While visiting family and several friends in Tasmania recently, we made a point of going to the relatively new art museum there, MONA, Museum of Modern and New Art, at Glenorchy just north of Hobart. I’d heard a lot about it, many people love it, and many say they don’t care for it. I think some of those opinions are tinged by knowledge that the wealthy art patron David Walsh, who established and finances it, made his rather large pile through various highly successful gambling activities. Tasmania is so very conservative about money. ‘Old Money’ people don’t talk about their wealth at all, and tend to look down on ‘New Money” people, who do talk about it quite openly. My mother was from Sydney, NSW, where they constantly and freely talk about the cost of everything, especially property and business developments. She married into a Launceston family, who certainly knew their place on the financial ladder there – and when she talked of someone in the community, typically there was often a little qualifying comment, something like “Of course, he could buy and sell half of Launceston…” or ,”They made a lot of money in …” I have no idea whether she was ever right, close to right, or just tossing in such comments from habit and unfounded assumptions! But, since one of her own aunts made a packet in Sydney industrial real estate in the ’30’s and ’40’s, and despite being a keen gambler at the dog track, she managed and kept her fortune together well all her life, I think Mum would have been thrilled at David Walsh’s moves. She might not have cared for some of the sexually explicit and other provocative exhibits, but it was Walsh’s intention all along to shock and challenge through art – he must be a curator’s dream patron, since nothing seems to be taboo, from what I saw, and indeed there is a focus on things that other institutions might have difficulty in justifying exhibition of them. People are visiting in droves, and certainly talking about it. Tourists and locals alike are also attending and talking about all the ancilliary events at MONA, too, including orchestral concerts and wine and food events. Tasmanian residents have free entry. I liked that – as although born and bred Tasmanian, I’m not living there just now and so didn’t didn’t qualify, of course.
So it’s been controversial to say the least – and not just in Tasmania. It has had no trouble attracting publicity and reviews, and there is a lot about it online. Here are a couple of comments I found in the Wiki, representing quite different points of view: First – Michael Connor of the conservative literary and cultural magazine Quadrant said that “MONA is the art of the exhausted, of a decaying civilisation. Display lights and taste and stunning effects illuminate moral bankruptcy. What is highlighted melds perfectly with contemporary high fashion, design, architecture, cinema. It is expensive and tense decay.” Then – Richard Dorment, art critic for the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph, said that Walsh “doesn’t collect famous names; his indifference to fashion is one of the strengths of the coollection. He likes art that is fun and grabs your attention, that packs a sting in the tail or a punch in the solar plexus.” And, they could both be right.
In another article published in the UK’s Telegraph this very weekend, a long article profiles the man David Walsh, his eccentric and perhaps elusive character, his life and the development of the museum from concept to reality, and what the world is making of it… there are mixed opinions, and this is a long but comprehensive article, but very worthwhile reading, particularly if you’re planning to go there. Quite fascinating. When we visited, I’d heard far less than I now think I know, and I thought it was fabulous, Mike not so much so -and that may be putting it kindly. I’m still fascinated.
It’s a strange rather forbidding building exterior that reminded me a little of those huge monasteries perched on precipitous mountain sides in Tibet. The first pic is the one used in the recent ‘Telegraph’ article really illustrates what I mean – and perhaps it was taken on a cold dreary day just like the day we visited –
And this next photo, in a kinder light, is courtesy Australian architect Lindsay Johnston:
This building complex, however, is not perched on a mountainside but sits on a slightly elevated site above the River Derwent, lodged in a hollowed-out sandstone hill (we wondered how they got planning permission for that in a green state like Tasmania? )
You go in at the top and descend to the bottom where you pick up your ‘O’ – an adapted iTouch device, and then self paced you wander through exhibits of old and new art. Your path through the several floors of galleries regularly brings you face to face with massive limestone walls rising from the bottom to the top floor. In the pic above are people watching a water display that shoots out droplets to form words of the day’s headlines and popular search engine words. it was rather mesmerizing. The walls are awesome in their rockbolted state for stability, although the geologist in our party was not sure they had been correctly bolted, according to his underground experience. Water was entering and running down the walls in places, and it definitely felt like being in a mine.
Your ‘O’ senses where you are in the museum and what works are around you – and on it each of the near works is pictured, and when you touch the pic it takes you to basic information, perhaps some review or critique ( called ‘wanks’) although not every work has a wank app – and you can vote on whether you love it or loathe it – no in between opinions – you like it or you don’t … and I loved that decisive approach, although found it hard once or twice and then just refrained from giving my opinion. It tells you then how other museum visitors have rated that work. That was fun, to me, to know how my voting compared. Of course, it really doesn’t matter, does it, as love it or loathe it is a personal choice only, and in the end, who cares? There is often humour, and often ugliness, there is lots of old and new beauty run through with themes of sex and death predominating. Many exhibits are definitely confronting – you can read about them elsewhere, written about by people far more erudite in art matters than myself… I just happily made my way among them, loving or hating as I went. After about 3 hours I was mentally exhausted and although I would like to see more, we didn’t have time to go back on this visit. It will keep, as long as water levels don’t rise more than a metre or two.
I was thrilled to be able to see Sidney Nolan’s “Snake” in its entirety:
You just can’t get any idea of its overwhelming power from the pages of a book or tv doco. It’s never been previously hung it its entirety in Australia, and I learned just now that Walsh’s apartment windows afford him a commanding view of the total installation. Well its the least he could have in return for the massive debts and running expenses for the museum! I’ll go back sometime, and look forward to that.