Anuradha Chatterjee reviews the Museum of Old and New Art by Nonda Katsalidis
Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, Tasmania is infamously known as a 'subversive Disneyland' and 'Museum of sex and death', and I had anticipated not liking it because of these labels. But like a visit to any Gallery or Museum, a feeling of ambiguity is perhaps appropriate because of the expected friction between truth to the art historical discipline, and galleries as vehicles of mass enjoyment and consumption. Galleries or Museums rely on daylight and careful exposure of artefacts. In contrast, MONA utilizes darkness effectively to make this a novel experience. It is a challenge to design subterranean spaces as a provocative experience. At MONA, the journey to the ‘bottom’ of the building is simple. It is perhaps akin to that of entering a crypt - a supervised meandering through accumulated treasures of a person, satisfying perhaps an unrealized archaeological fantasy.
The feeling of the going into a darkened space, three levels down can be intimidating or repelling. However, the illuminated lift core formed a conduit around which the staircase is wrapped. It is point of reference, a secure tie, allowing one/me to explore the collections beyond. Ironically, the darkness felt safe as I was being guided by the mobile guide - the ‘O’ that runs on an iPod Touch, and connected with headphones which updates to provide audio guides and information on the art of works in the vicinity. Forsaking the map, I decided to go an intuitive tour of the Museum. I needed to not take notes because the O recorded the tour for me, and I am now able to take a retrospective three dimensional journey and retrace my itinerary. The darkness, the interactive devices, and the headphones separate you from your fellow visitors, compelling you to commit to becoming self focussed during the visit. The still and quiet atmosphere, with the sight of people wandering about with their ears plugged, heads bent down to look at the iPod, is also perhaps an ironic commentary on the persuasive role of technology and galleries as mass media.
The interior of the museum is carefully crafted to evoke emotional response. David Neustein's essay is perhaps the best account of the physical aspects of MONA. The museum is entirely display focused, which it absolutely masters. The much rehearsed language of voids and staggered sections in gallery design is in fact effective in MONA where the desire to look down or up is not to see people (who are in shadow) but to see works of art (that are in light). However, for me, there appeared to be lack of clear curatorial direction pertaining to selecting, collating, and sequencing works of art. I found the collection somewhat Eurocentric with the old art being incompletely researched and explained. The only work by an Aboriginal Australian artist I discovered was Unwritten #8 by Vernon Ah Kee (who is of a mixed heritage that includes the Kuku Yalanji, Yidinyi, Waanyi and Guungu Yimithirr peoples), which is a profound commentary about becoming human.
Some of works I loved were Bit.fall by Julisu Popp, Untitled (White Library) by Wilfredo Prito, Pulse Room by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Encyclopedia by Charles Sandison, Cloaca Professional by Wim Delvoye, and Kryptos by Brigita Ozolins. But don’t depend on my views, because the O will tell you how many loved or hated the art work you loved or hated. Art is enjoyment and delight, and in current times, a form of consumption. It was a full house on a Monday in MONA, because there was art to cater to all tastes! The argument about consumption is also underpinned by numbers. I am told of the works I saw (73) and the ones I missed (501), and how many views were recorded. Given the fact that I spent around three hours in the Gallery I would probably have only noticed but not understood the works of art. The emphasis on viewing and noticing is privileged over pausing and understanding. In summary, my experience was interesting and unresolved, and not something I could classify through the Love or Hate icon in the O!