Episode 63

63. Sex and Death Are on Display at The Museum of Old and New Art

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About this Episode

The Museum of Old and New Art opened in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia in 2011. With a name like that, MONA could include any type of art. But looking at the collection, it’s clear that its creator, millionaire gambler David Walsh, has a fascination with sex and death -- and bets that the rest of us do too.

Walsh himself calls MONA a “subversive adult Disneyland.” The building’s architecture is designed to make you feel lost, and the art is displayed without any labels whatsoever. It’s just you and the art.

In this episode, Hobart-based musician Bianca Blackhall talks about how she’s watched MONA reshape the creative community and art landscape of the island, what makes the museum different from other art museums, and how Hobart is now in “Sauron's Eye of tourism.”

This month on Museum Archipelago, we’re taking you to Tasmania. Over the course of three episodes, we’re conducting a survey of museums on the island, and exploring how each of them relates to the wider landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, or Spotify to never miss an episode.

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Topics Discussed

00:00: Intro
00:15: This Month, Museum Archipelago is Taking You To Tasmania
00:47: Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)
01:05: Museum Archipelago on ABC Radio Hobart
01:30: The Way MONA Shapes the Island
01:44: MONA’s Architecture is Designed to Make You Feel Lost
02:42: Bianca Blackhall
03:05: David Walsh
03:50: “A Subversive Adult Disneyland”
04:08: The Holy Virgin Mary
04:13: On the road to heaven the highway to hell
04:29: Cloaca Professional, 2010
04:55: MONA’s Lack of Labels
05:33: “Art Wank”
06:20: Pride in MONA
06:50: “Sauron's Eye of Tourism”
08:20: A Monument to Joyful Secularism
08:43: Join Club Archipelago


➡️ The Making of MONA by Adrian Franklin


Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 63. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Museums on the Australian island of Tasmania are a microcosm of museums all around the world. They struggle with properly interpreting their colonial past, the exclusion of First People from telling their stories in major museums, and having a large, privately owned art museum reshape a small town.

This month on Museum Archipelago, we’re taking you to Tasmania. Over the course of three episodes, we’re conducting a survey of museums on the island, and exploring how each of them relates to the wider landscape of museums.

Today we visit the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. It’s known as MONA, and it is by far the largest museum in Tasmania… not only by square footage (it’s the largest privately owned art museum in the southern hemisphere), but also by its influence.

Helen Shield: If you were hosting an international podcast about museums, where would you spend your precious travel dollars to record?

That’s Helen Shield, host of a terrestrial broadcast radio program in Tasmania.

Helen Shield: There’s one obvious answer, isn’t there?

She’s a Hobart local and she interviewed me about this series. Listen to how she describes the way that MONA shapes the island.

Helen Shield: It wouldn’t be a trip to Tasmania without stopping in a museum that has singlehandledled changed tourism and probably the international reputation of this island, stopping in at MONA.

MONA, often called the museum of sex and death, opened in Berriedale, a suburb of Hobart in 2011. The building, an enormous bunker out on a peninsula overlooking a river, sneaks up on you as you approach. Once you’re inside -- though a rather small entrance that whisks you underground, the architecture is designed to make you feel lost. There are no signs or directions, so you have to choose your own route. The maze-like paths split in two, with no indication which way you should take, other than which one might seem more attractive to you. Tunnels and stairs -- which don’t always move you up or down by one story -- are not an escape from the disorienting experience -- instead, they might lead you to a tight closterphoic chamber, a lovely cafe overlooking the water, or another massive, previously undiscovered subterranean open space.

Bianca Blackhall: I don't think people expected it to have such an impact. It's kind of like a layer. It's very villainous.

This is Bianca Blackhall, a Hobart-based musician who has watched MONA reshape the creative community and art landscape of the island.

Bianca Blackhall: Hello, my name is Bianca Blackhall. I live in Tasmania. I'm 27 and I'm a musician among other things.

The museum is the product of Tasmanian millionaire and art collector David Walsh. Walsh made his fortune by gambling, and Blackhall says that he is a much-talked about figure in Hobart.

