Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mary. Contrary

Hannah Gadsby
QVMAG Art Gallery at Royal Park
Ten Days on the Island

By Wendy Newton

I’ll probably be crucified for writing this, but everyone should learn about art from Hannah Gadsby.  And crucifixion via the Tasmanian ‘arterarti’ is a lot quicker, but much more final, than the traditional way – trust me, I’m a Tasmanian arts reviewer.

Of course, the “In Gordon Street Tonight” performer is quick to point out that Mary. Contrary is neither a lecture on art nor a comedy, rather a “crossover” event that discusses the role the Virgin Mary plays in art and in our lives.  Or at least the lives of Catholics.  And lapsed Catholics.  Having been raised by one, Gadsby takes no chances: after a quick apology (aka ‘disclaimer’) to any Catholics in the audience of the sold-out show, she opens with, “The Virgin Mary - what a hoot.”

Mary. Contrary is a witty and irreverent “Emperor’s New Clothes” romp through the depiction of Mary as a religious icon in Medieval, Renaissance and Contemporary art, as well as in some ‘not-quite’, but popular, art.  Poor ol’ Mary doesn’t get much of a look-in in the Gospels, according to Gadsby, and yet she’s the Founding Mother of the world’s most popular religion - go figure!

Gadsby illuminates us with her hilarious and provocative insights via a slideshow of artworks that range from 3rd century frescos in Rome’s catacombs, Leonardo’s twice-painted “Virgin of the Rocks” and Giotto’s frescos at Scrovegni Chapel in northern Italy, through to icons at roadside shrines, Banksy’s “Toxic Mary”, the infamous Virgin Mary on toast (you know the one!) and a rather creepy photo of an unidentified man who has multiple Marys tattooed on his torso.  The Gospels might have made a glaring error; there’s definitely “something about Mary’.

Gadsby takes us from the sublime to the ridiculous as we learn about Our Heavenly Mother from the Annunciation through to the Intercession via some seriously knowledgeable interpretation of art symbolism and commentary on subjects such as mannerism and its role in the arts and literature - Dante’s “Inferno”, a case in point – while also pointing out why Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code”, got some [only some?] facts wrong, giving Pythonesque voice-overs to characters in paintings, and offering amusing religious conclusions: “Sex, don’t do it.” 

It’s clear she knows her stuff, and not only because she holds a Bachelor of Art History.  Gadsby is an intelligent comedian who plays with subtext in a delightful way; it’s provocative, but never insulting or crude, and we end up laughing at ourselves as much as with her.  As she gallops through centuries of insightful art interpretation, she plays with the reverence we give to art, to religion, to our own egos, and reminds us why we don’t always have to be so serious about it all: if you can’t laugh at art, at religion, at yourself, you can’t take any of them seriously either.

Clever girl, Ms Gadsby.  No wonder the NGV picked you up for a series of art lectures.  I hope the “Mayor of Tasmania”, David Walsh, hires you as a gallery guide.  You would give all art viewers the permission to point out what they’re really thinking about art, but are too scared to say.

Mary. Contrary: It’s art - just as you’d like to know it.

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