Monday, 4 February 2013

The Unpublished 13: MONA - Wild Art in Hobart (Part 1)

In 2011 I visited the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania for the first time. It was only a few months old, but would soon rocket up the charts to become the island state's most popular tourist attraction. 

After the visit, I wrote this profile of the amazing gallery and its exhibits. However, the magazine which had requested it had accidentally requested the same coverage from another writer. I managed to incorporate the heart of my work in another article, but the original has never been published. Until now...

MONA, as seen from an approaching ferry

What do you do  if you’re an eccentric mathematical genius who’s made millions by designing successful gambling systems? Live the high life on the French Riviera? Or return to your roots and open a vast new modern art museum in the northern suburbs of Hobart?

It’s this thought that passes through my mind as my wife Narrelle and I sit on the deck of the ferry that’s taking us from Hobart’s CBD to the Museum of Old and New Art. 

MONA is the brainchild of David Walsh, a self-made gambling millionaire who’s beholden to no government grants. As a result, his contemporary art museum beneath a promontory in the Derwent River is packed with an eclectic collection of works that would startle any conservative state-run gallery director.

The lowest level of the gallery
I’m really looking forward to getting inside and seeing what the fuss is about. Since it opened in 2011, MONA has had locals and visitors to the slow-paced Tasmanian capital in a buzz, with reports of outlandish objects and fascinating concepts. Now we’re about to see it for ourselves.

This ferry trip seems a great way to get into the right mood. The passengers are a happy group of art lovers on a day out, enjoying the views along the broad river on a warm and sunny day. Even when we pass an enormous refinery halfway along, it feels as if we’re taking in a complex piece of industrial-themed art.

Then we’re at MONA’s dock beneath a rugged headland, climbing the steps to the entrance. There’s not much to see at this point, oddly, just a door framed by reflective metal sheets, approached by walking across a fake tennis court. Reportedly Walsh specifically ordered this low-key approach, rather than an intimidating lofty facade.

The view over the river is beautiful from this point – but we’re heading down, to the bulk of the gallery within the hillside.

A spiral staircase takes us down a circular liftwell, through millennia of exposed sandstone. At the bottom, a corridor flanked by high stone walls feels like the entrance to a tomb. We’re already impressed, and we haven’t even seen any art yet.

Bit.fall, by Julius Popp

It’s not far away. Nearby are a number of works of varying sizes and concepts, including Bit.fall, a fountain from which timed bursts of water spell words which then stretch and fall to the ground below; III Crossing, a video installation in which a giant hand moves pedestrians and cars about a busy intersection; and the amazing Loop System Quintet, five enormous machines with arms mechanically rotating in patterns, each arm topped with a single light bulb.

There’s also the memorable Locus Focus, installed within one of MONA’s toilet cubicles. It’s a functional facility equipped with mirrors which enable startlingly intimate views while sitting on the loo.

Loop System Quintet, by Conrad Shawcross

Given the diversity in size and shape of these works, and the relatively low-lit environment, the usual system of descriptive notes on gallery walls might not cut it. In place of this is “The O”, a customized iPod Touch with which each visitor is issued upon entry.

On the press of a single button, this clever device senses the holder’s location in the museum and displays details of the closest works. It’s a clever idea, freeing the viewer from the necessity of hunting down wall notation and peering at it in low light.

The O offers multiple choices of information about each work – there may be an audio interview with the artist, the usual academic notes, and some short sharp remarks designed to provoke thought. Under the “Gonzo” category, there’s input by Walsh himself, amusing meanderings which occasionally contradict the other notes or even complain about the art.

It may sound absurd, but in practice the device invokes a sense of playful humour, making the art fun...

NEXT: The wild exhibits continue, including Truck Corridor, Babylonia, White Library and a pair of mummies in a dark wet room (!).

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Tourism Tasmania.