Review of David Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania

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A review of the opening weekend and exhibition of the Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart, Tasmania. MONA is the biggest contemporary art museum to open in 2011 anywhere in the world probably. It is owned by David Walsh, who chose its 2 key themes: sex, death. It also has a great website.
  I have just returned from 3 days in Hobart, attending the opening of MONA, theMuseum of Old and New Art. It is a $200 million, quixotic project of Tasmanianbusinessman David Walsh. He commissioned the Museum from architect NondaKatsalidis, filled it with his own art and made admission free.Walsh has a scientific mind but an artistic temperament. In Andrew Frost’s interviewfor ABC TV, David Walsh says that if he could make art, he would. He has anintellectual fascination with Darwinian evolution, time, ancient cultures and the darkareas 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 fewsolitary thoughts now, while the experience is fresh in my mind. ## Bugs Visitors to MONA get iPods when they enter the museum. As you walk around, ‘TheO’ displays information about the works near you and plays you interviews with theartist.In theory I should have had the itinerary of my several hours journey around MONAemailed to me and available as a plug in on my website. This would allow you to seethe works I want to write about.The web integration part of the O system is not working properly yet but when it is, Iwill post the image links on my website . ## Bogans MONA’s brand of fine beers is called Moo Brew. The strap line for the brand is ‘Notsuitable for bogans.’ This has generated a backlash, as expressed on blogs.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 have to be ‘bogan’, in the sense of anti-intellectual and colloquial. Like modern political parties, they play ‘small target’,minimising the intellectual and moral dimensions of what they say, so that they areharder to criticise. Page 1  I saw lots of working class visitors at MONA this weekend, who had clearly neverbeen to a contemporary art museum before. If Australian Boganism was a solidform, then contemporary art would be its anti-matter. What will happen when matterand anti-matter meet at MONA, when Boganism meets Monanism? ## Death If Monanism makes two big provocations, they are that we are sexually conflictedand mortally terrified of our own death. Walsh invites us to follow him undergroundinto his bizarre, underground museum-mind. This is a journey into our ownsubterranean dreams, in which we can wake up and inquire; what lies beneath thesurface of our lives?Artist Julia de Ville says in her interview on The O that knowing our mortality meansto appreciate life. She says that we need to do some thinking about death in order tomake the most of life in the present. Death, then, is what makes life count. Walshseems to be telling us to have the confidence to think about opposing ideassimultaneously, holding ourselves at the threshold of reason, where art takes us intonew possibilities. As a bogan might say, he’s a tripper. ## Museums When I was a museum curator in the 1990s it was fashionable to talk about how themuseum ‘disciplines’ the body of the visitor. The idea is that when you step into anart museum you adopt a physical and mental pose, of respectful, diligentappreciation. You read the label next to the work. You don’t touch anything unlessyou are invited to. You whisper and keep any dumb questions and comments toyourself. 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 themain floor and lots of kitsch Empire furniture to lounge about on. The entry fee iszero. The Os invite you to listen to the commentary and absorb yourself in a privatebubble. Nonda Katsalidis’s grand architecture is modest and calming in the exhibitionspaces.Matt Collishaw is one of the MONA artists. In his interview he says that while he isnot trying to change the world with his art, he believes that galleries and museumscan change how people think. He says that a museum is a space where people canreflect on themselves and their world, because it is quiet and supports thinking.Collishaw says that Churches provided a similar time and space for contemplation ina religious age. ## Art Contemporary indigenous Australian art could be a huge part of the MONAexperience. Some of the most exciting and best contemporary art in the world isindigenous. Also it is an art that speaks to some of the themes which Monanismaddresses - evolution and time, cultures and knowledge. Page 2  The biggest reason it should be included is that I cannot think of any art which ismore powerfully both old and new at the same time. If I was a gambler I would beyou $10,000 that Walsh has something big coming, that involves indigenous,contemporary artists. ## Energy 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? DaveWalsh is the sort of guy who could make that happen. The energy systems can bedesigned by artists, to be works of art; power-full art. ## Sex In the interview on The O with Monanism artist Jan Fabre, he says that “art makes usunderstand we are unbearable”.In another context, Australia’s only living Nobel laureate writer, J.M.Coetzee, asks‘Where does the discontented feeling come from, unique to mankind, that we arenot well, and what is it that we desire to be cured of?’ (In ‘Italo Svevo’, InnerWorkings: 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, infantilesexual drives which are murderous, perverse, incestuous and impossible.The brilliance of MONA’s sex art is that it brings a wider audience to have thisimpolite conversation about ourselves, sharing one of the most powerful insights inthe history of ideas. ## Money Peter Singer, the great Australian philosopher of ethics, says that the ultra rich are soloaded that global poverty could be eradicated with just a tiny transfer of theirwealth. He makes the case in ‘The Life You Can Save’ for both voluntary andcompulsory giving.Walking around MONA, you see $200 million dollars worth of private wealth and it isshocking. How can any mortal accumulate such an obscene fortune? Then you thinka little more on it and see the positive side. Can MONA provoke Australia’s winging,polluting mining magnates and other billionaires to do something meaningful withtheir lives and all that damn money? Page 3  ## Joy Australia’s casual self-image is not really that relaxed, when you think about it. ‘Noworries’ is often the last refuge of those who are actually very brittle and worried bywhat their peers think. The fearful Australian wants desperately to fit in, to beaverage, 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 theinterviews 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 canbecome more confident. It would not water down the radical impulse to show whatis lyrical and soft. Complex situations such as the Darwinian revolution can bepresented boldly and discussed in simple, vigorous language. It is not weak to talkabout things that are subtle.Go on Mr Walsh, enjoy your Monanism a little more. Page 4
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