Archive for the ‘museum’ Tag

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/ Leigh Carmichael

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.

MONA/ Leigh Carmichael

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.

Conrad Shawcross, 'Loop System Quintet'. Photo credit: MONA/ Sean Fennessy

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.

Chris Ofili, 'The Holy Virgin Mary'. Photo credit: MONA/ Peter Whyte

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.

Greg Taylor & Dr Philip Nitschke, 'My Beautiful Chair'. Photo: MONA/ Leigh Carmichael

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.

Head of a Mummified Cat. Photo credit: MONA/ Peter Whyte

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).

Qingsong Wang, 'Dream of Migrants'. Photo: MONA/ Peter Whyte

Berlinde de Bruyckere, 'P XIII'. Photo: MONA/ Leigh Carmichael

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.

Street Art and the Museum Revisited: Banksy on the Inside*

In November last year, I wrote about the exhibition, Street Art, at the Tate Modern in London. Artworks by street artists have been exhibited in commercial galleries on and off for many years, but this was the first time that a museum had showcased work by urban artists such as Blu, Nunca and Faile. After visiting the exhibition, I wrote about how I felt disappointed that the Tate had confined its exhibition of the works to the outer façade of the building. Although this provided the selected artists with a massive ‘canvas’ to work on, it also meant that when the exhibition ended, the works were buffed by the museum just as a council would buff these  works if they appeared on walls around a city.

Less than a year after the exhibition on the walls of the Tate Modern, street art has been brought into a museum space, and to an extent that I think it’s fair to say could not have been predicted. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery has just opened its summer exhibition, Banksy versus Bristol Museum.

The title of the show acknowledges the tension that exists when street art is displayed indoors, or when works that some might say are best viewed in passing, on a street wall, are instead placed inside the rarefied space of a gallery. The exhibition’s context is implied as a contest, a struggle between Banksy, artist of and for the people, and all that is represented by a council-funded, conventional museum (and remember that Banksy once painted ‘Mind the crap’ on the steps of Tate Britain, in a nose-thumbing gesture at the hierarchies of art institutions).

To a certain extent that is all true: much ink has been spilt and many blog entries posted about whether street art ‘belongs’ indoors, and whether Banksy has ‘sold out’, and whether museums are being forced to ‘dumb down’ (for example, in the critical reactions to the New York Guggenheim’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit’, or to the increasing tendency for bankable ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions on ‘safe’ topics such as ‘Impressionism’ to tour from museum to museum). No doubt some will make similar criticisms here of Banksy, the show, and the museum. (And there’s some worthwhile critical comment on the Indoor Street Art blog.)

But what’s left out of these criticisms is any acknowledgement of the value in staging an exhibition such as this – in bringing Banksy’s work not just ‘home’ to Bristol, but inside one of Bristol’s museums.

Banksy’s work has been in museums before, but in a very different way: in March 2005 he visited the Metropolitan Musuem, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Natural History in New York City and hung works on the walls, which were viewed by the museum’s visitors until noticed by security guards. In October 2003 he hung his own artwork in the Tate Britain and placed a fake piece of prehistoric rock art (showing a cave man pushing a supermarket shopping trolley) in the British Museum in May 2005.

It’s a long way from those outlaw actions to the current exhibition, and here’s where the show’s title, Banksy versus the Museum, is both accurate and misleading. Rather than being displayed in selected series of rooms, as would be the norm, these artworks have taken over the entire space of the Edwardian building. The show features not just sculptures and paintings, but also a series of large installations, including a recreation of the pet store set up in New York City last October.You can get a sense of what the show is like from the videos on the UK Street Art website, or have a look at this:

And so it really is as if Banksy has taken on and taken over the space of the museum – if there was a contest, then he is the victor. But of course what we are actually seeing is the product of a fantastic collaboration rather than a contest: a closely guarded secret, in which the museum closed down in order to allow the artist to set up his work throughout the galleries.

And so, in coming not just home but also inside the portals of the museum, does this mean Banksy has sold out in some way? I think not: the exhibition has actually been brought about in a manner that maintains many of the values of street art: while these are obviously not illicit artworks in any way, they have appeared before the public just as a work on a wall might do, the result of clandestine preparations and the efforts of an anonymous (well, sort of anonymous) individual. Just as the Cans Festival came as a fabulous surprise last year, the Bristol City Museum show provides a summer treat for those in the northern hemisphere. Not to be missed. Bristol? Wish I was there.

* Thanks to Peter, for suggesting the sub-title for this post.