Something bugs me about MONA

I was reminded of it last night when Brian Ritchie, former bass player for the Violent Femmes and curator of Tasmania’s newest and most talked-about museum’s Festival of Music and Art, was a guest on the Hobart edition of ABC’s Q&A. The discussions about MONA on that episode – like the majority of profiles on the museum and its creator – were unfailingly positive. Upfront about and yet accepting of the challenging content, the panellists talked about how good MONA had been for the local economy and for the social landscape, and how wonderful it was that the museum had been embraced by the famously conservative Tasmanian community.

Still, something bugged me.

It’s not that the man who owns and runs MONA, the strange and reclusive David Walsh, made his enormous fortune gambling. It’s worth noting (although it’s by no means the end of the debate) that MONA’s existence is only possible due to that private bankrolling – the $80 million building houses a $100 million art collection and costs an estimated $7 million annually to run, and yet the museum was free entry to everyone until October last year. (On the day we visited, in May 2011, the young guy at the ferry gate told us it was making an annual loss of something closer to $10 million.)

It’s not even the scatological, explicit, irksome or onanistic nature of so much of the content. There’s a lot to like in there. One of the most beautiful pieces by far is a sculpture of a taxidermied bird, falling through thousands of dandelion seeds, suspended on taut, translucent threads from floor to ceiling. The most prominent piece in the collection – if only because of its size – is Sidney Nolan’s extraordinary 1620-frame work Snake. I felt I could stand in front of it for hours, and yet, seeming to care less about the work itself than its potential as a drawcard, Walsh said of the 45-metre giant: ‘It was designed to lure people in, and then I get to make any statement I want.’

It’s that message – or more precisely, the lack of it – that bothers me.

Deliberately structured around a subversion of hierarchical education systems, MONA shirks framing in the traditional sense, arranging the items in its collection without labels and with deliberate disregard for context. In the juxtaposition of old and new, sublime and ridiculous, the individual works are stripped of their history and any externally imposed contention. Whether the juxtaposition is insulting or simply jarring is a debate in and of itself. Aesthetic or conceptual links are deliberately ruptured or confused. Viewers are provided only an iPod guidebook which may or may not have an interpretation of the piece (‘art wank’) included.

‘It’s like a rich man’s soapbox,’ the Australian quoted Walsh as saying. ‘I’m standing on my soapbox and I’m shouting my views like they mean something.’

Walsh claims he structured the museum this way because he wants to make people think, but in some ways this seems like a cruel trick: such juxtaposition can’t help but undercut the work with meaninglessness. You came here because you care about art, it seems to be saying, because you’re interested by art, because art makes you think and feel and grow and learn and change. But these things you care about are as arbitrary and transient as those words dropping from Julius Popp’s Bit.Fall installation: Politics. History. Peace. Justice. Gotcha.

In the subcultures I inhabited as a teenager, ‘alternative’ also meant sex and death, a kneejerk rejection of the status quo. We were obsessed with the visceral and the animalistic because it rendered the perfunctory rituals of everyday life – jobs and money, schoolwork, pop music, fashion, everything from peer pressure to politics – absurd. It reminded us that we were temporal. We might be alive but we are cogs in a machine. Critical and theorised in only the crudest way, we rushed towards the ‘other’, whatever the ‘other’ happened to be, simply because we were dissatisfied with what we had. But such incessant focus on the quickness of life/death, coupled simply with rejection, no matter what that was or meant, seemed to lead inevitably to nihilism. Those people I knew who embraced existentialism did so because it gave them an excuse not to care about anything. Instead of taking full responsibility for the burden of their own life’s meaning, on how their actions affected other people and themselves, they slid into emptiness and apathy. There was no point to politics or society, there was no point in arguing or struggle for change, there was no point in caring about other people when there was no point in caring.

‘I’m pretty well anti-everything,’ Walsh says.

That the Tasmanian community has come to claim this thing that, at least in part, seems to have been set up as a comprehensive ‘fuck you’ to establishment and established model, is perhaps a positive development. Much of the positive commentary around MONA seems to be couched in discussions about the state’s pervasive social conservatism and the business enterprise opportunities that this new institution might present. And perhaps MONA has, as Natasha Cica suggested on last night’s show, meant the ‘arrival of a critical intensity’ in the community. People who once shied away from certain kinds of confrontation are now embracing new ideas, and that can only be a good thing.

Nevertheless, I still can’t shake the feeling that this ‘temple of secularism’ is, at its core, a monument to reaction.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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    1. Clearly, whatever the ethos behind it, Mona certainly has made it’s mark.Does the public response to it’s existence eclipse the collection itself? Only time and the public will tell.Arguably,art is successful when it creates a response.As for the result of exhibiting a collection without formal ‘labeling’, only the people visiting can voice their opinions about it.They will label it.As many of us do over the internet.Mona is to be seen for it’s individuality.Visiting a collection doesn’t guarantee pleasure or any particular response for that matter. Perhaps visitors to Mona should expect nothing, go there with an open mind, and merely experience the unexpected.A bit like New Years Eve; expect little & enjoy the experience.Then relax in the sublime ambience of Tasmania afterwards!

        1. Hi Vivienne

          We do have a comments policy (no sexism, racism, homophobia or personal attacks) and we also have to monitor for spam, which is why first-time commenters don’t immediately appear.


  1. It bugged me, too.
    Yes, I could see why people liked it so much. In some way, it’s the antithesis of the traditional gallery — incredibly slick, incredibly up-to-date and never boring.
    Yet it actually made me quite nostalgic for that nineteenth century notion of a gallery or museum as a place that structured how you absorbed information. There’s all kinds of ways that a traditional exhibit might be conservatising — enforcing a rigid canon, celebrating empire or whatever. But MONA felt like watching a series of Youtube clips curated by a thirteen year old boy, all of them cool and transgressive, but with no context whatsoever, so that the whole thing adding up to much less than the sum of its parts.

