Tag Archives: Tasmania

Underwhelmed @ MONA

The half hour ride up the Derwent River on the MONA ROMA fast ferry is like a ritual crossing followed by a decent to the land of the dead. There is something cult like about MONA that expects you to be awed.

I love personal collections made into art galleries: the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, the Fondazione Artistica Poldi-Pezzoli in Milan, the Musée Magnin in Dijon and Gustave Moreau’s house in Paris (see my post). I went to a talk at the Johnson Collection by Dr. Bertrand Bourgeois of the University of Melbourne on the Villa Kérylos, another house museum. Dr Bourgeois spoke of the house museum as a dream machine, created to travel in space and time but also to show off to visitors. MONA is another kind of house museum.

Last year Everyone was talking about the opening of MONA, by the end of the year even my mother was talking about her visit. This is kind of talk that makes Hobart one of the world’s top tourist destinations. With all of this talk I had forgotten about MONA’s small presence in Melbourne; there is X+ at the Republic Tower on the corner of LaTrobe and Queen Streets. X+ is a large, two story high, curved billboard like space featuring large. How long has it been there – I’m sure that it was there before MONA opened. Last time I looked there was a photograph of the polished bronze of Wim Delvoye “Dual Mobius Quad Corpus”, 2010. The Flemish artist Wim Delvoye is a favourite of MONA’s owner and collector, David Walsh. Is this just advertising or is it an art project bringing art to the people?

MONA’s collection reflects the taste of the collector, David Walsh a professional gambler and the collection trends towards betting safely on firm favourites. All house-museums are intended to impress but there is nothing more to Walsh’s collection. He says that intended to be “a subversive adult Disneyland” but it is not very adult, it is adolescent and self-indulgent – it is as shallow as cellophane. Extravagance does not equal quality and there appears little point to this bombastic collection other than to impress.

MONA’s collection is reflected in the museum’s name (“old” and “new” are not recognized art history terms). The collection is divided between the very old, from a classical time in a culture – be it classical Mesoamerican or classical Egypt (I know that these are chronologically very different) but you are meant to be impressed with their antiquity. Or it is from the last 30 years, where you are meant to be shocked by the new art, there is almost nothing in between. At the time of my visit the TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery) was being renovated and so a large amount of their collection was on loan to MONA for the “Theatre of the World” exhibition. Some of the best work that I saw at MONA were on loan from TMAG or the NGV.

If the sensationalism of the art wasn’t enough MONA is full of curatorial caprices – cord curtains that needed to be pulled aside to see the work, niches that only a single viewer can look down, carved rocks in a fish tank and low lighting that made the art difficult to see. And I really disliked MONA’s handheld catalogue – see my earlier post O No.

Parts of Walsh’s collection are a copy of the Saatchi collection especially from the Sensation exhibition: Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville, etc. I’ve seen the Saatchi gallery, so I’ve seen a room with several Chris Ofili paintings in it. I’ve seen whole exhibitions of Julia deVille and I’ve walked on a couple of Carl Andre sculptures in my time on this earth – curators keep on leaving them lying around on the floor where I’m going to step on them. Maybe my taste is too sophisticated for MONA but I wasn’t in awe of the exhibition – what appeared to be the intended effect.

I didn’t stay to sample the drink and food at the on site winery, brewery and café  – maybe in this respect it is an adult Disneyland (there are plenty of good places to eat in Hobart). I did notice that the wine had a collection of Melbourne street artists on the label.

MONA made me think of bathos – I don’t bandy these words around lightly.  Bathos is an abrupt, unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace, producing a ludicrous effect. Even the architecture of the entrance has bathos from the ferry to the tennis court and then into the round white modernist space before descending the labyrinthine space beneath.


O No

I think about the parts of art that other critics don’t look at; the parts around art that goes to explain art and the most obvious of these (aside from art gallery itself) are the didactic panels. Didactic panels are those bits of text beside pictures in major institutional art galleries and museums; they are didactic not just because they are educational and informative but also because they give instruction even when it is not welcome or needed. They are footnotes of an art museum.

MONA’s “O” Device is not the future of didactic panels in art galleries. There are problems with didactic panels but the “O” is not the solution, it is just another part of the problem.

I don’t think that there should be no didactic panels but there should be a lot less. Do we really need panels in art museums to explain every painting in the collection? Do we even need so many of them? All these panels of text clutter up the walls of the exhibition.

After all how much does “Madonna and child, 14th Century, Master of somewhere”, or, “Portrait of a Man”, tell the visitor. There are panels that give titles to a painting that originally had none, like Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride”. There is a painting in the Louvre titled “John the Baptist or Bacchus” not because the artist gave it this title but because the artist’s iconography is unclear. This is simply misleading even if it is the current fashion for all painting to have names rather than descriptions. Titles are essential to some works of art and this is why Duchamp wrote many of them on actual readymades but this doesn’t mean that they are necessary for all art.

Then there are didactic panels that use words like ‘gouache’, presuming that they are talking to an informed public. The general public would know ‘gouache’ as ‘poster paints’. It is rather like only using Latin names for animals rather than their common names.

Curators expressing their opinions on these panels are, in my opinion, unnecessary but they are simply wrong to tell me how I should think or feel about the art. Another trend is to have panels written by people other than curators, children, philosophers, anything for more panels. And along with all these didactic panels are the artist statements. If an artist’s work doesn’t speak for itself then it won’t help the artist explaining it. And artists are not, as a rule, experts in writing explanations, so artist’s statements are often very annoying to read and can alone inspire a bad review.

“Never believe what an artists says; only what he does.” Walter Sickett

The MONA’s “O” is a hand held device; basically it is an electronic room-sheet for sections of the MONA’s collection and you have to find a tiny picture of art to get the information on it. The device would have been easier to use if there were some signs to indicate what case number or what part of a gallery I was looking in but there are no signs at MONA. The electronics don’t work very well; I had to swap my device three times because this was the solution that the gallery attendant could think of to solve the problems with picking up the right room.

The electronic record of my visit on MONA’s website is the best part of the “O” but an online catalogue would be almost just as useful. The “like” or “hate” button on the “O” is as stupid and shallow as Facebook. The “O” just has more didactic text and not less which reducing my conversation with my companion and interfering with my enjoyment of the visit to MONA.

And as I wear reading glasses using the “O” was further complicated. I can still read print at arms length and I do carry my glasses in my pocket at galleries in case I want to read something, write notes or look at detail but I don’t want to walk around wearing my reading glasses because isn’t comfortable. And this added to the irritating quality of using the “O” at MONA and after half and hour of using it I just wanted to throw it away or crush it underfoot.


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