Visionary millionaire puts the “art” into Hobart
I have just returned from three days in Hobart, attending the opening of MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. It is a $200 million, quixotic project of Tasmanian businessman David Walsh. Walsh commissioned the museum from architect Nonda Katsalidis, filled it with his own art and made admission free.
Walsh has a scientific mind but an artistic temperament. In his interview with Andrew Frost he says that if he could make art, he would. He has an intellectual fascination with Darwinian evolution, time, ancient cultures and the dark areas of our humanity.
The inaugural exhibition is called Monanism, a play on the word onanism (masturbation). MONA and Monanism were exciting and I want to put down a few thoughts now, while the experience is fresh in my mind.
Visitors to MONA get iPods when they enter the museum. As you walk around, ʻThe Oʼ displays information about the works near you and plays you interviews with the artist. In theory I should have had the itinerary of my several hours journey around MONA emailed to me and available as a plug in on my website. This would allow you to see the works I want to write about.
The web integration part of the O system is not working properly yet but when it is, I will post the image links on my website www.DanCass.com.
MONAʼs brand of fine beers is called Moo Brew. The strap line for the brand is ʻNot suitable for bogans.ʼ This has generated a backlash, as expressed on this blog.
I was in a contemporary art group for 2 years and it taught me, among other things, that many artists in this country feel that they have to be ʻboganʼ, in the sense of anti-intellectual and colloquial.
Like modern political parties, they play ʻsmall targetʼ, minimising the intellectual and moral dimensions of what they say, so that they are harder to criticise. I saw lots of working-class visitors at MONA this weekend, who had clearly never been to a contemporary art museum before.
If Australian Boganism was a solid form, then contemporary art would be its anti-matter. What will happen when matter and anti-matter meet at MONA, when Boganism meets Monanism?
If Monanism makes two big provocations, they are that we are sexually conflicted and mortally terrified of our own death. Walsh invites us to follow him underground into his bizarre, underground museum-mind. This is a journey into our own subterranean dreams, in which we can wake up and inquire; what lies beneath the surface of our lives?
Artist Julia de Ville says in her interview on The O that knowing our mortality means to appreciate life. She says that we need to do some thinking about death in order to make the most of life in the present. Death, then, is what makes life count. Walsh seems to be telling us to have the confidence to think about opposing ideas simultaneously, holding ourselves at the threshold of reason, where art takes us into new possibilities. As a bogan might say, heʼs a tripper.
When I was a museum curator in the 1990s it was fashionable to talk about how the museum ʻdisciplinesʼ the body of the visitor. The idea is that when you step into an art museum you adopt a physical and mental pose, of respectful, diligent appreciation. You read the label next to the work. You donʼt touch anything unless you are invited to. You whisper and keep any dumb questions and comments to yourself. You pretend to be smarter and know more than you do.
At MONA you are invited to physically and mentally relax. There is a great bar on the main floor and lots of kitsch Empire furniture to lounge about on. The entry fee is zero. The Os invite you to listen to the commentary and absorb yourself in a private bubble. Nonda Katsalidisʼs grand architecture is modest and calming in the exhibition spaces.
Matt Collishaw is one of the MONA artists. In his interview he says that while he is not trying to change the world with his art, he believes that galleries and museums can change how people think. He says that a museum is a space where people can reflect on themselves and their world, because it is quiet and supports thinking. Collishaw says that churches provided a similar time and space for contemplation in a religious age.
Contemporary indigenous Australian art could be a huge part of the MONA experience. Some of the most exciting and best contemporary art in the world is indigenous. Also it is an art that speaks to some of the themes which Monanism addresses - evolution and time, cultures and knowledge.
The biggest reason it should be included is that I cannot think of any art which is more powerfully both old and new at the same time. If I was a gambler I would bet you $10,000 that Walsh has something big coming, that involves indigenous, contemporary artists.
Museums use energy and produce emissions. Art tourists fly around the planet, catching up with the newest art at the latest biennale. How good would it be if MONA produced 150% of the electricity it needs? Dave Walsh is the sort of guy who could make that happen. The energy systems can be designed by artists, to be works of art; power-full art.
In the interview on The O with Monanism artist Jan Fabre, he says that “art makes us understand we are unbearable”. In another context, Nobel laureate writer, J.M.Coetzee, asks ʻWhere does the discontented feeling come from, unique to mankind, that we are not well, and what is it that we desire to be cured of?ʼ (In ʻItalo Svevoʼ, Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005, Knopf: North Sydney, 2007, 1-14)
This is dangerous, occult territory, most prominently associated with Sigmund Freud. According to psychoanalysis, what is unbearable is that we carry unsayable, infantile sexual drives which are murderous, perverse, incestuous and impossible. The brilliance of MONAʼs sex art is that it brings a wider audience to have this impolite conversation about ourselves, sharing one of the most powerful insights in the history of ideas.
Peter Singer, the great Australian philosopher of ethics, says that the ultra-rich are so loaded that global poverty could be eradicated with just a tiny transfer of their wealth. He makes the case in ʻThe Life You Can Saveʼ for both voluntary and compulsory giving.
Walking around MONA, you see $200 million dollars worth of private wealth and it is shocking. How can any mortal accumulate such an obscene fortune? Then you think a little more on it and see the positive side. Can MONA provoke Australiaʼs mining magnates and other billionaires to do something meaningful with their lives and all that damn money?
Australiaʼs casual self-image is not really that relaxed, when you think about it. ʻNo worriesʼ is often the last refuge of those who are actually very brittle and worried by what their peers think. The fearful Australian wants desperately to fit in, to be average, normal,unpretentious, invisible, regular, generic. I prefer joy to fear.
MONA is mostly brave and bold but there is fear in the curatorial tone. Some of the interviews and commentary by David Walsh and others on the O are agonisingly self-thwarting. I like the fact that MONA embraces difficult themes and ideas but I believe that it can become more confident.
It would not water down the radical impulse to show what is lyrical and soft. Complex situations such as the Darwinian revolution can be presented boldly and discussed in simple, vigorous language. It is not weak to talk about things that are subtle. Go on Mr Walsh, enjoy your Monanism a little more.
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