    1. I don’t know Jeff- there is something so energetic about Mona- and something so deadening about most regional art galleries..including the Castlemaine gallery- (which sits at the hub of one of the most lively arts communities in Australia). The YouTube analogy is good – with both the good and not so good consequences- but give me a fuck you attitude over a fuck off attitude any day.

    2. I disagree. There are a thousand galleries out there structured to provide an education. What I love about MONA is the way it peels back that authoritative facade and shows you the discussions and arguments that go on behind the scenes. Instead of trying to explain the art to you, MONA encourages you to engage with it.

  2. I love going to MONA because I love art, especially traditional painting and I love the kitsch like the wacky Wim Delvoye works that were shown recently. I also make art all the time, drawing, painting and computer edited photography. What is weird is when you go to other museums, I recently went to the Queensland art gallery and was surprised with myself; expecting sleaze, banality and puerile art jokes every time I rounded a corner. Alas all I found was beautiful paintings, wonderful Japanese pottery and an amazing set of Australian landscape painting that I had never seen before.

    This is the stuff that’s missing from MONA. The joy found in art, genuine sexiness, and genuine despair of the melancholy. Is there anything that takes your breath away at MONA? For me its either the Howard Arkley’s suburban house or Damian Cowell’s song ‘The Car that Ate my Life’ which you find on the O when you are near the big red car.

    1. I found many of the exhibits at MONA fascinating. As I said I my piece, there’s a lot to like there.

      What I want to question – and what bugged me about it – is Walsh’s overarching contention.

  3. Are you equating existentialism with nihilism? I understand them as two very different ideas. Nihilism, in the negative sense, is complete negation — as you say, a path towards emptiness and apathy. Existentialism, on the other hand, begins with a (critical and engaged) negation of overarching structures of meaning, creating a sort of blank slate that opens up the opportunity for choice at its most liberating.


    1. No, I’m not equating them. My understanding of existentialism is similar to yours – that choice at its most liberating is also the most burdensome, because in the absence of externally imposed meaning you have to create your own. But those people that I knew who embraced existentialism – or what they understood it to be – never got to the creative part. They got to the part about meaninglessness, and decided it was a really good justification for, well, not giving a shit about anyone or anything. There was critical engagement when it came to tearing down established structures, but no commitment – or desire even – to building anything in their place.

  4. For the rigid puritans who must have descriptives and order with their art viewing; I suggest any number of other galleries across the nation that cater. If it’s something extraordinary that arouses you, Mona.

  5. Sorry, I don’t understand your problem. David Walsh built and funded MONA and I think he is entitled to display whatever he wants, without any curatorial ‘policy’ or art establishment acceptable standards/information. That’s the whole point?!

    As an artist, I love art, whether it be a fellow artist’s unexhibited drawings or a Pissaro painting at the NGV. Some art you like, some you don’t. But I would never presume to complain about the format of his private museum when a wealthy art collector invites me to look at his multi-million dollar collection. I would feel privileged to look at it.

    1. It’s not the works themselves that bug me. Some I like, some I hate, same with any gallery. And I’m not questioning his entitlement to do what he likes with his art collection. He could have hidden them away but he chose to put them on display.

      But he’s stated himself that he sees this as a “rich man’s soap box.” So, since he has a soap box and he wants to use it, I think it’s worth examining what he’s trying to say. And to me, it seems what he’s trying to say is actually really problematic, so I think that’s worth talking about.

          1. I wouldn’t say meaninglessness, I’d say Walch is trying to make us think for ourselves, which is what you have to do with something that is confronting, or when you’re presented with two opposing views (even if they are from the same source). As a Tasmanian, this is certainly how I’ve seen it manifest with those I’ve discussed MONA with – everyone has differing opinions about what they see, and when you meet someone who loved what you hated, you each have to justify you opinion. The fact that Walch has made us have opinions, and justify them is brilliant, I hope it spills into other areas.

    2. To me, the whole collection reeked of the nihilistic sensation seeking that seems the culture correlative of neoliberalism. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Happy to be persuaded otherwise.
      But arguments along the lines that cos he’s rich and we’re not, we should touch our caps and feel privileged to glimpse his collection just confirm my misgivings.

      1. I realise I’m coming in late on the discussion, but I don’t really agree with you Jeff. I do not believe Walsh is asking for comments on his nihilism. Maybe he is nihilistic, but who cares? I will go, and I will interpret the works how I want to, without reference to what Walsh thinks. And I don’t care why he has made parts of his collection available, I am just grateful he has, and that a very worthwhile conversation has grown around that.

  6. How very dare MONA question the way we look at art. Art should be by the establishment, for the establishment. MONA will only inspire people to question pedestrian curation and undeserved grants. And in Hobart! How very dare they make some thing cool that’s not on the mainland!

      1. The whole of MONA reeks of establishment. So much of it is just the faddish art produced from English art schools.shock and awe,mostly shock. It is like contemporary art 101 art school lectures come to life, complete with Mathew Collins this is modern art TV show shown for a tutorial. As its Tasmania the thing that is missing is sludge brown abstract art made by the gnarly old hippies from the northern tas art school. They might be the establishment that’s missing from the equation.

  7. I love MONA because I know all too well what Hobart was like before MONA – because I grew up in Hobart, left Hobart along with most of my friends from school (substantially because of what Hobart was like before MONA). Returning to Hobart relatively recently, I may well have left again without what MONA has opened up, tapped into, squeezed like a Wim Delvoye pimple in a way that a lot of people can’t wipe neatly off their chins. Net gain. Let’s hope the ATO doesn’t do Zeljko Ranogajec and shut the whole thing down. Yours, On The Ground.

    1. Yes, a few people I know who grew up in Tasmania have said similar things to me. I really do wonder how the place would have been perceived had it been set up in a different context.

      Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  8. “How wonderful it was that the museum had been embraced by the famously conservative Tasmanian community.” As someone who has settled in Tassie from Sydney, I find this conservative state myth peculiar. On a purely political level, TAS is the only state that has ever had Greens ministers. On an artistic level, Tasmania has more artists per capita than any other state, and the local art scene, while relatively small compared to Sydney, seems far less conservative. Discussion on MONA is always framed by this notion that Tasmania is somehow less developed, that it is plonked in a cultural desert, and that MONA will be the catalyst for local art. Yes, it is an unlikely place for such a large museum, and is significant for this fact, however, it’s unfair to use the museum as an excuse to disparage a state that is actually quite creative.

    1. Like. What’s with the “famously conservative Tasmanian community”? That seems to sit alongside discourse about our famous two heads.

      Hobart doesn’t have the population to sustain much that Melbourne, say, might take for granted, but the state is hardly poster boy for conservatism. We’ve still got our literary awards *crosses fingers*.

      1. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Tassie so I can’t really comment personally. The impression I have of its social conservatism is drawn mainly from other people’s perspectives (anecdotes from people who grew up there, political commentary, and so on).

        1. Perhaps the media heard it from someone else… etc etc.

          Tassie is fortunate enough to have the most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the country, it is the only state to recognise same sex marriages conducted overseas, and until just recently it was the only state to allow civil unions for same sex couples. Compared to other states in Australia, I’d say Tassie’s pretty liberal actually.

        2. Hmmm… I think perhaps I should explain the overly defensive-sounding last response. Whether or not Tasmania *is* conservative, is not my gripe. Twice, in your introduction and conclusion, you state that the state is highly conservative, intimating that somehow the museum is out of place in the community. More significantly, like most of the national press, you’re also promoting that now all too familiar narrative that MONA is somehow the city’s saviour, and as I said before, inferring that before the museum the city was devoid of high culture.

          So you acknowledge that your notion of Tasmania being conservative is merely an ‘impression’, but why did you frame the story around this museum vs conservative community narrative? It’s a bit disappointing that this highly emphasised part of your story is based merely on an ‘impression’.

          1. Well, actually, I was discussing the fact that evaluations of MONA were always made in terms of its impact on the social and economic landscape of the state. In fact, I have rarely heard it discussed outside of its impact on the state’s economy and the state’s culture. I understand Tassie’s been going through recession for (at least) decades so it seems important to acknowledge that aspect of its impact. And for what it’s worth, most of the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard hasn’t gone very far to counter broader representations of Tasmanian culture as conservative either. People that I know who left Tassie did so because they found it too insular, too inward-looking. I can’t really judge whether they were right or wrong – I think “is Tasmania really socially conservative or is that a misrepresentation?” is a debate in and of itself. But in *contrast* to the MONA/conservative Tassie/economy dialogue, I wanted to talk about what MONA itself meant.

            Aside, I wouldn’t presume to make a definitive statement about the creative pockets of the community that I don’t really know, and in any case, to make a really broad generalisation, creative sectors are so often in tension with dominant culture. But MONA does stand out in the place, generally speaking. From an outsider’s point of view and, it seems, to many on the inside too. It’s not a question of ‘high culture’ vs. ‘low culture’. Just perceived difference. I wanted to acknowledge that IF the community is as conservative as everyone says and MONA has been instrumental in shaking that up, then that’s a good thing, but it’s still important to look at MONA’s intentions and evaluate Walsh’s “message”.

  9. On the framing issue, I believe MONA frames the way we view art/artifacts (and it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not solely a museum of art) just as much as a traditional museum, but we are more *aware* of the framing. The placement of seemingly disparate objects frequently leads to new ways of looking at these works. For instance, the mummy and coffin of Pausirus is housed in a room with an Andres Serrano photograph of a person who has just died of AIDS. The combination of the two really illuminates certain aspects of the photograph, and the dark watery environment in which they’re sited, further alters our reading of the two. Information on the Mummy, its history and other details is not withheld, but its age and cultural context does not restrict the way in which it can potentially be displayed.

    1. Hmm. I don’t think that MONA (or, I should probably say, Walsh) doesn’t pay attention to the framing. It’s obvious that the place is meticulously curated. It’s that this curation seems to be a deliberate project of decontextualisation and depoliticisation. It’s achieved on the micro scale through the juxtaposition. There are things to be learnt and gained from individual exhibits, but that’s undercut again on the macro scale – the general focus on shock value, sex and death, sex and death, sex and death – it’s a project that’s ultimately about reduction and negation.

      1. I know that you never meant that MONA doesn’t frame, however, I don’t believe that that by exhibiting these objects together, it should be seen as negatively as you make out. I’m just saying that in most galleries, we are not aware of the framing that goes on, whereas MONA draws our attention to it. I also don’t agree that the works are depoliticised. For instance, in the red velvet room, there are a number of different works that address really challenging, but topical, issues. The painting of a transgendered person, the assisted suicide machine, the chocolate suicide bomber, the violent movies that glorify war knitted into cute toys. These are all confronting works in themselves, and while as a group they are pretty overwhelming, I don’t believe that there is any ‘depoliticisation’ going on. In fact, the fact that they’re in the same room, and we’re told to expect confronting works, makes us consider WHY we are confronted by each of these works, even though they address very different issues.

        So often galleries divide their collections into Indigenous works, Colonial paintings, white male Modernist paintings, Postmodernism etc. Why do we divide? Why should these works be seen only in the context of an artist’s race, era or style? Is there nothing we can learn by placing a large Australian Modernist’s brightly coloured tribute to the Aboriginal Dreaming, with it meticulous planning and colours, next to sacks of coal and ropes by the Arte Povera artist, Kounellis?

