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.  Continue reading →

yet another Fountain, artistically installed, even

If the concept of the Readymade conditions our understanding of the aesthetic challenges posed by the mundane world of commodities within a seemingly infinite cosmos of artefacts, both artistic and otherwise, then surely there is no other art object that so fundamentally challenges our orientation towards every other work of art than the Fountain. No other object presents the viewer with such profound psycho-social and evaluative/critical ambiguities as those initiated by its original manifestation ninety four years ago. In every subsequent manifestation, both in the museumspeak of gallery directors, and in the vernacular, a Fountain is a “destination work”.

Chastened by recent debates on this site, your iconophile has thrown convention to the wind, and in the construction of his latest domestic installation he has adopted uncritically many of the design criteria espoused by his erstwhile friend Ron Radford (to whom we are indebted for the odd turn of phrase). When it comes to a work such as this, nothing is more important than the blend of architectural form and the harmonious experience of function.  Everything must express its proper relation to each other, in its evocation of its historical and contemporary cultural antecedents and environments.

And so in the midst of this post-phenomenological moment, whilesoever the body-to-body paradigm remains the conventional mode of address for the artist-beholder, so it remains the primary consideration for our critical engagement with an art object such as this. These are matters on such a high aesthetic plane that the search for meaning in social or cultural practice allows no room here for distraction, no space for disciplines other than the purely aesthetic and art historical. Whenever a replica or an analogue of The Fountain is installed, every consideration of matters of natural and cultural significance should be weighed and measured. If precedents exist, they must be properly acknowledged.

Prominence is a critical aspect of the placement of such an object, and thus this Fountain has been given a prime position just inside the door, so that it may be displayed to its full advantage as a distinctive and beautiful installation away from other things. The idea is that visitors will encounter and experience the work with a complex sense of the interior/exterior spatial relationship, in circumstances enhanced by natural light and the circulation of air to maintain its unique environmental considerations with respect to the rest of the building. Sensitive to both light and humidity, it took a great deal of consideration to get all the elements correct. The overall aesthetic consideration was to reduce the introduction of alien materials in its display so that The Fountain remains the central point of attention. The final materials surrounding the Fountain are those already embodied in the object and its surroundings, all handled with dignified simplicity.

The process of installation and design engineering set out to create a harmonious context for this great work. The vitrified china (a kind of protoporcelain) body of the Fountain itself is reflected in the ceramic tiles on the walls, which being specially imported from the historic Stoke-on-Trent potteries, reflect the complexity and contradictions of our postcolonial heritage. The stones that make the floor (tumbled grey granite sourced from Byron Bay) are part of the earth and are an ideal material for the space as they serve several purposes. They prevent humidity moving vertically downward, and they hide the unsightly infrastructure below. The stones also fulfilled our requirement for a material and colour that blended with the external surroundings of the building, which are a part of the original palette of the house, and other works within the immediate environment. We have consciously used such materials in the new space to help link the old with the new.

A substantial amount of work has gone into ensuring natural daylight would be the predominant illumination for the Fountain. Blinds on the windows come down if the light levels are too high. Artificial light can be manually adjusted to ensure a correct balance throughout the day. We have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to achieve this lighting for this great work.

Contrary to conventional curatorial practice, during the early planning stages of his project your iconophile was assisted by an historian and anthropologist, in consultation with plumbers, electricians, tilers and others to ensure that this important work was displayed respectfully and beautifully. Visitors to the installation have unanimously agreed the new Fountain has been displayed with more dignity and more beautifully than ever before.

P.S. (which is an appropriately euphonic acronym, in this instance). As if to prove a point, (de faire un point, ostensiblement, as the ghost of MD reminds us) on this past March 24th this other Fountain appeared in Grange Park, Toronto, just next to the Ontario College of Art and Design. For one night only, alas…


new musea and their architects

“I saw Cubism in a different light” says I.M. Pei. As you would… Two Cities, Four Architects: interviews with I M Pei, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel at the NYT, as they talk to Nicolai Ouroussoff about their experiences (“universal principles” among other things) that they found in Doha and Abu Dhabi.

