Finding Truth in Biology:
Art's Origins Explored at The Museum of Old and New Art
By Joe Ferguson, contributor
Truth is the specter of intellectual query. Unlike facts, which are objective and verifiable, truths are often beliefs generally accepted as true. The arts promise access to such truths through methods that resist the rigors of scientific investigation—creative expressions that provoke intangible, deeply human ways of understanding that cannot be probed by laboratory instruments or predicted by complicated algorithms. In our attempts to grasp these mysteries, we are frequently met with painfully dissatisfying explanations such as “it’s art if you want it to be” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The curse of scientists, however, is that we search for answers not in the subjective embrace of romantic aphorisms, but in the unforgiving realm of hard data.
This attitude meets disdain in the humanities. Art is present to balance the overly rational mind we are rebuked—we would do better to let go of harsh criteria, and simply appreciate creative output.
Much of the blame for these dueling perspectives is the pervasive theory of dominant brain hemispheres—left–brainers are logical and good at math, and right–brainers are creative and artistic. The problem with this enduring myth is that it is not scientifically credible. Investigations have shown that connections among all brain regions en- able us to engage in creativity and analytical thinking. We have one mind, informed by conscious and subconscious inputs, capable of producing intellectual output that can be intuitive, creative, logical, and rational.
What is needed is an acknowledgement that science and art are equal contributors to human culture, and that these two intellectual domains, and the products derived from their pursuits, are the result of deeply–rooted bio- logical needs. The idea that art is a random cultural artifact would result in a diversity of creative expression that greatly exceeds the record or the possibility of cultures devoid of artistic output. Neither is the case, as all human cultures produce art, and there are universal similarities in those expressions. This leads to one logical conclusion--humans don’t happen to make art, we make art because we are human.
Modern scientific investigation requires knowledge bases so large, and skills so specialized, it may prohibit a depth of interdisciplinary study. Likewise, the arts and humanities present histories too vast to avoid specialization, and methodologies foreign to the scientifically–inclined. Pithless attempts to counter academic orthodoxy by limiting study to cross–disciplinary exposure within general education curricula does nothing but reinforce intellectual polarity. The solution may lie in providing experiences of mutually–respectful collaboration, wherein the intellectual products of both domains are brought to bear on aspects of the human condition. The problem may lie in the prohibitive burden of persuasion for such an approach.
Various works including: Sphinx (2012) by Patricia Piccinini. Silicone, fibreglass, human and animal hair, bronze. Courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries and Roslyn Oxley9. The Lovers (2011) by Patricia Piccinini. Fibreglass, auto paint, leather, scooter parts. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
Perhaps one has to travel to extremes to find individuals willing to accept such a burden, so it may come as no surprise that a recent challenge to the convention comes from a far–flung corner of the globe. The Museum of Old and New Art—better known as Mona—is situated on the banks of the Derwent River in the northern suburbs of Hobart, Tasmania, and houses one of the world’s most controversial collections of art. It is the brainchild of David Walsh who, according to the museum’s website, is on a “...crusade to piss off art academics.”
In “On the Origin of Art,” Mona makes a departure from the traditional exhibit by employing four “bio– cultural scientist–philosophers” as guest curators. The expansive exhibition collects ancient and contemporary artworks that include antiquities, paintings, works on paper, ceramics, textiles, and audiovisual and contemporary installations, selected from its collection and elsewhere. The exhibition is divided into four areas, one dedicated to each of its guest curators.
Steven Pinker--a psychology professor and experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and linguist—approaches the exhibition from a Darwinian perspective, arguing that art is a by–product of other adaptations, such as the desire to obtain status via conspicuous consumption. H e also asserts that the aesthetic pleasure we derive from certain faces, bodies, patterns, and habitats are cues to “understandable, safe, productive, nutritious, or fertile things in the world.”
Brian Boyd--a literature professor—argues that to understand art you need to look at the signaling systems that plants and animals use to convey information to each other. Flowers, for ex- ample, have adapted to reflect and amplify the preference of their audience, bees. He also states that pattern recognition in art—visually, musically, etc.—is a form of cognitive play that allows the viewer to fine tune cognitive skills needed for survival.
Geoffrey Miller--a psychology professor—agrees that art is a way of humans signaling each other, specifically to communicate their health, resourcefulness, intelligence, and general fitness to potential mates. H e believes the evidence—dating back to the carefully exaggerated symmetry of 500,000 year–old Acheulean hand–axes—restores validity to the Darwinian view that fell out of favor in the twentieth century. Further, he asserts art may fulfill many secondary functions in personal, social, and economic settings.
