It Means What It Is

From ‘Van Gogh, les parodies et les geeks’ at La boite verte.

I’ll always be grateful for Matthew Collings’ 1999 TV series This is Modern Art. It taught me a lot about modern art, for a start, but more importantly it taught me that enjoying a piece of art is very subjective: and so is loathing one, or having no reaction to it at all.

I mean, either I respond to a piece or I don’t; and if I respond, it may be positive or negative – but in the end, I just feel how I feel. Maybe I can articulate the reasons for my reaction, maybe I can’t, but how I feel is no indicator of whether a piece is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All I can say is how I respond to something, and then try to understand why I respond that way.

Once I let go of any idea of what kind of art I was supposed to think good or bad, I could just get on with either liking it or not as I saw fit.

And apparently, what I see fit to like (or not) in art revolves around humour and an appreciation of layers of meaning.

This appreciation of my own art appreciation came home to me as I visited MONA in Hobart on 21 February.

I first visited MONA in 2011. I love that gallery. I love the way it uses technology to make viewing art easy and more interesting. I love how texts on its O device help to break down those barriers of how art ‘should be’ received and instead opens visitors up the the excellent notion that all responses are valid.

This visit, my layers of appreciation revolved around:

  • thinking about artworks I was seeing for the first time.
  • enjoying rediscovering pieces I’d seen an loved in other exhibitions and didn’t know I’d find, like Zizi the Affectionate Couch and Korean video artist Junebum Park’s 3 Crossing.
  • rediscovering pieces that I enjoyed the first time around at MONA, like the two live goldfish swimming in a deep plate of water around a chopping knife, and the Pulse Room.
  • amusing myself with the way certain pieces and moments made me think of other things in pop culture.

That’s one of the fun things about seeing lots of art as well as seeing lots of pop culture that may mention art. Everything you see accumulates layers of meaning.

One evocative piece had two speakers in a darkened room, each emitting the voice of the artist singing two versions of a folk song.

The song is the story about two sisters in love with the same man. One sister pushes the other into the river so she can have the man to herself. The drowned sister dies, is washed ashore, and her bones and hair are made into a fiddle that will only play a lament.

One speaker is the song of the sister who pushed; the other is the song of the sister who drowned.

It’s a wonderful piece of sound sculpture, with two simple speakers standing in for those tragic sisters. It also is the latest layer in my relationship with that story, which I’ve heard in different folk songs and in different forms. One of my favourite versions is Loreena McKennitt’s The Bonny Swans, which adds another sister and incorporates at least two versions of the story in a single song.

Not all of my pop culture associations were so elegant. At various times I was reminded of Rimmer admiring Legion’s light switch [at 1:50], or John Cleese and Eleanor Bron admiring the TARDIS in Doctor Who’s City of Death, or Ben Miller’s crusty old historian saying ‘It is, of course, absolutely priceless’ just before he manages to destroy whatever fabulous historical artefact he’s looking at in the Miller and Armstrong sketch show.

So it may be that no-one else but Tim knew what I was giggling about at some of those exhibits, but it’s liberating to know that it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thought about either the art or my giggling.

I love the layers of perception I experience, without regard for ‘high’ or ‘low’ art. Art is just art. Creativity is just creativity. And whether I like it and the ways in which I do (or not), matter only to me. It’s enough to have an opportunity to see other people’s imaginations splashed out for the world to see, and to feel however I feel about it, and try to work out why I react the way I do.

That way, I don’t just learn about art. I learn about myself.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.