A couple of years ago I was told about this wild museum in Tasmania called MONA, The Museum of Old and New Art, by English record producer Nick Launay (he just did the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s new CD). It’s the vision of David Walsh, who made his money coding odds-based programs—for betting on (and usually winning) horse races, amongst other pursuits. He’s banned from quite a few casinos.
He decided to collect art of many sorts with his newfound wealth, and a few years ago opened this museum just a few miles upriver from Hobart. From the land, the building seems a modest, two-story structure with a slightly incongruous tennis court in front… and a silver reflective entry portal.
We arrived by ferry, though, and the view from the water allows one to see that the building is actually a massive structure dug out into the hillside.
The inside has few windows and has been described as being like the lair of a super villain in a Bond movie or the ultimate Batcave. That does give some idea—it’s a pretty cool bunker that is part quarry, part temple.
There are no wall labels. None. One is provided with an iPod touch on entry that, via a kind of Mona GPS, can tell where you are. You then tap on a thumbnail of a piece if you want to know more about the art in front of you. “Know more” is divided into various subcategories. Ideas is a sentence or two about the work beyond who made it. Artwank, is, as you might expect, some scholarly essay on the piece or the artist—the symbol for this category is a cock and balls. The Gonzo button usually led to a more personal reaction to the piece from Walsh or Elizabeth Mead, who helped in collecting a lot of the stuff. It might be a poem, an amusing anecdote or something that seems almost completely off topic—like trouble with a boyfriend. Lastly there is Media, which often consists of a casual audio interview with the artist, but sometimes could be something else entirely. One media file connected to an assisted suicide machine consisted of Walsh talking about how a similar machine was used by his brother, who had terminal cancer. It was blunt, straightforward and very moving.
As you can see, there are also love and hate buttons. I pressed “love” quite a few times. I NEVER pressed hate once. These tallies of like and dislike elicit more information—how many other people liked too, for example. There is an amusing rumor that if a work becomes too popular Walsh will remove it. If you offer up your email address, the thing will track your visit via GPS and then send you a link to a website showing you what you saw. Here’s mine:
You can also find out from this site what you missed—I think I saw most of it.
The collection itself is pretty eclectic, something I found admirable and inspiring. In keeping with the name of the museum there were Egyptian mummies next to contemporary art, work by indigenous artists next to a Brancusi. It wasn’t random, there was a sensibility behind the mixing and matching, and it seemed to appeal to all sorts of visitors. This was a museum that folks who are suspicious of contemporary art could and do love.
That said, much of the contemporary work did benefit from the little iPod explanations—there was often some narrative or story that illuminated the work beyond just its visual appeal. The Santiago Sierra piece listed above, for example, showed the skin color of the folks who work at a museum in Caracas. These were then arranged dark to light, a kind of gray scale of skin. The light to darker skin tones corresponded, not surprisingly, with class, position and income. This you wouldn’t have known unless you read a bit of the ancillary material. That said, these “conceptual” works mostly weren’t insular works that only referred to the art world, as some works of this type do.
The current show, which is in addition to the regular collection, is called “Theater of the World” and occupies a whole floor. It was organized by an outside curator, and he more or less colored within the lines—mixing things in Wunderkammer rooms, in which work from a variety of sources were grouped together, sometimes by material or theme. Here is one such work—a chest of drawers with bones on the outside, an indigenous ritual piece from Papua New Guinea also made of bone, a Marina Abramovic video (installed like a somewhat disturbing digital family album on the chest of drawers), and a painting at least 100 years old. An eclectic mix, but with a guiding principal.
Some actual old cabinets were filled like real Wunderkammer, as well. They’d typically include ritual objects, geological specimens, bones, contemporary Chinese porcelain pieces, and maybe an Egyptian funerary urn.
A group of us spent about 3 hours there, and we could have taken longer, but we had a sound check to get to.
Did it work? Does this popular museum serve as an example that others might follow, or is it one man’s eccentric indulgence?It’s not completely unprecedented. I remember a show at the Pompidou called “Magicians of the Earth” that mixed and juxtaposed work by indigenous artists with contemporary works that seemed similar in their evocations of ritual and spirituality. In that show you had Richard Serra steel slabs alongside non-representational tribal work. Or maybe a feathered mask from the Amazon would be juxtaposed with a Rebecca Horn piece. In that show all the pieces were, despite their disparate origins, contemporary—they were all made recently. It was a show that claimed to be “against exclusion”. The show at Pompidou was the work of Jean-Hubert Martin, who, not surprisingly, did this one at MONA as well.
It was controversial, as I remember. Some felt the work by indigenous artists was being romanticized or taken so far outside of its original context as to risk obliterating the piece’s true meaning.
One could say the same for most of the art in museums—art that is more than 200 years old anyway. More recent art was made to be displayed museum-style, but a Renaissance painting ripped from an Italian church altarpiece is just as out of context as the indigenous art at MONA, as are Grecian urns and the Roman statues (without their once garish colors) in so many big-city museums. While the notion that many of these pieces lose some meaning out of their original context might hold true, it’s also true that works shorn of context are what museums (except contemporary ones) are all about. I, myself, love the juxtapositions—as one could easily claim that a lot of contemporary art is essentially our own ritual objects, when they’re not self-referential or simply status baubles for the uber rich. (Full disclosure—I did music for some films that were done for the “Magicians of the Earth” show.)
Did the lack of wall labels hurt? I don’t think so. Although some works only made sense when you knew more about them, the lack of labels is an attempt to urge us to engage with the piece, if only for a moment, without the words leading the way. That said I did spend a fair amount of time checking the iPod—listening to the artists talking about their own work, and to Walsh and others giving their very personal, non-academic commentary. These audio commentaries were often a little irreverent. One of our group said they heard one in which a phone rang in the background, then the artist being interviewed was told by some unnamed person, “You’ve got a call”, and the interview abruptly ended. In a way, this whole museum is an installation—a massive piece, an experience unto itself. Almost anything installed here becomes part of the MONA experience. It’s certainly not as faux-neutral as a place like MOMA or the Tate. Art in those places becomes part of those experiences as well—it just happens to be the white-room-experience we accept as given. The lighting here is moody and the architecture is present—not at all white-cube-invisible (as if white cubes are invisible).It was MONA that sponsored our visit to Hobart—they have been sponsoring a music and performance festival that runs for about a week there every January. It’s curated by Brian Ritchie, from the Milwaukee band Violent Femmes. He’s doing a great job. A couple of days before us were Dirty Projectors, as well as a woman who played drums while being submerged in the river (she wore scuba gear and kept playing).
Word has gotten out, and lots of folks flock from Melbourne (the nearest really big city) to catch stuff that is outside of the regular touring circuit. So many people came to our show that they opened the sidewalls of the venue (it was in a giant shed on a wharf) so that people outside the hall could see and hear. None of them fell off into the water as far as I could tell, though drinks were consumed. There was a big New Yorker article on Walsh and MONA a few weeks ago, so the museum as an attraction is only going to get bigger. Titling the New Yorker piece “Tasmanian Devil” rather than say, “The Future of The Museum” might lead one to not take the whole thing seriously, but the article isn’t as sensational as it sounds. Overall it gives the impression that MONA is something really special, deeply moving, personal, and worth travelling to see—though Tasmania is a long, long way.