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.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

26 responses to “Underwhelmed @ MONA

  • Hariklia

    You are a brave man – surely a case of the emperor’s new clothes. I haven’t been to MOMA, but have of course heard all the hype. As Henry Rollins said (and I’m paraphrasing) “When mom know about grunge, it’s time to move onto something else.” Thank you, a great post!

  • Helen

    More money than taste. But it is so good for the Tasmanian economy…Walsh even had the gall to announce publicly that MONA may shut if the ATO didn’t get off his back! Well, it appears the ATO did back down and struck a deal with Walsh over millions in unpaid taxes…

    • Mark Holsworth

      It has been very good for the Tasmanian economy and Walsh will always take a bet on pressuring the ATO. What a shame that Walsh has very ordinary taste and has gone for shock and awe in his collection.

  • Catherine Voutier

    I had no idea that Walsh intended MONA to be a subversive adult disneyland! It certainly did not have that effect. Great summing up and I agree, MONA is all noise and no substance.

  • Miss Eagle (@misseagle)

    I can claim no great art qualifications but I am hardly the mum and the kids at Disneyland type either.

    I visited MONA at New Year and would love to go back again. I saw the Wim Delvoye works. I think the understanding is that the works on display are a personal collection which has been made available to the public – and individuals are can pick what they like without cultural permissions. Walsh has not chosen works with one eye on the national heritage or some larger vision.

    Like all art, even that labelled great, there is always a personal response. All art labelled great does not provoke a universal response. There was stuff at MONA that I could happily walk past and did. However, to call it shallow is an over the top response. It is like when Richard Flanagan wrote in an article about MONA earlier in the year – when the Delvoye exhibition was on – that there was no religious art in the gallery. http://goo.gl/aQOVX Flanagan must have missed the Twisted Jesus sculpture and the rodent Stations of the Cross with its associated scripture passages available on the O. Each of these were, for me, meditative items.

    I did not find it an amusement park for adults. I accepted it at face value – a personal, idiosyncratic collection which has been put on display to the public for which I am grateful to David Walsh.

    I assume that, across the years, there will be temporary exhibitions which will be received with greater or lesser response. But I don’t see why MONA should be disparaged nor why it should be dismissed out of hand.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I wasn’t commenting on the quality of the art at MONA – Wim Delvoye, Chris Ofili and Julia de Ville are all fine artists. I was commenting on the collection and generally I do like personal collections over an institutional collection. The quality of a collection is more than just the sum of the quality of the art in the collection, a good collection has depth of meaning in the collection – there can be good collections of bad art or, in MONA’s case, a bad collection of good art. If only MONA was an adult Disneyland – Disneyland has themes to various areas of the park. If you want to see a real adult Disneyland go to the Teatre-Museu Dali – if Dali knew how many visitors it was going to attract he would have installed a railway like a theme park.

  • happyunderground

    I like the part where you said your taste was too sophisticated for MONA.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks, I did say “maybe” – I didn’t want to sound too arch – but maybe MONA wasn’t meant for someone like me.

  • Amanda James

    You went there – end of story.

  • Bela Somssich

    Just for the record and because old Mr Grumpy Pants didn’t find what he was looking for MONA is a varied and interesting collection of creative endeavours, ancient and modern, housed in a magnificent and playfully sinister building which is especially popular with young people (but also with older individuals who are still adventurous and open minded). Beware though – name droppers will be faced with their own mortality and will rush home fearfully clutching their preconceptions!

    • Mark Holsworth

      Bela, when you can defend MONA without ad hominem and without simply quoting MONA’s own publicity material I might take your comment seriously. “Beware though – name droppers will be faced with their own mortality and will rush home fearfully clutching their preconceptions!” (More of MONA’s hyperbolic rhetoric – Walsh’s collection was mostly about name dropping and death). See Miss Eagle’s comments for how to write a decent defense of MONA’s collection.

  • Jill Saunders

    What a nasty, opinionated and pretentious, arch (for yes indeedy you are!) little man you are! So your taste is ‘sophisticated”? By who’s measure? It sounds as though you are channelling the UK’s insufferably opinionated, and dull Brian Sewell-another self-described “art critic” who like you is disappearing up his own, no doubt perfectly bleached and trimmed fundament. It’s a museum. It’s fun. or not. Art is totally subjective, and if you got off your ass and did something as great for the community as David Walch has for Hobart -like it or loathe it-then you might gain the respect you so clearly think that you richly deserve!

    • Mark Holsworth

      The more comments that I get supporting MONA by people whose first engage in an ad hominem argument the more suspicious I am of the quality of MONA; for if this is the kind of discourse that people who enjoy MONA then how poor is their ability to comprehend art? What first made me suspicious was the fanatical and uncritical praise that people have for MONA. I now understand that you are simply the repeating MONA propaganda as a demonstration of loyalty to the cult, like a member of the Westbro Baptist Church.

  • C Taylor

    deeply shallow review –
    too sophisticated? by your judgement? A more apt word question is too arrogant..

    What do you expect Mr Sophisticated?
    Or is this the only way you can get attention out there in the world?

    One man builds a gallery and put a tiny island on the world map of creativity, all paid out of his own money – and you expect it to suit your individual idea of what a gallery should exhibit/look like?

    A museum/art galley is constantly changing – so your “sophisticated” review is already outdated…

    Some of us think big… pity you can’t..

    • Mark Holsworth

      I wonder what the problem that people who enjoy MONA have that they have to insult people who don’t regard it as god’s gift to Tasmania. As I said in previous comments ad homminen arguments don’t impress me and only lower the opinion of the people who use them.

  • Ladis Pongracz

    Your article comes across as a bit of a wank. I’m talking about your article, not you, so please no holier than thou ad hominem refrain. I think C Taylor has a point. Basically your criticism of MONA is that it wasn’t good enough for your self-proclaimed ‘sophisticated’ taste. Your argument is a description of the myriad superior places you have been. There are a lot of assumptions there. My reaction to your article: Annoying! I have read a lot better articles. I think the message here which you may not be receiving is that the problem is not MONA. Plenty of people both like and dislike it. I loved the “shallow as cellophane” analogy. I use it whenever I can.(Tip: If you put your opinions out there be prepared for a response!)

    • Mark Holsworth

      So why do you think that MONA is not as shallow as cellophane. It just looked like a shallow copy of the Satchi collection in so many places. My reaction to your comment annoying and I have read better replies. I don’t think that David Walsh or the people who like MONA have much of an understanding of quality art and are easily amused and annoyed.

  • Ladis Pongracz

    There is a song “Shallow” by Cellophane. Otherwise I think of cellophane as being transparent and sometimes colourful. I’m sorry you are not easily amused.

  • MOMA is Overrated | Black Mark

    […] MOMA is not the most over-rated art museum that I have seen in this world; that honour must go MONA in Hobart. If MOMA is a greatest all time #1 hits compilation album then MONA in Hobart is a heavy metal compilation. (See my post on MONA.) […]

  • Collections or Museums | Black Mark

    […] David Walsh’s MONA in Hobart, it is not a museum it is just his art collection (see my post on MONA). There are limitations on the number, quality and taste that a single collector can bring to a […]

  • Edgelords of Art | Black Mark

    […] The gambler from Tasmania who collects edgy art is a clear example of an Edgelord. Even though he doesn’t, as far as I know, have an online presence on Reddit or 4chan. Art and antiquities with themes of death are the domain of the Edgelord. I have long had my reservations about MONA (Museum of Old and New Art); see my blog post for my initial impressions. […]

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