Art after shock


Godwin BradbeerMONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, is one of the beacons of culture in Tasmania. Built into a hill with sheer rock walls and informed by an avant-garde sensibility like something you might find in Berlin or New York, it has gained an enormous reputation in a short time.

With a dizzying collection including ancient Mesopotamian tablets, paintings by Australian greats and contemporary sculptures and installations, MONA is meant to impress. But the edginess of its art is also in its desire to confront and shock the viewer.

Sex and death loom large. Walk in one direction and you meet a framed photograph of a dog humping a naked man. Turn a corner and there is a long row of plaster-cast vaginas. In one place a mummified cat's head; in another a sculpture depicting a dismembered body. There's a kind of appeal to what lurks in the collective shadow.

Shock is obviously not a new element in art — consider Caravaggio's brutal, sexual paintings in the 17th century, through to the modern day with Dada, Surrealism and the rest. The artist is a transgressor, pushing the boundaries of culture and society, challenging the norms of acceptability.

Working functionally, this approach renews society by cutting through its stale and restrictive forms and opening the door for new, life-affirming possibilities. It can also expose underlying issues with the hope of change.

Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev explores this role beautifully. The artistic soul of the main character demands the creation of a crucifixion painting that is taboo in his rigid, ultra-orthodox Jewish community. The painting symbolises the inner torment and hope for redemption in the psyche of his community. The artist holds the seed for change.

But there is also a dysfunctional side to the artist as transgressor in which shock is elevated as a goal in itself. Boundaries are broken for the sake of merely doing so, not in the service of a broader context. The artist disgorges whatever is in the unconscious, without proper discrimination or maturity.

I wonder whether integration/synthesis could be a valuable underlying idea or goal in art. That is, the aim is not so much breaking boundaries as playing with boundaries so that they dissolve and a new whole is created; not so much confrontation and discord as unity and new life; and not so much shock as something that, while it may be challenging, is also deeply pleasing — not in a conservative, anodyne way, but in a way that nourishes the soul.

I think of Melbourne artist Godwin Bradbeer, whose figurative drawings (see image) convey a depth and mystery that is difficult to put into words. In his work, faces and bodies often appear on a black background, dreamlike and incorporeal as form emerges from nothingness. There is little that is shocking or subversive, just a numinous reverence for the human body and the mystery of creation.

Swiss visual artist Pipilotti Rist, whose video installations are currently on show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, is another case in point. Images of water in a pond, the faces of sheep, sunlight through the red hair of a young woman, coloured balls falling from a height are gathered in an unusual dance of exploration and delight in form and beauty.

For the viewer there's a feeling of elevation and sense of transcendence beyond the concrete everyday world.

Integration/synthesis can act as a template for culture and society as a whole. Human exploration, still largely rooted in individual gain and ego achievement, can have at its centre 'the many that are one', where one person's quest is that of the entire human race and planet. The adventure of life is undertaken not merely for oneself, but mindfully for 'the liberation of all beings', as Buddhists say.

This would mean the entrance of a level of mysticism into human self-understanding and require a shift of focus, a leap in consciousness.

MONA, it seems, is an example of the old patterns of ego, while Bradbeer, Rist and many others are laying the foundations for a new vision. 

Sasha ShtargotSasha Shtargot is a freelance writer and media officer for the Alternative Technology Association. He is a former journalist with The Age and local Melbourne newspapers. 

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Existing comments

What is so shocking about a long row of plaster-cast vaginas??

Michelle Goldsmith | 15 February 2012  

What is the point of a long row of plaster-cast vaginas if not to shock?

Michael Grounds | 15 February 2012  

I thought I was reading a wine review; hubris is still hubris.

Gray Lindsay | 15 February 2012  

If you actually read Sacha's review, you would realise he did not say there was anything shocking about a row of vaginas, or a dog humping a naked man for that matter. The "shock" he writes about refers to the collective theme of sex and death. And Sacha points out that there is "a kind of appeal in the collective shadow". It seems Michelle and Michael just want to talk about vaginas.

AURELIUS | 16 February 2012  

I've been there twice. It wasn't all that shocking, but enormous. I liked the excavated cliff-face best of all. But it made me laugh to read about "sex and death in art" in a Catholic journal (which I love, by the way). And I love Catholic ecclesiastical art, or whatever you might call it. But there is definitely no squeamishness in Orthodox art in regard to sex or death. For Heaven's sake, what could be more shocking than a God-man in a loincloth nailed through the hands and feet, with three-inch thorns penetrating his brow? True, a whole lot of Protestants objected to that, too, but it's definitely not a new thing when people use disturbing imagery to express the inexpressible. Indeed, there is a history of paintings of Christ with an erection under that little loin-cloth...It was an expression of the notion of res-urrection. The fact that plaster vaginas shock some and not others makes us products of our time and our culture... and maybe good art can transcend both, in the long run.

Philomena van Rijswijk | 17 February 2012  

A good essay on Art, Sasha! I have heard many good reports of the MONA art gallery in Hobart and look forward to visting it.
I believe that some people are shocked and offended by some art because of their insecurity and inability to discuss subjects such as sex, nudity and an avant garde interpretation of some subject. I remember a few years back in Melbourne when there was an hysterical and irrational reaction to Andre Serrano's photograph of a crucifix in urine. I also remember a similar hysterical and irrational reaction to the Australian photographer Bill Henson over his photographs of naked girls. I believe the reason for such hysterical and irrational reactions is anti-intellectuaism. People in Australia do not have a strong culture in philosophy and art history and therefore reaction and comments on art about sex, nudity and the avant garde are generally either anti-intellecual or anti-feminist.

Mark Doyle | 19 February 2012  

It seems some 'art lovers' commenting here are not so much interested in the art itself, but the pleasurable ruminations of what 'others' might think of such an artwork, thereby indulging in the delusion that they've 'got it' while others don't. I find generalizing comments about Australia being "anti-intellectual" and lacking in cultures of philosophy etc to be an even greater sign of insecurity in judging one's reaction to art.

AURELIUS | 20 February 2012  

The world very much needs its artists, poets, dancers, actors We need the power they have to essentialise experience, point in new directions, critique the status quo. But, as Sasha has so ably said, that very power becomes a corruptive force when driven by ego, or an inability to work with sufficient wholeness and integration.

Nicky | 22 February 2012  

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