Jean-Hubert Martin, curator of Theatre of the World at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), has a flamboyant and sculptural aesthetic. Theatre of the World, successfully explores politics, abstraction, epiphany and ritual by allowing the audience to build complex narratives between artefacts and contemporary works.
Martin is a French curator, whose seminal exhibition Magiciens de la Terreopened in Paris, 1989. Martin’s exhibition set out to counteract the dominant ethnocentric modes of Western art at the time. Rather than drawing from only the established art centres of Europe and America, Magiciens de la Terre displayed works of one hundred contemporary artists from a range of emerging and established cultural centres, including South America, Africa and Australia. The works were selected on the grounds of their artistic interest and were to be understood in the context of contemporary anthropological thinking, which recognised ‘the relativity of culture and intercultural relations’. The exhibition included the Australian Aboriginal artist, Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, from Mungapunju, in the Northern Territory. This was the beginning of a dialogue with Australian art that Martin has continued throughout his career.
Over fifteen rooms, Theatre of the World deals with grand narratives of death, abstraction, ceremony, sex and mutation. At the same time, it dismantles the notion that artefacts and contemporary works cannot be seen in the same context, and that they are somehow manifestly different. Martin was invited to curate this exhibition from the private collection of David Walsh, the eccentric art collector and owner of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and also from the collections of the state-run Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG). In Martin’s signature curatorial style this exhibition lifts the weight of history from the museum artefacts and instead presents them as objects - beautiful and flawed - alongside contemporary works, in a radically new context. However, Martin’s curatorial flair reaches beyond his treatment of so-called artefacts, and is most notable in his performative and theatrical staging of works together. Each room is titled and themed, not according to the usual classifications (time periods, nationality of artists, form) but instead through narrative themes. To experience this exhibition the gallery visitor becomes a spectator and at times a performer, moving through rooms that offer multiple manifestations of a single idea.
MONA opened in 2011 and is the largest private gallery in Australia. This museum represents a new philanthropy for Australian art and is unlike any other museum in the Australasian region. Built into the side of a cliff, the museum houses the collection of David Walsh whose fascinations tend to revolve around anti-art art, with extreme themes such as bestiality, bodies in flux and death. Martin’s curated exhibition is in the basement of the cavernous museum. The space has crisp lighting and tunnel-like exhibition spaces, framed by the multi-storey excavated rock wall, which sits cool and damp in the gallery space.
Importantly, the first work in Theatre of the World is a portrait, charcoal on canvas, drawn by Australian artist Vernon Ah Kee. Ah Kee is a celebrated artist, whose work speaks of the complexities of family, politics and loss. As an Aboriginal man, with heritage from the Kuku Yalanji, Yidinyi, Waanyi and Guungu Yimithirr peoples of Australia, Ah Kee’s art expands our understanding of contemporary indigenous culture and identity. This piece Unwritten #8 alludes to a history of exclusion for Aboriginal people within White Australia. It is a portrait without a name. This opening statement of the exhibition frames the proceeding rooms within a context of the ongoing political and cultural discourses that all Australians are part of.
As the audience enters the first room of the exhibition, they file into a dark foyer containing a small amphitheatre of objects. Modernist paintings, wooden sculptures and golden artefacts fill the shelves. On the wall is the key to this curatorial assemblage – a reconstructed plan of The Memory Theatre by Giulio Camillo from the 1530s. Philosopher Camillo designed the original for King François I. The aim was for the King to view his bespoke auditorium of classified objects, which Camillo hoped would ‘assemble every human concept and every thing that exists in the entire world’. The philosopher believed that objects held knowledge more succinctly than words or flat images, and that by looking upon these objects amassed together, the King would hold the key to all human knowledge. Martin constructs his own literal Memory Theatre in this first room, and then repeats this motif throughout the exhibition. In certain rooms the concept of The Memory Theatre resonates strongly. It is a clever use of an historical invention to help the audience frame what is being presented to them, while also referencing the modern day museum and its purpose.
Especially engaging is the dark tomb-like room that focuses upon death, memorial and the abject. The audience moves between semi-curtained glass display cases, which respectively show: a visceral and fleshy sculpture from Flemish artist Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘Lange Eenzame Man’ 2010; an Egyptian mummy in gold and blues; and the highly decorative ‘Coffin: Mercedes-Benz’ 2010 by Paa Joe (Joseph Tetteh-Ashong) of Ghana. There is an austere darkness to the room, which presents a multifaceted perspective on death. Joe’s work in particular blurs the lines of art and object, as it is a real coffin, which the artist built for a customer. People wanting to buy one of these coffins request a sculptural representation of something important to them. In this case the customer was a wealthy local businessman who asked for the coffin to be a Mercedes-Benz. The intervention of the international art market in buying this piece and its being displayed in this context, adds yet another layer to the complexities of this exhibition that sees culture as a fragmented and evolving organism.
In another room Martin places the spectator on a small chair looking out to a semi-circular wall. The room is very dark and what ensues is a performance with objects. A dramatic pin-light illuminates a series of masks and animal bones, one at a time, in a steady rhythm. The audience is drawn into the presentation of objects and asked to build new narratives and connections between the pieces. This performative curatorial action is very successful and negotiates a space between museum and gallery show and between performance and exhibition.
Martin’s innovative curatorial methodology and aesthetic allows Theatre of the World to succeed in persuading audiences to construct bold and unifying narratives between objects from different times, places and societies.
Theatre of the World
Museum of Old and New Art
June 23 2012 – April 8 2013