‘We’re dealing with spiritual forces here’: Tasmania’s Christian community flips over art museum Mona’s inverted crosses but founder cares not
The annual Dark Mofo public event features red crucifixes on Hobar’s waterfront, triggering fears that organisers were ‘inviting in the devil’
The Mona founder David Walsh has shrugged his shoulders at the controversy stirred up, in entirely predictable fashion, by the erection of enormous, neon red inverted crucifixes on Hobart’s waterfront as part of Mona’s midwinter music and arts festival, Dark Mofo.
Walsh responded to the assertion from some members of Hobart’s Christian community that the crucifixes were “highly offensive” by saying: “I’d say about 50 things. But why are they upside down? Firstly, St Peter was crucified upside down. Why? Because he didn’t want to be like Jesus. So maybe all the churches that have up the right way crosses are blasphemers.”
His comments echoed the perspective expressed on Friday morning on ABC radio by Dark Mofo’s creative director, Leigh Carmichael, who said provocation was “part of Mona’s DNA” and argued that while “the cross is deeply significant in our historical context … symbols don’t have an inherent meaning. The meaning comes from what we bring to them.”
The controversy was fuelled this week by comments from Mark Brown, the Tasmanian director for the Australian Christian Lobby, who suggested Dark Mofo was inviting in the devil with the crosses. “We’re dealing with spiritual forces here. I don’t think those involved with this event, David Walsh and Leigh Carmichael, would disagree with the spiritual realm being a real thing,” he said.
On Friday, The Mercury newspaper published letters to the editor complaining about the crosses. One said it was a “shameful” use of public space, while another, from Reverend Matt Garvin of the Citywide Baptist Church, said that while the inverted cross was “commonly thought to be a satanic symbol”, churches should “engage with the conversation that David Walsh has created in our city”.
“Alternatively,” said Walsh, “it’s reasonable to contend that we are at the other side of the earth than Jerusalem, so if you map them, we’re actually the same way up.”
Walsh made the comments at an unscheduled news conference during the media preview for Mona’s new exhibition, Zero, which opens on Saturday night.
“For me the fear is not pushing the boundaries, it’s reinhabiting the centre,” he said. “When something becomes successful usually that’s a combination of winning the lottery and being a bit quirky, and the conservatism creeps in.”
Last year, Dark Mofo created headlines with Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s 150. Action, which made liberal use of fish and bull carcasses, milk and hundreds of litres of animal blood.
Expanding on his own artistic outlook, Walsh – whose museum includes such attractions as toilets in which users can watch themselves defecating, and a wall of 150 plaster casts of vulvas – said: “Mostly what I’m looking at is the motives of artists. Most of them are pretentious t***s.”
“States building art galleries is not the same as individuals building art galleries … It’s completely different. One is a political gesture and the other is just trying to show you’ve got a big d***.”
Later on Friday, Dark Mofo issued a formal statement from Carmichael on the inverted crucifixes, saying: “Dark Mofo has been exploring ancient mythology and religious themes since its inception in 2013. The cross is a powerful and deeply significant historical symbol, that has been used for thousands of years, with many cross-cultural meanings. For many, this symbol evokes an emotional response for reasons that we don’t fully understand. While we respect and understand different interpretations, we cannot be responsible for attitudes that people bring to the festival.”
At the opening of the exhibition A Journey to Freedom on Friday night, Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman gestured to the controversy, saying the state government supported the festival, and had “no intention to suppress and indeed censor its courageous creativity”.
This year, Dark Mofo examines the theme of incarceration, explored in detail at a number of shows including A Journey To Freedom, in artist Mike Parr’s 72-hour internment in a sealed bunker underneath Macquarie Street, and in the prelude weekend of talks, Dark and Dangerous Thoughts, on this weekend.