  10. Why does MONA need to be analysed, why does MONA need to be assessed, why does David Walshe need to be analysed and why does he need to be assessed. Who actually cares about each and every critique?

    Recently I read a post on facebook which was in response Pople’s win in The Glover Art Prize. This statement was made by a young man on Facebook,he said “It’s art… It’s good. It’s good art.It’s like a pie if don’t think about what’s in it. it’s good.” So is MONA a good Pie? I think so, with the bonus being the ingredients are from the finest produce from around the world!

    1. Actually, responding to art is like responding to food, in that our cultural rituals around food generally do involve discussing and debating what we’re eating. Yet no-one suggests the cooking shows that are so popular are somehow ruining the appreciation of food.

  11. My partner and I have been around for 61 years and we thought it was brilliant. However it was noted that David Walsh wanted us to think – when it comes to enjoying art some people like yourself think too much!The bullshit surrounding art is what puts most people off.

  12. I’m perplexed. It seems that a number of people here are arguing that we shouldn’t think about art, we should just … look at it. And be what, moved viscerally?

  13. I think what fascinates me most about Mona is exactly this kind of debate. It’s provoked the most passionate support of a gallery/museum I can recall. I left Mona thinking more critically about issues to do with art, perception, the industry and so on than I had in years.

    This is possibly because I have a lot to compare it to – I work in the GLAM industry (Galleries Libraries Archives & Museums) and it was a bit refreshing just to be able to wander around and react to things for once, on a personal level. But as I did so, I was comparing it to more traditional museums and galleries, and the juxtaposition of the two was partly what made my trip so interesting. I’m glad to have both “types” of art gallery available – let’s have more!

    The lack of traditional context for the art works didn’t bother me personally so much – but I do agree with Stephanie that Walsh’s purpose or message (if there is one) appears to be not much more than provoking shock or disgust, or wonder, or awe, or a bit of a “snerk” from looking at pictures of people’s naughty bits. It’s not terribly sophisticated, perhaps, but these are enjoyable sensations nonetheless (I LOVE being disgusted!) and so perhaps that is in part what accounts for Mona’s popularity. Let the grand experiment continue, I say!

  14. Perhaps it is nihilism, but it’s a radical rather than reactionary nihilism.

    It’s fair enough to be bugged by the quality of DW’s taste, or not even the quality but the general vibe of his taste — its “message”. That’s interesting enough for a holiday footnote or general provocation, and taste is not unimportant, but as analysis it’s surely not too many rungs above “visceral feeling”.

    Dump all his exhibits in the Derwent and you would still have the most important and positive statement about art in Australia since Papunya Tula.

    The Mona space specifically and the whole project generally is not I think “against” everything. Yes, it looks like a kind of space-pirate’s hideout, with Walsh as an interstellar Stede Bonnet, but the gallery is also an important statement about the ongoing importance of the museum as an institution now, and a proposal for its potential in the future. What we get with mona is a museum which persists — persists despite the fact that historical objects have no intrinsic value, despite the fact that the humanist myths which sustained museums from the 16cth to the 20thc are collapsing, and despite the fact that art, although you need millions to own it, isn’t worth anything. That seems to me a pretty radical undertaking.

    Yes maybe it’s also nihilism: but nihilism in the twenty-first century is a pretty diverse and coyly socialistic complaints about “message” probably don’t bring us nearer that diversity, or get to what is usefully debateable about DW’s ambition.

    1. Good comment. The sheer fact of the museum is an act of creation and affirmation. What is interesting about Mona is how its central frame is Walsh himself. There was a more recent profile of Walsh where he came close to admitting that his initial public statements about the opening exhibition and gallery were designed to create a reaction. I think there’s a canny marketing team at Mona who are manipulating the David Walsh mystique and auteur persona. What remains to be seen is whether Walsh and his team can successfully shift the Walsh persona to frame the Mona experience in new ways. The initial myth centres on 1960s/70s gonzo avant garde concepts which create attention but border on reactionary. Where to next?

    2. “[it’s] an important statement about the ongoing importance of the museum as an institution now”.

      How? If there’s a statement about society there, other than “as animals we’re driven by sex and death and everything else is fantasy” of course, it’s less about museums and more one about how having a whole lot of money and cool stuff can buy you acceptance in a community no matter how much you try to shock. His selection and treatment of the art just highlights this, IMO. That’s pretty audacious in itself but without any accompanying critique it’s just one big moneybags swagger.

      “Dump all his exhibits in the Derwent and you would still have the most important and positive statement about art in Australia since Papunya Tula.” I disagree entirely. If you dumped all the exhibits in the Derwent you would probably have one of the most important statements about wealth and influence and power in the region, but not a statement about art, and certainly not a positive one.

      I think the fact that the museum is successful is part of the “gotcha” aspect. I certainly think the lack of questioning of its broader contention doesn’t help. As for the nihilism – even with all these artefacts of human history and thought and contemplation and creativity contained within the museum, I don’t see a place that’s ultimately encouraging me back *into* the world. Just belligerent rejection of it.

      1. “How?”

        I refer to Jana P below. But it’s more a question of its bold, essentially disruptive presence in a culture struggling to come to terms with the question of how art might now be presented. Its statement is liberating. The fractured, overlapping levels, the discontinuous narratives, the personalised souvenir itinerary emailed the next day, the lack of preciousness about photography, the uneasy relationship between the singularity of DW’s taste and multiplicity of voices offered via the O. Visitors are freed – to an extent – from the degenerate post-renaissance hierarchies that most civic mausoleums and commercial galleries are still wedded to, a problem exacerbated by blockbuster globetrotting exhibitions. Interesting criticism is so much more difficult when it comes to an exhibit like the Renaissance show in Canberra. Mona might not be the only place offering solutions to the problem of presentation, but it’s one of the few here which is still championing the potential of a gallery space.

