MONA’s Brutal Banality

Although we don’t know it, this will be the day of the Christchurch earthquake. For those used to mainland Australia’s landscapes, finding themselves among the autumn tones of Tasmania can be like entering into a superlatively good colonial painting. To get to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Berriedale, a Hobart suburb, there is a museum-operated ferry service from Sullivan’s Cove. The opening of gambling millionaire David Walsh’s private museum in January made international news. In a spectacular cavern dug into a finger of land pointing into the Derwent it displays works from his own stock of acquired art, a showy collection a Russian mafia boss or Vanity Fair arts reporter might envy. MONA also has popular appeal, for it markets safe art shock and schlock for the masses—there’s no danger of happening on a Mohammed cartoon or a burning Koran. Though the picketing moralists and protesting art lovers Walsh was hoping for haven’t turned up, the tourist crowds, fed by salacious publicity, have been flooding in.

Costing $75 million to build, the museum displays his $100 million collection. It could be the most expensive Facebook page on the planet. Walsh says he wanted a “subversive adult Disneyland”; instead he has produced an underground version of Singapore’s old Tiger Balm Gardens and an antipodean annex of the Tate Gallery. There are human corpses (tortured and untortured); a dead horse cast from a dead horse (the artist says it is about loneliness); canine active, male human passive, sodomy; real-life casts of 150 vaginas spread like a single-file flock of plaster ducks flapping across a wall; an excreta-making machine—and the museum café makes a very nice coffee and chocolate cake. MONA observes the basic rule of modern gallery management: no schlock—no crowds.

There are interludes when the Derwent sparkles, but on this day in late summer, autumn is already imposing itself. Tomatoes aren’t ripening and the sky is dull and the water dark. Early colonists got Van Diemen’s Land right. The tourist videos of happy, smiling and green Tasmania are wrong. This imprisoned island at the end of the world is an autumnal place. The ferry takes just over half an hour. Standing on the bit at the back the breeze is bracing. Looking ahead, the museum imposes itself on its headland. What you see is surface decoration, for MONA has been cut deep underground into the hillside flanks of an attractive bay-hugging vineyard. It’s not far from the Cadbury factory. MONA is coated in slabs of rusting metal and from a distance they look like the rusting walls of a tin-can Camelot. Outside there aren’t picket lines of protesters but queuing tourists waiting to be allowed in. Admission is free.

Not long ago the Moorilla vineyard held occasional Sunday afternoon concerts by a local group playing seventeenth and eighteenth-century music. They performed in a small antiquities museum, pocket-sized and very pleasant. The building was designed by Roy Grounds and the concerts were in a squarish, glass-roofed room with stone floors. At interval you browsed the antiquities or bought a glass of Moorilla wine and, on cool days, looked out the large windows onto the river or, when the weather was fine, wandered about the lawns. Waiting to go into the galleries I realise I am back in familiar territory. The Roy Grounds exterior is still there but now disguised behind a new wall of mirrors through which you pass to enter the museum.           

Visitors are lined up outside before being allowed to enter in groups of ten or so. This might turn into something of an ordeal when our weather reminds us that we are in the Roaring Forties. If the queue is really long it stretches across the owner’s tennis court which, no idea why, has been placed near the entrance. Or is it a work of art? The reason for the wait and the lining up is that the staff have to introduce you to the O.

The O is MONA, is David Walsh, is David Walsh. Once you are through the looking-glass entrance, staff members demonstrate the O and we each take one. To find your way through the museum and make some sense out of the exhibits you need an O. Somewhere about this place is a gallery devoted to bondage and you wonder if naming it O is a Walsh joke, and a reference to The Story of O. It’s a black iPod touch device, a small hand-held unit about the size of an iPhone with a lanyard and a bulky headset to plug into it. Take it in your hand, tap on the screen and it searches for your current location in the gallery. After thinking about things for a bit it gives you a list of nearby art works—usually accurately. There are no labels on the exhibits. Choosing from the small illustrations of works (which can be a little difficult) you tap on the one that interests you for further information. For each work art lovers can become instant critics and hit either “Love” or “Hate”. If you have keyed in your e-mail address then a list of all the works you looked at appears in your e-mails the following day. I found that a large part of my visit, dutifully tapped, went unrecorded.