The NGA’s facelift: “peculiar design choices”

“Westfield”, “municipal”, “truly awful”, “ungainly” are just some of the expressions Robert Bevan uses in The Oz here.

in advance of the broken column

Do architects have a sense of humour? They must have. Yet when an architect puns, it’s a private joke at the public expense. When is a column not a column? When it’s a pun, stupid. The primary architectural feature of the National Gallery of Australia’s new facelift is this singular column. Judging by my photograph of their photograph, above, the purpose is to assert its status as an icon, signifying the character of the new building. There’s certainly nothing like it in the old building – although admittedly the Nolans are now shown in a new gallery shaped like a spa-bath. Now let’s think this through. Like a temple, a proper museum needs columns to signal its entrance, right? Maybe we can make do with just one column? That appears to support nothing? Except maybe a plastic dome? Get it?

Here’s the approach…

There’s no word in the architectural lexicon for a thing like this. So maybe this virtual column can be interpreted as both an oh-so-cautious nod towards postmodernism, while at the same time it reinforces the sphere and dome theme, to the left and right of the entrance, and inside as well. The problem is, like much of postmodernity, it’s a one-liner. So every time you swing by, you’ll be reminded of the same visual pun thing.

But wait! There’s more… Just beside the front door there’s a broken column, a modest little neocubist artefact, reminiscent of the style of the late Mari Funaki, but with no apparent attribution. It stands on a base inscribed to commemorate the opening of the new galleries. It’s about life-size, and it leans as if it wants to have a rest against the glass wall.  In its ambiguous anonymity it carries a certain mysterious status. As an artefact without the authority of an author, it somehow suggests a subversive purpose, loitering with intent, seemingly condemned never to reach the status of a work of art… Perhaps there is a prize for guessing its identity?

Methinks someone’s lost control of their signifiers… Want more? The thread continues here.

short memory?

Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios makes an interesting connection between the treatment of Indigenous art at the NGA and the Musee du quai Branly on her blog Art Matters. There’s a thread in the ArtWranglers archives which discusses similar issues.

Does the NGA’s new extension eclipse The Aboriginal Memorial?

Imagine my surprise when I was shouted at for attempting to photograph the new architectural extension at the National Gallery of Australia! There are no signs forbidding such activity. Just an ambiguous little pamphlet you could ask for at the desk. “I wish to photograph the space, so that I can critique the architecture” I said. No way! came the reply… So you’ll have to make do with my drawing of the core structure of the building extension (by Andrew Andersons).

The two story main gallery contains a cylindrical form which appears to hang from the ceiling above the Aboriginal Memorial, containing a dome to echo the Turrell outside. The access ramp separates the Memorial from the outside world. Upstairs the cylinder provides the structure to contain the quadruply unfortunate corridor gallery in which are hung the Gallery’s collection of early Papunya boards. Quadruply unfortunate for (a) the colour of the gallery, (b) the unavoidable view of the fixtures behind the boards on the convex wall, (c) your inability to get a long or comparative view, and (d) the claustrophobic sense that you’ve got to keep moving down the tunnel. Like the entrance to the Musee du Quai Branly. We’ve heard Norman Day on ABC Artworks, but other reactions to the facelift have been few and far between. So who out there would like to write a comprehensive critique of the building in its new guise?

Here’s the NGA’s own view of itself…

And here is a NGA photograph looking the other way.

And notice the subtlety of the ring of circular airconditioning ducts embedded in the gravel which encircles the poles? Framed by invisible sculptures! I wonder who thought of that?

And this is how it currently appears on the Tourism Australia website… Which gives you a sense of how the design was virtualised to the Gallery at an earlier stage of decision-making.

This and other images of The Aboriginal Memorial can be found on the NGA’s Flickr feed.

P.S. For an example of the positive spin, read Christopher Menz’ commentary in the ABR.

Gehry @ Novartis

In Basle. See here at ARCspace.

the latest Serpentine Pavilion

is by Jean Nouvel. See here on ArtDaily