Cover story MONA’s trans­for­ma­tion into a shop­ping mall raises big ques­tions

On Tues­day, David Walsh’s Mu­seum of Old and New Art was trans­formed, with­out warn­ing, into a shop­ping cen­tre. But, as dis­cov­ers, keen ‘shop­pers’ are likely to get more than they bar­gained for

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

THREE years ago, when David Walsh opened his Mu­seum of Old and New Art on the banks of the Der­went in Ho­bart, it was un­like any other art mu­seum in Aus­tralia. MONA was pri­vately built, fi­nanced by Walsh’s gam­bling, and stocked with an idio­syn­cratic art collection that vis­i­tors could touch, see, hear and, in­deed, smell.

Ev­ery­thing about MONA was about break­ing the muse­o­log­i­cal rules, from the en­try via a ten­nis court to its sub­ter­ranean cham­bers, its ab­sence of teach-’em-good di­dac­tic pan­els and de­ter­mi­na­tion to up-end art world pieties.

But things went ter­ri­bly right. People came in droves, those from in­ter­state hap­pily pay­ing a $20 en­try fee (most state-run gal­leries are free). Un­de­terred by the stink of sex and death, they headed straight to the no­to­ri­ous “poo ma­chine” be­fore din­ing in MONA’s trendy bars and restaurants. Be­fore long, MONA was Tas­ma­nia’s big­gest tourist des­ti­na­tion, adding mil­lions to the lo­cal econ­omy and push­ing Ho­bart into the top-10 world cities to visit. This edgy lit­tle mu­seum on the far side of the world had more front than Myer.

So per­haps we shouldn’t be sur­prised at MONA’s lat­est trans­for­ma­tion, into the kind of re­tail and en­ter­tain­ment com­plex where many Aus­tralians hap­pily spend their time and money. MONA has be­come a shop­ping cen­tre, and Walsh its king of the mall.

Vis­i­tors who ar­rived at the newly opened South­dale Shop­ping Cen­tre this week could not fail to no­tice the cheery cor­po­rate makeover. Bal­loons, South­dale T-shirts and or­anges were be­ing handed out. There are glam­orous ad­ver­tise­ments for lux­ury brands, from Hugo Boss to Es­tee Lauder. The cafe has be­come a Star­bucks.

And it’s not all about the shop­ping: down­stairs is a com­mu­nity cen­tre with mu­sic, dis­cus­sion groups and a knit­ting cir­cle mak­ing beanies for the home­less. A chil­dren’s play area has slides, build­ing blocks and games.

“The na­ture of shop­ping cen­tres is much more fun­da­men­tal to the def­i­ni­tion of a so­ci­ety than a mu­seum,” Walsh says. “Our cul­tural levers are sport and shop­ping.”

MONA’s cor­po­rate makeover, which took place with­out no­tice or fan­fare on Tues­day, is so con­vinc­ing that sev­eral vis­i­tors this week au­to­mat­i­cally as­sumed that Walsh — who has run the mu­seum at a loss and had a wellpub­li­cised tax scrape — had pulled in some big­money spon­sors. There’s a poster for G4S, the se­cu­rity firm. Roche, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals gi­ant, is of­fer­ing free DNA test­ing. (A nearby poster asks, “Are you of Abo­rig­i­nal de­scent?”) A light­box dis­play show­ing some pris­tine wilder­ness car­ries the cap­tion “De­vel­op­ing Tas­ma­nia”, an in­vi­ta­tion to sub­di­vide and con­quer.

By now, the se­cu­rity alarm may be start­ing to ring, be­cause South­dale Shop­ping Cen­tre is an elab­o­rate game, an­other leg-pull in the MONA story. The promised re­tail mecca doesn’t ex­ist, al­though those who know their his­tory of property de­vel­op­ment may recog­nise the name as that of the first mod­ern shop­ping mall. The South­dale Cen­tre opened in Min­nesota in 1956, the brain­child of ar­chi­tect Vic­tor Gruen, who also gave his name to the dazed-and-con­fused wan­der­ing that such places can in­duce, the “Gruen trans­fer”.