Bianca Blackhall: He'd be an interesting guest at the dinner table cause he's quite unusual in his manner and that he'd made his money through gambling and he was good with numbers.

In his introductions to one of MONA’s past exhibits, Walsh recalled of spending a lot of time in Hobart’s museums as a teenager.

Bianca Blackhall: And apparently he used to get dropped off by his parents in town at the museums. And he used to just walk around them all day as a kid and then they'd pick him up again at the night. They’d be like, “come home”. Cause maybe he was, you know, annoying them or whatever at home as a kid.

With a name like the Museum of Old And New Art, MONA could pretty much include any type of art. But looking at the collection, it’s clear that David Walsh has a fascination with sex and death -- and bets that the rest of us do too.

And, turns out, he’s right. Social animals like us, love thinking about fucking and dying -- and excretion and rot. Walsh himself calls MONA a “subversive adult Disneyland.”

There’s The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting created in part with elephant dung. There’s On the road to heaven the highway to hell, in which the remains of a suicide bomber are cast in dark chocolate. There are dead horses and rotting, festering wounds with swarming bugs encased in acrylic. There’s audioanamatornic skeletons fucking. There’s a digestive machine at turns food into feces and stinks up an entire gallery. The art tries to punch you in the gut, and it mostly succeeds in part because there aren’t any descriptive plaques telling you what’s important about the art or how to feel about it.

Ian Elsner (on ABC RADIO HOBART): I have to say, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Helen Shield: And this from someone who works in, and spends his free time exploring museums.

Ian Elsner (on ABC RADIO HOBART): So often we are in the museum world very stressed out by the labeling. We spend hours and hours thinking about what the labels and placards look like next to a piece of art, and so it was it was really refreshing to just go into the museum and see no labels at all.

Bianca Blackhall: The wording in normal museums is more clinical, like these two people are it's a copulating and they’re enjoying it. They’re always removing feeling from the equation like, oh, objectively this is this, but moving on.

Your only guide to the museum is its inhouse app, called the O. The O will provide some interpretation of the art, but the interpretation is hidden away in a little tab called ARTWANK, which has the icon of a penis. It’s delightful to see art off the pedestal, but Blackhall says that the levity and approach might also be easier for the artists.

Bianca Blackhall: I think it's a very uncomfortable thing to be asked to explain. Please explain. You know, that's Pauline Hanson says, and it's like more, how do I say this stuff without being a twit? It's almost like they've made the unconventional the every day, you know, and sometimes, you know, you wander around there and then there'll be people in smocks getting about and you're like, why are they, well, you know, these are these arts smocks. I'm not sure you know what's happening, but it's, so it's like now it's a part of your every day.

Do you think for Tasmanians there's a certain amount of pride that it's here?

Bianca Blackhall: Definitely, yeah. People have welcomed it with open arms almost. The way people talk about it, they say things like, “MONA, Yup, Yup. Very good.” You know, like in a kind of very, you know, gruff way but like, “oh yeah. Very good. Yup. Going to go down to the big bonfire. With the kids. And it’s good.”

MONA has also been well-received by art critics and by tourists visiting from outside Tasmania. As a new destination on the global art tourism circuit, there’s no doubt that the museums has changed Hobart, a city of a quarter million people.

Bianca Blackhall: I feel like it partially began with MONA, this Sauron's Eye of tourism. I feel like we’re in the eye. It’s watching us. The world is going, “that little island there”. And it really in in the last year or two, you can feel the new foot traffic. You can really feel it. It’s a little bit… I don't know if we're actually quite got the infrastructure for the amount that we have tourists that we now have. Luckily, MONA I think took responsibility for itself but yeah you can definitely feel… we have cruise ships now coming in and that, I don't know if they even go to minor, but we've had the cruise ships coming in and out. Sometimes there are cruise ship traffic jams where they have to wait out in the bay for the other one to leave before they come in. And yeah, it's changed rapidly in a very short space of time. It's quite shocking.