Cultural Illumination

In the hidden depths of Australia’s most extraordinary museum, London-based group United Visual Artists uncover the lineage of creative expression.

Described by its owner, Tasmanian mathematician, collector and millionaire, David Walsh (b. 1961), as a “subversive adult Disneyland”, The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is the continent’s largest private institution, housing one of the most controversial compendiums in the world. Designed as a subterranean series of steel and stone rooms, visitors descend 17 metres underground rather than climbing upwards to reach works displayed on a conceptual pedestal, immediately highlighting the owner’s pragmatic perspective. Contemporary pieces are interspersed with a personal hoard of antiquities (for example, Greg Taylor’s casts of intimate female body parts are displayed alongside a 1,500-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus), and visitors are directed not by signage but by a handheld iPad. They also discover a 63- seat cinema, eight designer accommodation pavilions, Moo Brewery, and Moorilla winery, which hosts tastings each day.

Walsh clearly questions the abstract value that we impart onto artwork, and his newest series furthers this enquiry. Introducing itself contentiously, with “We Need Art, But For What? One Man’s Mission to Piss Off Academics,” this project sees four exhibitions, curated by bio-cultural scientist-philosophers, Steven Pinker, Brian Boyd, Geoffrey Miller and Mark Changizi, on the reasons behind the need to create.

Pinker (b. 1954), a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist and author, states: “We make because we can”; his contribution traces back to early ancestors when ownership of excess goods became rooted in the desire to obtain an elitist status. For the 62-year-old theorist, art is linked to our evolved aesthetic sense – the same sense that attracts us to faces, patterns and habitats – and contemporary design plays with this sense for maximum impact.

Similarly, New Zealand-based Literature Professor Boyd (b. 1952) argues that expression is inherently “a cognitive play with pattern” and to uncover its origins, you must first understand the signalling systems that many plants and animals use. For example, flowering vegetation – although seemingly unconscious – has evolved to best please creatures whose attention it must attract to reproduce. This recognition of cause and effect is mirrored in humans, whose existence, Boyd explains, has been defined by an ability to read patterns in weather and the behaviour of surrounding beings. These skills are tested and furthered by art, which satisfies our inherent desire to intelligently decode what we perceive.

Meanwhile, the third curator, American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey F. Miller (b. 1965), agrees that one might enjoy the exposure to paintings, sculptures or photographs as they stimulate our pleasure responses, but asks why we feel the need to make in the first place: “why bother?” Miller follows Darwin’s explanation that early human society used expression as a mechanism for attracting mates, creating works to indicate good genes – as seen in the symmetrical Acheulean hand axes made half a million years ago.

However, theoretical neurobiologist Mark Changizi (b. 1969) has a different view. For the author of the “Perceive the Present” hypothesis, humans don’t have an instinct for the arts, but they have been developed by our civilisation to reflect natural fluctuations and rhythms so that we can use “evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose.”

Music, for example, responds to the sounds of people moving, which triggers an emotional reaction. We then communicate back through movement, or even dancing. In this diametric relationship lies Changizi’s conclusion: that the origins of art lie in our need to engage with the most powerful natural source of human despair and happiness: other people.

In the archetypal style of MONA, the majority of works included remain hidden to non-visitors – no presence online, no previews – however, the roster includes eminent names such as Jeff Koons, Bridget Riley, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cindy Sherman, Yayoi Kusama and even Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Joining this illustrious group are London-based United Visual Artists (UVA), founded in 2003 by Matt Clark and live performance practitioner Chris Bird, whose background is in biology. Their best known works in London include the interactive Momentum presented at Barbican’s Curve Gallery in 2014 and their intervention in Sou Fujimoto’s 2013 Summer Pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery, which transformed a cloud of metal frames into an electrical storm.

UVA’s response to Fujimoto’s work was not an isolated case; they regularly collaborate with a diversity of multi-disciplinary practitioners – ranging from the oldest national ballet company in the world, the Paris Opera Ballet, to British trip-hop group Massive Attack, and within their own team including computer scientists, interaction designers and architects. However, On The Origin of Art was the first time that the group entered into a project with a theoretical neurobiologist. The field, in its most basic terms, combines neuroscience and psychology with electrical engineering and mathematics to uncover how the nervous system processes information. It is no surprise, then, that curator Changizi selected UVA, who manipulate light, gesture and sound to awaken human instinct, often mimicking natural phenomena in order to question how our senses develop.

This fourth and final curator highlights one particular project as the deciding factor for selecting the innovative group: Echo (2006), at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, which Clark describes as: “A performance piece in which the human form was represented through a 3-D data cloud, rendered directly behind the dancers.” Clark comments: “This had a very beautiful aesthetic but also maintains a scientific nature, as if the dancers were being studied by a technological system.”

One of the key attributes of theoretical neurobiology is its need to test hypotheses. Clark asserts: “Changizi was interested in working with us to imagine an installation that illustrated his theories regarding the evolution of music from the actions generated by human beings for everyday survival.” Engaging with the German Bauhaus choreographer Oskar Schlemmer, UVA were inspired by his statement that “we are intensely aware of man as a machine and body as a mechanism.” With this, they developed 440Hz (2016), a fully immersive structure that transforms human movement into different notes composed of light and sound. Simplicity, it seems, can only be achieved through highly complex technical processes – and indeed the group’s expertise enabled Changizi to explore ideas physically, something which would not have been possible, as Clark asserts, “without acquiring a huge amount of knowledge and technical skill.”

As a performative work which really only exists once it is activated, the piece includes a tracking system that turns every tiny change – from a finger wagging to large, sweeping exertions – into a data set. Once these figures of hundreds (if not thousands) of fluctuations had been acquired, UVA began to design the framework in which to amplify the moments. Clark explains: “We didn’t want to just create a mirror, and so instead we made a cylindrical sculpture that represented a musical stave – the five lines that each indicate a different pitch.” Within this space, physical exertions are translated into a medium that an individual can see, hear and feel: the system not only understands gestures but how fast they occur – interpreting whether the action is aggressive or passive – and composes its piece accordingly. This, says Clark, “enables a physical and emotional response, which is the main reason for the technology we adopt.”

A pitch-black tunnel, brightened by the viewer, 440Hz makes use of UVA’s primary medium: light, an easily programmable, easily manipulated medium. With regard to the show, the material is defined as something we are predisposed to recognise, follow and desire – its intensity affects our feelings of happiness and safety, encouraging the expression of emotion without literalism. An expansive oeuvre, extending past this particular commission, aims to impact the viewer subjectively – but each experience is likely to change, depending not only on altered interactions but states of mind. Past works reflect this notion, such as Fragment (2013), which during the day reflects the heat of the desert sun and after sunset refracts artificial white beams into a Dubai interior, or Canopy (2010), which replicates walking through a forest in a vast geometric installation of mirrored and leaf-like forms. UVA acknowledge that each work is “a prototype” for the next – their knowledge is accumulating.

Of course, when developing the ideas of other specialists, Clark is aware of the danger of behaving illustratively, especially when incorporating complicated science – rather than perhaps dance or architecture – into a visual journey. This is, perhaps, the benefit of the experiential over the static: with works such as 440Hz, UVA are able to use physicality to ask the audience where in their limbs they detect music, and therefore ask how they want to manoeuvre themselves.

Evidently, between Changizi’s assertion that music derives from the percussive shapes of the body and UVA’s intention to “amplify the participants’ awareness of themselves in surrounding environments,” the two sides found an equilibrium. However, as Clark continues to clarify, their opinions on the derivatives of art are not necessarily in complete alignment. Whilst Changizi does not believe that we have an inherent instinct, and that visual forms such as alphabet letters have been developed, unconsciously, to mimic the contour combinations of our natural habitats, Clark disagrees. He notes: “Whilst Mark’s ideas on how our actions for survival may have informed our cultural or creative output are very convincing, I personally believe that at a very early age humans developed an innate disposition for creativity and that expression is something that we wanted to do for no reason other than for the sake of doing it.”

Thus 440Hz challenges both hypotheses: does the visitor enter, see that they have activated the installation and with it begin to move, or do they enter the performative work and instinctively begin to spin, jump and dance? Of course, this will be different for each visitor and even every visit, and this is the crux of why it is near impossible to define “the origin of art”: for some it appears innate, for others it is less so, and rather than accept another’s decided lineage, developing an opinion is a far more valuable and revelatory experience.

Words Chloe Hodge

On the Origin of Art. MONA. Until 17 April.