I visited MONA on Australia Day to escape endless appeals to my flagging patriotism.
It’s always been hard for me to generate much enthusiasm for Australia Day. Gay men and Tasmanians are no more than embellishments on the National Identity; a step up from the fools and foils we were once cast to play, but only a small one.
Then, as stories again emerged of teenagers forcing passers-by of Asian appearance to kiss the flag and politicians dismissing Aboriginal grievances out of hand, I realised it was time for me and my national identity to go our separate ways for the rest of the day.
Little did I know that upon crossing MONA’s threshold tennis court, already scuffed beyond its conventional use by a thousand queuing feet, I was entering the most Australian museum there is.
The art doesn’t make it Australian. Only a minority of pieces are by Australians and most of them are worthy enough to be displayed anywhere. The other pieces reflect no particularly Australian theme.
The Australianess of MONA is in its attitude to itself. The iPods that provide information about the exhibits include “art wank” and “gonzo” interpretations of most pieces. As the titles and a lot of the text of these e-pages suggest, David Walsh and his curators are having a go at themselves for knowing about, appreciating and displaying art.
This ubiquitous Australian trait of self-deprecation is often dollied up as “not taking ourselves too seriously”. But in truth it is about self-protection, in particular the very last, humiliating type of self-protection available to the powerless. The British and Irish poor were adept at played dumb to avoid the attention of the authorities. Transported convicts understood survival depended on blending into prison ranks under a cloak of mediocrity and studied indifference. Put-upon migrants learn early how to deride themselves as a kind of deference to their deriders. MONA is the most elaborate expression of the Australian maxim “run yourself down before someone else does”.
It’s not hard to see why a boy from hard-bitten Glenorchy would resort to this culturally-inherited defence mechanism when presenting contemporary art to his home audience.
What’s a bit harder to understand is MONA’s self-doubt. I have never been to a museum which felt such a need to justify itself. Again and again my iPod told me that Walsh and his curators doubted the merit of painting X, or the suitability of installation Y, but went ahead with them anyway. The same lack of certainty and purpose is reflected in Walsh’s ambivalent comments on the role and value of his and all museums. To me the selection of pieces and the way they are exhibited makes perfect sense and is entirely self-justifying, yet Walsh is always there on the iPod asking himself “why” and debating himself towards an answer.
Again, this can be dressed up. Post-modern post-grads might call it the deconstruction of curatorial “objectivity” and authority. But there’s an emotional drive in Walsh’s self-doubt that defies such rationalisation and sent me down the track of another explanation completely. If you abide by the rule that generations are divided by key events, Walsh is an early Xer. Like me he was born into that generation that grew up in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, and the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King – the generation for which the very existence of a future was uncertain, making purpose elusive, conviction suspicious, plans hard to follow through, and truth, at best, conditional (unless it’s the negative truth provided by say, Walsh’s self-styled “rabid atheism”). To see Gen X (in)action you need look no further than Tasmanian politics. Each of the three men who, until Sunday, headed our main political parties can be notoriously mired in self-doubt, and the frustration, love of the short-term, and over-developed sense of irony, that go with it. If too many Xers fell for the false charm of post-modernism, it was only because there is no better way to eliminate doubt than to embrace it completely.
My generation has its redeeming qualities. At our best we pan for those flecks of insight boomers concealed in their mountains of ideological sludge, and then forge something from what we find that society might value. At some stage each of us (including the three men I’ve alluded to) is like a little Obama, patiently putting up with our own hectoring, condescending and undermining Jeremiah Wright so that we may bridge the gap between the margin and the centre, the past and the future.
It’s a worthy task, but I fear it is not one history will care for. Or at least that’s what I feared until I went to MONA. As I gazed over a magnificent cavern filled with strange sounds, glistening colours and impossible stair-cases, I realised the museum defies all the self-deprecation and self-doubt that are its chief exhibits. Indeed, that an Australian Xer can do all this despite the dampening faults of his time and place, shows that it is precisely from such faults that great accomplishments come.
