Approaching the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Berriedale, Tasmania via the highway is a little like the establishing shot in action movies of the villain’s island lair: implanted into a headland, a great clot of concrete gridding and glowing, ochre rust.
The museum is set on the Moorilla vineyard estate, and is the long-time project of collector/gambling genius/owner David Walsh. MONA opened last weekend, a couple of years late, with an exhibition, MONANISM, consisting of works pulled from Walsh’s well-fed collection (approximately 10% is on show, with a view to rotate some of the works out). He collects both antiquities and recent art of a wide variety; most of the new work springs from the last 50 years. There’s a lot of work by big-name international artists as well as some by young locals. There’s no strong overall aesthetic vector: the work is diverse in form, though prominent media and keyrings in the gift shop have it as mainly concerned with ‘sex and death’: a snappy line but clearly over-reduced.
I was just emailed a virtual 3D model of my traversal(s) through the museum, highlighting the works that kept me the longest. It’s a little like this:
30 TVs showing ardent Madonna fans singing and dancing, music removed ► hardcore-tatted pig skin in obelisk cabinet ► ancient Greek coin depicting sibling-lovers ► digital kids taking bats & swords to each other over three cinema screens ► Busted-open sarcophagus.
Your trip is recorded by the first fiddly, distracting, then totally great and useful iPod you’re given at the door. It senses where you are in the gallery and shows you the specs of what’s nearby, neglecting the need for labels by the works. For almost every work, there are also two little icons: one of a graffitied penis labelled Artwank (for the stashing away of fairly typical art criticism), and the other the Gonzo Fist, wherein Walsh and pals talk about their sex lives or reprint angry emails they received from the artists as lateral context for the work. The authorial voice of the museum, its branding, catalogue and especially its owner, Walsh, are pretty instructive as to the museum’s mission (you could say ‘laconic altruism’) as well as its strange, multidimensional self-centredness: these ‘gonzo notes’ can come off as generous and apprehensible but also often mean and self-congratulatory. There’s the straw man that Walsh in particular tips over again and again of the perception of contemporary art as being ‘a wank’. Or the note on Jenny Saville: an unadorned transcript of two young British artists trashing her work. The notes Walsh writes while self-admittedly drunk are also a little unhelpful.
As a friend of mine noted when Walsh breezed past at the opening, shiny-jeaned and Branson-haired, slicing through the public: nobody is making any bones that this is Walsh’s immortality project. But with a project this ambitious and utterly collaborative by nature, it can only be an aspect of the thing. (In any case, it’s unknown whether this Walshness will continue beyond MONANISM, which concludes in July.)
The works themselves construe one of the strongest and most diverse overviews of recent international art shown in Australia for some time, alongside an approachable, sensitively installed body of antiquities with a focus on Egyptian artifacts. The building housing them was designed by Melbourne firm Fender Katsalidis, and adapted underneath the existing building (itself pedigreed, having being designed by early Oz modernist Roy Grounds). The museum is architecturally exhilarating – the walls of the gallery are formed by the bare surrounding rock and there is a vertiginous interplay between the three descending floors of the gallery, with some works spanning multiple levels. While the moodiness at times can be a little hysterical (the most mortifying selection of works in the exhibition are reached by a narrow hallway lined with red drapery), it’s generally a spectacular space, creative, distinct and characterful without adverse impact on the work.
Outside the gallery and near the green on which a stage was erected for a dreary handful of unmuseum-y rock groups, Roman Signer’s work Engpass was created/performed at the pre-opening party, and was astounding, as his work often is. Two concrete walls were erected, angled slightly in towards each other, a narrowing corridor. A silver hatchback – Rover brand, wider than the far end of the corridor – was set up in front, creating a scene a little like a Soviet crash test ground. I’m guessing that, like me, most of the assembled onlookers were expecting the car to be driven full pelt into the corridor. How loud would that be! Maybe it would burst into flames, like the opening’s later performance by Groupe F (who propose an exhilarating meeting point of Jean-Michael Jarre, David Copperfield and the riverside fire-towers of Crown Casino). But after a prolonged period of electric waiting, the driver instead just gave it a quick roar of juice and let the car leisurely find its own way into the too-small gap on the other end.