Mark Changizi--an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist—asserts we don’t have an instinct for art, but that we engage in a process called nature harnessing wherein aspects of our culture mimic nature so as to harness evolutionary ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose. For instance, music is structured according to the sound of people moving—when we hear it, we respond with movement and emotion. As such, art exists to allow us to harness our instinct to engage with other people.
It is refreshing to encounter an institution willing to make a stand, rather than simply pose questions. In “On the Origin of Art,” Mona asserts making art is rooted in our biology, and it supports its claim by engaging four impressive intellectuals with its experienced curatorial staff to produce a sweeping exhibit that spans time and culture.
Mona has produced a beautifully–illustrated 500–page catalog that includes a great amount of commentary—including extensive essays by the four guest curators. In order to gain a better understanding of this unique exhibit, we spoke with two of Mona’s curators Jane Clark and Jarrod Rawlins.
Top left: Dots Obsession—Tasmania (2016) by Yayoi Kusama. Mixed media installation. Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art. ©Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy Y AYOI KUS A M A Inc., Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/ Singapore and Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and N ew Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Top right: H and axe. France,Acheulean, 500,000 BP. Flint. 16.3 x 10.2 x 4.2 cm.The Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney. Bottom: 440hz (2016) by United Visual Artists (UV A). An interactive installation where body movements are translated into light and sound: LEDs, steel frame, computer, driver electronics, custom software, computer vision camera, cabling. Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art. Courtesy of the artists. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and N ew Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
Joe Ferguson, SciArt Magazine: What was the motive for this exhibition?
Jane Clark: David Walsh, who created the museum, is deeply curious. He wanted to use the museum to address the question of why do humans do the things they do. In “On the Origin of Art,” he wanted to ask why we make art. Art, on the face of it, may seem useless as compared to getting food, sex, or protecting our children. So, why do we do it? David had been asking this question of himself and us for quite awhile. He didn’t just want people from the museum to address this issue—he wanted some outside expertise. That’s why we brought in scientists as guest curators.
Jarrod Rawlins: The motive runs parallel to the one that drives the existence of the Mona—why do we do the things we do? This was an opportunity—by working with scientists as curators—to dig into the data.
JF: You have a fascinating group of guest curators for this exhibit. How did you choose them?
JC: We’d been reading about this stuff for a long time. We started with Darwin and Dawkins and worked on, but we found that books from these four particular writers were very interesting. That four had probably thought about art in their writing and thinking over the years but hadn’t had a chance to really pursue what their thinking meant for art, and they agreed.
JR: To a degree, they were part of their own selection because the time commitment was so great. We’ve been working on this project for about five years, and specifically with these guest curators for the last two and a half to three years.
JF: What were some of the challenges in working with scientists as curators?
JR: It was getting my head around their ideas and help- ing them get their heads around how a museum works—it was a bit like trading places. We had to figure out how these four different people solve problems—how they understand things—and then we had to figure out how to get them to take on our suggestions because we can’t explain all the practicalities of running an art institution. It involved a lot of trust on both parts.
Geoff and Mark both commented at the opening that they have a completely different understanding of an exhibition when they go into a museum now. That wasn’t so much a challenge, as it was rewarding for us.
JC: I think that part of the reason that these particular four people agreed to work with us was because it was something that they all thought about to a greater or lesser extent. They were all people who quite enjoyed thinking about art—had looked at art a lot. For example, when we first had to brainstorm the exhibition we asked the guest curators what they might like us to find for their shows. Geoffrey Miller showed us hundreds of images within days. They included things that there was no possibility of us getting, but then we knew the kind of things he wanted. Brian Boyd said he really wanted to get work from Yayoi Kusama. Stephen Pinker said he really wanted Aspassio Haronitaki. Mark Changizi said he mostly wanted new work that hadn’t been shown. They were quite excited about the idea of being part of bringing this art together, but they were unfamiliar with the logistics— how far ahead you need to ask to borrow a work, how you commission a new artwork, etc.
We know the museum space, as well. For instance, something might look great in a book or on the Internet, but we, as curators, understand it’s not necessarily going to make an exhibition. We rebuilt the entire exhibition space to accommodate four separate shows—four parallel universes.
