MONA: the gift of art*
In 1999, the National Gallery of Australia cancelled the exhibition of Sir Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, on the grounds of the possible offensiveness of many of the works. Several of those exhibits and artists are now on display in MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, recently opened in Hobart, Tasmania. Where the National Gallery quailed at the idea of exhibiting work by Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, and the Chapman brothers, MONA has no such qualms. Their works feature alongside 400 other pieces from the private collection of David Walsh, a Tasmanian millionaire gambler, art collector, and creator of MONA, an extraordinary gallery space, designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis.
MONA primarily exists underground, its three levels excavated deep into a rocky cliff overlooking the Derwent River. You can travel to the museum on the MONA ferry, which sails from the centre of Hobart to MONA in about 30 minutes. Visitors climb a steep slope to the museum entrance, in the shell of a heritage-listed building. A staircase spirals tightly downwards into the depths of the museum.
This is no white cube; rooms are deliberately dark and works are starkly spotlit. Visitors move between levels along criss-crossing narrow passageways or up and down rusted metal stairs. On one side, there is a void, with the gallery floors receding from a huge sandstone wall from the upper to the lowest level. Julius Popp’s Bit.fall is installed next to this void, the water seeming to form itself into words against the sandstone backdrop.
Some rooms are massive, so that they might showcase works that would otherwise overwhelm, such as Snake, by Australian artist Sidney Nolan, 45 metres long and made up of hundreds of individual images combined into a glorious curving reptile. Another large room is given over to Loop System Quintet by Conrad Shawcross, its five machines endlessly whirling light around the darkness.
Other spaces are made small by partitions: Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary sits as if in a small side chapel, its colours and mosaic-like composition shown to their best by the spotlighting.
Some of the displayed works seem gimmicky, notably Cloaca Professional (Wim Delvoye), a machine consisting of five large glass bottles connected by tubes. Food from the gallery’s restaurant and café is fed daily into the machine; at 3pm sharp it excretes faeces onto a plate. Crowds show up each day to watch the machine’s excretion process, proving that, years after Manzoni and Serrano, the fascination with abject art persists.
A work which comes close to gimmickry is My Beautiful Chair, by Greg Taylor and Dr Philip Nitschke, which installs Nitschke’s euthanasia machine on a side table next to a leather armchair and a standard lamp.
Designed as an interactive work, it invites the spectator to proceed through the computer program that will ensure the delivery of a lethal dose of drugs to the terminally ill. It sounds more hokey than it actually is; instead, its incorporation of the viewer into the process of its display and the inescapable intensity of its subject matter mean that it manages to be both cheesy and provocative.
But in addition to headline-grabbers such as Cloaca Professional and My Beautiful Chair, a staggering breadth of artworks can be seen at MONA. The opening exhibit, Monanism, is loosely thematised around sex and death, and, as implied by its name, the museum displays both contemporary art and artefacts from the ancient world. Monanism features about a quarter of David Walsh’s private collection, and works have been purchased according to his personal taste; as such there is a gap of several millennia between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ art. But this is not a gap which translates into the works’ display: mummified creatures, cuneiform crosses, coins and sarcophagi are exhibited next to contemporary works of art and as works of art in their own right rather than as archaeological treasures.
The juxtapositions are sometimes enormously fruitful, such as the Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris (100BC) displayed in a small dark room next to Serrano’s The Morgue (Blood Transfusion Resulting in AIDS).
The collection’s breadth also derives from its impressive range of artists. In addition to internationally celebrated names such as Sidney Nolan, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer, Arthur Boyd, Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy, Callum Morton and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the visitor can see work by a number of emerging Australian artists and international artists such as Wang Qingsong (China), Berlinde de Bruyckere (Belgium), and Jonathan Delachaux (Switzerland).
And what details about the work or the artist are provided for the visitor? The walls are bare of curatorial information; instead, visitors are given an iPod with GPS to locate where one stands in the museum, providing information about each artwork. Different buttons offer various kinds of detail: audio commentary can be listened to; ‘gonzo’ gives access to David Walsh’s musings about the work; ‘artwank’ provides, well, art criticism. Different iPods offer different information; and viewers can press buttons marked ‘love’ or ‘hate’ to register their reactions to a work. The iPod also saves a record of one’s visit online.
The interactive iPods have been much criticized by journalists in the weeks since MONA opened in late January, and I confess that I approached mine with trepidation since I am not a fan of the ‘audio-tour’. But this little gizmo turned out to be a crucial part of the pleasures I found in MONA. Instead of half-reading the all-too-familiar critic-speak in a catalogue or a poster on a wall, the iPod prompted me to look longer at each artwork than usual. It produced a mode of viewing radically different to the half-anesthetized stupor that many of us slide into when visiting conventional cathedrals of art, and it invoked a sense of pleasurable autonomy familiar to any member of the Twitter generation. It meant that I learned a lot about the art I was looking at, felt hugely stimulated by the space instead of exhausted by its scale, and spent much longer there than expected (the entire visit, including a return ferry ride, lunch, and a glass of wine and antipasto in the wine bar afterwards, lasted 8 hours).
MONA has been mocked by some in the Australian mainstream media for its mix of ancient and contemporary and, in a sad demonstration that ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is alive and kicking, David Walsh has been derided as laughably eccentric, self-indulgent and uninformed (as an example, see the recent Artscape program about Walsh and MONA). All of which ressentiment ignores the fact that MONA puts on display an extraordinary collection of art in a breathtaking building. And it asks nothing in return except that we visit it: entry to MONA, despite the project costing Walsh over $100m AUD, is free – an amazing gift from one individual to the rest of us.
* This entry is an extended version of an article published by me on Hyperallergic.