I firmly believe that most people don’t like art. Which is fine. It really is. But when travelling, many still feel compelled to subject themselves to whatever the world’s websites tell them are the must see museums and galleries. These visitors are full of anxiety: they won’t really have “done” Paris/Madrid/Rome unless they’ve engaged in a speed walk through that city’s most storied marble halls, whizzing past centuries of priceless canvases.
They’re bored shitless. They should just go to lunch
This is why, when you walk around Peggy Guggenheim’s old gaff in Dorsoduro, you see all those people adding Insta filters to the Brancusi and Duchamp. They’re bored shitless. They should just go to lunch. Whenever anyone asks me what to see in Florence, I send them to La Specola – a spooky mix of gory anatomical waxworks and taxidermy. You really want to queue for the Uffizi for two hours, just to see something that you got bored with when you saw it reproduced for the 2,000th time, twenty years ago? Maybe you have an obsessive fascination with technically inept perspectives of the crucifixion? Whatever the case, you’ll probably want to leave after 15 minutes.
One place you won’t experience exhibition ennui is at MONA in Tasmania. There’s nothing about this maverick private art gallery, which opened in 2011 and has become known for its regular music and arts festivals as much as for its permanent collection, that is worthy or dull. The emphasis is, as it should be, on pleasure. I visited for the first time this year, and I can’t remember the last time I was so excited by a single art institution.
The day after I went, I sat and read The Making of MONA by Adrian Franklin, cover to cover. It’s a fantastic document, and a modern fairy tale: the story of how someone with savant-style wizardry for mathematics – MONA founder David Walsh –repurposed the fortune he’d made from casinos to create a visionary private gallery. It records how the two most influential museums that Walsh’s team looked at in the making of MONA were two of my other favourite exhibition spaces: the John Soane’s Museum in London, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. And you can see the inspirations so clearly at MONA: that 19th century sense of spectacle mixed with the raw, urban and cool.
It makes you want to sink that pitiful boat that meanders up and down the Thames between the two Tates like a grey fart
Fundamentally, as Franklin points out in his book, MONA is about pleasure. Which is in short supply at so many museums around the world, where every visit it couched in soporific academia. When you go to MONA, you’ll probably take the boat from Hobart. Instead of a seat, you’ll sit on a sculpture of a sheep, drink sparkling wine at breakfast time, gorge on cake from an impressive patisserie counter and listen to The Smiths. Everything is permitted, pleasure is encouraged. There’s even a VIP lounge with bottomless fizz for $50. It makes you want to sink that pitiful boat that meanders up and down the Thames between the two Tates like a grey fart.
Have you been to see anything at the Pompidou lately? It’s hell on toast. The torture gauntlet of queues, poor signage and staff palaver doesn’t seem so much as Parisian as willful. It’s life-denying and infuriating. When you get to MONA, the first thing you see (on leaving a sci-fi lift that makes a wonderful noise like the opening of a 1990s Armand van Helden Sound Factory remix) is a bar. And why not have the bar, and the booze, before the art? Why should it be the carrot at the end of the day?
What I love about MONA is how every aspect of it is fun, but it’s never Disneyfied or patronizing. It doesn’t, as it might, water the work itself down with aspartame into some through the contemporary art scene.
If there wasn’t anything inside MONA, it would represent a thrilling experience: walking through its tunnels, up and down its fantastically lit stairwells and over its vast subterranean spaces, is exciting. As it is, there’s a lot inside, all curated sensationally, but with sophistication. A deliberate decision not to include any of the often cringe-inducing ‘notes’ other galleries place beside artworks means that if you’re interested in the identity, history or context of a piece, you can choose to investigate using the irreverent but informative audio guide, or look it up later and explore your own way into the collection. MONA refuses to turn the contemporary art scene into some awful Dawn “OMFG” Porter “wow” travelogue of “Did you know?” factoids and Alastair Sooke-style pabulum.
I don’t want to give away too much about what you can see at MONA. That’s not why I’m writing this. I don’t want to make anything redundant… Not that MONA could ever develop the Uffizi effect. I don’t think everything is wonderful. I think a high percentage of it is shallow, even if it’s still smart. But it’s never pretentious, or predictable. The work is funny and fresh – there isn’t a Damian Hirst spot painting in sight. Walsh’s collection and enthusiasms are eclectic, eccentric, carnivalesque, and scatological: when I walked into the recent Gilbert & George retrospective, the first thing I noticed (right after the bar) was what I thought was the smell of cheese. It was, in fact, the aroma exuded by Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca machine, a gallery away. Delvoye’s creation manufactures, quite literally, shit.
MONA is what you can do with a lot of money, and a genuine love for art that has nothing to do with making a lot more money. It’s a one off. C
Museum of Old and New Art, 655 Main Road, Berriedale, Tasmania 7011
+03 6277 9900; mona.net.au
Qantas increased its frequency of flights between Melbourne and Sydney to Hobart by 30% in March 2016, improving connection times with their long haul flights. There’s also an overnight ferry to Tasmania, from Melbourne, but you’d have to be insane to get it.