July 09, 2012
Worlds apart … Dick Tinto showing Peter Pattieson his Sketch of the Bride of Lammermoor, c.1847, by Robert Scott Lauder, and right, Eyes and brows inlay fragments, Egypt, c.1550. Photo: MONA
Gina McColl explores whether Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art represents the death or rebirth of the encyclopaedic art museum.
The name of a woman, the sound of the throes of pleasure or mourning. MONA - the Museum of Old and New Art, the purpose-built private gallery displaying the collection of David Walsh - has put Hobart on the international art tourist map.
Currently under the spotlight because of a $40 million claim against Walsh by the Australian Taxation Office, its economic impact has been significant, as has its impact on other galleries and museums.
Visitor survey results compiled by Tourism Tasmania from July last year to March this year show that MONA is now Tasmania's second-most popular tourist attraction behind Salamanca Market, and close to topping 530,000 visitors, after just 18 months' operation.
Crowds have flocked, with anecdotal reports piling up of its popularity with punters as well as the cognoscenti for its collection of contemporary art mixed with antiquities, and for its presentation. Dark walls, nightclub lighting, no wall texts, cues borrowed from visual merchandising and a modified iPod to be your virtual and interactive guide.
There's a cultish-ness to the operation, with its coolly elegant and high-tech bag-check and security staff belied by the sometimes juvenile gestures of its owner, whose thoughts on individual works are to be found on the iPod in deliberate counterpoint to that of historian and specialists, described as art wank and identified with a Chris-Lilley-as-Jonah graffiti dick. David versus the academy; puck you, miss.
MONA has been hailed as a game changer. But there is an empty promise at the heart of its claim to be iconoclastic with its deliberate mash up of the ancient and modern in its collection of art about two hefty subjects: sex and death.
The standard organising method - and raison d'etre - of state-run museums is to be "encyclopaedic". Such collections present a linear account of art history: the development of perspective, chiaroscuro and anatomical understanding in the 16th-19th centuries, for example, gave ever greater realism and depth to painted form, for example, followed by the abandonment of naturalistic colour and form to better depict emotional or psychological truths or ideas in the 19th-21st centuries.
A perspective that sees various artistic movements as essentially building blocks, or actions and reactions, in a chronological chain is not necessarily one that is immutable. Museums will from time to time undertake major rehangs of their collections, presenting new associations and connections between artists and movements. Nevertheless, the essence of such collections, and the scholarship that goes into acquiring, conserving, presenting and researching them, is the goal that they represent art history from a to z.
There have long been arguments that this progressive, teleological rendering has always had more blind spots than insight: that it reduced non-Western art histories to mere primitivism or anthropology, for example. And many galleries have responded by putting greater effort into presenting parallel collections - of Asian or indigenous art history.
Walsh's MONA collections - thematic, deliberately juxtaposing the ancient and modern around the enduring, pulse-quickening fears/desires of sex and death - has been perceived and largely accepted as a radical gesture, an insouciance with history, flipping the finger at the encyclopaedic.
But is it so radical? There are few themes so literally narrative as those of sex and death, which follow an inescapably time-based chronology.
Sure, concepts like repression and sublimation can associate these themes with wilder, stricter, funnier or more doleful moods and images. (The fat car at MONA, a Porsche so engorged there is no longer any room for a driver let alone a suitably impressed passenger is one form of displacement; the office-like recreation of an encounter with Philip Nitschke's lethal injection, where a laptop takes you through the willed last minutes of your life, is another.)
Theatre of the World, the temporary exhibition that opened at MONA last month, assembled from Walsh's permanent collection and that of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery by the celebrated French curator Jean-Hubert Martin, takes these thematic juxtapositions and feeds them steroids. Martin puts the fossils and corals back among the Egyptian sarcophagi, the attenuated Giacometti statues, the New Guinean phalli and the Brett Whiteley sylphs.
Forms are juxtaposed, lit, assembled like still lives to speak to each other in the formal languages of shape, field and pattern. But the story that emerges is still one of historical and cultural diversity speaking trans-historical truths. Disruptive and non-linear? Hardly. You can't escape the truths of Darwin, it seems to be saying, any more than you can those of Freud.
MONA is turning out to be surprisingly conventional. Even its disavowal of wall plaques describing works in favour of the dynamic multimedia presence of the ''cracked'' iPod guide turns out to be a difference of form rather than function.
While the idea of the device was to free the museum visitor from spending more time glued to the text than seeing the works themselves, many visitors seem to spend at least as much time scowling at the device, waiting for it to dynamically update and trying to navigate information about nearby works.
Is that progress?
Gina McColl travelled to Hobart as a guest of MONA.