        “it’s less about museums and more one about how having a whole lot of money and cool stuff can buy you acceptance in a community no matter how much you try to shock.”

        Whoa. As for accusations of anti-intellectualism, can we stop pretending that trying to reduce art criticism to a discourse about “feeling” is any less anti-intellectual than vaguely framed complaints about art’s moral content, its “broader contention”, whether those complaints are conservative or progressive?

        1. Let me be clear. I don’t actually think Walsh is trying to make a statement about museums – or even necessarily a statement about art – with MONA. I think he’s using his art collection – and the space, and the money, and the decontextualisation and the shock value of his exhibits – to say something about how we engage with the world and what the world means to us. And I think the perspective he takes on that is nihilistic and I want to unpack the implications of that.

          “can we stop pretending that trying to reduce art criticism to a discourse about “feeling” is any less anti-intellectual than vaguely framed complaints about art’s moral content, its “broader contention”, whether those complaints are conservative or progressive?”

          I don’t understand why you think I’m being anti-intellectual by examining and interpreting Walsh’s work as much as one might examine any individual piece in his collection. I don’t see why we shouldn’t evaluate what he’s trying to do in political terms. I actually think that’s incredibly important, and I’m certainly not trying to be coy about it.

          1. For sure — I get it — and I think there are positive implications, even if we call what he is doing nihilism. You asked how, and there are a bunch of reasons here that go into how. JS hinted at some of them in, like, the second comment.

            Anti-intellectual: I didn’t say you were and I don’t believe you are. The opposite. I think this is a great piece. I just don’t think using “nihilism” — or some unexamined nineteenth-century version of nihilism — as a fullstop is necessarily *less* anti-intellectual than an appeal to instinctive feeling, even if it is couched as a social-conscience reflex.

            I would also add that whether or not DW is trying to make a comment about museums is kind of not as interesting or important as whether we can read something significant and positive into his institution regardless, which, obviously, I think we can.

  15. That MONA and David Walsh’s vision are inextricably linked for better or worse is undeniable. I admit when I heard about the planned gallery I was reminded of Gould’s Book of Fish, or more specifically the depiction of a mad commandant and his decision to erect the Great Mah-Jong Hall.

    What this dialogue has uncovered is that there is more at stake at probing Welsh’s ‘overarching contention’ than offending anyone’s personal artistic philosophies. MONA’s own facebook link to the Convery article stated ‘a monument to reaction’ which whilst presently true (as the debate is about the validity of the gallery itself), in this case relies on upon the existence of those in its favour and those who are not. Is there any real danger of inflexible curation undermining its strength, disarming one party of a voice for reaction(more likely at an international than local level)? What part does the international art community’s approval of this museum play in its long term success or failure? If this is a pet project and it is constantly under fire, when does a 7million dollar ticket to stand on a soap box lose its appeal? What does Tasmania and Walsh have to lose or gain from MONA reconfiguration and would such change result in withdrawal of funds? Is this gallery still going to be standing when Walsh isn’t and in what form?

    Seeing that museum converted into storage space would cripple Hobart imaginably. I truly hope this dialogue will be ongoing.

    1. This should probably go without saying but in the interests of clarity – I’m not arguing that the place should be shut down. Far from it. But I think Walsh is trying to make a statement and I think that statement and its implications need to be unpacked – in the same way that any other artist’s would. Because in a way, MONA is Walsh’s own giant work of art.

      His contention aside, I think those questions you raise about the art community and our treatment of art institutions are really valid and worth examining, particularly in light of the effect MONA has had on the Hobart economy and social landscape. If MONA is something which many Tasmanians have really come to cherish – and they quite clearly have – surely it’s worth thinking about its future and what might happen should Walsh be unable to support it any more.

  16. The question of thinking versus feeling in art is a false dichotomy. What causes you to like a piece of art, over another? The moment you have to explain the differences, you realise that underneath any emotional response is a whole structure of thought (and feeling). Our tastes are constructed by all sorts of experience and ideas that we’ve had. You only realise how much they’re a matter of thinking when you try to explain why you like a piece. Suddenly, out of you mouth, come a whole lot of ideas. Damn it, ideas … can’t get away from them… 🙂

  17. All meaning floats effortlessly in and out and around and over … all the time
    MONA simply allows this to happen in the usually cloistered world of ‘high art’ …
    I love it
    Go ahead and … react

  18. Stephanie, I think this comment of yours (in the comments) sums it up: “MONA is Walsh’s own giant work of art”

    And how utterly fabulous that someone who is a complete societal misfit (in the grandest possible way), who somehow makes millions on gambling, *chooses* to invest a massive chunk of his wealth on creating something so audacious in the heart of the poorest state capital! The arts scene in Tassie, including all creative industries, are going from strength to strength, but are often ignored by main islanders.

    MONA puts Tassie on the map, gets people thinking about Tas, among broader, meta-themes, and draws people to Tassie. Yeeha!

    Have you had a chance to go through the library at MONA? That, to me, was as illuminating as viewing Walsh’s art collection. He, among being audacious, rebellious, reactionary, nihilist, etc, also took a great deal of care in trying to construct a world-class museum – one that would rival the Guggenheim in Bilbao (and it does) and other international institutions.

    That we are all so passionately debating his project/baby/”fuck you to the establishment”, to me, indicates a measure of success.

    And long may it continue!!

    1. It’s been a boon for the Tassie economy, that’s for sure, but if MONA is a work of art in itself then it has a contention beyond mere function, and it is in dialogue with those things around it. Its economic influence may well be part of that dialogue (and I think it is), but the ‘message’ goes beyond that, too. And I think what it’s saying is actually really problematic.

  19. Not having been I’ll refrain from making some of the more outrageous statements I’m tempted to .

    In any case I would like to contribute the observation that this discussion reads a little too much like postmodernism and its discontents for comfort.