At the foot of the small screen are icons which give a Summary, “Artwork title and artist name”; Ideas, “Some random thoughts”; Artwank, “Just that!”; Gonzo, “Interviews and other bits”; Media, “Audio and video”. The icon for Artwank is a line sketch of a penis and attachments. Gonzo has some of Walsh’s comments on art and artists and buying art, and other things—some very personal and not all of them very relevant. There was lots of free entertainment when MONA opened, and lots of favourable media commentary. There was also an undercurrent of veiled amusement at the expense of the millionaire gambler and his gallery. 

The galleries don’t open until 11 a.m. and as we wait for the barriers to be removed David Walsh pads lightly through the crowd. Several people recognise him and turn their heads to stare at all that money passing by. Like all his employees he has a photo ID hanging around his neck—but only his says Open Sesame. To enter the galleries there is, under the familiar glass ceiling of the old museum, a hole in the ground. At the core of this is a glass elevator, and spiralling around that a broad staircase to take us down into the bowels of the place. The entry is almost a sexual metaphor—quite intentionally so in a building such as this. Today the first into the glass lift are several severely handicapped visitors in wheelchairs and their carers. One woman plucks unceasingly at her breast as the carers arrange for the lift’s descent into the court of miracles below.

There are three levels and the staircase goes round and round for a considerable time. Clang your way down, walk into the gallery and be amazed. It is Aladdin’s Cave—though, unfortunately, only scraps of the treasure remain. You are in an underground space which is huge, clean, new. It’s new-car new; inhale and sniff the money. Great walls have been cut into the sandstone and the warmly lit, glorious honey-coloured rock contrasts with expanses of black curtain, brightly lit spaces and darkness. MONA’s make-up has been applied with great skill. The atmosphere, the fascination of wandering underground from space to space overawes the art on display. There are big open spaces, small rooms, narrow corridors, wide display areas and skinny metal gangways between floors. In some places you come onto areas that discreetly look down into rooms and spaces below—it’s secretive and voyeuristic or the fantasy drawing of a small child come to life. Who knows what these marvellous airy spaces and dark crannies will look like after Hobart’s breeding frenzied spiders and silverfish move in or how it will age and what it may come to be used for. The flashy Os, already drummed on by hundreds of screen-tapping fingers, have a slightly worn look to them. In just two weeks after MONA opened eighty of these were stolen, at a cost of $60,000.

The first corridor from the stairwell leads into a big open space. On a distant and yellow bright stone wall there is a water feature. From up high water falls from a long metal contraption and for a moment the droplets spell out a word before decomposing into fine spray. It’s good enough to find a place in a big suburban shopping centre.

For conservative eyes MONA is fascinating. It’s almost perfect. This brilliant subterranean doll’s house was brought into being with intelligence, skill, taste and technical competence. Yet it houses works of considerable and often brutal banality. The agonising nihilism of MONA is a demonstration of the cultural plight which we seem incapable of either curing or escaping from. Here there is wondrous technological ability, but deployed with a complete absence of moral seriousness or real intelligence. The Victorians built museums and galleries for education and moral uplift. MONA is David Walsh’s ego and his desire to outrage a society that has long outdistanced his capacity to shock. This opening exhibition displays his favourite works: “the ones that represent him and present him to the world for interest, outrage or indifference”. In the real world the sort of manufactured “outrage” Walsh longs to build headlines from is more often found amongst the cultural Left who are “outraged” about a Wikipedia of causes, but certainly not about New Art which is one of the things they are for—in principle.

Here display is everything and MONA’s lighting has been superbly done. It seems unnoticeable. Light just appears to happen.

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. For the uncomprehending, uncritical, unmoved tourists it is meaningless matter superbly showcased—though if you threw out the art and put in a (gay) wedding expo, a psychic convention or a showing of hot rods they probably wouldn’t even notice, or care. Beside a tall water-filled glass tank several visitors are talking. In the water are a number of artefacts, and fish swim at the top of the tank. These people, some of the most excited I see, are fascinated. They are wondering if the fish are piranhas.

One gallery is given over to the “Cloaca Professional”. A series of glass receptacles hang in a row along the centre of the room. Food is fed in at one end and excreta emerges at the other. We live in a society which finds children’s books devoted to stories about “poo” both amusing and unexceptional. MONA publicity advertises that the feeding times are at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m., pooing time 3 p.m. One of the most popular attractions in Hobart used to be a visit to the Cadbury factory. They have now stopped their tours of the actual factory, so MONA may be filling a tourist void—though tourists will miss the free samples.      

