricate woven grass collecting basket by Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Audrey Frost and traditional shell necklaces made by her sister Lola Greeno. Mat Collishaw’s zoetrope, ‘The Centrifugal Soul’, in Geoffrey Miller’s first room, is definitely a crowd-pleaser, with dancing bowerbirds, jewel-like hummingbirds and tropical flowers blooming before one’s eyes. By one of the many fabulously serendipitous happenstances that make links between the four exhibition spaces, there are exquisite oil paintings of hummingbirds and orchids by the 19th-century American artist Martin Johnson Heade in Steven Pinker’s section.

How did the commissions come about?

The guest curators approached their commissions differently. Brian Boyd, for example, knew from the start that he wanted a room installation by Yayoi Kusama to embody the human instinct to play with pattern. Negotiations for that took about three years. And he wanted photographs by British artist Rob Kesseler of the microscopic patterns found on pollen: Kesseler jumped at the chance to investigate Tasmanian plant species and we shipped flowers picked around Mona off to London for him to work with. Still on Boyd, my colleague Olivier Varenne showed him the work of François Morellet and he was very excited and by the idea of commissioning a new wallpaper on which we’ve hung existing borrowed paintings.

Steven Pinker saw a large photograph of X-rayed flowers by Aspassio Haronitaki which had been included in the 2009 Moscow Biennale and agreed with the artist’s proposal to create brand new, much larger works to fill the whole entry room of his section: visitors plunge straight into a visual overload of pleasurable aesthetics from the natural world. Haronitaki’s work was created in Athens but produced in Tasmania, with the artist on site for finishing touches.

My colleague Jarrod Rawlins worked especially closely with Geoffrey Miller and Mark Changizi on their commissions. Mat Collishaw responded to Miller’s arguments about mutual mate choice and worked on his ‘Centrifugal Soul’ for about a year. Mark Changizi loved a work dealing with language by Tasmanian artist Brigita Ozolins that is already at Mona, and worked with her on the room installation GRAPHOS which demonstrates the way alphabets, at the deepest unconscious processing level of our brains, resemble the contour combinations found in our natural habitat. Olivier Varenne and Jarrod Rawlins had previously worked with UVA for a Dark Mofo festival installation and Mark Changizi was very pleased to work with the collective on an interactive electronic work that studies human movement.

How do the scientific/curatorial essays in the catalogue add to the experience of the exhibition?

The four guest curators who accepted our ‘On the Origin of Art’ challenge are all internationally recognised authors in their respective fields of expertise. So the four essays in the beautiful 500-page catalogue are all beautifully, clearly, rigorously, and entertainingly written, as is the catalogue introduction by my colleague Elizabeth Pearce. Scientists have a very particular way of presenting, testing and defending ideas and we are the first art institution to our knowledge to apply a scientific methodology to our curatorial agenda.

'Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense' (detailed view), 2016, Aspassio Haronitaki.

‘Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense’ (detailed view), 2016, Aspassio Haronitaki. Image courtesy Aspassio Haronitaki, Mona.

What about the audio tours?

The audio tours, available for free on our ‘O’ (essentially an iPod Touch), within the exhibition are scripted and narrated by the guest curators. Thus visitors are led ‘in person’ from room to room within the narrator’s space, listening to an overview of the respective curator’s theories and reasons for the inclusion of each work. Mona has no wall labels at all. The O, our unique electronic guide, is now available as a BYO app as well as on devices lent out by the museum. Visitors can save their Mona tour, enabling them to return later to each object to listen and read and even give feedback.

What do you think visitors will take away from this exhibition?

Apart from enjoying a vast range of human artistic endeavour presented in an unusual and very visually engaging and memorable way, I think visitors will come out reflecting upon their assumptions and open to alternative ways of thinking about art. They will also, I think, be excited by a new understanding of aspects of their own human nature.

What has it been like as a curator to work on an exhibition in a scientific way?

This exhibition is practical, rather than theoretical, using real physical objects to argue real science. Personally, I have found this bio-cultural approach to art intellectually liberating: having previously found it rather daunting to engage with the art of cultures very different from my own, because of my lack of specialised knowledge, an awareness of art’s universal biological foundations can make the art of all cultures much more approachable. This doesn’t mean we are removing art and artefacts from their cultural context or in any way disrespecting deeply-held cultural beliefs. Cultural difference is important, but it is also important and empowering to identify the things that unite us as a species.

'Letter Rack' (detailed view), Edweart Collier.

‘Letter Rack’ (detailed view), Edweart Collier. Image courtesy Art Gallery South Australia, Adelaide.

This article was first published in Art Republik.

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