A Feast for All the Senses

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is an art museum located within the Moorilla winery on the Berriedale peninsula in Hobart. It is the largest privately funded museum in Australia. The museum presents antiquities, modern and contemporary art from the David Walsh collection. Walsh has described the museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” He designed the museum to shock and offend, challenge, inform, entertain and provoke debate.

The publicity surrounding the opening of David Walsh’s pet project, MONA in January 2011 extended around the world and the unique characteristics of the location, buildings and exhibits has continued to please or shock tens of thousands of visitors every month making it the most visited single attraction in Tasmania. MONA has encouraged people to visit Hobart, who would ordinarily never have contemplated it.

The museum is the $200m brainchild and playground of Hobart-born David Walsh, Tasmania’s resident eccentric millionaire, who amassed his vast fortune as a professional gambler and has funnelled it into sharing his (some would say questionable) taste with the world and, first and foremost, with his community.

As some of the art works might have offended beary sensibilities, the little bears decided wait for me outside and play in the sun 🙂

MONA

Inside, a glass spiral staircase tunnels down through three mazelike levels of vast sandstone walls and Corten steel columns. Nonda Katsalidis’ enigmatic building, with 6000 sq m of gallery space, is a strange oasis carved out of a cliff overlooking the Derwent River and Walsh’s own Moorilla vineyard.

Before you go down the staircase don’t forget to pick up your iPod touch known as the “O”, containing information about the exhibits (“art wank”) and audio interviews with the artists. The walls are for art, not labels, so you will find no information along the way. Bonus, you can access the information on the “O” online after your visit, so you don’t have to stress that you can barely remember all you read as soon as you walk out the door.

One of the museum’s focal points is Sidney Nolan’s masterpiece Snake.

Snake, by Sidney Nolan
Snake, by Sidney Nolan

This vast mural, more than 46 metres long and nine metres high, is the artist’s largest work. It is the largest in a three-part mural series entitled ‘Oceania’ that he completed between 1968 and 1972. Along with Paradise Garden (some of which now hangs in Arts Centre Melbourne) and Shark, Mona’s huge serpent was partly inspired by the Australian desert in bloom after rain; and also by Nolan’s fascination with ancient Indigenous cultures.

Snake was partly inspired by Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ creation myths of the Rainbow Serpent – but inspired by, rather than derived from. In its parts, it is a series of individual heads and floral and faunal motifs, worked in Nolan’s personal mixed media technique of multi-coloured crayons and translucent dyes. The heads relate specifically to Aboriginal initiation rituals, as well as to New Guinea tribal dancers he had seen in 1968. Together, these 1,620 images form a monumental living arabesque.

Nolan believed that themes of national significance could be brilliantly expressed in large-scale murals (an art form with scant history in Australia). He had studied the work of the revolutionary 20th-century Mexican muralists, which made a hero of the individual and led to a new appreciation of their country’s Indigenous culture. He also admired a huge 18th-century ceramic dragon mural that he saw in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Around the corner from the Snake you find a controversial work and possibly the major draw card at the museum, an installation that simulates the human digestive process – daily feedings yield deposits of excrement in glass receptacles. You can attend a feeding of the giant digestive machine at 11am or 4pm (I just missed the 4pm feeding) or watch the strangely compelling 2pm bowel movement, when Cloaca delivers a Mr Whippy-like mound of excrement preceded by a resounding ‘plop’. The excrement is then dutifully presented to the ‘arty-farty’ crowd, who dry-retch on cue. I missed that experience and I can’t say I’m sorry! According to Nicole Durling, senior curator, the installation is the most “loathed but most visited piece of art in the museum”. It did smell a bit funny in the room, but nothing too offensive.

Cloaca Professional, by Wim Delovye
Cloaca Professional, by Wim Delvoye

Wim Delvoye on Cloaca
“You’re kind of in your own animal moment, that moment in your day, you can’t believe in God that moment. There’s not much hope you’re going to heaven and paradise, that kind of life insurance. All of a sudden it doesn’t look so guaranteed. You can look great five minutes later when you’re released and you’re dressed up on your high heels. You feel God again. But that moment, you feel like a little animal, fragile, like a nothing thing. You have your own intimacy and I take that away. A machine takes that away.”

The excrement theme continues with the Shaduf.

Shaduf, by Matthew Barney
Shaduf, by Matthew Barney

This sculpture, entitled Shaduf, was ultimately inspired by the conception in Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings that the pharaoh might extend his influence by fertilizing crops with his own faeces, and thus become one with his people by entering their bodies. However its iconographic references and implications are both multi-layered and multifarious.

A shaduf is an irrigation tool that originated in ancient Egypt: a levered pole still used in many areas of Africa and Asia to draw bucketfuls of water from wells. In form and golden majesty, Barney’s Shaduf is a sculptural ‘re-incarnation’ of the pharaoh Ptah-nem-hotep’s throneroom in Act I of the film-opera River of Fundament (accessed through a doorway in Mailer’s New York penthouse and draining to a hydroponic vegetable patch in the basement).

