By Nicholas Tolhurst
David Walsh’s fabulous Museum of Old and New Art—MONA—is almost at the end of the world and literally underground. Entering MONA itself is like embarking on a chthonic mystery rite, although the experience is more Offenbach than Orphic. Walsh has created something slightly miraculous upstream of Hobart. MONA is a destination in itself and I would be happy to visit it every year to see what is new. The current MONA exhibition is called Red Queen. Follow it up if you must, but I’m filing the website spiel under ‘Who writes this stuff?’. Full marks to them for asking and answering thus about Red Queeniness:
How does art fit into this? It is a behavior, a practice, that congeals humanity like the fat in a fry-pan; it clarifies and distills, evaporates the excess, until we can see (just for a moment) into the base of ourselves.
My. I want cooking lessons from that person.
Snarkiness aside, though, the association of Red Queen to the works on display was lost to me, it was no barrier to my enjoying the whole experience. MONA is very much what you want it to be and I think Walsh intends that. As an actual destination, MONA has few equals. OK, drawing up to Peggy Guggenheim’s museum in a gondola has cachet, but somehow it compares less with the journey up the Derwent in a giant catamaran accompanied by a fibreglass cow and four sheep, as well as a live parrot called Trevor, who was left to himself to steer the ship at one point.
MONA itself looks rather suburban on the outside—a small modernish bungalow affair, atop a sandstone escarpment. The entry is faced with a stainless steel wall that reflects more than it reveals. Clues to the deliberate whimsy of MONA are the car spaces, which I guess are reserved for Walsh and his partner. (Is her name Persephone by any chance?)
Inside MONA, all is high-tech efficiency. Instead of signage on art works, you receive an iPod affair called ‘O’ (as in Omphalos?). ‘O’ knows where you are and tells you what you are looking at. You can read and listen and also Like or Dislike each work and find out whether your tastes are shared. As a guide to the underworld I’m surprised ‘O’ wasn’t named Virgil, as in Dante’s Inferno, but that may be one step of cleverness too far for MONA.
The descent into the bowels of MONA is more akin to Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld* than Monteverdi’s Orfeo**. My clever iPod guide has recorded my journey in the MONA underworld and I can revisit it via the MONA website. Looking back at my journey, it is clear that, although some works in MONA are ephemeral (to put if kindly) they are all of exemplary execution. As to the charge that some of the stuff in MONA is a wank, well, look down at your ‘O’ guide and you will see an icon that says ‘Artwank’ and all will be explained, even as your misgivings about a particular piece are forestalled. When MONA promotes Monanism – an evolving exhibition – one can be in no doubt as to who is pulling the, er … strings.
Some works held me in a kind of thrall however. Giant video displays usually leave me cold, but data.matrix (2009) by Ryoji Ikeda is gigantic and mesmerising; rather like watching a complex airport arrivals display, which never tells you really where you are going—numbers and symbols clack all over the wall—you want it desperately to tell you something. It also looks splendid. You can watch it from a distant balcony or walk right up and along it and engage it. A kinetic work in its own right, you can also turn into your own personal, kinetic experience.
Queen (a Portrait of Madonna) (2005) by Candice Breitz was fascinatingly awful and intentionally so. Walsh himself writes about this work that he hates Madonna, but he loves what Brietz is doing to her. This video portrait of 30 Madonna wannabes singing the same Madonna song effectively shows the vacuity of both Madonna and her acolytes. One had to laugh. Many opened the door into this enclosed display and hurriedly closed it again in dismay. Breitz’ installation is clever, amusing and very watchable. It provokes questions including the old one about what is ‘art’? It’s a question continually to be asked as you plumb the literal depths of MONA. At its simplest, art is pleasing to the senses and tells us something about ourselves, or our world (or it’s congealing fat in a frypan). Most of MONA’s art is very easy to take on board and, I would have to say, it caused me to look into myself. Continuing to riff on the Orpheus association, I pondered whether MONA had any direct links to the post-Cubist, Orphism movement? There seems to be more new than old art at MONA and no historical Orphics. I checked the ever-helpful MOMA website about Orphism. The definition blithely suits much of what MONA presents:
Orphism could signify a direct sensuous address by means of colour and light, as well as an innovative creative process.
Monanism is certainly about colour and light; the sensual and the innovative. MONA encourages and provokes; confronts and palliates.
A work that does my head in is Artifact (2010) Gregory Barsamian. It’s a huge head, a colossus head lying on its side. The skull has been somewhat trepanned so you can look inside and see miraculous workings of birds and books animated with spectroscopic lights. Birds fly in and out of books and keep repeating the same actions. Some crap as they fly. The technique is the same as a flick-page animation, but trying to grasp how it actually works is mind-bending. Great fun.
Paradise (2007–13) by Kutlug Ataman looks like an adult-sized, Ikea child-minding set-up. The undulating plush floor has a soft, rubber underlay. Walking on it is disconcerting and highly pleasurable. I lay down in the room for some time and drifted away. Is it art? Not sure, but it was blissful. Kryptos (2008-10) by Brigita Ozolins seems a permanent exhibit and I was glad to find it on my second visit to MONA. It is a small, suggestion of a maze that leads into an inner sanctum—a mystery cave within the MONA cavern. At the centre is an experience I shan’t disclose, but it shakes you up. Maybe not the Eleusinian Mysteries here, but it gives a taste of the underworld—chthonic shock.
A very sobering encounter is My Beautiful Chair (2010) by Greg Taylor and Dr Philip Nitschke. This is an interactive installation: leather armchair, Nitschke Euthanasia Machine, Persian floor rug, glass coffee table, standing lamp. Back up there—yes, Nitschke Euthanasia Machine. You sit in the armchair and turn on a program on a computer nested in a sort of briefcase that has medical equipment in it. Apparently a real euthanasia machine, this installation offers a ‘try before you buy’ experience. You imagine yourself plugged in, a syringe empties itself and the countdown to your death begins. It’s not exactly a pleasant experience, but appropriate if you have been dwelling on the sense of MONA as a soft-option underworld. Fortunately I was able to work my way up to the gates of this Hobartian Hades and exit without leaving any of my companions behind.
*Offenbach’s operettas seem to underwhelm English audiences. Perhaps it’s the word ‘operetta’ which conjures up Gilbert and Sullivan and … Gilbert and Sullivan and then, maybe Sigmund Romberg (who?). Let’s use the French opéra bouffon to describe Orpheus and the Underworld and lose the association with the worthily witty, unendurably twee, musically numbing diversions of G&S. Orpheus is a naughty gem, with diverse melodies, marvellous tomfoolery and it ends, of course with the Galop—which we know as the Can Can (girly squeals!). It is unlikely G&S were ever reviewed, as Offenbach’s Orpheus, was by a contemporary who called it a ‘profanation of holy and glorious antiquity’. What publicity indeed. Have a listen.
**Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo was first performed in 1607 in Mantua. In music history we invariably learn that this was the work that effectively kick-started opera as we have since understood the genre. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice appeals to musicians because Orpheus was The Musician who could charm beasts and rocks and stones and trees (all in their diurnal course) with his lyre. A hard act to follow and many have tried. The opening fanfare to Orfeo is one of the great riffs of art music.