Oh, MONA.

MONAA few weekends ago, Tim and I went to Hobart for the weekend to visit the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). We have been anticipating the opening of the museum for some years, partly because of the MONA billboard on the Republic Tower on the corner of  LaTrobe and Queen Streets in Melbourne. For years now, odd and frequently disturbing images have appeared, several storeys high, at that intersection, a promise/warning about what we could expect when David Walsh finally finished building his private museum.

The gallery does not disappoint. We approached it by ferry from Hobart and climbed the stairs to the entrance. The gallery is set partially below ground, although one windowless wall faces the outside. The entrance is a building with a reflective surface and a tennis court, across which people stroll. A staff member says the tennis court was built there basically because Walsh likes to play tennis, and since he could build it, he did. It was at that point I realised that, in a fictional world, David Walsh would either be the eccentric billionaire who costumed up and fought crime by night, or he’d be the eccentric billionaire who will take over the world with his cunning technology unless James Bond can stop him in time. Not knowing the man, I figure he could go either way.

Whatever his superheroic/supervillainous tendencies might be, Walsh has an eye for the startling and fascinating in art. He has bought some of my favourite pieces seen either at galleries in Victoria or on my travels. Some pieces are shocking, some silly, some dull, some beautiful: and of course, how each piece falls into which category is totally in the eye of the beholder. That’s one of my favourite things about art—the way it embodies that line of Shakespeares that “Nothing is good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”

MONA was purpose-built to showcase Walsh’s collection, including the massive work by Sidney Nolan, “Snake”.  MONA is unique for other reasons too. Walsh paid for the whole thing himself, then opened it up to the public for free. This means that no-one—no government body, no tabloid paper shrieking about wasting taxpayer’s money, no unhappy customer—can tell him what to do with it or what to display. If you don’t like it, leave. If you don’t think your kids should see some of the pieces, the gallery guide highlights the sections where the more ‘challenging’ pieces can be found,. Everything else is up to your own discretion And it’s not like you can demand your money back if you’re displeased. This is a gallery where every adult is treated like a grown-up who can make their own decisions.

One of the other things I love about this gallery, besides the amazing selection of work, is the way information about each piece is presented. Instead of having tiny placquards on the wall telling you the title and perhaps a snippet from the artist or an art critic, each visitor gets a customised iTouch to carry around. The device tunes into wireless points throughout the gallery to display whichever pieces are nearby. You can tap on an image to find the title, artist and medium and then choose a number of further options.

Some pieces are accompanied by one or more audio tracks, often interviews with the artist. Other interactive options are labelled Artwank (serious essays from art critics), Ideas (snippets of ideas or comments from the artist, David Walsh or one of the other people involved in the gallery) and Gonzo (extracts from emails between the gallery and the artists, or between the David and other gallery folk, or just essays from David Walsh’s sometimes skewed perspective.)

The genius of these elements is the way they provide several voices that offer ways of interpreting the art. You can go the serious approach, or you can find out that Walsh hated the piece when he first got it, or that he bought it on a whim and hates it now but the others won’t let him get rid of it because they like the interview thatt goes with it. The commentator makes fun of art, or sees something unusual, or draws curious, personal conclusions from it. Every voice is different, and every voice tells you that it’s okay to take it seriously, or not. It’s okay to like it, or not. It’s okay to have a different opinion, and to express it.

This makes MONA different from other galleries in other ways, too. It’s not a muted space, full of hushed reverence for the art on display. In fact, it’s full of quiet chatter as people talk about what they are seeing with their friends and even with strangers. By presenting the multiple voices through the iTouch, MONA breaks down the idea that only ‘qualified’ people can have a say.

Without going into detail, the gallery is full of pieces about sex and death, but more than that, it’s full of art about living and life. It is full of ideas about being human, and sex and death are a significant part of that. I didn’t like everything there, but I loved a lot of it. I was challenged, amused, moved—and sometimes completely unmoved.

The final thing for which I adore MONA was the ability to enter my email address into the iTouch so that the gallery could email a ‘virtual tour’ to me. Every item I tapped on and read about (and voted whether I LOVE or HATE) got tagged. A few days after I got home, MONA had sent me an email link to my tour. The link led to a page with every piece listed, accompanied by a photo and the Artwank, Ideas and Gonzo information. I can revisit my tour and pour again over my reactions to Claire Morgan’s exquisite Tracing Time, or Jannis Kounellis’s display of two goldfish in a white bowl of water containing a carving knife, which caused so many exclamations of pity for the fish, despite the fact they were in no danger at all.

The current exhibiton, Monanism, ends in July. I can’t wait to get back to Hobart in the second half of the year to see what else David Walsh and MONA have in store.