The Red Queen shook her head, “You may call it nonsense if you like,” she said, “but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!” Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll
The latest exhibit at MONA (Museum for Old and New Art), takes inspiration from the evolutionary theory of species competition termed the ‘Red Queen hypothesis’ developed by Leigh Van Valen in the early 70s.
An evolutionary biologist, Van Valen proposed the theory that species exist in a state of competition with one another, the prospect of extinction a probable outcome as a result.
Threats are therefore constantly in flux, adapting even as the species in question evolves the necessary traits to survive.
Museum owner David Walsh and curators Olivier Varenne and Nicole Durling have taken inspiration from this theory to identify art as an ever-shifting form of expression. Much like Steve Pinker (The Language Instinct) or Howard Bloom (The Lucifer Principle), the exhibition redefines culture as an outgrowth of human evolution and not the static province of connoisseurs and faddish enthusiasm.
Red Queen audaciously attempts a near context-free immersion in works that express these ideas.
While many of the pieces do touch on mortality, that is in itself a common topic of art. There is no narrative, no central message to this exhibition.
The goal is to engage the visitor to MONA through each piece’s individual strengths.
One of the most intriguing pieces, given its focus on user-participation, is Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Room (2006).
Electronic sensors read a person’s heartbeat, which is then translated into the flickering of light bulbs.
Stretching half the length of the entrance to the exhibit, there is something poignant about walking beneath the recorded heart beats of people overhead.
Just opposite can be found Danser la musique by Chen Zhen (2000 – 2009), a large trampoline that passers-by are encouraged to enjoy. With each jump, a selection of hanging Buddhist bells ring out.
Zhen’s stroke of genius is that bells, small and large, are fashioned out of bullet and cannon shells.
The artist has married the opposite extremes of peaceful contemplation and violent destruction. The interactive element also makes clear how these aspects of human behaviour are constants in our lives.
Berlin Buddha (2007) by Zhang Huan is another impressive piece. A large statue of the Buddha composed from ceremonial ash sits facing its aluminium cast. Again the artist has contrasted two extremes – the permanency of religious iconography and the ephemeral quality of faith.
There is playfulness in many of these pieces, depicting serious matters in a not terribly serious manner.
One of the Red Queen’s coups is its exhibition of quintessential outsider artist Henry Darger. Excerpts from his work, to give it the full title – The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion are presented.
Darger’s story is a fascinating one, a recluse who retreated into a fantasy world after a traumatic childhood.
His work had a redemptive quality, though lacking in formal artistic training – indeed the paintings were clearly composed with whatever materials he had to hand – but such a complete retreat from reality provided solace to this unknowable character.
Darger’s work was discovered after his death by his landlord. The depictions of ambiguously sexed children fighting a war against brutal soldiers are both graphic and oddly poignant.
(Those curious can learn more about Darger from Jessica Yu’s documentary In the Realms of the Unreal.)
Darger is an interesting example of art as a psychological crutch, or survival tool. His inclusion hints at the broader themes of Red Queen, that humanity tells stories, brings memories and dreams to life – makes art, because it successfully allows for the communication of complex ideas.
Red Queen brings a fresh perspective to the debate on ‘what is art’, which pitifully had become simply a matter of whatever was hanging in a gallery.
A strange, challenging and evocative collection of works.