MONA: a confounding catacomb of coffins, coins and cu… ahem, curiosities

Please forgive the title’s overblown alliteration and my near slip into licentious language, but MONA’s excesses and eccentricities have prompted me to dribble on in Dionysian delight. This is going to be a long post.


Photo: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Image Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art

It’s been nearly six months since MONA opened but I finally embarked on my pilgrimage to the apple isle to visit David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, the largest private museum in the southern hemisphere. The press have mostly raved about it, so I want to know if all the hype is true. And will I be shocked by this controversial art collection? I am already astounded that just one person can own $100 million worth of artwork – it seems an obscenity in itself.

My husband tagged along for the ride. He prefers boats to art galleries but I told him, in an effort to pique his interest, that the exhibition is all about ‘sex and death’. According to David Walsh who subscribes to a Darwinian world view, we spend our lives chasing sex and avoiding death. While this might be true for Mr Walsh, I believe we also have more altruistic and spiritual aspirations.

It is a wintry afternoon in Hobart and with the temperature plummeting, barely a soul could be seen. As our ferry scoots along the Derwent River, my seafaring partner insists we go up to the top deck to “feel the wind in our hair”. We brace against the Antarctic blast, while others sensibly stay inside and enjoy Moorilla wine or Moo Brew beer, products from Walsh’s business enterprises. Walsh is a multi-millionaire who made a fortune from gambling, employing his mathematical wizardry to come up with a winning formula. He has sunk million of dollars into his art collection of over 2000 works. Some of this is now on show in an exhibition called Monanism (a play on the words Mona and onanism which means masturbation derived from a story in Genesis), a title that suggests this collector has a self deprecating sense of humour and is happy to acknowledge the wanky pretensions of the art world.

Our ferry passes the gargantuan zinc works at Lutana, a belching beast of a smelter  stretching for kilometres along the river – the underbelly of Tasmania laid bare. It foreshadowed the exhibition we were about to see: a raw, upfront, in your face confrontation with the aspects of life to which we turn a blind eye. It was to be an encounter with the aesthetics of decay where a kind of rugged beauty can be found.


Lutana zinc works. Photo: artingeelong.

MONA sits on the peninsula like a formidable fortress, or perhaps more accurately, like a bunker buttressing the sandstone cliffs. Clad in oxidised sheets of steel, it echoes the rusty shipping sheds we had just passed downstream. The building doesn’t tower over the site but nestles into it, exuding a quiet grandeur. Designed by Nonda Katsalidis and custom built to house Walsh’s eclectic art collection, MONA burrows down three levels into Triassic sandstone. More than 35,000 cubic metres of material was excavated from the site to create an underground gallery comparable in size to the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane.

We disembark at the newly built pontoon and climb the long flight of stairs carved through the rock face to arrive at… well, a tennis court! The entrance is deceptive – just some double doors in a curved reflective wall of highly polished chrome. It distorts our bodies into twisted shapes, like a hall of mirrors in a vaudeville theme park. It isn’t signposted and we nearly miss it which is what David Walsh wants to happen – he wants to disorient us and challenge our expectations.


MONA and the original Roy Grounds building. Photo: artingeelong.

MONA entrance – no signage here. Photo: artingeelong.

In the foyer, we are given our ‘O’, an interpretative device which looks like an iphone. ‘O’ will automatically detect our location throughout the museum and give us information about the art. Since there is no signage in the gallery whatsoever, no labelling of artworks, and no thematic structure to the exhibition, we will need it. My better half likes the irony of the button titled Artwank and decides this museum might be a bit of fun after all.

Like Big Brother, the ‘O’ tracks our movements and records how long we stay at each artwork. There is no option to turn off the location finder but you can elect to save your tour and view it online later. There is also a Love/Hate button to vote on the works. Walsh has said that if a work proves too popular it may be removed or if a work is disliked it may be given more prominence.

We descend a spiral staircase that wraps around a glass-encased lift. The light dims as we reach the subterranean depths, 17 metres below the ground floor. A vaulting sandstone wall, a staggering 250 million years old, soars above us. It is a living thing that actually weeps water when it rains. It feels as though we are inside an ancient cavernous tomb. The architecture is a work of art in itself and the inclusion of the exposed rock face is a stroke of genius. It is awesome, in the true sense of the word, and creates a powerful backdrop to contemporary, technology-based works such as bit.fall by Julius Popp and the computer-generated data projection Encyclopeadia by Charles Sandison.


A view back to the lift, with stunning sandstone walls 250 million years old.  Photo:artingeelong.

