On the Origin of Art

Objects typologically dating back 800,000 years sit alongside masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance period; access to these objects must be navigated via one of four newly commissioned, room-sized immersive artworks, one of them by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. There are many paths to choose from when you enter the evolutionary and philosophical narratives that make up ‘On the Origin of Art’, the Museum of Old and New Art’s (MONA) newest exhibition.

Cindy Sherman, UntitledOrigins (as it’s already being referred to by Tasmanians), is considered the museum’s greatest feat to date. It is also regarded as the philanthropic founder David Walsh’s baby since opening the doors in 2011. Walsh has said this exhibition, more than any other at MONA, is a chance to explore ideas of long-standing significance to him. Curatorially, it promises to be a curious, nuanced and sensational discursive experience.

There are four new curators at the project’s helm – or at least that’s the hat these scientists are currently wearing. MONA has invited four world-renown thinkers to ponder on the relationships between human biology and urge, need and want to make, see and feel – art.

As Walsh says: “… I’m setting up a framework for asking interesting questions like ‘Why do we make art?’ and I’m asking these questions of people who aren’t usually engaged in an art setting (evolutionary biologists, social scientists, neurologists)…”

Steven Pinker, Brian Boyd, Geoffrey Miller and Mark Changizi have each been given the opportunity to imagine the many ways that objects can enter into dialogue with each other to construct a scientific and conceptual argument. Working in collaboration with the institution’s research curators, they set up their conversation through artworks and artefacts from MONA’s own collection, institutional loans and commissioned works by Australian and international artists. The net was cast widely, 58 objects on loan from other institutions, many having an Australian debut.

Each scientist is charged with presenting an exhibition within an exhibition’; collectively, albeit distinctly, the narratives ask a central question: is art adaptive? How art has helped our species to think, learn, trade, procreate – and how has art passed down through generations and evolved?

This is a blockbuster like no other. MONA has spent 10 weeks on the install alone, just constructing the maze-like structure that will give this exhibition its floor plan. Head designer, Adrian Spinks, is once again leading what is a triumph of exhibition making. Only once this space is complete, could the loaned objects from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, or the Natural History Museum in Paris begin to be installed alongside Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, or an interactive sculptural installation by Ernesto Neto for viewers to hop-into.

Balint Zsako, UntitledThe presentations exist with autonomy as well as some symmetry; each entrance an immersive commissioned artwork. Borrowing strongly from Darwin’s theory that the origin of art in biology was a mechanism that originally arose to attract mates, Geoffrey Miller’s exhibition is entered through a room housing a major new zoetrope by British artist Mat Collishaw. Humans continue to perpetuate this form of peacocking ‘as a signal of good genes, good bodies, and good brains.’ Mark Changizi’s argument is framed by art and design collective United Visual Artists (UVA), where humans are tracked and surveilled and their movement then refracted via sound and light.

The opportunity to guide a viewer into a scientific rationale by constructing each object within a complex lattice of ideas is present in each of the arguments. But Walsh wants us to ask questions rather than give answers “… For the moment, I’m just trying to show that art is a complex thing and its characteristics multifarious…”

We are used to MONA collapsing the periodic, geographic and cultural agency of objects, in fact it’s in their name. Their inaugural exhibition ‘Monanism’ (2011) and Jean Hubert-Martin’s ‘Theatre of the World’ (2012) already signaled a tact for creating wunderkammer-esque experiences where objects entered into an elegant and often complicated dance with each other.

In the last few years, MONA has established itself as a museum destination in Australia and the world. Solo blockbusters by the likes of Matthew Barney, Marina Abramovi?, and Gilbert & George were spectacular but felt somewhat expected. In ‘On the Origin of Art’, MONA returns to the curatorial and cognitive experimentation they are known for. This is David Walsh’s inquisitive and persistent mind at its best. ‘Origins’ promises to be a poignant choose-your-own-adventure science and art lesson that should not be missed.

Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)
5 November, 2016 to April 17, 2017


Cindy Sherman, Untitled, #100, 1982, Chromogenic colour print, 114.3 x 76.2cm
Copyright Cindy Sherman
Courtesy the artist, Metro Pictures, New York and Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania

Balint Zsako, Untitled, 2006, watercolour on paper, 40 x 30cm
©Balint Zsako
Courtesy the artist and Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania