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Jan 25, 2011

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, says Paulina Olszanka.

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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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