Top left: Left: In the Night Garden: Hale-Bopp (2012) by Marc Quinn. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist. Right: We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars (AJ 280R) DIL2214 (2009) by Marc Quinn. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Top right: The Island (2009) by Walton Ford. Watercolour, gouache, pencil and ink on paper, three sheets. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and N ew Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Bottom left: L eft: Commemorative head of an Oba (king). Benin City, Nigeria, Edo people, c. 1735–1816. Cast bronze. Canterbury Museum, N ew Zealand. Right: Commemorative head for the altar of Queen Mother Iyobu of the Royal Court of Benin. Benin City, Nigeria, Edo people, 19th century. Cast bronze. Canterbury Museum, N ew Zealand. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and N ew Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Bottom right: GRAPHOS (2016) by Brigita Ozolins. Plywood, stain, speakers, sound. Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and N ew Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
JF: Did the guest curators bring exclusive perspectives or did they overlap?
JC: I don’t think they are in any way mutually exclusive—they do overlap a little. They are taking different perspectives. The question is so complicated. Art making is complex human behavior. Art is a useful word, but it means many things in many situations, and they are trying to look at many aspects of art. People can look at each section of the exhibition separately and get a lot out of it, but I think they’ll get way more if they try to wrap their heads around the four different perspectives.
JF: The trend these days is for art institutions to raise questions. Is Mona different from other art institutions in that it takes a particular perspective on an issue?
JC: David doesn’t want to make people think in a certain way—he just wants to make people think. He doesn’t like to just ask questions—he likes to test questions. He sees this exhibition as an act of advocacy—he wants people to leave with the idea that art is deeply rooted in our biology. On this exhibition, more than ever, he is making a stand.
JR: We are private, so we have no mandates. We’re free to choose anything we want to do. Everything we do, to a degree, is an act of advocacy.
JF: How does the experience at Mona differ from other institutions? How is this exhibition unique?
JC: Mona is a pretty special building in a pretty special place. To start with, you’ve got to come southbound with the next stop Antarctica, and then you take a ferry to get here, and then you go underground to get to the exhibition, and then you have to go through four big, black doorways. You choose whichever of those doorways to enter, and you don’t know which scientist–curator’s space you’re entering. Once inside, an electronic device will show you whose space you’ve entered and you can listen to him read about this show. There are no labels or interpretive materials on the walls or in the spaces. You can go through and try to get the arguments yourself or you can be guided through by recordings of the scientists–curators—they’re funny and very learned people. Afterward, you can go out and have a drink at the bar where Mark Changizi has set up some lighting that makes you look like either a zombie or a sex–bomb, and then you can take the ferry back to town. I think it’s the sum of the parts more than anything individual inside.
Top left: ‘Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense’ (2016) by Aspassio Haronitaki. Room installation: X-ray photographs on mirror and wallpaper. Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and N ew Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Top right: Left: Eros c. 1921. Solomon J. Solomon. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Purchased 1926 with funds from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Society. Right: India (Frost) (2013) by Ryan McGinley. Type-C photograph. Courtesy of the artist and Team Gallery, New York. Bottom left: Various works curated by Steven Pinker including: Woven mat (1994) by Audrey Frost. New Zealand flax (Phormium sp.). Courtesy of the artist. Butterfly masks. Burkina Faso, West Africa, Bwa people, 20th century. Wood, pigment. Mona collection. Remember (1964) by Bridget Riley. Emulsion on board. Kerry S tokes Collection, Perth. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and N ew Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Bottom right: The Centrifugal Soul (2016) by Mat Collishaw. Acrylic, aluminium, steel, LED lights, motor, electronic circuitry, resin, paint. Commissioned by Mona for On the Origin of Art. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy of Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
JF: Tell us more about the electronic device.
JC: Instead of labels we have something we call the ‘Mona O’, which was invented by our technicians. It detects where you are in the museum and will offer up on an iPod—or now you can use your phone—audio information on the artwork that’s in front of you.
JF: Was there a particular piece that affected you in a unique way?
JR: I don’t think I can put my finger on a particular object. For me, it was using the single device of having four different entries into one exhibition to make the creative argument. It’s a seemingly obvious way of making an exhibition, but I’ve actually never come across it. That was probably one of the most exciting things to be involved in with this show.
JC: It’s really hard to single out any one object. One of the things that was fun was that we had a really big brain- trust on this show—we had five in–house curators and four guest curators. In choosing artworks, for instance, a guest curator might have said he’d like Caravaggio, and we had no chance of getting one, so we had to suggest some- thing else. That was really rewarding, because it drew my attention to artists whose work I didn’t know well or perhaps hadn’t taken a look at more thoroughly. There’s a great example of this in a New Guinea carving image that’s very beautiful but extremely mysterious to me. It’s from this culture that I know nothing about. But when I look at it in the context of Brian Boyd’s section—when I look at it in the context of this exhibition—I think there’s a lot for me in this artwork. Understanding art’s universal biological foundations makes me feel that art of all cultures can be much more approachable.
“On the Origin of Art” runs through April, 17th, 2017.