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
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