MONA – Democracy, or anarchy?

29 01 2011

Well, the car’s unpacked, the beach towels are washed and hanging on the line, and the computer beckons. At the risk of appearing to have guzzled a whole jug of the MONA Kool Aid, I did promise to elaborate on my experiences at the opening. Not sure whether I will be able to do so in a single burst, but herewith some observations about an extraordinary place.

It was telling that, upon arrival, the crowds of people hovering around the crates of freshly-shucked Tassie oysters and glittering flutes of Moorilla bubbles on the grassed area outside the entrance to the museum were not as dense as might have been expected. This had nothing to do with the number of attendees, or the quality of the culinary offerings, and everything to do with the fact that no-one wanted to waste too much time hanging around outside. This despite the fact that MONA has what must be the most impressive geographic setting of any museum in the country, located as it is upon a steep-sided promontory that juts into the Derwent River. The views from the rooftop of the museum are positively bucolic.

Entrance to the gallery is via an unprepossessing opening in a long wall of reflective silver panels. This opens out into a foyer that is part of the original Roy Grounds-designed building in which David Walsh housed his collection in its earlier incarnation. After picking up one of the much anticipated ‘O’ guides – basically an adapted iTouch apparatus (no doubt the techies will wince at that description) – and receiving a cheerful explanation of its myriad capabilities from a gallery staff member, we tossed back a couple of hors d’oeuvres (shaved scallops – who knew they had hair? – with yummy bits, and a crunchy salad  in a cone. Apologies to non-gourmands. This will not be the last mention of food in these posts), and headed to the staircase to descend into the depths, past rough-hewn sandstone that manages to speak simultaneously of Tasmania’s convict past, and an ancient mausoleum – the beehive tombs at Mycenae, or the shaft of Cheops’ Pyramid at Gizeh. Water leaches in sheets down these walls. I can’t wait for them to discolour the stone. This is a living space – it felt as if I were burrowing down into the honeycomb caverns at Lascaux. The iron, spiral staircase, infinite spaces and maze of hidden rooms are the bastard child of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons, and Leonardo’s Memory Cathedral.

But before we talk about the inside, a bit about the exterior. Despite the scale of this project, the overwhelming impression conveyed by the building’s monolithic architecture is, paradoxically, one of introspection. Most commonly, when humankind decides to chop into the earth to create a structure –  the city of Petra in Jordan, or Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Egypt (pictured at left) spring to mind (betraying my background in archaeology here) – the built environment dominates the natural environment. The structure emerges from – thrusts out of – the geology with a kinetic energy. Although the Nonda Katsalidis-designed building at MONA is massive, it doesn’t project forward. Rather, it seems to slump into the side of the cliff into which it’s carved. It snuggles into the rock – the building almost looks as if it’s attempting to retreat to the the cracks and crevices of the ancient cliff.  The same message is communicated by the mirrored panels at the entrance  –  the museum is trying to disguise itself; to disappear by reflecting its surroundings back at the visitor. Despite what you may expect, it’s a surprisingly shy and retiring edifice. If that’s possible for something so enormous.

As to the overall exhibition design, it’s nothing short of groundbreaking. Perhaps without realising, we’ve become accustomed to being ‘directed’ around museum displays. Crowd movement studies dictate where signage, carefully placed podiums and benchseats are placed, designed to keep the crowd moving in a prearranged, orderly and choreographed flow. Objects are placed within this schema so as to be ‘read’ by the visitor as a linear narrative. ‘Hero’ artworks are positioned in key locations. Start here… move to there… now look at this… read that… sit here… and finish there. Then, exit through the gift shop (with apologies to Banksy).

At MONA, there is no clear path through the space. Quite the contrary – it would be very easy to miss seeing things. Important things. Objects are hidden – embedded – within the exhibition space. If Jane Clark hadn’t asked me what I thought about the ‘Sex and Death’ gallery, I might not have found it, located as it is in an anteroom leading from the gallery that houses Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s installation. There is no signage, and no direction or expectation that you should, or must, go anywhere or see anything in particular. And it is unbelievably refreshing to experience. You wander, and backtrack in a vaguely shambolic fashion, and discover new doors, rooms and alcoves each pass.

