is MONA a paradigm shift?

Seems that way to me. If the experience of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart irreversibly changes the way you think about the potential of the art-architecture experience, the old guard had better look out! If MONA has established a new paradigm for museum practice in Australia, then how will all the other orthodox public and private museums respond? Mount a rearguard critique? Ignore it? Keep doing what we do? I think not.

In the few months since its opening, MONA has been seen by 163,000 people, and there have been more than 100 reviews internationally. (Some of the best are linked at the bottom of this post).  Sure, the MONA effect is individualistic, some say quirky, but certainly a challenging conjunction of architecture and art. Some say, a tad dismissively, it’s a twenty-first century wunderkammer. And if you are really threatened, professionally, you can argue that it’s not really a museum, but rather an egoseum, a private collection made accessible to a curious public, with none of the constraints and obligations attendant on public collections. Its owner, David Walsh, makes the principle of unpredictability his only standard, where any given event or manifestation is just one of “the multiplicity of things that could have happened”.

And yet, if Walsh and his architect, Nonda Katsalidis, have succeeded in making you think about art and its architectural setting in different terms, has it not also altered the standard by which you engage with works of art when you’re in all those other places? In future posts I want to think about such questions. In the meantime, let me show you why it took us an hour to get to the first work of art…

Your iconophile was traveling with Marr Grounds and his daughter Marina Ely, together with Pam McGrath (these photographs), plus Rebel Films‘ David Batty and Jeni McMahon, who are working on a biographical film of Grounds. It was Marr’s father Roy Grounds who designed the two original 1950s modernist houses on Moorilla Estate for Claudio Alcorso (the Courtyard House) and his parents (the Round House).

When you arrive from Hobart on the MONA ferry (which is a kind of mobile coffee shop) you wonder at the red ochre Cor-ten steel windowless forms which enclose the cliff face at the end of the peninsula. As you arrive at the jetty, you are presented with a long narrow staircase which takes you up to the original level of the Alcorso villa. The staircase is your first experience of the excavation of the site, and the sandstone becomes the key motif of the underground spaces which you discover when you eventually enter the galleries below your feet. But first, as you pass the steel and zinc structures, between the sandstone and concrete walls, and the first plantings, you are being prepared for the material qualities that you will experience throughout the building. It feels very good.

When you reach the top of the stairs you realise you’re in for a lot of visual gymnastics. The spaces of the building often appear like a sparring match between an owner-builder and his architect(s). The ground plane of the original Grounds building is linked to the meandering concrete spaces of the gallery roof to the south via a synthetic tennis court. It was Walsh who was the advocate of this icon of suburban popular culture, which faces off the architect’s rejoinder, a stainless steel mirror which frames the Museum’s entrance. In one direction you are attracted to the view of the world outside, framed by the architect’s elegant transparent steel battlements and the modernist villas, while in the other direction the illusionistic mirror draws you in. 

We resisted for quite some time, exploring the steel and concrete terraces, from one corner of which the second house is visible.

David Walsh speaks about growing up in Glenorchy, a suburb just across the water, and how he used to wonder what kind of people lived like this. From the other shore, the Round House must have looked like a flying saucer. In an affair that goes back three or four decades, Walsh formed an attraction to the idea of modernity represented by these two houses, iconoclastic in their formal qualities, unlike everything that surrounded them, and which provided his motivation to create the MONA on which they now sit. The contrast is now even more extraordinary, given what lies beneath them.

The only window in the museum’s exhibition spaces is in the Keifer Pavilion, at the far end of the main axis of the museum, which you access through a tunnel (huge concrete pipes), through a sound piece (Tunnel Audio, 2010, Chris Townend and Myles Mumford), past an enigmatic text-painting (Patterns of Perception, 2005, Ruth Schnell), underneath the Round House, past the Library, past the stones of Hiroshima (Hiroshima in Tasmania – the Archive of the Future, Masao Okabe and Chihiro Minato, 2010). Once in front of Kiefer’s Sternefall / Shivireh Ha Kelim 2007, you experience a kind of time-travel, as the view from the window reminds you that David Walsh grew up just over there. It’s a pretty compelling story. But I digress. When we finally made it through the front door, we were issued with our Opods, and went exploring.

This was the house that Walsh established as his Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, in 2002. Nobody came. And yet the care with which he enclosed the courtyard, and extended the crazy-paving floor, was a premonition of what was to come, and now provides the drama of your entry to the Museum below.

And so we descended. The drama of our entry into the museum proper prepared us for the surprise at the idea of a museum-in-a-quarry.

This, and the entrance bar, plus the salon of funky lounge furniture, is about as close to the art as this post will take you. But wait for the discovery you make when you stand in this foyer space, and look above, when you recognise that ceiling of this entry space is actually the underneath of the floor of the Grounds house, and yes, you realise that’s the foundation of the chimney hovering above you. It’s a fantastic inversion of your experience of entry to the Museum, and when you work it out, this was the final stage of the excavation and construction which created the spaces that house the collection.

At the other end of the museum, we discovered the Round House and Library had only just been opened to the public. Here Marr, Marina and David finally met, and the talk began.

The restoration of the Round House garden is the last phase of the complex. Except. Except.

Except there’s a gallery-aviary still to be built, to house a work by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. And a hotel is yet to come.

I’ve only read one review by an architectural critic, Robert Bevan, and there are many other more comprehensive and thoughtful reviews of the museum as a whole. Start with Amanda Lohrey in The Monthly, or Sarah Scott in Art Monthly Australia #238 April 2011. Or Stephanie Radok in the Adelaide Review. Or Maria Kunda in ArtLink. Or Meaghan Wilson-Anastosios at Art Matters. And here’s Peter Timms, in The Age and Meanjin.


#1 Nigel on 05.15.11 at 11:17 am

Max Allen writes from Toronto: Thanks for pointing me to Amanda Lohrey’s spectacularly informative article about David Walsh. Boy, is she good to have gotten all that!

#2 Steve A on 05.16.11 at 8:58 pm

See it. Feel it. It is life affirming. Bravo Mr Walsh. True genius.

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