Shaduf is cast in brass, an alloy of copper and zinc not traditionally used for large-scale sculpture in western art. (Of course its acoustic properties make brass the metal of choice for musical instruments such as the trombone, tuba, trumpet, cornet, euphonium and French horn. And brass is used extensively in machinery where low friction is required, for example locks or gears.) Apart from the challenge of undertaking something so difficult and rich in risk, Barney presumably appreciated the comparatively low melting point of brass (900° C), and low viscosity – the way it flows when molten allowing great detail to be cast: as here, in the tree bark, timber grain, bricks, wall finish and so on. Shaduf was produced by a process called burnout casting, on an extraordinarily ambitious scale. A model made from flammable materials was dipped into ceramic, after which the model was burned out leaving only the hollow ceramic form behind. The ceramic form was then used as the mould in which brass was cast to produce the final sculpture.

Fat Car, by Erwin Wurm
Fat Car, by Erwin Wurm

Erwin Wurm’s humorous sculpture, Fat Car, can be seen as a comment on 21st-century consumer indulgence. He has taken one of the world’s most desirable material symbols of motorized power, style, design and speed – the Porsche Carrera convertible – and engorged it, distended it, almost but not quite beyond recognition. Although there is something about its form that remains instantly recognisable, and the paintwork is superb, this body sags and bulges with excess. Even the seats inside are bloated.

The Austrian slang word fett is often used to mean ‘showy’ or ‘swanky’ when referring to cars. By confronting us with a witty parody of the ultimate symbol of consumerist drive, Wurm makes us pause and ponder on self-image, human desire and mindless over-consumption.

Wurm conceived his first Fat Car in 2000 and two years later the Fat House. Using computer-aided design technology, he has taken ‘customization’ to an absurd level in these works. For MONA’s Fat Car, the artist selected the chassis. The purchaser, David Walsh, chose the colour and also, starting with ‘W’ for Wien (Vienna), the number plate.

I didn’t see all the art works, but most, including that wall… and my favourite was the musical tunnel.

Untitled music installation, by Christopher Townend
Untitled music installation, by Christopher Townend

The untitled music installation by musician, producer, engineer Christopher Townend, was commissioned by David Walsh specifically for the Mona tunnel. Hidden from view, built into the floor of this 37-metre-long underground concrete tube, are 48 custom-built speakers. As Townend explains, each 700mm section of flooring has load cells underneath that detect your presence and trigger parts of the composition based on where you are in the tunnel. So, more people = more music. The sound produced then interacts with the tunnel’s resonance. I walked up and down four times 🙂

Not all the reviews of the museum from the art world have been complimentary, but I found it full of surprises and not particularly confronting. And I did visit The Morgue.

It was time to collect the bears and return to the hotel.

How did they get up there?

MONA

The view is better from higher up…

MONA

Flatbed Truck, Trailer And Cement Truck, by Wim Delvoye
Flatbed Truck, Trailer And Cement Truck, by Wim Delvoye

In Delvoye’s life-sized cement truck and flatbed trailer, computer-aided technology confronts Western artistic heritage. These vehicles are literally ‘made of’ Gothic style, loaded with cultural signification. However, where in Medieval Gothic buildings the soaring stone vaults and pointed arches were essential to achieving maximum height and illumination, with deeply spiritual significance, here the extravagant prefabricated metal tracery is structurally redundant.

Corten steel is laser-cut into computer-engineered arches and vaults, buttresses, gables, ornamental crockets and foils. Delvoye enjoys the comparatively lengthy, collaborative process of conception, design and construction – compared to painting or drawing, for example, but not compared to the centuries it took stonemasons to finish most Gothic cathedrals! There are high-backed thrones in the cabin, a steering wheel like the frame of a church rose window, filigree discharge chute, lacework headlamps and a heraldic lion rampant on each wing mirror. Every element is functionless – at least beyond the carriage of ornament. This mixing drum is never going to mix. And in fact the ornament has proliferated, hybridized, so that there are Moorish-style Islamic patterns, Indian motifs and Celtic triskelions mixed up with the Gothic tracery.

In Hobart, half a world away from the northern hemisphere origins of Gothic architecture, the Flatbed Truck, Trailer & Cement Truck have taken on a new dimension that may even surprise Delvoye. The clear Tasmanian sky and the green-grey hills, seen through its transparency, become part of the work itself. And here, outside, washed by rain and buffeted by winds from the Antarctic, it is creating an earthy, rusty ‘shadow’ on the concrete at Mona – where, of course, much of the building is constructed from the same corten weathered steel.

If you decide you like the place, you can opt to be exhibited there in an urn. As part of a $75,000 Eternity Membership, your ashes will be interned in style at MONA’s purpose built columbarium. Walsh’s father, RIP, is already in situ to keep you company.

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