Sexy. Subterranean. Stunning. Subconscious. Stimulating. This week’s travel, to the Museum of Old and New Art, (MONA for short), in Hobart, is brought to you by the letter ‘S’.
1. Having a gallery built deep into the ground is a stroke of genius, setting up an architectural mirror to MONA’s curatorial favouring of a subconscious approach to the artwork on display. And David Walsh’s collection very much favours the subconscious realm. Freud and Jung would have had a field day at MONA. For those who understand astrological archetypes, MONA is very Scorpio, very ‘eighth house.’ It’s the gallery of a man who has made millions from gambling and spent most of it on a collection of antiquities and contemporary art and a gallery in which to display them, built deep into the earth. It is The Underworld. Among the ‘Old’ of the MONA moniker are Egyptian artefacts, themselves dug from the earth from ancient burial sites. Bright blue scarab beetles, mummies, Anubis figures. Displayed side by side with contemporary art in which death, regeneration, power and the body are prominent themes.
2. ‘The pooing’s at 3 o’clock,’ my friend P. shouted out of the car, as he dropped A. and I off at the ferry that goes to MONA. P. was referring to the work ‘Cloaca Professional’ by Wim Delvoye, a machine that replicates the digestive system right down to the ejection of smelly excrement. ‘It’s not often you hear someone shouting that out of a car,’ A. observed.
3. For me, one of the most visually striking works is Julian Popp’s ‘Bit.fall’ in which words taken from Google search archives are recreated as water droplets which continually cascade to the ground. It is mesmerizing, watching the water droplets transform into words, ever so briefly, before devolving back into droplets and then splashes hitting the ground. As we looked at the work from one of the upper floors, a man stood below, posing for a photograph, pretending to catch the words in his mouth as they fell. It was stupid and poetic.
Later, in the downstairs bar, facing a massive cliff of stone, I drank a pinot noir from the gallery’s sister business, Moorilla Winery, and listened to an interview of Julian Popp talking about the work. He spoke about the difficulty people have in processing the emotions generated by the torrent of information that is coming at us all the time. He talked about the speed of ‘Bit.fall’, how the viewer barely has time to register each word before it disappears and a new word is being formed. This mimics the speed with which we are all trying to process the deluge of information coming at us, minute by minute.
Popp also talked about the notion that once words have been released, they can’t be taken back. He spoke of a time when he was living in East Germany and hardly anyone had a phone. If you wanted to talk to a person, you went to their house. On the way there, you had time to think about what it was you wanted to say to them. Everyone had a notepad and a pencil hanging on their front door, so if they were out, visitors could write a note. There was time to think about what you wanted to write. I think everyone who’s ever regretted leaving a drunken mobile message or sent an email to the wrong person can relate to what Julian’s on about.
Perhaps ironically, a visit to MONA is saturating. A friend described her visit:‘I got so over-excited, I had to leave and go and lie down outside on the grass.’ ‘I’m surprised our eyes are still inside our heads,’ I said to A. the day after we went.
4. I couldn’t photograph the most beautiful work I saw, so I will try to describe it. It’s called Tracing Time by Claire Morgan. A cube of translucent threads (about 100 threads?) hangs from the ceiling, with a dandelion seed attached to each thread. The dandelion seeds are attached with incredible precision and form their own three-dimensional pattern. A small, dead bird hangs from one of the threads. At the end of each thread, about 10 centimetres off the ground, is a leaf. A hazy light shines through the threads, lighting up the dandelion seeds and the bird. It is like the light in which dust motes dance, in late afternoon or dusk. As the threads are weighted at the bottom, the work seems as solid as it is ethereal. You can imagine walking into it, how the threads and seeds and dead bird would clutch at your face. I said to my friend A. that I was so struck by its fragility that if I could touch it, I might just crush it with love, as the oafish Lennie accidentally kills a puppy in the Steinbeck novel ‘Of Mice and Men’.
5. Unlike most galleries, there are no labels or interpretative information on the walls. This approach allows visitors to view the works without words or the intervention of the Expert. Instead, you have the option of collecting an iPod at the entrance – which in MONA World is called ‘The O’. On the iPod, you can choose from several forms of interpretation. There is ‘Artwank’, symbolized by a penis – a traditional curator’s spiel about the work; there’s a Summary, giving the title, artist’s name and brief description of the work; ‘Ideas’, fanciful notes, possibly written by David Walsh; and ‘Gonzo’, further notes and brief ‘essays’ written by David Walsh. These notes reveal David Walsh to be funny, irreverent and thoughtful, definitely worthy of an invitation to play ping pong.
For some artworks there are audio artist interviews, which are of varying quality. Strangely for a generously-funded private museum, the interviews are also of consistently poor sound quality. Faced with the choice between a purely emotional and subjective response and having some context and information about the art, most people seemed to go for the ‘O’. Perhaps everyone just likes something to do with their hands.
6. MONA has been described as ‘fun’ and by David Walsh as his own ‘subversive Disneyland’. I don’t know about subversive – I thought we had missed the sexually explicit works until A. said ‘Er, what about the two walls of c***ts?’ A. and I enjoyed the interactive ‘Pulse’ work in which you hold two bars which take your pulse, which is then transferred into an electrical impulse powering a light bulb. ‘Your’ light bulb moves along a production line of blinking bulbs until it joins a roomful of dozens of light bulbs reflecting the pulses of dozens of MONA-goers. Unhappy with our weak and quavering light bulbs, A. and I went back for seconds and after taking a brisk walk, sent our second light bulbs with their racing strobes out into the bulb party.
7. One of the works on display is an egg, made by artist Julia deVille, containing the ashes of David Walsh’s late father. (For a $75,000 donation you can have your ashes interred at MONA.) It’s only natural that David’s Dad is there among the Egyptian antiquities – the mummies, the scarab beetles that had been carefully sewn in to linen shrouds. It would also be entirely fair for someone to nick the egg and display it in their private museum, in the same way in which the bodies, caskets and effects of dead Egyptians were taken from their tombs. ‘David Walsh would probably find it funny,’ my friend said. I would love for that to be true.
8. That night I went out for dinner with a couple of old friends. My friend T. pointed out a couple who were sitting in what appeared to be an uncomfortable silence. ‘The Restaurant Dead we used to call them,’ he said, referring to his time as a waiter. If they wanted inspiration for sparking up a relationship, the couple could look to the work of performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who worked and loved together from 1976 to 1988. Several videos of their work are displayed at MONA. The one where they shout at each other until they can shout no more. The one where they take turns to slap each other’s faces. The one where they breathe the air out of each other’s lungs until they collapse. The one where Ulay is holding the arrow which would maim or kill his lover if he lets go. At the end of their relationship, Abramovic and Ulay walked the Great Wall of China, starting from opposite ends. After walking for 2500 kilometres, they met in the middle and said goodbye. Now that’s an ending.
9. The day after visiting MONA, A. and I went for a five-hour bush walk. Trees, sky, grass, ocean. Walking along, A. asked me a question but I was lost in the world of putting one foot in front of the other. ‘Sorry, I didn’t hear you. I was lost in rock autism,’ I said.
– ‘Is that when you’re focused entirely on the best way of meeting a rock with your foot?’ she asked.
Yep. The perfect antidote to MONAISM.