    Surely the world of major institutional galleries and the contexts they present work in is both much more ideologically loaded and much more esoteric / elitist / inaccessible.

    Perhaps the alternative that MONA represents is simplistic and badly thought out? Or does the above read more like a failure to engage in a deeper critique ?

  20. What bugs me isn’t just the anti-intellectualism on display in some of these comments, but the implicit link being made between anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. It’s (sometimes literally) dead wrong to think there is elitism in thinking deeply or writing carefully about art (or whatever else); what’s truly elitist, indeed dangerously authoritarian, is the dismissal of critical thought. Fuck the elitist ‘anti-elitism’ that would equate it with “art wank” or “bullshit”!

    Part of what I found valuable about this piece is how it challenges certain common sense assumptions about power and authority. In a neoliberal society, there is nothing inherently liberating about transgressing social norms, nor is there necessarily anything conservative about placing things in their historical context. The Man isn’t who he used to be.

    All that said, I’m looking forward to seeing MONA for the first time later this year.

    Thanks to Stephanie and Overland for a thought provoking article.

    1. Some great content and thought on this page. No matter if, or how, you analyze MONA, MONA exists! Always has existed historically, in the sense that it was created at all.
      Nihilism is a psychological state of cancellation. If you want to cancel something completely, destroy it, and if that includes your mind, be sure you can get it back. If you want to cancel a thing psychologically, present it’s opposite, and let these opposites compete for your attention. As to whether the negative exists, and in what sense it is complimentary, this does depend on how the thing is presented, when it comes to our sense of aesthetics. If we cannot see the negative, the idea of the thing may be nothing to us, and then perhaps it would be true to say we also cannot see the positive, in the full sense that it exists.
      It would be eternally true to say that, the analyst will analyze anything that interests him/her, for whatever reason, and make of it whatever he/she will!
      The reductionist, on the other hand, will see what MONA realistically actually is – a tourist attraction!
      So, what about the political implications of MONA? For sure ‘Fuck You’ is always better than ‘fuck off’, as it makes you think, rather than feel de/op/pressed, and that way you feel more involved, and empowered. But if you are insulted by ‘fuck you’ then this sentiment takes on the same meaning as ‘fuck off’, and that makes the effect of this sentiment exclusive rather than inclusive. But the individual is not, and never will, be the establishment. Establishments do not view, think, or feel, as such!
      And unfortunately, to the extent that David Walsh wants to say anything at all through MONA – or any of the included artists do – for their message to be fully appreciated, there must be someone who precisely understands what is being said, and or implicated, as well as it is being meant. Yet, as far as I know, no one knows what the formula for understanding another human being is, and that is what makes analysis of art difficult. Early philosophers though the formula for understanding was agreement and consensus, but how does one agree upon meaning with any certainty? Even a copy is different from the original in the way it was created. No, the simple matter of understanding remains an eternal philosophical dilemma that has not yet been cracked! So if we will never be able to understand MONA, why does MONA exist?

  21. I found a lot of the art in MONA juvenile, and David Walsh’s comments ditto; but the curation, and the presentation of the works, with an absence of curatorial iron fist but cacophony of voices on the O, I thought was completely liberating. I think it’s interesting that you experienced the juxtaposition and arbitrariness as nihilism. I experienced it as freedom to look, rather than feel like I’m not looking properly because I am not immediately perceiving, say, ‘ludic deconstruction of the male gaze via appropriation’.

    I spend a lot of my life trying to bring my various friends closer to my fairly obscure art interests, and I find the language of the art world often alienating and banal in equal measure, and utterly unhelpful in explaining why they should even care. What’s more, many civilians approach art worried in advance that they cannot get it, because they don’t speak International Art World English (© Frieze). MONA seemed to me designed quite consciously to de-intimidate an art layman, probably because its owner is (or was) an art layman. It was designed as a sensual experience first, and educational a distant second – and I read that as a political stance towards high culture. The fact that the main person of authority, Walsh himself, refuses to make sense, leaves no voice of authority standing to intimidate.

    But, as has been pointed out, there is the library and, as hasn’t, there are the free entry, the ferry, the food, allowing you to spend a whole day at MONA, and to return frequently. The possibility of education, and genuine education, is much stronger than in most museums. I went there on three non-consecutive days, and I found myself returning to works I initially dismissed as trivial (Candice Breitz’s Queen), while other, seemingly more intriguing ones, lost their magic very quickly (the vagina wall, although Juz Kitson’s Formations of Silence (O said only: “Great, we needed some more cunts in this museum.”) got better and better).

    And then – the food, the architecture, the beanbags, the views. Correct me if I’m wrong, but MONA is an environment of aesthetic level that an average Australian simply cannot experience in their daily life. This is beauty as a result of careful work, not merely decoration – and MONA is designed to focus your attention on art, but also on architecture, on the landscape. It harnesses that focus we bring to art, and shifts it towards the rest of our environment. This, I think, is noble in the extreme. It is also incredibly rare in Australia (although less so in Europe). So, where you see Youtube attention span, I see a very conscious directing of one’s attention.

    That said, Stephanie, yours is the first article in the Australian press that brings some depth of critical engagement to MONA (beyond reciting Walsh’s biography), and I think this is a conversation worth having. And it’s not the brilliance of MONA that has made this discussion, but the hard work of people like you, people who bother to think, write, argue about things. It’s unfortunate that we need to repeat this as much as we do…

    1. I do think it’s interesting how most publicly funded museums and galleries continue to struggle with the perception that they are elitist, only for elites/intellectuals, run by elites etc, despite all our attempts to convince people otherwise.

      Mona seems to have avoided this entirely – and I think it has a lot to do with the perception of Walsh as a “layman”, as Jana says. Somehow, people are identifying with him and his collections more than they do with publicly owned collections. I’m not sure the average visitor is thinking about Walsh’s vision or message when they visit, but perhaps many subconciously identify with a “fuck you” attitide?