And which artist is re­spon­si­ble for trans­fer- ring Gruen to the Der­went? Re­view has learned that Swiss artist Christoph Buchel is be­hind the tem­po­rary trans­for­ma­tion, al­though Walsh will “nei­ther con­firm nor deny” his in­volve­ment.

Buchel makes large-scale, walk-through in­stal­la­tions that ut­terly trans­form their set­tings, leav­ing no trace of the host art mu­seum or or­gan­is­ing en­tity. That hasn’t quite hap­pened at MONA: if Buchel wanted to com­plete a top­down trans­for­ma­tion, it’s been re­stricted to the en­try-level foyer and the “C’MONA” com­mu­nity cen­tre down­stairs.

It all serves MONA’s ethos of chal­leng­ing as­sump­tions about the pre­sen­ta­tion of art, and about its own place in the art world. A MONA spokes­woman says Buchel is in­ter­ested in “how well known the MONA brand has be­come in­ter­na­tion­ally”, and whether people will still come when it is in its re­tail dis­guise.

And there is cer­tainly an ironic slant in the place­ment of sig­nage for al­lur­ing lux­ury goods and cor­po­rate gi­ants in an art mu­seum: a de­lib­er­ate blur­ring of cul­tural and commercial zones.

But the larger con­cept of Buchel’s in­stal­la­tion would go un­no­ticed, per­haps, if not for a bulky, 378-page pa­per­back that ac­com­pa­nies the ex­hi­bi­tion. The book, called Land of David, pur­ports to be a bi­og­ra­phy by David Walsh, al­though he says he has writ­ten noth­ing in it.

In­stead there are seem­ingly miscellaneous chap­ters about quests for var­i­ous kinds of per­fec­tion, start­ing with an es­say by Gruen on the role of the shop­ping cen­tre as the mod­ern-day agora or town square. There’s a bio­graph­i­cal sketch of cos­met­ics pioneer He­lena Ru­bin­stein, and a chap­ter on Solomon R. Guggen­heim and the back­story of his fa­mous art collection and mu­seum.

A fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter con­cerns Critch­ley Parker’s vi­sion for a col­lec­tivist Jewish set­tle­ment around Port Davey — the site was to be given its orig­i­nal name, Poyn­duk — in Tas­ma­nia’s south­west wilder­ness. Parker, son of Frank Parker, founder and edi­tor of The Sun news­pa­per in Mel­bourne, be­lieved Port Davey could be the “Paris of Aus­trala­sia” for the pro­duc­tion of fash­ion and lux­ury goods, and died at the site when he trav­elled there alone and fell ill.

These and other chap­ters con­cern as­pects of racial iden­tity, im­mi­gra­tion and set­tle­ment. There is Adolf Eich­mann’s chill­ing tes­ti­mony about the Fi­nal So­lu­tion; a warn­ing from the Aus­tralian govern­ment, in the form of a graphic novel, about people-smug­glers and the fate of those who use them; a copy of the Im­mi­gra­tion Re­stric­tion Act 1901, the leg­isla­tive ba­sis of the White Aus­tralia pol­icy; and a de­scrip­tion of “le­gal def­i­ni­tions of Abo­rig­i­nal­ity”. The last quar­ter of the book is an in­dex of Is­raeli set­tle­ments in the West Bank.

A com­mon theme, if one can be dis­cerned, is utopi­anism, the sin­gle-minded pur­suit of an ideal. “The self-cer­tainty that thinks you can cre­ate a utopia is the same self-cer­tainty that thinks you’ll make a pretty good dic­ta­tor,” Walsh says, sit­ting in MONA’s enor­mous staffroom with its views of the river.

“When you know what the an­swer is, there’s a con­sid­er­able like­li­hood of the out­come not re­flect­ing any­thing that was ex­pected ... Adolf Hitler would have thought that his in­ten­tions were very pos­i­tive, he was go­ing to make the world a bet­ter place. The fact that he was so mon­strously wrong is not some­thing he could

Mu­seum of Old and New Art founder David Walsh, left; be­low, a neon sign an­nounces the shop­ping mall in­stal­la­tion

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