MONA is the Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart. All of its promotional materials are written with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. One such refers to Monanism, a play on Onanism. This in turn is named for Onan, a figure in Genesis whose wife had suffered bad luck with her previous husband: he went and died on her. Onan decided to prevent pregnancy. He did this by spilling his seed on the ground, at once giving rise to the eponym and leading to the naming, some three millennia later, of a parrot in the USA. (Onan the parrot belonged to Dorothy Parker, who named him thus because the bird too “spilled his seed upon the ground.”)
MONA is remarkable. Submerged in a hillside it is a museum without windows. Visitors are entombed for the duration of their visit. Dominant themes of the artworks are sex and death. All this might warn off a visitor, suggesting a visit will be a dark or morbid experience. This in turn is the museum’s little joke at its own expense, an instance of Monanism at play.
Cynics who view Hobart as Australia’s petrified forest – views that are themselves stale and petrified – simply feed into the joke and the pleasant surprise that is MONA.
We* visited MONA yesterday. It is fabulous. The entire experience is exciting, playful and confronting. To remark that the collection is eclectic is to discover how inadequate and weary is that term for artworks that range in date from antiquity to today, to tomorrow. And to some time well beyond tomorrow.
My two favourites are Arthur Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” and another work, commissioned for MONA and titled “Untitled”. This looks like a giant spud; it’s about the size and shape of a Morris Minor motor car, and like that vehicle, it has small windows through which you can peer into the interior. Here, red apples fall vertiginously from the grip of finger-like branches at eye level towards small wells, or open cupolas, containing water. The effect is enchanting, both magical and charming. And mysterious. I looked and felt as Moses might from a mountain peak in Moab: I could see but never hold a view of endless allure and promise.
(It should be obvious that I cannot recall the name of the artist; it’s an Armenian name. Like his work, he remains untitled…)
Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” recalls a work by Breughel the Elder. It expresses the artist’s mixed up, unnamable and profoundly distressed reactions to WWII. In the painting life both destroys itself and asserts itself in grotesque and cruel ways. I have not been moved so strongly by a work about war since viewing Picasso’s “Guernica” in MOMA (no relation to MONA).
My mind exercised itself throughout the visit. Tracey Moffatt’s mixed painted and photographic work is as brilliant as anything there. This Aussie artist (of mixed extraction, including Aboriginal) stands as a peer alongside any of the ambiguists and tricksters at MONA. Her work, “Something More”, seeks to confuse meanings – particularly of cultural identity – by emphasizing its own ‘fakeness’. (Wikipedia)
In my experience, culture is very hard on the feet: a trip to an art museum always leaves me footscore. Not so at MONA. The experience set my mind to dancing. But my feet feel fine. [Unlike old Onan, who, soon after his marriage, left his bride a widow once again. (See Genesis, 38, vv 1-10).]
*This blog has a spouse who accompanied me to MONA.