Installation view of “Theatre of the World” at Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, 2012. From left to right: a 20th-century Yaruba beaded tunic and bag from Nigeria, PABLO PICASSO’s Weeping Woman, 1937, a Sulka shield from Papua New Guinea and a 2006 print by Australian Aboriginal artist ALLAN MANSELL. Photo by Remi Chauvin. Courtesy Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.

Installation view of “Theatre of the World” at Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, 2012. SIDNEY NOLAN’s Colonial Head—Kelly Gang (left), 1943–46, hangs alongside WIM DELVOYE’s Untitled (Osama) (right), 2002–03. On the floor is an Afghan war rug. Photo by Remi Chauvin. Courtesy Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.

Shock of The Old

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

French curator Jean-Hubert Martin is still best known for his 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou. Posited as a response to the 1984 blockbuster exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, “Magiciens” presented around 50 artists from so-called artistic centers alongside 50 artists from the “margins”—largely Asia, Africa and Latin America. Rather than consign tribal and non-Western religious art as fascinating exoticisms shut off to the present, Martin wanted to show things made by living artists from the art world’s blind spots—including works by Native American medicine men, Tibetan monks, Aboriginal elders and African tribal chieftains—and to have these treated as contemporary art. 

Furor ensued. The exhibition was accused of neocolonialism, and Martin was castigated as a privileged, white, male connoisseur-aesthete in a lofty position of power, selecting art from around the globe while glossing over the unequal political and economic relations that continued between the West and the rest. In one of the first issues of the postcolonialist art journal Third Text (Spring 1989), the founding editor Rasheed Araeen wrote that, far from challenging Western dominance, self-professed “benevolent” gestures such as Martin’s would in fact legitimize it, denying the excluded cultures their capacity to question the power structure and seek emancipation from it themselves.

Martin responded to some of these criticisms in an interview with Benjamin Buchloh, published in the May 1989 issue of Art in America. Rejecting the assumption that one can only look at another culture in order to exploit it, Martin said he was not suggesting that anyone could organize a globalized exhibition from a position of neutral objectivity. Instead, he wanted to approach artistic output from vastly different cultural systems on equal terms, as objects of visual and sensual experience rather than as ethnographic objects or pedagogical tools.

Despite the charges of cultural imperialism, “Magiciens de la Terre” is now a standard reference in museum and curatorial studies, widely recognized as the first truly international large-scale exhibition of contemporary art that heralded greater inclusiveness in curatorial practice and broke new ground for cultural institutions taking interest in creative work from outside the paradigms of Western modernism. In the decades that followed, Martin’s stance against rigid categories, divisions and hierarchies of art would come to define his career—and eventually lead him to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, where his exhibition “Theatre of the World” opened in late June.

MONA’s founder, an art collector and professional gambler, David Walsh, first encountered the curator at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where Martin had worked on a blatantly anachronistic exhibition that was praised and condemned with equal vehemence. Set in a 15th-century Venetian palazzo, “Artempo: Where Time Becomes Art” presented new art alongside antiquities and various objets trouvés, without drawing any historical or cultural distinctions. Walsh, who was in the middle of planning a museum for his own eclectic stash of art and artifacts spanning several thousand years, immediately tracked Martin down and asked him to come on board. 

“Theatre of the World” is Martin’s first major project for MONA, incorporating works from Walsh’s collection and selected items from the nearby 170-year-old Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery. African beadwork, animal skeletons, coral, clocks and teapots were mingling with the likes of Sol LeWitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francis Picabia and Fernand Léger. There were over 100 rare South Pacific tapa barkcloth paintings, a bulletproof-glass test panel from a Tasmanian state prison and Egyptian mummy cases. First World War “trench art,” Paa Joe’s contemporary Ghanaian coffin sculpture and Aboriginal bark paintings shared space with Marina Abramović and deer antlers, 17th-century maps and a Wassily Kandinsky, and Melanesian masks and an erotic hand-scroll from 18th-century Japan. Local Hobart artists Pat Brassington and Robyn McKinnon were in the same room as Giacometti and Picasso, while natural history illustrations, geological specimens and scientific instruments were given the same attention as Sidney Nolan and centuries-old Chinese ceramics. 