This heralds a new museological democracy. Or anarchy, perhaps. The information is there and available if you want it (via the ‘O’ devices – curatorial texts are dubbed ‘artwank’ in subversive reference to the ‘onanism’ referred to in the opening exhibition title, ‘MONAism’). But there is no hovering curatorial intervention telling you how or what to think about particular objects or interfaces. The spectator’s approach to an artwork is not prefaced by a prescriptive label that implants information and inevitably affects how the viewer will perceive and understand that artwork. It’s often thought that it’s crucial to provide information to infrequent museum visitors so that if they desire to interact closely with what might otherwise be an obscure form of visual expression, they’re provided with a lexicon that enables them to understand an artwork. It’s all about access. But  wall labels must surely alienate many visitors to contemporary art museums, jargon-laden as they so often are.

This won’t be a problem at MONA. It was unbelievably liberating to stand in front of an artwork without the jumble of information just absorbed from the wall text filling my mind. Public museums don’t have this luxury. To justify their public subsidies, they’re compelled to satisfy government expectations about providing access and education to taxpayers. But David Walsh doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Ironically, although he may be thumbing his nose at established curatorial practices, the way he’s showing art down there on the banks of the Derwent might just be establishing a new benchmark for showing contemporary art to people who would otherwise shy away from visiting contemporary art spaces. Given the art on show, and all that’s been said about the project in the lead up to the opening, it’s a surprisingly accessible space. It’s not perfect, and there are some very tetchy spots in the show. But it all feels so overwhelmingly human. Which makes the scrappy parts all the more forgivable.

Were you there? What do you think?

More to follow.


Will appalling iPhone photos of the MONA launch keep you satisfied until I get me to a decent computer?

24 01 2011

Well, a good friend has appraised me of the means to upload iPhone photos to WordPress without access to a reasonable computer and internet connection. These are, however, the worst yet in my ongoing, embarrassing, series of phone photos. Worst of all, to protect the innocent (not that there were too many naïfs present), I’m leaving out the incriminating photos. What happens in Hobart, stays in Hobart. Sorry. But because I feel an obligation to give you a peek, here is a selection of the best of the worst pictures from David Walsh’s MONA launch (if you’re reading this David, apologies for presenting such a weak visual representation of your ridiculously brilliant pad. And, thanks for the party. Any leftovers to spare?). I hope that your pain may be assuaged by the reassurance that I will post a thorough response to what was an extraordinary and thought-provoking experience as soon as I drag myself back to civilisation.

1: The truly astounding feat that is the interior of the Nonda Katsalidis designed building. The engineer deserves the build-y equivalent of the Nobel Prize.











2. An anonymous couple contemplating Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole in MONA’s ‘Sex and Death’ gallery.

3. Anselm Kiefer’s SternenFall/Shevirath Ha Kelim. I entered the room in which it’s displayed as the sun was setting over the Derwent River. Shafts of light shone in beams through a cathedral-like window and played across the surface of Kiefer’s spectral work – surprisingly visible even in this terrible photo. A highlight. Pardon the pun.

4. Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car. Because it’s delicious. As put so eloquently by Pat Brassington, “I just wanted to stick my fingers in it”. I heartily agree.

5. Last, but not least, a display of deceased cuddly animals, and a slab of jamon. The seriously good stuff. It (the jamon) was being sliced and served fresh in great abundance and with great care in buttery, wafer-thin slices by a masterful chef personage all night. It was good. Very good.

MONA launch. Uncharacteristically lost for words.

21 01 2011

Doing the one thing I promised never to do… tapping out a post on the iPhone by virtue of the fact that I’m compelled to record my response to MONA. Only problem being the limitations of this screen and ludicrously small keyboard. Not to mention, I have photographic evidence but no idea how to upload my appalling mobile phone picures from my phone onto the wordpress platform Zounds!

Suffice to say …. Get thee to Hobart and see this thing pronto. It’s astounding. Many conversations with many people in the industry who had been skeptical about David Walsh’s project…all agreed that this is unlike anything else in the world. In a good way. Sure, the Beluga caviar, Iberian Jamon, absinthe and stupidly good smelly French cheeses made us all feel warm and fuzzy inside. But all that aside, this is something quite extraordinary. In the words of the director of a major gallery, “this changes the way we all have to do things”. More to come, especially about the art and interaction with the architectural spaces once I get me back to a real computer.

“I have some things I want to say…You might not want to hear them”: MONA launch, 21 Jan 2011

10 11 2010

Being the jaded creature that I can sometimes be, I was pleasantly surprised by the child-like excitement that accompanied the arrival of my invitation to the launch party for the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. First up, it was seriously large and weighty – there’s something about 5mm thick matt black card, silver foil printing and a tumble of inclusions that lends an invitation serious gravitas. But, most of all, I’ve been looking forward to this for yonks.

