Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart
22 January 2011 – 19 July 2011
Claire Lambe and Elvis Richardson
In January 2011 an audacious new public museum was added to Australia’s cultural landscape. Located on a cliff-front in the outskirts of Hobart, the Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) houses the private art collection of professional gambler, entrepreneur and philanthropist David Walsh. The three-level, underground museum presents antiques alongside modern and contemporary art — all of which unite under the museum’s unofficial theme: ‘sex and death’. Following a visit to the museum, artists and gallerists Claire Lambe and Elvis Richardson discuss MONA and its opening exhibition, Monanism.
So Elvis do you think the show was well hung?
It sure was.
I think it’s incredibly generous opening your collection to the public, opening yourself up for scrutiny and criticism. I know the flipside is ego, but he has broken a lot of institutional rules of display and it was great to have my whole gallery tour posted to my lap top to view at any time.
So you used the iPod?
Yeah. I loved how the museum had no labels or work descriptions and how you accessed the details you were interested in through the pod, and then your tour was emailed to you.
I loved the generosity of it too, it was mind blowing really. Yet the whole endeavour exposes his personal taste, which I thought on one hand typified fairly boyish interests: ancient Egypt, sex and death … but, on the other hand, how it was remixed with the contemporary art made it all so clever.
Yes. How the works were displayed conveyed other meanings and relationships. Like placing the Egyptian mummified cat next to Julia de Ville’s little splayed kitten pelt with the pearl in its mouth. Also that whole darkened room which housed Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary 1996; a painting of a black Virgin Mary, balanced on elephant dung supports. In front of the painting were two antiques, one stately colonial period chair and on the floor was a mountain lion pelt. Apart from the obvious contexual references, I can imagine sneeking down at night in your slippers with a glass of wine in hand for the private domestic viewing. These displays were not patronising and allowed the viewer to bring their own interpretations.
Museums are aware their activities define and provide physical evidence of history to the public and a museum should be sensitive to what is included or excluded and how it is displayed. MONA is a private museum, however, so is not obliged to submit to my imagined cultural equivalent of a hypocratic oath. MONA’s greatest impact was the willingness to turn museum conventions around, remove the labels and the institutional instruction, to rub the contemporary and ancient together and create a redux viewing experience.
If you or I had the dosh to open our own museum it would be just as personally specific. We would pick completely different works but our collection would be our personal taste. Would being an artist change what we would choose, as opposed to coming from the position of a collector?
There is something about showing off your knowledge if you have knowledge of something. I see this as part of the collector’s psyche. Just take it back to those teenage years where you’re proud to know the most obscure music or to discover something first. Many of the works in the gallery were already established as key pieces outside of MONA in other museums, however. He has bought some ambitious and well documented works — Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Great Deeds Against the Dead 1994 were personal favourites.
Yes, why is it always these key pieces that come to represent our time?
David Walsh must love the media, controversy, risk. He went to a lot of trouble to get things he wanted and many of his acquisitions were reported in the press. For example, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary had to be exempted from an import law and Boltanski’s Cave, a separate chamber housing Christian Boltanski’s The Life of C.B. 2010–, commissioned by Walsh as a bet to record the artist in his studio until he dies (which Walsh will make money on if the artist dies in under eight years), received a lot of media coverage. Boltanski was my favourite artist in art school and I consider him an icon of the death genre of art, if I can call it that for a moment. The whole idea of that work held gravitas for me, including the fact that the collector would get so involved in creating the work in the first place.
Do you think most people would find a certain freedom as collectors working on this scale, or does having a large amount of money to spend assert its own limitations?
I don’t know; it depends on how you approach it. In a state museum setting it must be more political (well, I hope it is) and exhibition and acquisition decisions are underpinned by critical discussion.
Is he just like everyone else?
ER: Well most people wouldn’t be this philanthropic. It is amazing to see this level of passion in Australia and I think he has done a lot for the appreciation of contemporary art in Tasmania and beyond.
I was surprised at what I kept going back to. Mainly the antiquities: Leda and the Swan 1–100CE, a small bronze of woman in the act of copulation with a swan, displayed appropriately in a peep hole; and Shari Mendleson’s hot glued discarded plastic urns floating in a dimmed ethereal light, as if it was lost treasure from Pompeii. The way in which the work was displayed was so uplifting. I find some of the larger museums disappointing. The artefacts represent small snippets of history and are all laid out in a pedagogical fashion that leads the visitor on calculated and predictable paths. So I am drawn to small, private museums because, even though they are dealing with the same material, the choices and display are open to interpretation.
But there is something very different between a state and private-run museum. Private museums are self-funded, so independent of institutional obligations — it is just the collector with his cabinet who brings people over to have a look.
This is just another beautiful cabinet really.
It is a curiosity.
Claire Lambe and Elvis Richardson are both artists who together run Death Be Kind, a gallery project designed to research and exhibit contemporary art and collections that engage with the subject of death. — www.deathbekind.com