Today we visited MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, situated a few miles upstream from Hobart on high ground overlooking the wide Derwent River. We arrived at 10 a.m. and didn’t leave until 3:30. Even with a longish break for lunch and rest in the Museum Café, it was a long time for us to spend at a museum.
Museums that are the creations of single individuals are always memorable. I’m thinking of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia; the original Getty in Malibu, built as a recreation of a Pompeian Villa; Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas; the Frick Collection in New York, and of course, Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. Now, there is MONA, certainly the most elaborate and perhaps the most exceptional of them all.
Needless to say, the wealthy men and woman who built these museums loved art and had strong ideas about how they wanted to present it. David Walsh, who has created MONA, is certainly no exception. Here, are his words: “Looking at art used to be boring. It still is, maybe, but at least here at MONA you can get drunk and/or rage at the machine.”
The part about getting drunk is literally true. On the museum’s lowest and principal level is the Void Bar where one can order drink at any hour the museum is open.
I can’t write comprehensively about MONA. Qualified reviewers have already done that, and you can read their reviews through Google. What I do say is that it surprised us by its size, the elegance and novelty of its execution, and by the boldness of its collections. Because of what we had read about the MONA experience, we had expected there to be more controversial works than there are. There are some, though.
For instance, in one gallery hangs the Madonna with a breast of elephant dung that so incensed New York’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani that he threatened to defund the Brooklyn Museum that displayed it.
Contrast is a leading principal at MONA. In the Museum of Old and New Art, the old is ancient while the new is radically contemporary. A work that makes use of the bits and bytes of computer code is juxtaposed with a jar from Ancient Sumer covered with cuneiform writing.
MONA is an art museum, not one of technology, per se, and yet technology is more central to its experience than to any other museum we’d ever visited. To begin with, at MONA there are no traditional museum cards identifying artists and works; nor are there panels of text giving history, genre notes, and other contextual information. Instead, visitors are given a device the size and nature of a smart phone along with a set of earphones. Not a typical audio tour, the phones are for listening to the aural components that some works contain or, in some cases, to short interviews with the artist. As one peruses the works, one taps and swipes the hand-held device to first learn the artist’s name, nationality, and places of work and residence. By tapping icons at the bottom of the screen marked as Ideas, Art Wonk, and Gonzo, one can learn more about the artist’s intentions or read third-party comments about the work.
Some of the museum’s contemporary works comment on the way technology has altered our lives; others reveal the normally unseen underpinnings of our everyday technology. An example is a darkened gallery with a wall perhaps twenty-five meters long and ten meters high against which are projected millions of bits of raw data at lightning speed. These occur as columns scrolling up and down the screen forming dizzying patterns. There is sound, too, but not speech. This work fascinates not only by its nature but also by its size. And it is not the only giant work in the museum.
MONA’s architecture is a clever combination of nature and artifice. It comprises several levels; all except the “ground floor” are located underground, seemingly carved out of sandstone. Or is it concrete, artfully distressed to look like rock? Almost everything is artificially lit, and there are optical illusions designed to keep one slightly off balance. Edgar Allen Poe would have loved this place.
One work that particularly fascinated me consists of two parts. Part one is a giant Buddha about four meters tall that is hollow and made of dozens of what look like aluminum sections bolted together. It is a mold. Facing it is what is molded, the figure of Buddha made from eight tons of incense ash collected from the floors of Asian Buddhist temples. The ash is unstable and slowly erodes of its own accord and because of the slight variations in atmosphere caused by the visitors approaching it.
Kay has her own favorite, one made by caddisfly larvae that in nature first encloses themselves in carapaces of tiny bits of soil and vegetable matter in which they pupate and later leave behind. In this case, the artist has substituted gold and bits of gemstones for the soil and vegetable matter. The carapaces that result are small and beautiful cylinders that look like jewelry.
MONA is more than the sum of its architecture and collections. It has excellent restaurants of different styles, and there is a theater space that presents both film and live events. Everything in the museum interiors and in its outdoor surroundings bespeaks of thought and design. Every museum person with whom we interacted was friendly and helpful. In short, we realized that MONA is a large and sophisticated business operation.