The alarm was set for 5:00am but the rain outside, and five hours sleep, did little to renew the enthusiasm so confidently expressed when Nick’s initially suggested we fly to Tasmania for the day to visit the Museum of Old and New Art ‘MONA’ in Hobart. Four others from the Powerhouse Museum’s Digital and Emerging Tech team were going and that combined with the non-refundable flight and my partner’s ‘you will be going’ looks ensured that somehow by 6.30 I was in line to get on the plane to visit David Walsh’s privately owned museum.
One of the main reasons for the visit was to look at how this museum has integrated handheld technologies into as its core function for interpreting the space, instead of using labels. Another was to look at how Walsh’s personal vision and complete control of the space influenced the kinds of objects selected and the way they were displayed.
We arrived by cab from the airport before the museum had opened and rather than queue up we wandered around the grounds. The first thing that struck me was how from the outside the project looked almost like a military fortress embedded in hillside above the Derwent River. From the outside its all concrete, rusty metal, and vast slabs of sandstone facing off against the suburban homes and family lives that surround it. This seems to reflect the confrontational nature of much of the collection housed in the darkened halls beneath, and its owners delight in challenging the norms and poking a finger into our collective brain matter.
However iconoclasm isn’t a question here for ironically MONA seems to have achieved what many state and federally run institutions find so difficult – it has populist appeal. The displays may be sexually explicit, violent, irreverent, and controversial but more importantly they are, almost without exception, NOT BORING.
What you are in for is made clear from the very beginning of the visit when you are receive your personal i-phone for the tour from the friendly front of house staff. One of the first things you notice after logging in is two buttons on the bottom which gives you information about the objects. One is called ‘gonzo’ and if clicked gives and brief account of how the object was purchased or a visitors or artists impression of the object. The second, with the graphic of a penis, is titled ‘art wank’ and clicking this gives you a detailed account of the object, the artist etc. From personal experience I am almost certain that this sentiment, if not vocalised by visitors to art museums, was often what they actually thought about the kinds of text usually provided. Even better was seeing how many of the mainly elderly audience were happy to read an ‘art wank’ and I couldn’t help feeling they were probably reading more than when it was presented in a more formal way.
One thing I wasn’t so keen on was the set of buttons, which effectively replaced the ‘like’ button concept from Facebook with ‘Love’ or ‘Hate’. I thought these were a bit constrictive as many of the works didn’t conjure up those kind of extremes of emotion in me. But then again the sentiments were quite in keeping with Walsh’s overall feeling his collection was indeed pushing the boundaries, and were extreme.
So where was I – that’s right we’re at the reception area, with I-phone, hand poised to press LOVE or HATE, and feeling like I’m about to take a Dante-esque trip in this high tech lift though the bedrock to some subliminal realms below.
This first thing that strikes you when you step out of the lift is the Egyptian scale of the space carved out of the rock. It’s like being it some kind of futurist movie set, walkways above a high tech bar which are a precursor to a series of dark recesses and corridors going off in different directions. This is where you really start to get to grips with the tour guide you have in your hand. Press the pink ‘O’ and it gives you your location and lists the artworks nearby. It also allows you to enter your email address at this point and this will record the objects you visit (although this did appear to be linked to whether you actually ‘loved’ or ‘hated’ an object rather than just stood in front of it) and – this was pretty cool – sent the list with pictures though to your email for after your trip. It even lists the objects you didn’t see for another visit – all of which is a great help right now as I write this post.
Then its time to set off on the journey and make your way back to the surface. One of the other things you quickly notice is how dark everything is. This one feature makes a tremendous difference to the entire experience and is one which I couldn’t help but feel has the potential to transform any museum.
The other thing I noticed at this point was that although visitors can take photos without a flash the Mona handheld did not have a camera. And even though I tried juggling using my own phone camera, it limited the way I could capture my experience. So bring a good camera if you are serious about documenting your visit.
I guess this will mean having three pieces of tech to carry around which does seem a little unnecessary. Perhaps it would be nice if the MONA phone had a camera so at least you could take some happy snaps and load these into your museum experience to send to your email.
So what about the work? The great thing as I have said was it was interesting NOT BORING, stuff moved, was well lit and even when potentially boring stuff (like pieces of flint) were displayed they were arranged in interesting artistic patterns. Again I think museums could do a lot here in simply looking at how objects are arranged or combined can potentially create a new level of interest. I also liked the way ‘all roads led to Rome’ there were no dead ends or cul-de-sacs to escape from. A great example of this was after looking at the skinned kitty and the hanging wax horse (PXIII by Berlinde De Bruyckere) I rounded the corner to be confronted with a black wall which on closer inspection opened when I pushed on it and brought me back to the main corridor. Interesting, exciting and relies on humans exploring rather than being directed.
Another example of this was the opaque white cube, Queen (A Portrait of Madonna) by Candice Breitz, which was in the centre of the displays on one level. From the outside I could see shadows moving inside and walked around it wondering what was going on when I came upon a door. On opening it and walking inside I was confronted by a bright wall of TV’s which contrasted strongly with the outside ambience, even more jarring was the Capella voices, mostly not very good, singing Madonna hits, kinda in time, but the longer I stayed the more embarrassed I felt watching them.
One of my favourite objects Artifact, by Gregory Barsamian, was a huge metal head lying on its side at the top of some stairs. But it was the flashing light coming from inside that attracted my attention and in this case curiosity was rewarded with a stunning stroboscopic light show inside the coil of wires lining the interior of the head.
I won’t go on to list all the great stuff at the museum as my advice is to see and experience it for yourself. This is a great experience and I’d like to congratulate David for making this one of the more successful and expensive examples of entrepreneurship in the cultural sector. By the time we made our way back to the surface hours has gone by, our group of five had met, wandered off, got lost, bumped into each other at video screenings, seen each other from afar on stairways going to other unknown places and eventually sat down to discuss the experience at lunch.
Overall I liked the way the lines were blurred between art, architecture and the more traditional museum objects, albeit weird and eccentric ones. No thematic schema, no one way to view the works, lots of accident and serendipity, no text, and dark catacombs of walkways and stairs and stone making for an experience I hope other museums embrace. My five hours sleep was rapidly catching up on me as the five of us made our way to Hobart airport and back to Sydney. I can barely remember the plane trip and journey home but I think we all agreed it was a day-trip to remember. Thanks Mr. Earnshaw.