There is another small space into which only two visitors are allowed at a time. You go through a door into a dark room. Along the wall where you enter is a narrow concrete walkway, the rest of the floor is a black pool of water. There is a painting on the end wall. Square concrete stepping stones lead across the water to a small raised space where there are two wooden cases. You cannot see the contents without walking to them. In one is a mummy, in the other the photograph of a mummy. In Les Enfants du Paradis Arletty played naked truth in a sideshow booth. The audience entered expecting to see her naked. She was, but sitting in a barrel of water up to her neck. The audience felt cheated. Same for this, it wasn’t worth the queuing. All the elaborate and costly production for nothing very much.

The surroundings make the objects displayed into art. If you placed a bouncing castle in one of these spaces and lit it well it would gain the same response from visitors: a quick glance as they hurry on to see what’s next. MONA doesn’t have one of those but it does have Nolan’s Snake: 1620 framed paintings, forty-six metres long, nine metres high: it’s expensive wallpapering. Hailed as his masterpiece (in the Mercury) it represents the fulfilment of a career of artistic nullity. Somewhere, sometime, someone may finally tell the truth about Sir Sidney. Its use is appropriate, for Nolan was a genius of self-promotion and here he is exploited by another not unskilful practitioner of the same art form. To the Mercury the museum entrepreneur revealed what he intended to do with his expensive Nolan: “You need honey to trap a fly. Snake is designed to lure people in, and then I get to make any statement I want. The museum is my soapbox, and I’ve got one hell of a megaphone.” Unfortunately, he has nothing much to say. Snake holds little interest to the gallery goers and most, when I am there, give it a cursory glance and rapidly move on. You can hardly blame them. The pile of coal that sits nearby is also mostly ignored. 

Despite MONA’s desire to shock, it doesn’t, and how could it compare with the daily obscenities of popular culture? Cultural progressives have a strangely fixed idea of the mass society which surrounds them. They project an obsessive Puritanism and conservatism onto people they don’t understand. The visitors, who probably have pay-TV and an internet connection at home, have come to ride the adult amusements they have been promised. Inside Walsh’s honey trap they wander about fairly docilely, just glancing up occasionally from their pulsating Os at the artworks. Heads down, they tap the technology. In the darkness around me there are flashes of light as the Os illuminate. Mine isn’t completely house trained and I have a few problems locating works which I’m standing next to. The stuff on show may fail to shock but you could really galvanise these people, even start a spontaneous and unscripted discussion or two by simply adding price tags showing how much David Walsh claims to have paid for each work. Do that, and relate the art and the museum to a world they know, and MONA would be as animated as the sausage sizzle sports club stands outside local hardware shops.

I don’t think these crowds of visitors are sophisticated arts lovers. They seem like ordinary folk having a day out to see what all the publicity has been about. Wisely, most seem to be ignoring the artistic theory they are carrying around their necks. The O writing presents layers of comments and critical texts to complement the works but these are surely incapable of speaking to the mass of tourists the place attracts. In general the prose is smug, pretentious and narrow-minded—like a copy of Overland. The frequent obscenities read like maidenly research for a unit on “Obscenity as a fine art” in an Arts Honours course, or Girls Behaving Badly having a Twitter meltdown. And then there are the accounts of conversations with the artists which throw a cultural switch to turn on the customary bureaucrat-speak which blights modern arts writing. An interview by curator Elizabeth Mead with artist James Angus is typical. They are discussing Angus’s Truck Corridor, a Mack truck squeezed into a corridor so that you see the front at one end and its back doors at another. This hallucinatory conversation is about a big truck in a narrow place: 

[Question] I had a discussion with my colleague Nicole last week about Truck Corridor. I think that writing about it (beyond contextual information about your career history etc) would undermine it. My reason for this is that the power of the work lies in its lack of metaphor. It is a truck in a corridor: the concept arrives with immediate impact; it does not stand for something greater than itself. For me, the absence of metaphor is (humorously) transgressive, in the sense that we (people) cling to metaphor—perhaps as a means to escape the banality of everyday life? That might be going overboard, but certainly as a means to, in some way, transcend ourselves. Nicole disagreed with me; she thinks I’m missing a lot of the subtlety and context of your work. What do you think? If you think my reading’s rubbish, please tell me.