In defending his approach, Martin refers to world music and points out how accepting people have become of decontextualized audio sampling, especially after the emergence of the internet. Similarly, he reminds us that people have for centuries enjoyed foreign literature and theater, accepting the partial betrayals of translation, without fretting about the removal of these creations from their origins. In his catalog essay to the MONA exhibition, Martin repeats an argument he has made elsewhere, writing: “One always speaks of the problem of ‘context’ when it comes to other cultures—as though the problem did not exist for us in our confrontations with a medieval miniature, or even with a Rembrandt painting, when we visit the museum. Only a few specialists really know anything at all about the contexts of these objects, even though we would claim that, after all, they are part of our own cultural tradition.” 

When I spoke with Martin in Paris earlier this year, he earnestly explained that he wants theoretical certainties to give way to more poetic associations between heterogeneous objects. Opposing excessive didacticism in museums, he remarked, “Nobody goes to a concert in order to learn the history of music.” He also expressed reservations about curatorial practice that sees works of art selected according to any rigidly predetermined theme, historical narrative or checklist. According to his model, artworks shouldn’t be treated as a means to an end; they should be responded to directly and approached on their own terms. Hence, while many decry the overwhelming scale of biennials and triennials, Martin said that big exhibitions are necessary and useful, because they entail a level of complexity and internal dissent among the works—making it impossible for a curator to blanket them under a single predetermined concept.

Initially motivated by boredom with linear museological arrangements, Martin says his stance subsequently developed through conversations with artists. While orthodox curators and historians are inclined to hold on tightly to the chronologies and categories that have been retrospectively invented for art, Martin insists that artists have never treated art as something coming out of or fitting into a flat sequential model of time, with one thing being influenced by what was before and developing into what comes next. A more challenging and rewarding approach to art exists in the more difficult questions of humanity and creativity that aren’t confined to spatial, temporal or stylistic categories. “The essential thing is to shape and express the kind of visual thinking that underpins artistic creation,” he writes in his catalog text. “The objective is not a nostalgic immersion in history but an insight into the desires, fears and hopes of humanity as these are transcribed in our material culture.”

After being appointed director of the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf in 2000, Martin asked two local artists, Thomas Huber and Bogomir Ecker, to work with him on rearranging the entire collection of art from antiquity to the present day in a way that completely disregarded chronology and any established art historical categorization, including distinctions between fine art and applied art. The new hang caused considerable outcry in Germany, and a series of public debates and symposia were held addressing the construction of historic time and the categorization of art—heated controversy that predictably amounted to a highly successful PR campaign for the exhibition. Seemingly impervious, Martin mentioned an outraged letter sent from the chairman of the association of German curators to the mayor of Düsseldorf, accusing Martin of regressively taking art to a prerational, “prehistoric” state, and declaring that he never should have been employed by the museum.

Such fierce public discourse has not been provoked in Australia by MONA’s decompartmentalizing, anachronistic display model. This is probably unsurprising, founded as it was on a wealthy private collector’s wunderkammer prerogative to acquire whatever he likes and show it however he  chooses—but that’s not to say that there’s no ground here for serious critique. It seems to me that the most challenging ideas at MONA are not to do with the explicit preferences for taboo themes of eros and thanatos—and definitely not with Wim Delvoye’s feces-producing machines—but rather with the nonlinear model of historic time that is being embraced. Everyone wants to write and talk about Walsh himself, who is as funny as he is rich, but more careful consideration needs to be given to the basic premise of showing “old and new art” together in this way.

Some of the most lucid arguments for treating the past as a living thing come from the late Australian ethno-historian Greg Dening. Considering himself first and foremost a storyteller, Dening argued that all historians had a responsibility to be more imaginative and “theatrical” in order to break down the discipline’s fundamentalist tendencies. His seminars at the University of Melbourne were based on the contentious notion of history as performance. Since it involves both “making a present out of the past” and “returning to the past its own present,” proper historical inquiry, Dening maintained, is inherently anachronistic.

I asked Martin about the following quote, which was included in one of MONA’s email announcements about “Theatre of the World”: “We never know the truth by being told it. We have to experience it in some way. That is the abiding grace of history. It is the theatre in which we experience truth.” This comes from Dening’s 1996 anthology Performances and seemed to me both provocative and felicitous, but Martin said he was surprised that the quote was in his exhibition announcement—since he had no idea who Dening was. An unnamed member of the MONA staff was evidently responsible for the unwarranted insertion. I was amused; Martin wasn’t. In any case, if I were to anachronistically place the dead stranger Greg Dening among the display of objects in “Theatre of the World,” I could see him approving of the way such an exhibition lets the past live. It won’t provoke the decades of discussion and dissent that “Magiciens de la Terre” has, but by messing with consensually agreed-upon chronology, “Theatre of the World” reminds us that the past is only ostensibly past.