What an… interesting place…

On the 16th of April, I went to Tasmania, spending the weekend there.

It has taken me, roughly… until now to process how I feel about that underground museum.

Catching the ferry to MONA was lovely. Admittedly, a bit weird to travel on a boat owned by an art museum to go to said art museum. But that was far from being the oddest thing about the day.

On MONA’s website, they describe themselves as “somewhere people can come to say, ‘not sure about the art but the architecture is amazing’”.

That is a statement I most certainly can empathise with.

The collection is not one that conforms to your comforts.

However, with that said, I find myself feeling… compassionate for the place?

What did I like about the museum? Curatorially, I liked the idea of placing something ancient, like some Egyptian limestone carvings next to say, a set of political works from the 21st century. Combine the Old and the New (hence the Museum of Old and New Art’s name).

It’s, in a way, kitsch, but in a good way.

I was, of course, ecstatic when I saw the late Minoan period Larnax (chest-shaped coffin). I like Greek Mythology. (Wow who knew?)  The Minoan period is named after Crete’s King Minos, who you may know from the myth of the Minotaur. This period is, simply put, the Ancient Greece to Ancient Greece. So, to see something from this time was REALLY REALLY COOL.

There was also an artwork I had liked. For at least a moment. Considering there were a lot of artworks I DID NOT like, this was already a good start. It had a speckled texture, reminding me of a night sky littered with stars. The artwork is Cholera, Seed, The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas from ‘The Cancer Chronicles’ by Damien Hirst. So, according to the artist’s intentions, not a night sky.

It was made of resin. And flies… FLIES. When I learnt this, my feelings for the work did a 180, turning immediately from contentment to disgust. I took a couple of steps back – away, AWAY from the sea of flies. I did not approach the artwork again. How was it a sea of dead flies could look so much like the night sky? After having a couple of months to think upon it, I’ve come to appreciate how impactful the artwork was to me. To make me feel so ok with it one moment, then so abhorred the next.

Don’t get me wrong – there was plenty I didn’t like. It might surprise you to hear that the more confronting artworks weren’t what bother me the most. Well… except for the artwork Zelfportret, als grootste worm van de wereld (Self Portrait, as Biggest worm in the World). David Walsh, the owner of the private museum, wrote that the artwork “lacks charm in the same way that scabs lack charm”. He also says “this [artwork] screams ‘sell me’, so if, despite my disdain, you are inclined towards this work, and you don’t mind how awkward it is to display, make me an offer”. If Walsh himself – someone who loves showing off controversial artworks – doesn’t like it, I hope you get an idea of how off-putting it is. But, ok, it is the kind of thing you’d expect exists at MONA. It is what people come to see. So, it’s not the most bothersome thing.

What does bother may seem silly at first.

I respect the innovation to ditch the didactic labels. Really. The museum replaced them with the mobile app “MONA”. It means the audience has access to 3x the amount of information about any one artwork, occasionally with audio clips and interviews. Also, it helps in a more general sense; it has a map, information about tickets and opening hours, contact info, etc. I also still have access to the “didactic label” part of the artworks, so if I need to reference one, I know where to get the information.

But there’s a couple of downsides to the app – it drains the phone’s battery. So, bring a charged phone to MONA? Bring a portable charger? Be PREPARED? Sure, but still… during my visit, it got to a point where I had to be a bit stingy. I had to pick and choose which artworks I wanted to learn more about. I’m not a fan of the experience of my visit depending on how well my phone’s battery holds up.

The other problem I had was how easy it was to dismiss artworks and not appreciate their entirety. Now, this might be getting into the debate of whether the artist’s intentions for an artwork matters or not. It’s depends on interpretation – if you think one thing about an artwork, but the artist meant it to mean something else, does it matter? Who’s “correct”? Neither? Both, simultaneously? It reminds me of a TED ed video, “Who decides what art means? – Hayley Levitt”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoXyw909Qu0 – I highly suggest watching it!)

So, does the didactic label matter? Does it matter that the analysis about that late Minoan period Larnax (chest-shaped coffin) takes a little bit of patience to get to? Do the painters, sculptors, makers behind art even matter?

This may seem like I’m divulging a bit, but just wait a second.

I remember this distinctly: I was inspecting these Neolithic projectile points from 5300-3000 BCE. To put this into perspective, our oldest surviving piece of notable literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is from 2000 BCE. I don’t need to tell you that these projectile points ARE QUITE OLD. Whilst I was bathing in their glory, a man strolled by remarking, profoundly, something along these lines: “oh, some spear heads… or something”. As you may be able to tell, this bothered me. And continued to bother me for quite some time. No, this man was not willing to stop more than five seconds to take a longer look. He was not willing to take out his phone, wait for the work to appear and take a moment to read the description. This might have taken him, oh, perhaps a minute or two. But, in this instance, a minute was a little too long. I wonder, had there been a didactic label, would he have glanced at it? Realised the unfathomable amount of time these little bits of carved stone have lived through? That’s quite a bit of human history – Archaic Greece to Classical Greece. Rome rose and fell. The bubonic plague dug its claws into Humanity. French Revolution, Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, Modernism, the Great War, the rebranding of the Great War to World War I as it was all repeated in its 1939 sequel. That’s only mentioning what we learn in a secondary school classroom.

So, to even pass by an artwork made in the 20th century is incredible. But, alas, we have people who would breeze by without much of a second thought to what they were truly standing next to.

To me, context, information, and explanation is crucial in understanding an artwork. The artist beyond the work is a human, and I am determined to know what they were thinking about when creating their pieces. That’s not to say I can’t hold my own interpretation of a work. It’s not hard to hold two ideas in one’s mind at any given time.

So, what is it I propose? I already said that I thought the app was a good idea. Am I about to take it all back?

No, not at all. As I said, it allows for 3x as much information on any given artwork. However, the error is in the omission of the physical label on the wall. The app isn’t perfect. It’s ironic to think that so many people might miss out on so much information just because its functionality was a little faulty, and a little fiddly.

I reckon if you want to sink money into an app for a gallery/museum, go for it. But keep the physical labels, please.

Some people are still in need of them.