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Hobart’s new gallery/freak show: quintessentially Aussie, if a little absurd

Over the Bass Strait, and up the Derwent River, lies Australia’s newest experiment in art curatorship. MONA, the new $150 million museum carved out of a sandstone cliff, offers a unique museum experience. Its owner, the multi-millionaire David Walsh, has put hundreds of items from his private collection on display, creating what he calls a “subversive adult Disneyland”. It is an experiment in seeing how far a voice, unfettered by tax-payers and censors, and with a healthy injection of cash, can actually be explored — and Walsh wants us to explore the most primitive aspects of our nature.

Despite the pedestal, Walsh describes MONA as the anti-museum; a space devoid of didacticism and taxonomy. Instead, as a self-described Darwinian with a strong belief in the “randomness” of life, he has left the haphazard arrangement of his vast collection of antiquities and contemporary art almost entirely to the viewer’s interpretation.

But the subterranean museum and its opening exhibition, under the ironic name Monanism, have strong themes running throughout. Descending down a three-storey shaft and dwarfed by sandstone, we are forced to deal with uncomfortable truths about ourselves — we seek sex, we defecate and we all die — and are asked to explore the relationship between culture and nature.

Sides of beef and bags of coal — these are the things that we are,” Walsh has said, with reference to one of the works featuring both.

There is more. There are graphic representations of castration, a chocolate cast of the real remains of a suicide bomber and a video of a surgical procedure on loop. C-nts and Other Conversations is a set of 150 plaster casts of female genitalia, and not far away is a projected photo of a dog copulating with a man. There is Locus Focus, which vividly projects what is happening when you go to a MONA toilet, and an installation simulating the human digestive system promptly defecates at the same time every day.

Randomness, and humankind’s attempt to control its every caprice, also permeates the exhibition. There is an installation featuring a Phillip Nitschke Suicide Machine that requires you to sit in a lounge room setting and simulate your own suicide. Walsh tried it out the day before the opening, and said it was hard to bring yourself to do it.

But control over unpredictability has been a particular concern for Walsh. The man made the millions behind the museum by dedicating his life to understanding and harnessing the complex systems that underpin games of hazard. Nowadays, he makes most of his money by feeding mathematical algorithms into computers.

The unrelenting discomfort that is felt during the viewing has, perhaps deliberately, the effect of undermining the whole ethos of Monanism. Many of the artworks, including Jenny Saville’s painting of a naked transvestite, and Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung, have had controversial receptions (the latter was banned from the NGV). At MONA, the intense experience of viewing all these pieces together (indeed, there’s the distinct feeling that Walsh has simply created one giant installation), has the effect of making the viewer disengage altogether. Refused a more nuanced experience, we are left contemplating: is life really solely dominated by sex and death? What of beauty, hope, spirituality — all those inherently “cultural” aspects of our existence?

The museum space itself asks similar questions. The director of the museum, Mark Fraser, says that Walsh World, as he terms it, is all about food, beer, wine and art. MONA’s estate boasts a micro-brewery, a winery, a restaurant, as well as two bars in the museum itself. Walsh has ventured (perhaps facetiously) that he’s more interested in marketing the winery and brewery than the museum itself.

Deep in, what Fraser terms, “the harsh vertical cut” of sandstone and surrounded by pictures of dogs copulating with men and rotting meat, there is something absurd in the tinkling champagne glasses. You have to ask, if life is really dominated by sex and death, why are we bothering with all the culture crap?

There are clues, though, that the joke is mostly on us. At the opening party, streams of VIPs hysterical after shots of absinthe waited patiently for a single strip of prosciutto, as freshly-slaughtered (and yet to be skinned) game lay slumped over the table; not far away, a giant tuna, its mouth agape, watched as revelers tottered off with slivers of sashimi. No doubt Walsh, a vegetarian, was enjoying this particular experiment in cognitive dissonance. Maybe this is what Fraser means when he says that at MONA “randomness just creeps in”.

But the real exploration of that tension between nature and culture, however, begins and ends with the small peninsula in Derwent. The very sandstone that architect Nona Katsalidis cut into was used to build Tasmania’s penal colonies — the remnants of which can still be seen dotted throughout Hobart. Tasmania’s gothic history, much like MONA itself, is permeated by narratives of death, indigenous extermination and an ongoing battle between civilisation and Tasmania’s wilderness.

MONA cunningly confronts us with this, beginning with the ferry ride up the Derwent. Not far from the museum site, in a narrow section of the river lies the giant steam-punk looking Zinc Works, its rusted pipes tangled together in a monolithic mess. On the opposite bank, timidly bunched and unassuming, is a patch of highly endangered eucalypts. Both of these have been witness to an ongoing battle between culture and nature, that has formed much of Tasmania’s (and Australia’s) political identity.

And it is in this deep Antipodean wilderness, where even experienced hikers routinely go missing, visitors are made to feel just that little bit less sure of their place on earth. It is a quintessentially Australian experience, to feel isolated and unnerved by the environment, and to be constantly negotiating the boundaries between culture and nature. MONA, perched on her 250 million-year-old cliff, has us consider this before we’ve even entered into the depths below.