      One of the first things you can do with the “O” is tell Mona whether you “hate” or “love” a work. (Probably even before you have done any thinking about why you feel that way). The visitor, “layperson” or not, is invited to have an opinion, even though they may not speak “International Art World English”. In many others museums and galleries I think we’re pertty much told what to think and feel, or at least what we SHOULD think and feel. It feels strangely democratic (not sure if that’s really the right political analogy), which is odd given that Mona is run by the modern equivalent of the wealthy industrialist or landed gentry. (Again, not sure those are the right analogies – anyway, a kind of economic elite).

      1. If I assume (based on the phrasing ‘our attempts’) that you are not an outsider to the museums&galleries trade, may I also assume that you have read a thing or two about the history of M&G? Specifically, how the educational Sunday beheading was replaced by the educational museum visit, in socialising the lower to middle classes? And the white-box design of museums, which takes cues from the prison, the courtroom, the church? I won’t go into the question of elitism, because that’s a specifically Australian debate, and in my opinion unfruitful, but public art institutions have been designed with an authoritative, stern, punitive approach in mind. This works fine if the purpose is to teach art history. But teaching someone to enjoy art is a completely different task.

        I could write an essay just on the architecture of MONA, which very studiously avoids the punitive character of most museum spaces (in other words, it’s not just Walsh’s public persona and statements that liberate the visitor).

        Most public museums (art institutions generally, indeed) are stuck in having to be populist yet inoffensive, educational yet curatorially provocative, and the result is often an intervention in a hermetic, artworld discourse, rather than the society around it.

        It is a complex problem, especially in a country like Australia, which is openly and actively hostile to all arts. But it’s not merely a perception problem.

  22. Big galleries and museums have come to be congregational spaces where participants engage in rites which promise to compensate them for the lack of determination they have in their actual lives.

    Perhaps MONA’s position in the marketplace of galleries and museums is to state that reality even more explicitly, in case anyone had missed what was happening in our world.In every way MONA seems a late-capitalist project, complete with the erasure of histories, as Stephanie wisely notes, and the lack of a firm commitment to ideas beyond capital and its power.

    It’s not that boring, authoritative galleries should remain as they are, but it is interesting that our first ‘progression’ from that is to a wealthy man saying “my money/my vision!!”

    I also resist this idea that I read in some of these comments that a vacuum of information, or a lack of thought is somehow a positive thing. A lot of thought has gone into the MONA project, and presumably into the work the museum holds.Stephanie is right to unpack the premise and scrutinise the relationship of the place to histories of ideas. It’s when we can’t do that, that we have to start worrying.

    The reason I’m looking forward to going to MONA for the first time is so that I can work out what the artists were trying to reveal when they made their works, what they were trying to say about their cultures. Because they are not making works in a vacuum.

  23. There’s something that bugs me about the critical response to Mona…

    I recently commented in an interview that I felt that the critical response to Mona had been lacking. The responses were laudatory or castigatory, but for the most part those in the latter category were of the “this is the museum David Walsh should have built category”. I was seeking an attempted divining of the Museum’s purpose, and an assessment of how well those goals have been met.

    This piece attempts genuine criticism, which is evident from the quality of the debate it has precipitated.

    Here I’m tempted to defend Mona’s metaphors, but maybe I can, temporarily, invoke the “if Mona can be summarised in a few sentences it was hardly worth building Mona” clause which is, perhaps, the converse of the argument given in some of the responses. Of course, this won’t cut the mustard, particularly from someone who has declared Mona to be his soapbox.

    I am just finishing a book, a memoir of my mind, which runs the gamut of my philosophy, such as it is, and that should be both a companion to, and an exposition of, Mona. I expect it to surface around September. I look forward to your review.

    1. Ah David if anyone admits to understanding your Philosophy, how could they prove they do? Only you could tell! Yet, could you? As the analysts piece may just prove to be a juxtaposition with their own philosophy, and therefore finding any real resonance may be a difficult slog! No doubt there will be people who spend their whole lives analyzing David Walsh’s Philosophy, whether this be immediately, or at some later date in the future date! What a brilliant idea!!

    2. Ah David if anyone admits to understanding your Philosophy, how could they prove they do? Only you could tell! Yet, could you? As the analysts piece may just prove to be a juxtaposition with their own philosophy, and therefore finding any real resonance may be a difficult slog! No doubt there will be people who spend their whole lives analyzing David Walsh’s Philosophy, whether this be immediately, or at some later date in the future date! What a brilliant idea!!

    3. It’s interesting that you say there seems to be so little of that kind of criticism or engagement with the idea of MONA’s purpose. I can’t help but wonder why. Is it because of the economic impact the place has had on Hobart? Or that we don’t question the intentions of cultural institutions the way we used to? Or a collapse of critical culture more generally? Perhaps there’s something in that “you’re thinking too much” mentality mentioned earlier that’s encourages us to ignore what a place stands for in favour of what we can get out of it, thereby restricting any evaluation of its success to how it affects us personally.

      I don’t know. In any case, I think the discussion is a good one.

      Thanks for stopping by, David.