We hear footsteps clattering on the metal staircase and sound spilling from noisy installations. A piano ditty rises above the din and strange groaning noises reverberate around us. It is as though we have entered Hades’ realm of the underworld, a shadowy labyrinth of darkness and intrigue. Or was this a nightclub? A fully licensed bar beckoned. Like Persephone who ate the pomegranate seeds and was bound to Hades forever, partake of the refreshments on offer here and you may never get out. Much to my husband’s disappointment, we gave the bar a miss.

As our eyes adjust to the gloom, we set off on our mystery tour. Artworks are presented in a random fashion – ancient coins and Egyptian mummies are juxtaposed with contemporary installations and hi-tech works. Renowned international artists are exhibited alongside lesser known artists. With no hierarchy, no chronology and no obvious curatorial intrusion, MONA turns standard museum practice on its head. It is a liberating experience to roam unencumbered by signage or labels, stumbling upon artworks here and there with no real idea of context (unless you choose to consult the ‘O’).

This is not your typical white cube gallery experience. No one is telling you how to engage with the works, at least not overtly, but the deliberately confusing design and absence of signage does make it very easy to miss things. We gradually become lost and surrender to the MONA experience. I even give up using the ‘O’.


Corten stairwell and surrounding artworks. Photo: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Image Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art.

My partner and I prove to be unobservant explorers, because we discover the next day, when we checked our tour online, that we missed most of the second floor! Maybe this explains why we didn’t see Daniel Crook’s video work On Perspective and Motion – Part II, nor Greg Taylor’s C**ts and Other Conversations, the now notorious porcelain sculptures of female genitalia (and in a shrewd marketing ploy, available as soap in the MONA Shop). We did not find Bullethole from the 1988 Freeze exhibition of Young British Artists, nor did we come across Wilfredo Prieto’s white room, a library of white shelves filled with white books with blank white pages. Epic fail!

Since we failed to notice an entire room, what hope was there of spotting a little silver coin, the ancient Greek Tetradrachm of Syracuse with Head of Arethusa? Reportedly worth half a million dollars, this coin set a precedent in art history back in 405BCE, by depicting a front-on view of the face rather than the usual profile. It was proudly displayed on a MONA billboard in Melbourne but it wasn’t given such prominence here – so, yep, we missed that one too.

But enough of the artworks we missed (and sadly there were many), what about the artworks we did see? We saw an exuberant mix of mummies, projections and spinning lights; a bubble car, a strobing skull and a 45 metre snake; a suicide machine and an excrement machine and people singing karaoke. We saw a waterfall of words, a sticky mat of flies, and a rotting rack of meat. We saw a dizzying array of work that blew my mind.


Underwater wunderkammer with stone artifacts and fish. Photo: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Image Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art.

Of all the antiquities, the Pausiris mummy is the one presented in the most spectacular fashion. Normally queues of tourists stretch along the walkway because only two people can enter the room at a time but it was a quiet afternoon and we were able to waltz right in. We leapt across stepping stones surrounded by a pool of black water to an elaborately carved coffin which has never been opened. Next to the sarcophagus a high tech, animated display of CAT scans reveals the decomposing mummified body. (Exhibit deconstructed here.) On a nearby wall, a disturbing photograph by Andres Serrano The Morgue (Blood Transfusion Resulting in Aids) depicts a close up of a dead boy’s face. The ‘O’ says this is here to remind us that there’s a real corpse inside the case.

The centrepiece of the whole museum, spanning two levels (even we didn’t miss this one) is Sidney Nolan’s massive Snake based on the indigenous dreaming of the rainbow serpent. It comprises 1,620 individual images and is so large a specially designed wall was built to accommodate it. It is the most ambitious work in a strong representation of Australian artists that include Del Kathryn Barton, Fiona Hall, eX de Medici, Callum Morton, Brett Whiteley, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman and John Percival, to name just a few.

Among the contemporary art, a number of large scale works vie to be the most monumental. Anselm Kiefer’s colossal Sternenfall/Shevirath Ha Kelim (Falling Stars/Destruction of the Vessels) is undoubtedly a top contender. The enormous bookcase of leaden manuscripts made from sheets of metal and shards of shattered glass, is devastating in its disintegration. Kiefer insisted that the work have its own pavilion (!) so it is housed away from the main building, and accessed via a tunnel. The space is refreshingly silent and bathed in natural light, in contrast to the rest of the exhibition. This change is psychologically powerful and gives the work extra clout.