It did so with a quick wail and a hitch up on the right-hand side. Different components of the car found different points horizontally in which to stress, bend, snap or arc. It was exciting. It was also a bit sad and sacred-feeling: this was an old car. It reminded me of the first car I owned, which it probably did for quite a few people. It’s a car that has a name, or a large ‘red nose’ attachment in the glovebox.
(I was briefly annoyed by the people taking photos by the work, making silly poses, before realising it seemed like a reasonable way to remember what was a pretty special thing and did so myself.)
On first approach, the Swiss artist’s work can seem a little blustery. When I first encountered it a few years ago, I assumed he was a young guy, obsessed with FX, shooting things with a funny nihilism. But Signer’s a septuagenarian from the Alps; look closer, his work builds agrarian-minimalist romantics with a firework or a car crash. The elements he uses and their indeterminacy are huge, but he wields them with space and temper, drawing out a sweet pathos from the way things interact with each other.
(An altogether different type of pathos was drawn out with the headlining musical act of the opening, The Cruel Sea.)
There were red tape squares indicating a no-go zone around the delicate installation works, and even an attendant by such works keeping an eye on you, but if you happened over the line they would only almost invisibly prick up a bit and say nothing. It was a little like the unarmed and white-hatted security personnel of the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics: purposefully laissez-faire. They, like the rockers, were a way of reminding you of MONA’s unmuseumness, which, nevertheless, couldn’t be flaunted without the red squares being there in the first place. Or maybe it’s as prosaic as an insurance requirement and my argument is unfair.
Larry Hayes, Texas, September 10, 2003. / Patricia Desmedt, Waregem, November 27, 2007.
C-print mounted on aluminum. 75 x 125 cm.
Tucked away in the lowest floor amongst a crowded salon-hang of paintings is this cheerily bewildering print on aluminium by Patrick Guns, a Belgian. It’s so basic in form as to be radical. It’s bullied by all the neo-expressionism and Peter Booth around it. It’s good though, because what is that facial expression she’s got, and that stacked thing on the plate kind of looks like a cheeseburger? OK, let’s go check out the wall of rotting meat the size of Guernica now.
But then you’re researching a piece for Killings, or you’re otherwise industrious with looking into extratextual things, and you discover the menu on the left-hand side is an actual-fact last meal request of a Texas death row prisoner, one of many the Justice Department inexplicably published on their website for this Belgian Patrick Guns to find and deliver to renowned, European-looking chefs for them to remake in their own delicious, European-looking way, presented on the right-hand side. The old joke is that the warden will airlift in smoked puffin if requested as a last meal but, actually, according to Guns, most requests are denied or just barely hashed together, which is extraordinary since most of the requested meals are sweet, sad little basics – hot dogs, milk shakes: bad-day-at-work food, the kind you learn as a kid. Guns’ website says he asked the chefs ‘not to fear asserting their own Humanism’ – so that’s the facial expression! Walsh, in the catalogue, notes that it’s pretty funny that the order is for Diet Cokes, which is an arresting point and one that seems like a pretty good entry point into this work.
The universal feeling throughout Hobart for the MONA opening weekend seemed as though the city had lucked into a pretty special thing as the birthplace of a lad who became astonishingly wealthy (by way of a gambling system that apparently always returns). It was the lead story in the newspaper for every day I was there. The Vox Pop asked what locals thought of the hundred-something plaster female genitals along one wall of the gallery (they loved them). It was invigorating to see the local embrace for a radical and demanding project. It’s by far the most ambitious private gallery in Australia, and internationally distinct, but it’s clear the endeavour is as site-specific as its architecture. You’re looking at this body of important, still-in-play, valuable work, and there’s the aura because it’s real and not a JPEG, but the aura’s slightly reduced, it’s not a sacred fog, since you’re just inside a cliffside in suburban Tassie; you haven’t travelled halfway around the world. One of the mediums of contemporary art is bewilderment – what is this? what can it do? – it’s used to reveal things, or to instigate, demand. While David Walsh’s burning laconicism can sometimes grate, perhaps it’s a component of a proposal for public engagement that the state and larger institutional galleries of Australia haven’t cottoned on to: look at these things, and don’t know what they are (yet). Or in other words, look at these things.
Rowan McNaught is a Melbourne-based artist.