      1. I think the lack of considered response to MONA may be due to the current state of social consciousness. A certain sort of maturity in this social era, that leaves less room for intolerance, and the reactionary. The fact that many people now realize a pathway to understanding may be forged through acceptance, is probably a huge factor. But what is acceptance, except a kind of resignation to agreement of difference? It is certainly not understanding. As a collective consciousness, we now know investigation comes before the development of opinions, and caution before the commitment to a dialogue. Also with something new, a period of cognitive digestion – a mulling over – is the order of the day, before anything may be constructively concluded. And in the end what we are discussing is Art! With Art, people also now expect to be confronted with the new, the different, and they expect to experience the crossing of boundaries – to be comfortably amazed. Comfortably, because at the end of the day, everything is alright, it is only just Art – the experience of sensual stimulation does not have to go any further than the confines of the (in this case multitude) of Museum walls. But as much as we artists try to give, with art the sensory experience is still limited, imagination must also usually become engaged. And imagination is a trait of the individual. One does not have to expend much brain space on analytical activity after a visit to MONA, for after all what is the topic for analysis anyway? Especially when the topic is so ill-defined in such abstract fashion, via the vehicle of individual interpretation. And why does one need to be engaged in such activities, as the analysis of art and artistic endeavor anyway? Surely the greatest enjoyment was located within the journey of attending the venue of display. For any impression gained through this experience is diminished as one gains distance form that venue, and moves back into the everyday ordinary existence. An escape hatch maybe? But at the end of the day, for most patrons, life goes on in a rather more ordinary fashion. Transient impressions and experiences may be all we ever wanted, and or expected, from MONA!

        1. The lack of considered response to MONA can probably be attributed to a number of things.
          1) Everyone wants, either a job at MONA or their work bought by David Walsh. Having met some lovely people who work there, who went to art school and were probably facing unemployment or service industry hell after leaving their institution, this is not surprising.
          2) Who wouldn’t want David Walsh to buy their artworks? Imagine having your painting/sculpture/installation hung near a Boyd, Nolan or an Arkly. Imagine not being dead and having your art work hung near your Aussie art heroes.
          3) David Walsh is fabulously rich and goes to local pubs in Hobart. Why would you want to criticise a man and his building and his ethos, when you can end up walking into him at a DC3 gig and avoid, if you can, tipping your beer down his jacket.
          4) If most people in the arts biz have been to Art school it is highly likely that they aren’t very good at being critical. It’s very hard to call a spade a spade when the teaching at art schools is dubiously subjective, biased and of low quality. It is a system that doesn’t teach skills of any real quality and instead relies on subjective criteria such as creativity and generalised made up as you go along crap.
          5) French Post modern theory has killed art teaching. Ditto for contemporary American styled Art teaching and post modern theory.

  24. How dare Walsh destroy a serene little promontory reminiscent of an ancient Japanese landscape painting with trees dipping towards the waters of the Derwent _ a scene that always lifted my spirits.

  25. This is an amazing response, very different to my review which on comparison looks like an ‘on holiday I went to the zoo’ children’s book version… Interestingly I didn’t feel like there needed to be an overarching raison d’etre, when i was there i had a tour by the man who is an art work, Tim, and it was his description of Walsh as both a prick and Willy Wonka that kind of gave it/him/them substance… I can definitely see your point but it doesn’t bug me.

  26. I do not think that the physical presence of an imposing,contempory Art Gallery building should have impacted so much on the landscape and destroyed the natural look of the Austins Ferry frying pan point. That, in itself, was a “good look”, a natural look and unique. That point slotted in, in a natural manner, to the Derwent landscape. MONA is big , but not so big that natural beauty has to be interfered with. The concept is great, the entrepreneurial idea, a novelty for our island, and the contents are worthy of stimulating discussion, and so may, the concept evolve and not ever stagnate and may it continue to satisfy our artistic cravings.

  27. Maybe you’re thinking about it too much, I just go and have fun with it-it’s a laugh, some relief and I’m an art teacher!

    I took my students, they loved it, they will go back they said, thats what I call success.

  28. MONA – The innovative and stunning architectural structure of MONA Galleries Precinct is by architect, F.Katsalidus. Perhaps it could be called Tasmania’s Great Wunderkammer, (and that is not being unkind). It is David Walsh’s personal collection and it truly exposes the zeitgeist of our time. The collection is eclectic in that it is confronting, surprises and makes you think outside the constraints extolled generally by commercial dealers and ‘picture show places.’
    The emphasis is on personal choice, again I stress it is a PRIVATE/now public collection. The themes of Sex, Death, Religion are elemental keys to the works on display. Decadence abounds. But the most decadent issue is that whenever the press talks it’s all about dollars and celebrity status, nothing about the work. Why do works, decadent or not, always have to be described with inflated price tags. MONA is an experience that is visceral, mentally stimulating and should be an experience that is often repeated.

  29. Like all art, I think MONA’s pieces are open to interpretation. Though more confronting than most pieces you would find in a museum, the viewer can choose how offended or enlightened they want to be by some of the darker pieces. I’ve shared my own view on the museum here:

  30. If Richard Branson opened an art gallery, it would be just like MONA. Commercial, low brow, schlock, fun, playful and for the masses.

    There’s nothing wrong with that is there?

    But Richard Branson couldn’t possibly do it in the UK because what Charles Saatchi already did is too close.

  31. I dunno, I thought the binoculars in the dunny I visited in the MONA reminded me of the two appendixes about farts in a Salvador Dali biography I read years earlier.
    Geniuses often focus on both ends of the doughnut, whether its the entry or exit part of the (w)hole?
    Sort of projected me into a Quantum experience for a moment .
    I wondered at that point if God had a poop where would the Hubble look?
    Challenging stuff.
    Is, isn’t, is, isn’t, is, isn’t

  32. Art is bigger then any one persons vision of it. Art cannot be contained no matter how much money or power just ask Hitler :0)

    Nihilism like a virus only kills a given number of individuals hope and care.

    No matter what David’s motives may or may not be The power of the art and that of the viewers imaginations in trillions of directions can not be contained.

    Nihilism like decease won’t kill us all and only serves to make the survivors immune system stronger.

    As for the interesting acceptance of Tasmanian people of David’s Gallery… Thats because he’s one of them a Tassie and better still a convict made good thumbing to the flagellator.

    Anyway there’s plenty that I don’t like about the gallery but I’m still moved by it and greatful David built it whatever his motives it’s worth experiencing.

    Bobby-z Lambert

    Artist and living in Tasmania 18 years.

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