My tips for MONA
For the visitor
- the controversial exhibits are not the most interesting. Head for what you haven’t already read about
- in particular, don’t get too close to Cloaca Professional (The Poo Machine). The smell will linger in your nostrils for days
- the Kryptos “temple” of binary code and cuneiform tablets is one of the most intelligent and beautiful exhibits. So don’t scream when you reach the centre and look up. It frightens away the people waiting to get in
- also, don’t stand right in front of an exhibit while you search for it on your iPod for minutes on end. It’s very annoying for people who want to look
- mobiles don’t work very well on the bottom level. Arrange a time and place to catch up with your friends or family members or you’ll all be wandering around for hours looking for each other
- I was disappointed the Roman mosaics and the stylised, pre-Columbian, Guatemalan gold animals that featured in the old Moorilla Museum weren’t on display. They should be re-instated.
- perhaps it’s just me, but so much sex, death, darkness and destruction left me wanting a bit of light, love and life. How about a chill-out wing featuring said Guatemalan animals?
- I seem to recall the old museum had lots more stone phalluses than are on display in the new one. The principle of equal opportunity demands a display for them that rivals the wall of vaginas
- please ban all MONA’s mainland reviewers, especially those from Fairfax, who write with a barely concealed disdain for Hobart, and then remove the ban because you were just joking ...
Daviid Marr, SMH, A rich man’s art attack leaves the curious a little baffled
How Australia - let alone Hobart - will cope with MONA is an open question. Here at last on public display is Chris Ofili’s elegant The Holy Virgin Mary with elephant dung, a painting that could not be hung in the National Gallery of Australia in the Howard years. The crowd breezes by, untroubled. Ditto along the long wall of little sculptures entitled C—ts and other Conversations.
But steps had been taken to protect the A-List, which did not include, despite local press speculation, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Curators had cleared away the daily output of Cloaca Profession, the million dollar line of glass artificial stomachs by Belgian Wim Delvoye which, fed from the Moorilla kitchens above, excrete every day at 3pm.
Being baffled in MONA is apparently part of the plan. It works. There are no maps, no labels, no chronology. But through a tunnel and round a gloomy bend there, at last, were the stairs. We climbed and found ourselves in daylight. Mount Wellington never looked better.
Natasha Cica on Inside Story, Succeeding like excess
TASMANIA has long been stereotyped as the land that time forgot.
Provincial and punitive (cue: criminalising gays, bashing greenies, the prose of Richard Flanagan) and poor to boot (cue: psychological and practical dependence on the twinned purses of Centrelink and Canberra). Naturally and often sublimely beautiful, of course – all that stunning World Heritage wilderness, all those photogenic mountains and forests and lakes – and lately delivering a picnic basketful of brie, bubbles and blueberries to visiting gourmands. But ultimately still culturally backward (cue: sound of banjos twanging, champion axes swinging, with blokey white-singlet costume). That prejudice has long tentacles – on a recent working visit to Paris, I was smirkingly introduced as “a Tasmanian intellectual.” I laughed. So did everyone else.
Did the carapace of that caricature start cracking last weekend?
It started with a bang on Friday night – or four o’clock in the afternoon, to be exact – with the invitation-only party to open the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, followed by a weekend of musical playtime welcoming the wider public. Designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis, MONA perches on the bank of the Derwent River in Hobart’s traditionally unfashionable and down-at-heel northern suburbs, near the original home of its (lately) mega-wealthy owner and bankroller, Tasmanian gambler David Walsh.
Everyone arrived unfashionably on time. Most zoomed in on a fast ferry from Hobart’s waterfront, taking in the passing views of a zinc works, a catamaran factory and random McMansions on the banks of the river’s opposite shore. There were 1500 VIP party people in total. The guest list was strongly Tasmanian, complemented by a heavy-hitting offshore arts industry and media contingent, plus an eclectic selection of old and new “friends of David.” Despite hysterical build-up rumours, these did not visibly include David Bowie or Mick Jagger, which was somehow reassuring. Walsh himself reputedly made a mid-party announcement over MONA’s public address system. No one heard it over the hubbub. Once we reached MONA’s dark and cavernous interior, the sensation was overwhelming. But first we passed a small mountain of Bruny Island oysters on ice, heaped on a tennis court plonked on a rooftop evoking Melbourne’s Federation Square (except with real water views), then entered a mirrored portal and sank three storeys via a tubular glass lift with wraparound staircase.