[Reply] While your ideas certainly aren’t rubbish, I don’t think I agree. To consider the sculpture simply as the sum of its parts is to place the work firmly within the paradigm of minimal art. I’m much more interested in how minimal strategies can be shifted, in order to collect interpretations in a way which is expansive rather than restrictive. 

As I was saying, for connoisseurs who delight in the sight of multicoloured linguistic strands of intellectual idiocy plaited with metaphors of absurdism the O is a rich and multilayered artefact which, without going overboard, arrives with immediate impact as a humorously transgressive electronic volume replete with subtlety and context and a paradigm of maximal art strategies designed to display interpretations of expansively restrictive contextual information, and a fair bit of sex. Though I should check that last bit with Nicole.

When confronted with a Jenny Saville painting the O is slightly banal, at first: “Saville’s confronting portrait of the trans-gender photographer, Del LaGrace Volcano, is a ‘landscape’ of flesh and paint.” But then it takes a firm hold and unzips itself (so to speak): 

The revelation of a transgender body such as Volcano’s is particular to our time. Although such people have always existed, in times past they hid their physical difference from society. Today, they can make choices with the aid of drugs and surgery. Volcano states that she no longer identifies as “woman” and feels uncomfortable being read as female: “I am intersex by design and intentional mutation and need to have my gender specified outside of the binary gender system, rather than an abomination of it.” 

There is a brown mess on the floor. I think it’s excrement. It’s that sort of place. It’s not. It’s moulded dark chocolate representing torn flesh, the remains of a suicide bomber: impression number two in a series of five. From visitors it hardly gets more than an occasional navigational stare; it’s not the sort of thing you want sticking to the sole of your shoe. Clarification appears on the O which reveals it is On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell by Stephen J. Shanabrook. Elizabeth Mead discusses the “Ingredients”: 

Stephen told me, when I met him, that this was made from an image he found on the internet. It seems he (or possibly his wife, Veronika, who handles his correspondence) has decided he made a mistake in revealing this and has urged us to remain ambiguous about the source. They/she want(s) you to think he cast it from the body, I guess. (By the way, this is not a case of blame-the-wife misogyny, as far as I can tell.)

She wrote in an email something along the lines of, “If you are eating a meal in a restaurant, would you demand that the chef reveals all his ingredients?” She’s definitely right, I think. 

I’m only glad I didn’t step in it. 

I’m almost finished, and I’m feeling sorry for two very old Egyptian portraits I’ve found. They’re miserably out of place amongst this stuff and I seriously contemplate liberating them. An alarm rings, and keeps on ringing. I’m not sure if it’s art, or a fire alarm. Then there is an announcement repeated over and over: “Emergency, evacuate immediately.” I wonder how they reacted in the poo room.

The staff gently herd us along and we start the climb upwards. It is a bit cooling to suddenly realise how vulnerable we all are in this dark underground hole. Above ground people emerge from all sorts of strange doors in the ground, which must be the emergency exits. For a while we mill about on the tennis court before being shunted further away to a grassy space used for outdoor performances. David Walsh is wandering about carrying a brown coffee cup. A nearby voice suggests we have been thrown out to push us towards the restaurant, wine bar and cellar door.

I’m surprised just how many of us there are. To survive, MONA will have to bring these people back, and keep them returning. They are here for the shocks, and the museum will have to keep on promising new treats: it’s going to need more and more outrage. And if the reality does not live up to the promises they will stop showing up. There is also only a very small local population base from which to grow a regular audience. Staff members in their black uniforms are standing self-consciously apart from the visitors. Not security, for it seems a fire alarm has gone off and they are dealing with that, but guides and others and I count between thirty and forty—which is a considerable payroll for a free art gallery. The waiting about takes some time as the alarm has to be cleared by the local fire brigade. When it is all over some queue again to gain admittance while we others are just in time to catch our returning ferry.

Though David Walsh owns all this and it is very smart and very new, there is something plaintive and lonely about this story. Walsh could be the principal in a Molière play with a very sad ending. Despite the assurance and the showing off, his is the voice of an outsider, and he may know this. MONA is a very expensive toy, in a very distant place. Though the cultural elite are delighted to eat and drink at his expense, and sell him paintings, he will always be different; he will always be slightingly referred to as the millionaire gambler who built a gallery, and little more. Maybe I’m wrong about Molière; the splendid opening and celebrations may be the background shots for a new HBO series. The problem is that the writers haven’t yet made up their minds whether MONA is to be a success story, or a tragedy.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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