Tasmania – a small, sparsely populated, windswept island lying below the Bass Straits, south of Australia, just 2000 miles north of Antarctica, is not a place where you would expect one of the greatest Mecca’s of contemporary art to be. This fishing, agriculture and mining outpost has a population of only 500,000 – to give some perspective, Tate modern gets almost that many visitors in a month. Yet It is here that the visionary project MONA, the Museum of New and Old resides.
MONA is the brainchild of David Walsh a self made business man and professional gambler who heralds from Hobart, Tasmania’s capital. Over the years he has been a passionate collector of contemporary art and supporter of his hometown. He has created and financed art and music festivals and is literally on a crusade to give Tasmania a dimension to its artistic life that no one could have even imagined before him. It is said he spent almost his entire fortune, (well over a $150 million) on MONA and its contents and seeing it I can believe it.
MONA is simply unique. Set on a peninsula of sandstone cliffs which rise above the Derwent estuary on Hobart’s northern fringe, overlooked by the majestic grandeur of Mount Wellington, the slopes of the peninsula are planted with grapevines (Walsh has his own winery) and a cluster of modern buildings that somehow manage not to be incongruous with their surrounds.
At the opening (a pretty amazing event in itself), I spent hours walking again and again through this wondrous and brilliant place. It wasn’t enough. What Walsh has done is break the mould of how museums show contemporary art. MONA is the boldest project I have ever witnessed. Walsh is a hero – to have the vision, desire and courage to build such a place – there is no other fitting description.
Architecturally the building is stunning. It is a work of art in itself. The lay-out is absolutely unconventional and non-linear. Tubular passage ways, gyrating and jutting stairways, giant curved walls, exposed rock, glass galleries and a devoutly idiosyncratic atmosphere make this space literally one of a kind. The boldness of the design of the building is matched by the boldness of the lighting. MONA is not for those afraid of the dark. Indeed much of the gallery is in absolute darkness, lit only by the direct lighting of the works themselves.
Perhaps the most special characteristic of the building is that somehow despite its boldness, it remains balanced. It does not outshine the works of the collection. In fact it lifts them to greater heights. This to me is without doubt the most invigorating place to see Contemporary Art. I haven’t seen better. It raises the bar to very lofty heights.
I have heard some journalists making disparaging comments such as “this is an obnoxious rich man’s play thing / shrine etc…” As a card carrying member of the left I would be the first to say this if it were fair – it isn’t – Such comments are just Humbug.
The collection itself is interesting, beautiful and bold. It successfully combines work from the very established to the upcoming and gives a good recap of the artists that have shaped the past 10+ years in the contemporary art world. Walsh clearly has an appetite for all mediums and his curators have clearly not been restricted in any way. Sculpture, video, sound, installation, performance, works with water and of course two dimensional artworks are all well represented. In terms of the shock factor so played on by Walsh’s PR people, the reality is different from the press release. Some of the works are challenging, but sensible curation ensures that the current show never becomes contrived or over the top.
That said several works in the MONA collection have generated controversy long before they arrived at MONA. Chris Ofilis’ portrait The Holy Virgin Mary as an example is part of Walsh’s collection and a centrepiece of the opening show, MONANISM. I think I recall Rudy Giuliani describing the work as “blasphemous” when it was first displayed in New York in the nineties.
In terms of specific works there were too many highlights to mention them all – my favourites pieces were from the following artists – Jon Pylpchuk, Anselm Kiefer, Samuel Rousseau, Wang Qinsong, Sydney Nolan, Daniel Crooks, Callum Morton, Greg Taylor, Patrick hall, AES + F to name a few.
My only sadness is a selfish one. We have been contemplating for a while to build a space for the Franks – Suss collection. After seeing this it is back to the drawing board for I have seen the future and we by comparison are still in the dark ages…. SEF