Last Tuesday I took my mainland-dwelling sister to visit MONA. Two over-ripe, sweaty matrons struggling with a far-too-warm Hobart day, and seeking refuge in the cool recesses of David Walsh’s entombed monument to cultural peculiarity.
We made straight for the lowest level of the museum, and quickly realized the bowels of the building were housing various bizarre manifestations of the human digestive system - bowels within the bowels, if you like.
The Wim Delvoye exhibit on level B3 is a surefire treat for all those punters out there enjoying obsessions with internal human activity from mouth to anus, and x-ray art, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A weird combination, I know, but Wim’s got you covered big time.
Imagine, if you can, the precocious spawn of a tortured, but prolific union between the Gospels, Gray’s Anatomy (the classic medical text, not the cheesy US television production), and Popular Mechanics, and your appreciation of the Delvoye collection can begin. If you have an affinity with the nuances of poo production, and enjoy a diverse interpretation of the ghastly theatre of Christ’s crucifixion, featuring both hypnotic sculpture in metal, and the posing of small rodents, you are well on your way to true understanding.
Our viewing of the exhibition began with a glittering suspended sculpture – a silvery, metallic composition of intricate, angular devices and razor sharp edges, adopting the gentle, fluid overall appearance of a double-pointed teardrop. An anachronism of substance and form that somehow maintains the essence and integrity of both.
We were suitably intrigued, and moved on through the dimly lit, but strangely comforting catacombs. A space housing several ‘double helix’ representations of the crucifixion, in cheerful, shiny silver and darker, more sinister bronze, appeared next. If you’ve never walked around a piece of art, and bent double to view it from every angle, you will when you encounter these twisted, but strangely logical interpretations of an iconic image. Each piece comprises multiple traditional renditions of Jesus and the cross, but there are echoes of the distorted agony seen in Munch’s classic of Expressionism, The Scream, and at first glance they resemble a tangle of barbed wire.
They were so diverting that we paid scant attention to the fabulously carved auto tyres sharing their space, except to note that M. Delvoye has an unmistakable talent for juxtaposing detailed, painstaking craftsmanship with really shitty materials. Who thinks to carve exquisite patterns into used tyres, or decorate old shovels and gas bottles with traditional blue Delft windmills and sailing ships?
At this point, the exhibition was thought-provoking, but tame. We moved on, expecting the inevitable confrontation, and perplexity, and we weren’t disappointed. We saw stained glass windows filled not with beatific images of saints, and other godly persons, but with x-ray pictures of people performing acts of a sexual nature. I’m pretty sure oral sex was featured – we considered asking one of the hovering attendants for confirmation but thought better of it. No-one is comfortable engaging with pervy middle-aged women.
I’m no radiologist, but I think there were a number of lengths of bowel traversing the panes of the church-style windows, and mouths full of teeth making up the border decoration.
Our x-ray interpreting skills got another workout with a series of montages depicting the Stations of the Cross. Each Station was shown as an x-ray picture, and I think the ‘characters’ were mice. We wondered if they were breathing when they were posed – fervently hoping that they were, but suspecting that perhaps they were not. We weren’t sure whether M. Delvoye was mocking an unhappy Catholic upbringing, or lending a touch of whimsy to the Christian world’s best-known grim scenario, or satisfying an unnatural urge to play games with small animals, rather than Lego. We were perplexed, and a little confronted, and our visit was proceeding as expected.
We viewed the tattooed pigskins, and were pleased to learn that the subject pigs had enjoyed a stress-free, pampered lifestyle. Who wouldn’t enjoy a life of ease in exchange for the occasional inking? We studiously avoided the obvious question – why would anyone tattoo a pig, with the intention of eventually displaying its decorated pelt – and focused on the accompanying video of animals who were clearly as happy and relaxed as the proverbial pigs in shit. We really didn’t get this item, but our next stop brought a bonanza of artistic appreciation. For me, at least – not so much for my sister.
We entered – ta-dah – the temple of the cloaca. A stark, clinical space with a shiny white tiled floor, and full length mirrored walls, and poo machines of all types. It was a perfect merging of operating theatre décor with neglected public toilet aroma.
Centre stage was a new and improved version of the large-scale faeces generator, but M. Delvoye has added several other iterations of the apparatus to the collection. There was even a travel-sized version in a shiny attaché case.
My four sons and my husband have never shied away from talk of poo. A sophisticated poo dialogue evolved in our home, and often the boys would sit at the dinner table, eating vast quantities of food, and discussing the time it would take to reach the porcelain bowl, and the nature of the offering it would generate. Visitors occasionally found the talk a little distressing, but we were comfortable, and saw no reason to moderate the conversation when guests were present.
Some few years ago, when I found myself reminding the youngest child to leave his poo in the bowl so I could check it before it was flushed, I had a moment of startling revelation. Their mild obsession with poo was most likely my doing. I felt momentarily awful – I had inadvertently burdened them with an unnatural interest in their bowels and the elimination of waste. But then I figured it was too late to change things – if they weren’t bothered by shit, there was no point in me suddenly giving a shit when they were talking about shitting.
And, I totally understand the concept of a poo machine as art.
The cloacas are a highlight of the Delvoye exhibition, but the very best bit is the series of framed ‘Anal Kisses’. You have to admire the inventiveness of an artist who persuades friends to visit fancy hotels, rouge their sphincters with lippy, and plant a ‘kiss’ or two on the house stationery, leaving barely a crease on the paper. One can only imagine the contortions required to produce such a piece.
The big screen video you will have to watch and work out for yourself. Without giving anything away, when you finally realize what it is, you may feel more than a little queasy. Good luck with that!
M. Delvoye’s regularly-featured logo is an unsubtle rip-off of the universally-known Walt Disney device – the worldwide guarantee of wholesome, family entertainment – but don’t let it fool you. There is no Bambi at MONA.