The Museum of Old and New Art: Holding up a mirror to art ?

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, people would visit Hobart as part of a broader visit to Tasmania. Some would make a special journey within the island to visit the casino whilst others would be drawn by its greater number of historical buildings.

MONA Hobart, Tasmania

MONA Hobart, Tasmania

However, today, no trip to Hobart is really complete without at least considering a trip to MONA. The Museaum of Old and New Art is a striking and stark building in Hobart housing the collection of David Walsh. Although the term is rarely used now it was once described as a subversive adult Disneyland.

It is difficult to fairly describe the purpose of the museum and it may amount to little more than the sometimes indulgent collection of a multi millionaire. Whatever it may or may not be, it was somewhere I certainly wanted to visit during my time in Tasmania.

One of the things I have enjoyed most during my time in this continent of a country, has been the willingness  of Australians to be honest and mildly confrontational. Actually, it’s not that unlike  the directness you can still find  in parts of the north of England. There are few (if any) sacred cows and there is an unspoken understanding that challenge (sometime very direct challenge) is healthy. That is worth bearing in mind when considering MONA.

MONA Ticket Office

MONA Ticket Office

You  know you are in for something unusual based on the ticket office alone. Set in the otherwise tranquil Hobart harbour, this has a large shocking pink ballistic missile positioned on the roof. There doesn’t seem to be a particularly good reason why this is relevant, nor is there any attempt to explain it. This was a trend which was to continue throughout my visit.

In fairness, if you ask the staff in the box office why they have a pink ballistic missile on their roof, the answer is fairly straight forward  – ‘so people can ask why we’ve got a pink ballistic missile on the roof’.

It’s  a clue to the quirkiness of MONA but it also reinforces  the fact that the collection is idiosyncratic and personal – seeking no permission and offering no explanation. Whilst this has novelty and bravery it can also come across as ‘take it or leave it’ depending on the skills of the particular staff member concerned. I strongly suspect that the anarchic side of MONA would fully endorse such an approach, but it did come perilously close to being self-indulgent for me.

The ferry trip to MONA is great fun, much better than the road route. The catamarans continue the sense of quirky fun with children’s seats in the form of sheep  and an adult sofa in the form of a cow. After about  15 minutes, the ferry disembarks you at the steps to MONA.

MONA Interior

MONA Interior

The building itself is potentially the most impressive aspect of the project. Built deep into the native Sandstone this has cavernous beauty in the same way as some of the London Underground jubilee line stations.

Ironically, some of the museum staff are so intense about the exhibits that they miss the stark beauty of the construction.

After looking at one exhibit, a series of paving blocks removed from the former Hiroshima railway station, I wanted to take a picture of the sandstone excavations. Two of the staff were ‘in shot’. I explained this and asked if they could take one step aside so I could take the picture.  The reply of ‘it’s just a bunch of rock’ was ironic to say the least when standing in front of a highly prized exhibit that precisely met that description.

So what of the exhibits? In some senses it’s difficult to say. It is undoubtedly true that MONA has brought employment, tourism and therefore  significant economic benefit to the area. But arguably it could do so much more with very little effort. If you look at the brochure for MONA and compare it to other collections or museums there is very little in the way of explanation. The purpose, ethos and ambition of the museum is missing and the educational component is silent.

The Fat Car

The Fat Car

There are some very amusing exhibits. The ‘fat car’ presumably making a comment on the sedentary nature of modern life is a case in point. However, the exhibit cries out to be touched with an obvious tactile appeal. This is apparently alien to the museum who preclude touching, smelling, or flash photography throughout the site.

As a result, an entire facet of the exhibit was (in my opinion) lost. There was a theme of lost opportunity developing in my opinion. Of course, if this is merely the whimsical collection of a private individual then so be it – but it does appear to have the possibility to be so much more without risking damage to the exhibits.

MONA does offer the usual commentary via an Apple application however, this focused heavily on the artist, his or her location and history – but very little about their thinking or intent. Perhaps others shared my view that I would have learned more with a little more about the artists intent and a little less about his or her current address.

Some of the exhibits certainly had appeal and scored highly on the ‘art for the sake of art’ stakes. The montage above just made me laugh and feel happy which is a good enough reason to include it in an exhibition. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that there was nothing there that appealed, that certainly wouldn’t be true. However, the exhibits with appeal were (on my visit) in the minority.

Two of the subject matters MONA has stated as being important are sex and death. I don’t count myself as a prude but there was just too much focus on bodily functions, and what classic British understatement might refer to as ‘bawdy end of the pier exhibits. Among the list would be the man hanging himself by his penis, the wall of 90+ plaster casts of assorted vaginas, the public toilet which allows you to gaze up your own plumbing and the ‘poo’ machine. It certainly was a dominant theme, although I’m not certain it added much and could be seen as self-indulgent quirkery which ultimately could undermine the exhibits as a whole.

An interesting question was raised (or reposed) by some of the exhibits. What is the nature of art? Does putting something in a museum of art make it art? The cloaca replicates the entire digestive system resulting in a daily excretion. It’s technically clever, it’s certainly educational (or would be if the stages were explained), but is it art? I fear for my tastes it falls short of that description but that doesn’t stop me admiring its construction and potential.

Holding up a mirror to art

Holding up a mirror to art

One thing my visit to MONA did achieve reverts to the Australian willingness to challenge anything with nothing much off limits. What MONA does – or at least did for me – was to hold a mirror up to art. I didn’t particularly rate the majority of the content, but it did make me question what art means to me, what it contributes and why it is important. I may not have liked significant parts of the exhibits but actually, that isn’t the value in places such as MONA.

Would I go back? Not any time soon, but yes after a period of time. I would encourage most of my friends to include it on a visit to Tasmania. I don’t regret going at all. MONA helped me clarify the spheres of art that appeal to me by showing me some styles and trends that didn’t appeal.

I do hope that MONA continues to flourish but would like to see it educate and provide a little more context within which to evaluate the exhibits. It also made me want to revisit the National Gallery and the Tate in London. Also, I’ve probably reconciled myself to the fact that theatre, music, photography and what could stuffily be called ‘fine’ or traditional art is more to my taste.

In the same way that some say all publicity is good publicity, maybe this visit to MONA was equally valuable. Thank you for such an impressive and awe inspiring feat of construction and for refocusing my tastes. I may not be a frequent visitor but I would certainly recommend it as a thought provoking and sometimes challenging experience.

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