Perhaps the most obnoxious piece on show is Cloaca Professional, Wim Delvoye’s defecation contraption. It is a laboratory-like apparatus that replicates the digestive system, complete with freshly deposited steamy turds (at 2pm every day) that really do stink. Data from the ‘O’ has revealed that visitors spend more time with this work than any other piece. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the most hated works. “That’s not art,” my partner muttered, but he was impressed with the chemistry behind it.

Much of the exhibition is dark and provocative: you won’t find Monet’s pretty water lilies here, and some works are challenging viewing. I didn’t really want to see an image of a man being sodomised by a dog or videos showing body mutilation. If you are religious, you may be insulted by the atheistic premise of the collection. Bible Bomb # 1854, by Gregory Green, literally a bomb in a bible, is bound to push some people’s buttons.

There is a lot of death-themed art but mostly this exhibition seems to question what it means to be human. It explores the foibles and frailties of the human condition and the inevitability of one’s own mortality. Yes, at times it is confronting and the visceral imagery can begin to feel oppressive. There is a glut of genitalia and graphic depictions of blood and guts. But there are many subtle and poetic works too such as Claire Morgan’s Tracing Time which captures a fleeting moment. The delicate installation of fine nylon threads, meticulously studded with thousands of dandelion seeds through which a small wren plummets, appears remarkably fragile as though it could vanish with just a gentle puff of air. It is a reminder that our lives do indeed hang by a thread. Ours is a tenuous existence.


Tracing Time (detail), Claire Morgan. Photo: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Image Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art.

Having wandered the gallery for a few hours, fatigue was beginning to set in so we sat down and entered the surreal world of Placebo, by Saskia Olde Wolbers, a mesmerizing slow-mo video of white liquid floating through the air. It became clear this was a story about a murder suicide and the strange visuals enticed us to watch it to the end as though hypnotised.

Soon it was time to leave so we could catch the 5:30 ferry back to Sullivan’s Cove. It was nearly dark and the lights on Mt Wellington shimmered a friendly greeting as we headed back down the river, trying to absorb all we had seen. Was all the hype true? Most definitely yes. MONA is an extraordinarily generous gesture by a man with an extraordinarily interesting collection. The whole premise of the museum is bold, adventurous and confounding. It challenged me to think about the meaning of art, the role of museums and the motivations of humanity. To be honest, I didn’t know what to make of some of the works but I guess that is the point. It is meant to be baffling. But the exhibition is not really shocking: just provocative. We watch the news for shock.

Controversy is always an effective marketing strategy and MONA’s promotion of the sex and death theme has obviously worked well – MONA has had over 165,000 visitors since it opened in January. Admittance was free but from October entry fees will be introduced. The challenge for MONA is to keep us coming back. But if my husband and I are typical of the visitors at MONA, then the museum’s future is assured – we have to go back and find all those things we missed.

Monanism runs until 19 July 2011 but will continue in an evolving form at MONA Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. http://mona.net.au/

Coffin, probably of a woman, 1550 BCE to 1069 BCE. Photo: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Image Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art.

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10 thoughts on “MONA: a confounding catacomb of coffins, coins and cu… ahem, curiosities

  1. Thankyou for featuring MONA and thanks for revealing the questions: thinking about the meaning of art, the role of museums,.. from time to time and in certain conditions these are the vitamins we need within and around art, and its great to have a private collector for who sky is the limit!

  2. I agree with your observations and sadly you did miss a whole chunk and for me some of the most interesting works. Did you see the wall of videos of 30 or so people singing Madonna songs in the big white cube?
    I thought the dark space at the base to be very interesting and loved the way we viewed the small delicate old pieces through little viewing holes in the walls.
    Apparently Nonda was pulling his hair out when David requested the tennis court be put in. But it somehow works and apparently is meant for playing tennis on. David lives in the red rusty walled place to the left of the ferry jetty.
    Did you go into the room at the base of the steps where that french artist (name escapes me but who is also showing at this year’s Biennale in Venice) is being continuously viewed on webcam? It was interesting to see all the DVD covers of the recordings of the days stored in what looked like a solid glass monument to the left as you walk in. When he is sleeping we see recordings from the day before. Apparently he and David struck a bet on who would be the winner depending on who died first.
    Pleased you enjoyed it. Prue

    1. Hi Prue. I remember how much you loved MONA. Yes the Madonna one was a bit of a laugh – quite a change of atmosphere compared to some of the other works. The tennis court is totally random. BYO rackets next time for some performance art.
      Thanks for the tip about the webcam piece. We will look out for it when we go back.

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