David Walsh has been constructing a monumental home for his idiosyncratic collection on the shores of the Derwent River for a number of years now. I’ve had the occasional update via former auction world colleagues, Mark Fraser and Jane Clark, both ex-Sotheby’s (and NGV in Jane’s case) and both of whom now work with Walsh at MONA as Director and Curatorial Consultant respectively. Walsh has made a bundle of money as a professional gambler, although I doubt you’d see him out at Moonee Valley for the Friday night trots. Rather, he’s a mathematical genius who’s put his talents to good use by writing complex logarithms that enable him to work the odds in his favour. If this 2007 profile by Gabriella Coslovich is to be believed, he’s an intriguing character. Either way, he is sinking a fair chunk of his earnings into the purchase of major works of art that will be available for the Australian public to view for free. A decent bucketload of gazillions has also gone into the construction of the Nonda Katsalidis edifice.

Walsh is deliberately courting controversy and wants nothing more than to shake up the Australian art world. From what I understand, he is displaying his collection in a manner that he hopes will cause outrage amongst curators and curious onlookers alike. Museum and art world professionals will be horrified with the technical aspects of his installation, and squeamish visitors will be shocked by the explicit and fecal nature of some of the art on display. A centrepiece of his collection is yBa alumni Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, arguably the most contentious work of art produced in recent decades. Ofili’s elephant dung and labia bedazzled icon featured in Charles Saatchi’s notorious exhibition, Sensation. The tempest of religious fury that Ofili’s painting caused when exhibited at Brooklyn’s Museum of Art as part of Sensation‘s grand world tour led to the cancellation of the show’s scheduled appearance at the National Gallery of Australia in 2000. Although topping the list in the ‘ewww’ stakes for me will be Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a room-sized installation that takes in food at one end, ‘digests’ it, and pops it out the other end as disturbingly convincing fecal effluent, authentic aroma and all (as an aside, have a look at Wim Delvoye’s fantastic website – don’t worry – it’s completely SFW. Really).

Walsh’s desire to shock and court scandal, and to knock the legs out from under some of the art world’s most venerated cows might seem a little puerile. But why should that matter? Walsh’s message couldn’t be clearer: MONA is his playpen. If you don’t like the rules, you can pack up your bat and ball and go home. The text within the illustrated booklet that accompanied my invitation to the launch runs as follows: “I bought some ancient art…It was getting a bit mouldy…I built a little gallery…I let people have a look…I bought some newer art…Some people made some art for me…I built a bigger gallery…I have some things I want to say…You might not want to hear them.” When Jane Clark spoke at Melbourne University earlier in the year, she quoted Walsh:  ‘MONA is my soapbox … and the best lounge room money can buy’. And that’s why I’m excited. One of my favourite museums in the world is Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (pictured). Soane was an architect and inveterate collector. His residence in Lincoln’s Inn Fields has been a public museum since his death in the early 19th century. It’s an extraordinary space, and one in which the connection between the collector and his collection couldn’t be clearer.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to understand a collection unless we’re given some insight into the person, or people, who formed it. Somebody, somewhere, chose an object and placed it within a collection for a reason. The modern model of the public museum can be misleading in that sense. The white walls and apparently impersonal modes of presentation encourage us to see museums as remote temples of high art. But those white walls hide a maelstrom of human activity, and I’ve had enough to do with public art organisations to know that individual personalities have a great deal to do with the formation of public collections. One example of many – the former curator of a major Australian public collection who told me of the time he was told by a former director in very clear terms that he was not to make acquisitions from a particular dealer because the dealer had slighted the director. That ban remained in place for years. Consider what that might have meant for the art that did and, importantly, did not end up on the gallery’s walls. Not to mention the relevance of this situation for those artists whose work didn’t enter the gallery’s collection as a result of this personal feud.

If a collection is stripped of a collector’s touch, and all signs that can help us understand why those disparate objects were brought together to form a collection are eliminated, we’re left with nothing more than a meaningless agglomeration of things. That’s why I find it both intriguing and revealing to see those things writ large in private museums such as the Soane Museum where collectors are able to express their relationship with their collections. I’m hoping that we’ll see much the same thing when MONA opens in January – because it certainly sounds like we’re going to get a very interesting peek at David Walsh, the collector, via his gallery.

(image of the Sir John Soane Museum via