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MONA–the Museum of Old and New Art (and craft)

The new MONA in Hobart provides an interesting perspective on the place of craft in contemporary art museums. This $80m museum hosts a collection of contemporary art worth around $100m. It is certainly the high end of culture, though the collector’s generosity has welcomed the public to view it for free.

One of the distinct elements of MONA is the way is eschews curatorial objectivity. The personality of its collector is evident throughout.

The walls are completely free of text or labels. Instead, visitors carry around iPod devices that pick up your location and offer information about nearby art works. Digging down, visitors can learn more. One button offers ‘art speak’ by a curatorial expert and the other titled ‘gonzo’ offers purely idiosyncratic takes, often by the collector, David Walsh, himself. For instance, the Clacoa work by Wim Delvoye features Walsh’s speculation that humans are merely hosts for microbes and will eventually be replaced by machines such as these. Sometimes audio is also available, featuring Walsh’s maniacal laugh as he draws inspiration from the work in question. They have to be a highlight of the museum.

David Walsh occupies a complex position, at once both distant from normality and a popular hero. There are two other figures who he can be compared with.

Glenn Gould was a revered pianist known particularly for his interpretation of Bach. Like Walsh, he is know to have a kind of Asperger’s (a mild version of autism) associated with great feats of mental construction, partly enabled by their disconnection from the world of normal human feelings. Gould’s Asperger’s is not only evident in the obsessive control over the recording process, but also the stray humming that accompanies the piano. Most of us are conditioned to screen out the personal stream of consciousness within from the public performance without. Similarly, MONA is marked not only by its complete control by the collector, but also his unedited free associations on the works.

There is something quite refreshing about this. Our state museums have become so beholden to government interests and marketing, that individual vision rarely surfaces. Though it may seem dictatorial to privilege one person’s vision at MONA, it helps that it is so perverse. A bad leader can be good for democracy.

In this, Walsh also resembles the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Like Zuckerberg, Walsh has made his career from algorithms regarding human behaviour. As famously portrayed in the film Social Network, Zuckerberg is also an ‘arsehole’ whose success seems premised on his nerdy quest for revenge against the girl who rejected him. Yet, it is Zuckerberg’s very fallibility that frees the millions of Facebook members from the implied duty to follow a leader. It’s hard to imagine Facebook being as successful if Bill Gates was its founder.

While there is no reason to believe that Walsh has a similar ignoble background, he is hardly a self-consciously upright philanthropist. Accordingly, Walsh’s taste does not come across as authoritative, and more often prompts disagreement. The iPods cater for such responses by offering each visitor the opportunity register their ‘love’ or ‘hate’ a work (there is a rumour that if too many people ‘love’ a work, Walsh will take it away to storage).

The other refreshing part of MONA is the eclecticism of works on display. The collection started as a museum of antiquities, so it is peppered with exquisite works of classical craft, such as a glowing Egyptian faience bowel. To enhance the museum experience, Walsh commissioned a number of local designer-makers such as Pippa Dickson to make unique benches; though their aesthetic license leads them to be mistaken for works of art themselves. And there are a number of a craft works from a variety of media, naturally including Melbourne jeweller-taxidermist Julia deVille.

Walsh has no political ties to craft. He is clearly not trying to be representative of art media. The only element that seems to guide his selection is personal appeal. So given this context, it is reassuring to see that craft quite naturally finds a place among contemporary art. Walsh’s freedom releases him from the hierarchy that besets many state museums that associate craft with amateurism as opposed to the genius of the lone artist.

The MONA experience is huge. The architecture is revelatory. It takes at least two days to see the collection on display. In all this, craft is a relatively incidental feature. But if you put together all the craft works on display, you would have a respectable exhibition in itself. That alone is a reason worth visiting MONA.