Party central was a vast space running off the Void bar, which welcomes descending visitors with Walsh’s Moorilla wine, Moo Brew boutique beer and rosemary and elderflower martinis. The bar is flanked by the spectacular raw sandstone wall of the original cutting, which I saw one talented twenty-something pianist licking at around five o’clock. Guests jostled near tables heaving with food; behind was a cinerarium by New Zealand artist Julia De Ville showcasing Walsh’s late father’s ashes in something resembling a noir Fabergé Easter egg. Chunks of gamey terrine, displayed with a still life of freshly killed, unskun rabbit and deer (Walsh is a dedicated vegetarian); bamboo boatloads of sushi from Masaaki of Geeveston (that’s forestry industry heartland); piles of the greenest salad I’ve ever tasted – an impossible medley of broad beans, zucchini flowers, lime, apple tarragon, basil oil and pistachio macaroon; real caviar accompanying great vodka, served with a flourish rarely seen outside Moscow; a ziggurat of perfect Tasmanian stone fruit; and another, sweeter pile of what looked like dismembered wedding croquenbush. All this led inexorably to another bar, framed by the seductive, watery swish of Julius Popp’s Bit.Fall. Wow, it googled in my face in dripping diamonds, then wild, then wtf?!… or was I hallucinating?
Probably not, as the Void hadn’t yet sprung into full gleaming green absinthe action. Yet possibly so, because I’d just taken my first full gulp of the just-hung offerings in MONANISMS, the opening exhibition comprising some 460 of Walsh’s favourite works from his larger collection.
MONA’s worth double the airfare, from anywhere, just to see Sidney Nolan’s massive Australian modernist masterwork Snake unleashed as intended, even if your taste doesn’t extend to Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s stinking Cloaca Professional, specially commissioned for MONA. A collapsed Catholic, Walsh prides himself on his iconoclasm. “David hopes to shock and offend,” pronounces a fact sheet, and confronting reactions to sex and death are a famous focus for this maverick collector. Ponder the opening definition of MONANISMS: monanism [moh-nuh-niz-uhm] – noun. obsessive activity characterised by an inability to discriminate between normative public behaviour and displays of immorality and alternating self-loathing and egoism. a behavioural disorder which, when observed by a representative member of a population (esp. Australian) elicits the epithet “wanker.” Origin: 2010; by prothesis from onanism. There are no wall labels, no “artwank” (MONA’s term, again) experts telling you what to think about any of it… but you can press O on a real iPod, featuring MONA’s smart-spinning “+ X” logo and pink/black branding, for randomly generated infoblurbs, many written by Walsh, then email them to yourself – obsessively, and indiscriminately, if you wish; museum entry is free, including the toys. And the catalogue can be purchased online; $130 with postage. Its heavy, black-spun pages open with a gratifying crackle. After reading it you may wish to genuflect.
It’s probably anti-MONAtical to classify the talent, but the premiere exhibition features duly controversial Young British Artists like Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville, along with Europeans ...
A gamble on sex and death, Christopher Allen, The Australian, review, January 28
DAVID Walsh, as probably everyone knows by now, is a kind of mathematical prodigy who has made a very large amount of money from gambling, owing to his ability, it seems, to keep track of cards and numbers that have come up and to work out the odds on the next one to appear.
He’s spent a lot of that money on building himself an eccentric monument in the form of a vast underground bunker-museum filled with an unusual mixture of antiquities and contemporary work of uneven quality.
The museum was obviously hugely expensive to construct, many of the pieces will have cost far too much and the staffing bill must be enormous. But how rich is Walsh? In an interview published just before the opening he said he had spent all his money on the project and was deeply in debt, but not overly concerned since the computer applications he now employs were winning money for him around the clock.
The state of his bank account is not the only obscure thing about this man who has apparently switched from reclusiveness to a passion for self-advertisement. The tone of comments made about the museum in the lead-up to the opening has been surprisingly inconsistent.
