A Visit to MONA

There are many ways in which a large fortune made from gambling could be spent, among which the establishment of a museum, with a rapidly growing public-access library of 14 000 volumes attached to it, is surely one of the best. In a fairly remote suburb of Hobart David Walsh has set up a Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which contains many fine things, among them pieces by Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley. There are places to eat and drink, not exactly the cheapest, although entry to the Museum is free for Tasmanians, and the scale of the place makes it easy to pass the greater part of a day there. It is clearly a boost to the underdeveloped Tasmanian economy, on a scale perhaps comparable to that of the Wrest Point Casino in its early days.

The purpose of MONA is not to introduce people to the sum of human achievement, and still less to reinforce customary ways of looking at human creation, as many traditional museums seek to do, but to question taboos. A number of people have described the contents of the collection as confronting, and if you are the kind of person offended at a machine producing excrement or sculptures of female sexual organs it may be better if you do not visit. Some of the pieces, such as the hot pink Fat Car, are gross in more than one way; much of the collection is of contemporary work, in particular European and American, that is hard to classify. But not only are the contents of the museum confronting; I suspect that it has been designed with confrontation in mind. Having been dug out of sandstone it is entirely underground, so you walk along black corridors looking at things artificially illumined, although there are occasional bursts of intrusive flashing or strobe lighting. Sometimes the corridors give no sense of where they are heading, and staircases mysteriously appear. The rooms are not labelled and there are no captions to the exhibits, but a hand-held device provides some information about what you are looking at. The material is not organised chronologically or geographically but, somewhat vaguely, thematically. All this means that the control of the institution over your experience is higher than it is in a traditional museum.

David Walsh describes himself as a rabid atheist, and his collection clearly seeks to shock; he sees it as an antidote to small-mindedness. A sense of the ethos of MONA can be gained from what we are told of one of the restaurants: ‘Sneakily secluded from the bumbag-wearing hordes, The Source is where rogue musicians, artists and museum owners go to inject Bloody Marys into their veins for breakfast, or get chatty over a long lunch of wallaby tartare.’ The lay-out and general feel of the place has as much of in-your-face attitude as what he has assembled. It is designed to shock, in the way that children use bad language. The Monanisms MONA purports to deliver are clouded by a self-indulgence that veers towards the childish.

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