Hedonist or intellectual? The MCA’s new exhibition will sort you out


Few artists are as well informed in various fields of knowledge as Nicholas Mangan. In Mangan's survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, A broken worldone cannot help but be impressed by the breadth of his interests and the thoroughness with which he pursues them.

Nicholas Mangan: An overabundance of content.Credit: Janie Barrett

In the first essay of the catalog, Amelia Barakin offers a summary that is difficult to improve: “All of her projects involve the aggregation of different media – be it film, sculpture, photography, archival documentation, installation or sound – which crystallize around the network. concepts (ecology, capitalism, colonization, climate change), then transversal borders (art, neuroscience, geology, zoology, economics, politics).

At this point, you'll either be hooked or think, “Ooooh no.” After looking at Mangan's exhibition and reading the catalogue, I find myself somewhere in between. There is a formidable intelligence in this work and a remarkable ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate subjects. However, this does not translate into exceptional art. Despite the overabundance of content, there's nothing that grabs your attention and makes you want to stay longer than it takes to register every component of a room-sized installation. There is recognition but no seduction.

The first project found is called Nauru: notes from a Cretaceous world (2009-10). The Cretaceous period ended approximately 66 million years ago, but the key date for the island of Nauru was in 1900, when large phosphate reserves were discovered. When ownership of the mines passed to the islanders in 1970, it placed them among the richest nations on earth. They celebrated in 1977 by building Nauru House, a 52-storey skyscraper in Melbourne's CBD.

In the early 2000s, phosphates and money ran out, forcing Nauru to sell the trophy building, completing a rags-to-riches-to-rags fairytale. Mangan has picked up the story on the downside, fulfilling the idea of ​​a previous Nauruan president, that chunks of coral limestone brought to Australia could be made into coffee tables and sold for revenue. In this show, that dream is realized with a very rudimentary coffee table made of jagged, pale stone. It is accompanied by photos, boxes, documents and other bric-a-brac that give us a scattered impression of a tropical island, its ecology ruined by mining, which has been chewed up and spat out by the colonialist-capitalist machine.

A president's dream come true: Nicholas Mangan's proposal for Dowiyogo's antique coral coffee table, 2009.

A president's dream come true: Nicholas Mangan's proposal for Dowiyogo's antique coral coffee table, 2009.Credit: Hamish McIntosh

Later in the show, Mangan revisits this theme in a project called Progress in Action (2015), looking at the island of Bougainville, where the ravages of copper mining prompted the inhabitants to take up arms and fight for independence from Papua New Guinea. After their opponents cut off the fuel supply, the Bougainvilleans retreated to making biofuel from coconuts. Mangan copied them, amazed at how many coconuts were needed for a liter.

The MCA facility includes a generator that would run on this fuel and lots of empty coconut shells. The centerpiece is a film loop of the conflict spliced ​​together from footage found in the National Archives of Australia. Mangan talks about historical events informing the “sculptural gestures” he deploys, in a process he calls “material narration”.

This reflects an expanded conception of sculpture that may include films, images and archival documents, or even the geographical-geological reality of a particular place. It's a complex procedure that tends to include too much information in each work without a clear narrative. When viewers have discovered the connections, instead of shouting “Eureka!” they are more likely to say, “So what?”


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