The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

eros and thanatos at mona

image reproduced from
I have spent the last few days musing over my two visits to MONA - the Museum of Old and New Art - in Hobart last week. This extraordinary museum, opened only last year, was established by a man described variously as "a warlord of the art world", an "idiot savant", and a "restless mind". David Walsh is perhaps all of this and more. In an interview with Amanda Lohrey in The Monthly he said that his own theories about art derive from evolutionary biology. “The underlying motives of artists are either satiation or propitiation, access to sex or avoidance of death.” There’s also a reproductive drive involved; artists are peacocks competing to exhibit the best display of feathers as a way of attracting mates. “I built a museum because I’m a peacock shaking its feathers” he said. A long-time collector of antiquities and coins, funded by the proceeds of his professional gambling, he began to collect contemporary art as well, and now this: "a subversive adult Disneyland".

The building is incredible and the collection it houses even more so. A visit to MONA is a Grand Guignol theatrical experience, from the moment you arrive by ferry and climb the 99 steep steps, before descending into the bowels of the earth in a glass lift, to the moment you encounter works such as Jake and Dinos Chapman's (somewhat cheesy, it must be said) Goyaesque nightmare vision 'Great Deeds Against the Dead', Chris Ofili's notorious 'The Holy Virgin Mary' (yes, that one, the one with the elephant poo, the one that sent poor Rudy Giuliani into a fit of hysterics in New York in 1999) or Wim  Delvoye's 'Cloaca'. Visitors are shocked, as well as entertained, and this is all highly deliberate and quite self-consciously intentional.

For a museum so absorbed in art about sex and death, and every permutation in between, the experience has an oddly religious flavour. It came as no surprise to me at all to read in David Walsh's rambling catalogue notes that he was raised as a Catholic and still expected at the age of 14 to go to Mass every Sunday, but instead he snuck off to TMAG, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. "This may explain two things" he says, "why I love stupid acronyms and why I see Mona as a substitute for worship, a secular temple." Adding to this sense of religious portentousness is the way the ancient artifacts such as Egyptian sarcophagi, Greek and Roman coins, and tomb figures, are displayed as if floating, beautifully lit, in a black void. The darkness is disconcerting, objects appear to float in and out of one's vision, and there are no wall texts to distract from the power of the object itself. This is probably a good thing, and another point of difference with other 'normal' museums, however I confess that I found the "O", the ipod issued at the entrance, quite as distracting if not more so. The available text is categorised as either 'Gonzo' (usually rambling discursive self referential riffs by David Walsh) or 'Art Wank' (usually quite good extracts from different art historical sources). The implied put down of art scholarship is deeply irritating, and adds to the sense that one is wandering through a private cabinet of curiosities on a very large scale indeed - a rich man's self-indulgence, maybe, but already a very significant art pilgrimage site. 

Almost without exception, the works in the lower levels of the museum are focused on flesh, sex, violence, butchery, cruelty, decay. I felt claustrophobic and overwhelmed. Only once do I remember feeling anything like this before, when I was young in Rome, and thought it would be fun to see the Capuchin monastery where the bones of dead monks had been turned into chandeliers, furniture and decorations. I well remember feeling that I was suffocating, imagining that I could smell the stench of decay, and I fled in panic into the street and was nearly run over by a motor scooter. No chance of fleeing into Roman sunshine here, three stories down below ground level.

The upper level, juxtaposing figurative works ranging from Boyd and Nolan to Basquiat is less confronting, and the curatorial decisions are clever, creating some astonishing and wonderful juxtapositions. I am curious, though, that Wang Qingsong's haunting 'Dream of Migrants' is the only work by a contemporary Chinese artist. No shortage of confronting and challenging contemporary works in China! Chinese artists generally are making works which deal with complex subject matter in coded and multi-layered ways, expressing experiences which certainly include both sex and death but which also acknowledge that there are other subjects and ideas to legitimately make art about. In fact I was mentally contrasting my experiences in Chinese artists' studios and in galleries in Beijing and Shanghai, and thinking that many of the works here are awfully self-indulgent, Juan Davila, Damien Hirst and the Chapman 'boys' in particular. 

On leaving the museum after five hours on the first day I feel depressed, and also perplexed. There is so much to enjoy (that may sound paradoxical, but there are light hearted moments amongst the darkness) however there is a sense of misogyny and cruelty too. Often it is the text on the 'O' device which gives it away: a beautiful and poignant work by Chiharu Shiota, which speaks of the experience of women's lives in women's bodies is described in gratuitously crude terms, as are other works relating to female bodies and genitalia. Jenny Holzer's  'Lustmord' is displayed in a way which emphasises its sense of claustrophobic voyuerism and horror, but de-emphasises its sense of outrage about the real stories of Bosnian women raped as an act of war. An overwhelming sense of 'boy' gonzo aesthetics and a particular sexuality permeates everything.

And yet....

What a wonderful thing that thanks to a truly eccentric individual (and his successful formula to beat gambling odds) this small city at the southern end of the world now has such an astonishing art destination. Personal highlights for me were Fiona Hall's 'Further Shore' and an extraordinarily powerful Anselm  Kiefer installation, 'Sternenfall'. Perhaps the most memorable experience, though, was entering a pitch dark room, alone and in silence walking carefully across stepping stones arranged across black water, to encounter Andres Serrano's 'The Morgue (Blood Transfusion Resulting in Aids)' photograph of 1992, juxtaposed with the 'Mummy and Coffin of Ta Sheret Min', dating from 664 - 332 BCE. Two stone sarcophagi contain the mummy itself, and, next to it, an X-ray image that slowly penetrates the bindings to reveal the skeleton of this girl who died so long ago. There is no way to avoid thinking, really thinking, about mortality and all its implications in this dark space.

Later, a friend tells me that the rumour in Hobart is that there is a secret doorway into David Walsh's private apartment from this room.