David Walsh’s MONA: Art, Architecture, Life

MONA. Anticipation fills me, a pilgrim on a ferry, heading to MONA. It comes into sight: rocks leap from the bay, supporting verdant vines and the implacable exterior of what is surely becoming one of Tasmania’s and even Australia’s most compelling institutions. MONA. I’m the first off the ferry up the steps. At the top I take a breath then stroll into the glassy antechamber. MONA – finally, we meet.
a picture of mona, the museum of old and new art in hobartThe best way to describe MONA is this: it is a collection of art, within an art installation, within a work of performance art. The art collection: in two words, desultorily harmonious (we’ll come back to this). Then you have the gallery itself, which is an incredible architectural feat, probably more impressive than any single item of its contents. Then performance art by MONA’s owna, David Walsh, in whose drollness the entire experience is marinated. It, all of it, is quite an experience.

Experiencing MONA’s Art

MONA contains a bricolage of artworks. The contents ramble and scramble and amble along as one and somehow it works, especially as you come to recognise Walsh’s apparent whimsy. MONA contains old art and, consistent with its full name (the Museum of Old and New Art), new art. Some things are revolting. Others chilling. Others are touching. Let’s explore this mixed bag.

cloaca professional by wim delvoye

Cloaca Professional, 2010, Wim Delvoye

Revolting. The first work I stumbled upon was Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional. It is a pooping machine. Delvoye has ingeniously created an ersatz digestive system that, when fed, reliably excretes turds that, even if they have implausibly many seeds, are quite convincing. Urrgh. But also…mmm? It may not be beautiful in the way that Klimt’s paintings are, but that’s not the point. It’s provocative, without being provocative simply for the sake of it. I walked away in awe: partly of Delvoye’s flagrancy, but also of the wondrous systems that exist within my own body. Unlike Cloaca Professional, my digestive system produces very convincing shit at a fraction of the cost.

Taiyo Kimura’s Untitled (Stool for Guard)

Untitled (Stool for Guard), 2007, Taiyo Kimura

Chilling. Fumbling through MONA, I spied a young girl curled in the fetal position up against a wall. She definitely didn’t look OK. I went to check on her and, what do I know, I had discovered Taiyo Kimura’s Untitled (Stool for Guard). So the first realisation: some artist has created a sculpture of someone whose body is screaming “make this stop”. That’s chilling enough. The second realisation: the work is functional – it is intended to be a stool. Dear me.

So I crouched down and considered what was going on. The work is manipulative. It deceptively provokes empathy which then, without a genuine subject to empathise towards, is dissipated like a wave’s energy against a cliff-face. But I like this. For those who have such a reaction, it’s a reminder that they have that empathy, and that there are genuine subjects for it out there. For those who don’t – or who miss the discreet work altogether – it’s an interrogation of their putative sensitivity. One John Armstrong gave this work as an example of his argument that MONA offers darkness but no light. I don’t know about that. I myself considered using the poor girl as a stool, but felt I had to draw the line somewhere.

Candle Describing a Sphere, 2006, Jason Shulman

Candle Describing a Sphere, 2006, Jason Shulman

Touching. Somewhere in MONA’s bowels (an apt word, considering), I chanced upon Candle Describing a Sphere by Jason Shulman. Very, very beautiful. It’s a cylindrical room with a single candle in the centre. By some optical wizardry, the candle’s flame is aureoled with seemingly solid light. It’s entrancing and quite eerie. Up close to the candle, gazing through its corona, writing on the curving walls is revealed. But away from it the whole room is in darkness. Other people are as silhouettes. When I wandered in there was a blank figure on the other side of the room, another patron. He soon left and I took on his role, passively bewildering new incomers with my unseeable presence. For me there’s something quite profound about light and also about space. The juxtaposition of these two, the way that light or its absence affects a space, is quite mystical. Candle Describing a Sphere drew me in to this mystery and left me humbled.

To sum up: MONA’s art covers the range. There’s something in there to make you feel every sort of emotion, have every sort of reaction. Yes it can be scary, or degrading, or offensive. And it can be uplifting, or profound, or awesome. That is not only art my friend – that is life.

The Artful Experience of MONA

The experience of MONA itself is artful (as in “The Artful Dodger” not like the Louvre). Like conception, it begins with the O.

The O. Every visitor to MONA gets a digital field guide, not unlike The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (ok, maybe a bit unlike). It can tell where you are in the gallery, and you read about works by interacting with the O’s touchscreen. By this means you get the basics: who, what, when. Then a bit of (I quote) “art wank”, the sort of stuff that learned people write on little placards that go next to otherwise impenetrable works by the likes of Rothko. You also (coming back to Walsh’s idiosyncracy) get what is called “gonzo”, contributions written by Walsh himself, or Elizabeth Mead (MONA’s curator…I think), or sometimes each of them. When you finish your tour, the O emails you a link enabling you to relive your tour anytime you please. This is a gift, enabling you to return to works that took your fancy or that you wanted to learn more about. It has also been sensationally handy in facilitating my writing about my own visit.

The O kindly recorded my journey through MONA in its pink-on-black glory.

The O kindly recorded my journey through MONA in its pink-on-black glory.

Another element of the experience is the layout. MONA isn’t just puzzling, it is a puzzle. It’s hard to navigate. There are dead ends and a surfeit of staircases. This is intentional. It’s disorienting, it’s disorderly. And it’s good. It subverts the rational intention to experience the gallery a certain way, to go about it methodically. The architecture complements this. The descent into MONA which, unlike nice buildings, is subterranean, is a blunt allegory. The lack of natural light, the dominating effect of natural stone walls, the isolation – paired with the layout, it compels you to submit yourself.

And this is what it is.

The O, with its “gonzo” commentary, the layout, the architecture: MONA is setup not just to induct you into a single artwork, not just to induct you into the gallery, but to bring you into Walsh’s worldview. You are Sophie in Sophie’s World and Walsh is Albert Knag – he has created this world and you are to inhabit it. It’s awesome, penetrating this man’s empire, coming to know him by his pithy comments. And it’s scary, realising that your whole experience – the architecture, the lighting, the work, even how you arrived at the place – has been contrived.

This is what I mean when I say performance art. Make no mistake about it, MONA is Walsh’s performing. In entering MONA you enter Walsh’s masque. And let’s be fair – it is a phenomenally good performance. Like any great work, Walsh’s magnum opus aggrandises its creator, but does so by offering its consumers a consummate experience not to be rivalled.

MONA.

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