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  • 1
    Jane Doe
    Posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    re. “… the ironic name Monaism …”

    It’s actually “MONANISM” - much funnier.

  • 2
    Posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Good review Paulina.

    I really like your point about the unpredictability connection running between Walsh’s professional life as a gambler and private (now public life) as an art collector.

    Darwinism is a rich vein of thinking to be drawing on and I hope that Walsh/MONA are prepared to host some talks or written conversations around the ideas and not stay limited to those little asides on the O.

    You might be interested in Nassim Taleb, who writes about randomness (I’ve not read his work, just heard about him today). http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/

    Here’s my response to MONAnism: http://bit.ly/icZoIK

  • 3
    Jim Hart
    Posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    And in the final para, shouldn’t that be “just that little bit UNsure of their place…”? But leaving aside my pickiness it’s a neat report. Can’t wait to see it myself.

  • 4
    Paul
    Posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Experience is in the psych of the viewer, and I clearly had a different experience than the writer. Brian Richie and David Walsh walking around the grounds talking to people, being offered sunscreen, water, freeze dried fruit and watermelon while queuing for the museum. A random lottery so anyone could attend the opening. Mona Foma 2 weeks of art and music with only 3 events costing money, Judy Collins, Nick Cave and Grindermen and Philip Glass.
    Then the space itself, only someone who knows nothing of construction would describe it as carved out of a cliff face, it is a brilliant space amazing better than anything done in recent Oz history, on par the the London Eye, Bridgewater Hall and Tate Modern.
    Even if it were to promote his products they do not overcharge and all aspects of the gallery are free.
    If that isn’t all (I am a builder) it is so wonderful to hear the excitement of ordinary Hobartians at the content. Where Sydney (and Oz) went insane with Hansen and the Royal Childrens Hospital refused the funds from an auction because of one beautiful photo I have heard no complaints about any of the exhibits in the museum, only excitement, delight and praise.
    This isn’t a place for the effete but an amazing collection that defies categorization that appeals to anyone who is open to beauty, thought and experiences.

  • 5
    kdkd
    Posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I happened to be in Hobart for the opening weekend, and got to have a look around on Sunday. Personally I found it a pretty astounding experience. As Wire’s singer said during the closing performance of the evening’s entertainment, Mona is the Mueseum of Old and New Art - it does what it says on the tin!

  • 6
    Joanna
    Posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    I missed out on seeing any hysterical VIPs (and the absinthe) but was mightily impressed with the spoonfuls of fresh Russian caviare dished up with shots of vodka by ever willing waitresses. And from my memory there was no fuss about the expertly sliced prosciutto, but the queue for the sashimi meant we had plenty of time to inspect the very large tuna corpse (on ice). In a way the food (a mountain of freshly imported French cheeses, piles of amazing French pastries, mounds of oysters on ice -constantly replenished by willing staff) and the never ending supplies of champagne, worked well with the black walls, theatrical lighting and unpredictable art. I kept on hoping someone was surreptitiously filming the crowd, as the total effect was a combination of Fellini and Greenaway. Nothing exceeds like excess.
    The whole night was free, and yet a surprising number of people were complaining because the grilled lobster was only as good as some they had recently eaten in Melbourne. There were also a few amusing Belinda Neale moments at the ferry station when some very well known visitors were asked to produce photographic proof of their identity. Very droll.
    Just as the individual flavours of some of those amazing cheeses were lost in the rich variety of the cheese mountain, so some of the more thoughtful works of art don’t survive stark black walls and theatrical lighting. I loved seeing Arthur Boyd’s Melbourne’s Burning again, but it looked so washed out and shrunken in this space. On the other hand, Nolan’s Snake has never looked so good. It hangs well opposite raw meat.

    What Hobart/Australia/the World has been given here is a fascinating insight into David Walsh’s mind. I’m looking forward to further exposures.

  • 7
    derek kreckler
    Posted Friday, 28 January 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I was at MONA for the opening, my first comment is this: the place is a gift to the nation! And this idea should be broadcast widely, whilst the above article redeems itself at the end to begin with it appears to fall in with the same old smart and hoary Australian undercut - knock it down then say it’s okay.

    MONA offers an amazing collection of art and art of a very high standard in virtually every medium. One example; Sydney Nolan’s “Serpent” is on a scale that can be best described as jaw dropping but I digress there is too much to describe. Go and see it for your self. David Marr you have lost some serious points!

  • 8
    puskapus
    Posted Friday, 28 January 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Derek, Paul and KDKD: I thought MONA was incredible. The fact that I felt uncomfortable and the fact that I was forced to ask the above questions is surely a sign that the museum is a success.

    Dan: I’ll look into all those recommendations. Thank you.

    -Paulina

  • 9
    Barbara Boyle
    Posted Wednesday, 2 February 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    So much to revel in and to reflect upon. Happily planning many repeat visits.
    But.for me,the greatest impact is.. the generosity that prompts such sharing. So unusual in this day and age.
    Quite [pleased to be able to sample the merchandise in return.

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