In 1999, the National Gallery of Australia cancelled a planned exhibition of Sir Charles Saatchi’s Sensation, a collection of art focused on the work of the Young British Artists of the 1990s, on the grounds of the possible offensiveness of many of the works included in the show. Several of those works and artists are now on display in the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) recently opened in Hobart, a small city on the island of Tasmania in the south of Australia. Where the National Gallery quailed at the idea of exhibiting work by Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili and the Chapman brothers, MONA has no such qualms today. Works by these artists feature alongside 400 other pieces from the private collection of David Walsh, a Tasmanian millionaire gambler, art collector and founder of MONA.
Founded in 2011 and designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis, MONA primarily exists underground; the museum’s three levels are excavated deep into a rocky cliff overlooking the Derwent River. You can travel to the museum on the MONA ferry, which sails from the centre of Hobart to MONA in about 30 minutes. Visitors climb a steep slope to the museum entrance, through the hollowed shell of a heritage-listed building. A staircase spirals tightly downward into the depths of the museum itself. This is no white cube; rooms are deliberately dark and the artworks are starkly spotlit. Visitors move between gallery levels along criss-crossing narrow passageways, or up and down rusted metal stairs.
On one side of the passageways, there is a void, the gallery floors receding from a huge, sheer sandstone wall that stretches from the highest gallery level all the way down to the lowest. Artist Julius Popp’s “Bit.fall” (2007) is installed next to this void, the cascading water of the installation forming itself into words against the sandstone backdrop (see a video of the work).
Some of MONA’s gallery spaces are massive, so big that they’re able to showcase works that would overwhelm normal galleries. One such installation, “Snake” (1971), by Australian artist Sidney Nolan, is 45-meters long and made up of hundreds of individual images that combine into a glorious curving reptile. Another large room is given over to “Loop System Quintet” (2005) by Conrad Shawcross, a work made up of five machines endlessly whirling light into the surrounding darkness. Other spaces are made small by partitions: Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) sits as if in a small side chapel, its colors and mosaic-like composition emphasized by the gallery’s spotlighting.
Some of the works on display at MONA seem gimmicky, notably “Cloaca” (1992) by Wim Delvoye, a machine consisting of five large glass bottles connected by tubes. Food from the gallery’s restaurant and café is fed daily into the machine; at 3pm sharp it excretes “feces” onto a plate. Crowds show up each day to watch, proving that, years after Manzoni and Serrano, the fascination with scatological art persists.
But in addition to headline-grabbers such as “Cloaca,” a staggering breadth of artworks can be seen at MONA. The opening exhibit, Monanism, is loosely themed around sex and death, with art objects ranging throughout time — as is implied by its name, the museum displays both contemporary art and artifacts from the ancient world.
Monanism features about a quarter of David Walsh’s private collection, which has developed according to the collector’s personal taste. As such, there is a gap of several millennia between the “old” and “new” art. But this gap doesn’t factor in to the works’ display: mummified creatures, cuneiform crosses, coins and sarcophagi are exhibited next to contemporary works of art, a context that posits them as works of art in their own right rather than archaeological treasures. The juxtapositions are often enormously surprising and fruitful; one such examples is the “Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris” (100 BCE) displayed in a small dark room next to contemporary photographer Andres Serrano’s “The Morgue (Blood Transfusion Resulting in AIDS)” (1991).
The collection’s breadth also derives from its impressive range of artists. In addition to internationally celebrated names such as Sidney Nolan, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer and Jean-Michel Basquiat, MONA’s visitors can see work by a number of emerging Australian and international artists, such as Wang Qingsong (China), Berlinde de Bruyckere (Belgium) and Jonathan Delachaux (Switzerland).
And what details about the works or the artists on display are provided for the visitor? The walls are bare of curatorial information; instead, visitors are given an iPod with GPS to locate themselves within the museum. The device also provides information about each artwork. Different buttons offer various details: there is audio commentary to listen to, while the “Gonzo” button gives access to David Walsh’s musings about the work. “Artwank” provides, well, art criticism. Viewers can press buttons marked “love” or “hate” to register their reactions to a work. Different iPods offer different information as well as save a record of one’s visit online.
The interactive iPods have been much criticized by journalists in the weeks since MONA opened in late January, and I confess that I approached mine with trepidation since I am not a fan of the “audio tour” concept. But this little gizmo turned out to be a crucial part of the pleasures I found in MONA. Instead of half-reading the all-too-familiar critic-speak in a catalogue or wall text, the iPod prompted me to look longer at each artwork than I would have otherwise. It produced a mode of viewing radically different to the half-anesthetized stupor that many of us slide into when visiting the conventional cathedrals of art, and it invoked a sense of pleasurable autonomy familiar to any member of the Twitter generation. It meant that I learned a lot about the art I was looking at, felt hugely stimulated by the space instead of exhausted by its scale, and spent much longer there than expected (the entire visit, including ferry ride, lunch, and a glass of wine and antipasto in the wine bar afterward, lasted 8 hours).
MONA has been mocked in the Australian mainstream media for its mix of ancient and contemporary art and Walsh has been derided as self-indulgent and uninformed. Such ressentiment ignores the fact that MONA puts on display an extraordinary collection of art in a breathtaking building. And it asks nothing in return except that we visit it: despite MONA costing Walsh over $100 million AUD ($102.4 million USD), entry is free — an amazing gift from one individual to the rest of us.
The Museum of Old and New Art is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, and is located at 655 Main Road Berriedale, Hobart Tasmania 7011, Australia