Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Quick Word... On The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)

One of the first things I noticed after being awestruck by the first exhibit of the Museum of Old and New Art - Sidney Nolan's Snake - was that immediately opposite it, sort of tucked away, was a chair. Sitting on the chair was a tin bowl with a knife lying on its side half submerged in water. Two baby goldfish would occasionally appear and then swim back into the safety of the blade's shadow. My 'O', the modified ipod touch that you use to navigate the museum rather than having placards, (it's aware of your location and changes the information accordingly) didn't seem to know anything about this exhibit, so I chased down one of the well dressed MONA gals and asked her.

"That," she said, "was not here when I left last night. I have been here all week and I have never seen it before. It's not the only thing that's just appeared in the last 24 hours though, it happens here. If I were you I'd keep asking about it..."

There was something Alice In Wonderland about her answer, a sort of Tweedledum Tweedledee riddle that I was only too happy to chase the threads of. I never got any further of course. Maybe it meant nothing at all. It is however, the simplest way to describe MONA. A dark riddle with a thousand answers - an innocent creature seeking shelter under the shadow of a knife edge.

And so down the rabbit-hole I went, and spent a good four hours in the act. MONA is an amazing place, part Bond-villain underground lair, part amazing antique collection, part torturous testament to the darkest side of human nature. You may have noticed I'm being cryptic about what you see down there - this is deliberate. This stuff's art, and while I'm reasonably confident I could describe at least some of it in vivid detail; like the too-dark, too-grainy pictures we all took away on our phones and cameras, it's probably not going to do any of the works any real justice. I'm also painfully aware that most of you know from the brief descriptions of the museum you've hopefully already read, whether you are going or not. It's an instinct thing. Some people are thrilled by confrontation, and don't mind getting their hands dirty. Others can't stand it, and pushing them into the fray doesn't do anyone any good. I'm not going to change your mind by telling you what's down there, and if you do go it's going to be more fun to explore for yourself. If you want to go though, I hope this blog encourages you not to delay it for a second. The place is truly unbelievable.

It was half past three when I emerged in the sunshine to stop for some lunch. We'd arrived by ferry, (definitely the way to go if you're after the full experience,) and there was still a good four hours to go before we even thought about getting back down to the water. For a little while we watched the bands - but I wasn't done. I went back into the depths to spend in total nearly seven hours wandering around the place.

And you know what? The experience was completely different. And I'm not talking about the artwork itself, which - particularly for the more confronting pieces - really benefits from a second viewing. I'm talking about the museum itself. From morning to afternoon - it changed. One room I had been curiously recommended to enter by a staff member earlier - and which had contained a variety of discarded objects - now had lonely girls inside singing of home and pawing at the bars that separated us. The tableau had come alive in the brief hours I'd been gone. Another exhibit, a red phone I had earlier discovered was dead when raised to my ear - rang as I walked past. A lady nearby picked it up and had a conversation with someone on the other end. Thank god the party I was with had all wandered off in their own directions - for we had each found our own secrets to show the others - walls that were actually doors, alleys between exhibits that led to new areas, whole rooms that in the dark depths of David Walsh's dream-cave had passed some of us by. Later I discovered there were still things we missed. My brother says that they wouldn't have put everything out, and they're probably in a back room somewhere. Me? I'm convinced that if I just have more time in that incredible place - I will find them.

As I lined up for the toilet I heard a lady describe the place as a 'tremendous waste of money'. Evidently it seems she'd prefer it if Walsh had spent his dollars on multiple beach properties instead. I also later heard that the infamous 'Wall of Vaginas' was down to 149 after some guy had hit the wall and knocked one off. On day one of course. There are plenty of unavoidable reminders like this that you are still in Tasmania. To be honest I partly think that we don't deserve MONA, or MONA FOMA for that matter. It's too crazy and too cool to be so close. But we got it, and international papers are already calling it the beginning of a left-of-centre arts shift in Tassie, claiming that we'll turn into a tiny island of weird and wacky poets, painters and players.

I can hope for that - but if MONA doesn't achieve it it is no great failing, for it achieves much more besides. MONA is a challenging place. It is by turns beautiful (Sarcophagus room and Artifact are my favourites), disturbing, chilling, horrifying, mesmerising and life changing. I came close to tears and turning away at MONA. Truly I did. Some of it really bordered on too much. But that's as necessary as the truly breathtaking stuff, because art isn't just about what makes you feel good. It's about what makes you feel.

I love MONA, and I hope you love MONA too. We are so, so lucky to have this place in our state. If you're thinking of going, take the plunge. Who knows what the vagina fatality count will be if you delay too long?

Oh, and MONA? I'll be back for you again. To explore your mysteries and maybe unravel more of your riddles.



  1. Fantastic review, Lyndon. Pity I don't have time to visit Tassie before I leave for Europe - I dearly hope it's still up and running when I come back in 2012. You've made it clear it's unmissable!!

  2. Didn't "jamesbond villain lair" come directly from Gaiman's twitter feed?

  3. An intriguing and affecting review, Lyndon -- thanks :-) Imaginary museums like Nick Bantock's "Museum at Purgatory," the Wellcome Trust's Phantom Museum and even the Museum of the Theoretical hold their own special fascination, and it sounds like David Walsh has managed to build one in the real world.

    Your description also reminds me of when the Melbourne arts festival held its visual arts program in the old City Watch-house: very disturbing to see works (many of them site-specific) by Bill Viola, Gordon Bennett and others installed in old prison cells, exercise yards and police offices. Evocative locations like the 19th-century watch-house and the ultra-modernist MONA offer a powerful link between the intellect of art and the emotional reality of what it means to be human.

  4. Cheers guys!

    @Cratey - Enjoy Europe! But yeah, you should definitely check it out on your return. An amazing place.

    @Anonymous - Neil did call it that, so I can't take credit for coining that particular observation. It is however, true.

    @flipsockgrrl I agree. It's taken me a long time to discover that art is much more than aesthetics. You have also given me a lot to look up. Thank you!