Fake Picassos in a ladies toilet: why the saga at MONA is one of the most effective pieces of performance art I’ve seen

In the latest instalment of the Ladies Lounge saga at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), curator Kirsha Kaechele has revealed she faked a number of Pablo Picasso paintings hanging in the gallery’s new ladies toilets, established in response to the forced closure of the Ladies Lounge earlier this year.

This entire saga is perhaps the most effective piece of performance art I’ve seen since Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece of 1964 – a work hailed as being the Titanic of performance pieces. In it, Ono sits, as members of the public are invited to approach and cut off pieces of her clothes.

As was the case with Cut Piece, the public’s reaction to Kaechele has been intense. Unlike Ono, however, Kaechele’s performance has lasted for months and has engaged and scandalised many more people, garnering worldwide attention.

An ongoing performance

The very first stage of this serialised event was Kaechele’s creation of the Ladies Lounge. In this space, women could have high tea, admire great art and be served by attractive, adoring male butlers.

The butlers had to be young, handsome and dressed to be of service to the ladies. In Kaechele’s own words:

They are the only men allowed in the Ladies Lounge, and that is because they live to serve women. They attend to our every desire and shower us with praise and affection (in chivalry — the unequal rights component of the reparations equation). And champagne. They also massage us.

So when a man, Jason Lau, complained about being denied access on account of his gender, the media had a field day.

Indeed, the presence of a women-only lounge serving champagne and great art drew the ire of some men. And that was the point: in a world where women have been (and continue to be) denied access to the same spaces as men, Lau was “experiencing the artwork as it’s intended”.


Read more: Women have been excluded from men's spaces for centuries. That’s why the MONA Ladies Lounge matters


Lau took Kaechele and MONA to the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where the hearing became the second act of Kaechele’s performance.

In court, Kaechele and her troupe staged a synchronised performance reacting to those who stood over them in judgement. The tribunal found the Ladies Lounge discriminated against “persons who do not identify as ladies”. But even as the case was lost, the troupe danced out of the courtroom to the tune of Robert Palmer’s Simply Irresistible.

While the lounge was closed “for reform”, Kaechele pondered her next move. She considered a ladies bible study room, but eventually settled on decorating a toilet with some of the master works.

When questioned on the desirability of drinking champagne in a toilet, Kaechele replied:

There is a real precedent for people imbibing in the toilet. People enjoy all kinds of substances in there.

She has a point.

Once the toilets were open, a fascinated media noted – among other works – paintings by Picasso. To treat famous (and expensive) art with such open contempt drew international attention, including from the Picasso Administration, which manages, collects, distributes and controls the rights attached to Picasso’s works.

Kaechele then “confessed” she painted the “Picassos” herself three years ago. She said she she made the paintings green to match the lurid green aesthetic of the Ladies Lounge, where they were first placed.

These “Picassos” weren’t the only fakes in the lounge/toilets. Others included modern spears from Papua New Guinea captioned as antiques and plastic jewellery claimed to be heirlooms.

Might there be consequences?

As well as taking the mickey out of the patriarchy, one lesson from Kaechele’s work is that gallery and museum visitors should use their eyes and not always believe what labels say.

If Kaechele had persisted in claiming the works were by Picasso after being challenged by the Picasso Administration, she would have been guilty of fraud. However, she immediately “confessed” and explained why and how she acted as she did.

As a result, the Ladies Lounge/toilet has become an amusing exposé on how thin-skinned some men can be – and why the legal system (at least at its lower levels) needs to get some perspective.

This event reminds me of Melbourne artist, Ivan Durrant, who in 1974 put a dead cow in the forecourt of the National Gallery of Victoria. The following year his commercial gallery, Hogarth Gallery, announced Durrant had acquired a severed human hand which would be exhibited as art. The photographs looked so realistic that the national media tied itself in knots trying to locate the person whose hand it was. It was, of course, a prosthetic.

The last laugh goes to…

For Kaechele – and for MONA – the Ladies Lounge controversy has been a spectacular success. She has reminded visitors that the roles of artist and curator are often intermingled. She has also succeeded in exposing the patriarchy as a humourless joke.

Kaechele’s acts fall within a great tradition of performance art, which had fallen out of fashion since it’s heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s. She is, however, more lighthearted than Pat Larter’s Tailored Maids. In this performance work, which itself was critique of female circumcision, she sat behind a sheet and used shadow play. As the implements of destruction – including secateurs – approached her body, she threw pieces of raw meat into the audience.

Ever since it opened, MONA’s exhibitions and installations have combined curatorial originality with a talent for attracting the kind of worldwide publicity other art museums yearn for. Kaechele’s husband, David Walsh, has said his mission is to make the arts approachable to people who aren’t a part of a self-defined cultural elite.

Indeed, Kaechele has now brought more international prominence to MONA, showing yet again why it is essential viewing for any art lover in Australia.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Joanna Mendelssohn, The University of Melbourne

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Joanna Mendelssohn has in the past received funding from the Australian Research Council