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.