On the one hand, Walsh will talk lightly of it all being a bit of fun, and he met the media at the launch wearing a T-shirt saying “F . . k the art, let’s rock ‘n’ roll”. All very well, but meanwhile his associates were hinting that this was destined to be one of the world’s great contemporary art museums and smugly reporting that people overseas who haven’t heard of our big public galleries are agog about MONA (Museum of Old and New Art).
Anything is possible in the fashion-driven world of contemporary art, but it remains to be seen. Walsh is quick to dismiss other museums and would like to think he is doing something radically different.
He seems a little naive in this regard, not quite grasping how omnivorous and levelling the contemporary art world can be: a business in which the radical and the subversive, like the naive and the primitive, are simply new taste sensations for jaded palates.
Walsh has called his museum a soapbox or a megaphone, a vehicle for publicising his views. Does he have views that we care about? Well, his thing seems to be that he hates religion and the spiritual and he thinks that human beings are simply bodies driven by basic impulses such as the desire for sex and the fear of death.
He wants to use art to shock us into agreeing with him. Hence the various works that evoke pain and mortality, and the Jannis Kounellis installation in which sides of beef are left to decompose, but only for a few days. He has even commissioned a very expensive machine that mimics the human digestive system, turning food into faeces, which are evacuated at three o’clock every afternoon.
No one will deny the importance of sex and death as powerful human motivations, but what is really interesting is how the psyche builds imaginative responses to these realities, as the oyster makes a pearl around the irritant of a grain of sand.
Walsh, though, takes a strictly reductive view of the matter and appears to be morbidly obsessed with various manifestations of death, physical corruption and putrefaction. Oddly, this is traditionally a line taken by religious zealots and hellfire preachers in an effort to turn the audience’s attention away from the vain pleasures of this world and towards the path of holiness.
If you look closely, although there is plenty of death, there is not much sex, at least not sex that is free of mutilation, putrefaction and so on. As for eroticism ...
Temple of David, Matthew Denholm, The Australian, January 22:
DAVID Walsh - multi-millionaire professional gambler and one of the nation’s leading art collectors - dismisses himself as “just a privileged guy with a megaphone”. He might be right. But the world is about to discover just how wonderful, disturbing, beautiful and occasionally challenging that megaphone is.
Some rich men seek a voice through the purchase of media organisations; others via political patronage. Walsh, a university drop-out whose genius grasp of mathematics allowed him to conjure a fortune from the world’s casinos and race-tracks, has chosen art as his form of self-expression.
Or to be precise, Mona – the Museum of Old and New Art: a $175 million “subversive Disneyland” created by Walsh on the banks of Hobart’s Derwent River, not far from his boyhood home in the city’s battling northern suburbs. “It’s like a rich man’s soap box,” says the eccentric 49-year-old. “I’m standing on my soapbox and I’m shouting my views like they mean something.”
Walsh is determined that Mona, his privately funded “temple to secularism” that opens to the public for the first time today, will be unlike anything the world has seen. And he wants to keep it that way. Hand-held touch-screen devices will inform visitors while simultaneously collecting data on what they are viewing and the length of time they spend at each artwork. In the hands of most curators, such information would be a valuable tool to mould exhibitions to popular tastes. Walsh, Mona’s owner-curator, has other ideas: “I’ll take all the popular stuff out. And if you go to the toilet two or three times we’ll recommend a good urologist.”
Clinging like a chrysalis to the excavated bank of a peninsula jutting into the Derwent, Mona – and its opening exhibition, Monanism – is Walsh’s big statement. But what exactly is Walsh shouting through his marvellous, shining new megaphone? “I’m pretty well anti-everything,” he says. “My brother once said about me that I’d rather be outside a barrel pissing in than inside the barrel pissing out.
“I’m anti this idea that we know what we’re doing with certainty. I kinda think that most things that are good happen to people largely by accident, but then they start looking for explanations.
“You see the views of rich, successful people on television, and they tell you why they got rich and successful; they don’t interview all the people who went through the same process and didn’t. I think most things are complete crap. I want to show that you can be fortunate without believing that your fortune was anything other than fortune.”
The punt of his life ...
Earlier on Tasmanian Times: