On something Eliot said – Part II

The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu by Sven LindqvistIn the time since sharing my last post, I’ve read The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu by Sven Lindqvist, a book that directly interrogates this idea of escaping into art.

The story the book is named after goes as follows: Wu Tao-Tzu paints a mural on a wall. Upon completing the mural, he claps his hands and a door in the mural opens. Wu Tao-Tzu steps into the artwork and is never seen again.

A confession: I bought the book because it addresses the question of spending a life immersed in art but I noticed it in the bookshop and picked it up at all because of the mysterious front cover (which still baffles and intrigues me). And while I’m pleased to have read it, the book hasn’t had the effect on me I thought it might when I was a quarter of the way in. But it has left me with one thing to think about.

The The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu reads almost like a series of diary entries as Lindqvist comes to terms with how he feels about a life spent in art. At first, he agrees with Hesse’s arguments for art and finds the idea of stepping into it – for good, as Wu Tao-Tzu did – attractive. He wants to pursue these thoughts, and so he does, literally – travelling through Asia to help make up his mind. The outcome, however, is that he begins to believe the opposite – yes it’s attractive, but a life spent in art is delusional, immature, even cowardly. He takes what is, at its foundation, a philosophical approach based on the idea that an unexamined life is a life not worth living, and believes we must be ever-present. That, despite its horrors, we must not turn away, we must exist in the world.

I then thought of escapism in all its forms. Alcohol, drugs, anything in which you can forget yourself. What of the regular or even constant immersion in books or film or the ocean or your own narrow-minded beliefs – is there a difference if they’re all a turning away? And what does it mean for me if my desire to escape into art is different to what I do in reality, which is work and dip into art when I can?


I wonder if the holy books say of anything of art or if, at their time of writing, art as something different to aesthetics had not been conceptualised yet – if it came later, rising our of a need.


That’s all I can say about that; I’m being hurried away from my notebook and summoned for dessert, so I must leave these thoughts there.

On something Eliot said

Sometimes I feel like.

Let me start over.

There are moments, days, entire blocks of my waking life when I wish I could immerse myself – but unthinkingly, that is, without thinking, without being compelled to think, having to string thought-images together in logical sequences – or fall, as if off a bridge, into art. Into the artistic. Whenever I’m commenting on or thinking about art I feel like I’m pretending, like I’m building artificial connections, spiderweb links. But I think immersing myself, the whole of my body, like ducking under a wave, experiencing the crest and the rush from beneath, alone, is right and something I want. I think it’s something I want. To fall into it to be caught and carried by it.

Like a child thrown by his father only to be caught to be thrown again.

What did Eliot write? Something about a heap of broken images.

But yeah. That’s it.

On MONA and getting it but not

Cloaca Professional

While I waited at Hobart Airport for the plane out, the scent of hot fast food reminded me of the acrid, sour, rotten kitchen smell of Cloaca Professional, the eating machine at MONA.

I happened to be in its room, trying to understand how it worked while half expecting to be completely repelled by its smell, when a MONA staff member informed me that “he”, the Cloaca Professional, would be fed in about 15 minutes, if I was interested. At 11am, a handful of us watched as the MONA employee, now dressed in a white lab coat, began to feed it by putting pieces of a pie and salad into what resembled a sink at its front. She gave it water and we watched it suck the food up through tubes and its first stomach fill. Once the pie was finished, he was given a chocolate macaroon.

The Cloaca Professional, an artwork that performs the functions of the human digestive system at human body temperature, is housed in a wedge shaped, dimly lit room with more than a little of Frankenstein’s laboratory about it, just around the corner from Sidney Nolan’s huge but innocuous Snake. He’s fed twice a day and he and the bacteria in his “gut” breakdown and digest the food and he shits into a small bowl sometime in the late afternoon and he fucking stinks.

Analogies between the eating machine and MONA are easy to draw. It’s big and detailed and complex, but it’s all a bit of a joke. It’s both serious and not. But it’s kept alive, if you will, fed meals you and I can purchase from the MONA cafe upstairs – twice, daily – and, so, it’s not a joke at all. But directly opposite the entrance to the eating machine’s room are toilets for men and women.

I left MONA feeling physically and mentally exhausted and thinking that there should be a name for it, this fatigue-by-art. I thought maybe that feeling might be the point.

Mona's Beautiful Humans

Another of MONA’s artworks, a nightmarish piece of incredible detail titled The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, is a thing of weird and abject beauty. Tiny carcases of dead things have been carefully pieced together to create a sculpture. I feel like this, on the other hand, is maybe more to the point. There are holy books with bombs in them, a chocolate sculpture of a half-exploded Palestinian suicide bomber titled On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell by Stephen J. Shanabrook. On his or her “O” Device, a visitor can rate each of these artworks in one of two ways – they can either love it, or hate it. This is the museum of the old and the new, of tetradrachmas and Internet search terms printed in falling water. MONA’s logo is that of an X and a +. I feel these are even more to the point. But not the point at all.

“We want you to look at each object for itself, and for the way it interacts with the works around it, and nothing else,” David Walsh writes in his “Gonzo” commentary on Picasso’s beautiful Weeping Woman in the Theatre of the World exhibit. The work on its own – and the work as part of something larger.

MONA is a monstrous piece of architecture carved into a hill by the Derwent River, a place that apparently has the cleanest air in the world. But dichotomies are simple, dangerous things, and I’m trying to sound like I understood the museum when I didn’t, so I’ll stop now. Besides, MONA is a lot of fun. A lot. That’s probably more to the point.

On the way to Surgical 2

When I’m beyond the landscapes I know, I look out the window, trying to pierce the bright reflection of the carriage’s insides, the reflection of my face and the faces of the passengers around me, to get a sense of where I am. Lights flash by. It’s all I see; the rhythm of light in the dark, street lights, headlights, the rectangles and squares of living rooms and kitchens, glimpses into people’s homes. Still lives.

Soon, the train leaves the suburban and for long intervals between stations, the outside is opaque.


In high school I wrote an essay on Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. I don’t remember if I chose the subject or if it was assigned (either is likely) or what I wrote, nor does it matter as everything done in high school seems negligible and naive once it’s behind you.

But Grünewald’s crucified Christ has stayed with me. It remains with me in the way that art sometimes remains, eroding and fading in my memory, but immoveable.

There’s something about Grünewald’s Jesus. He doesn’t look dejected – like he’s lost a contest he expected to win – like the Christs of my childhood. No, this Christ, pre-Renaissance style, not quite like you and I but near enough, is in pain. He bleeds, is covered in sores, fingers jagged and cramping, his head sunk low. His skin is flaking or has tiny splinters in it – I’m not sure which. I think Grünewald’s Jesus has stayed with me because of this difference.

When I think of it now, I see that this is the suffering of a man, a human, and I know that the artist was a faithless man. A man who knew earthly pain, but not God. For the nonbeliever, the story of Jesus Christ is a story of suffering, a metaphor for all suffering. Grünewald understood this, and painted it.


I spot, down in the carriage’s belly, fluoro orange. Three train guards, heavy boots and bright jackets on, move towards where I sit, checking tickets. Mine isn’t valid – I don’t come to this part of the city, I have no need. I shouldn’t have a need.

The guards come up the stairs and ask to see our tickets, so I take out what I have and hold it up. The guard looks at it, feigns reading it, nods and they move on to the next carriage.

It takes a moment, then comes the rush of being 17 again, of doing things like this when we were kids for no other reason than to see what would happen. I laugh to myself, amused at dodging fares in business clothes and at my age and on a night like tonight. And on a night like tonight.