In 1785 an influential art critic published a virulent attack on the way art was being displayed at Vienna’s Belvedere. The curator there had taken the radical step of lining the pictures up in chronological order, grouping them according to schools and providing each with an informative label. This was an outrageous imposition. The critic pointed out that people do not go to art museums to be educated, but to be entertained and to cultivate their taste, and that can happen only when widely differing objects are hung cheek-by-jowl without regard to their historical or cultural context. The museum, he said, must be a fantasy world, a world of delight and imagination (and, although he didn’t say so, one that successfully keeps the riff-raff at bay).1
Well, he certainly lost that argument.
To those accustomed to the cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer, a museum ordered on pedagogical principles seemed a barren prospect indeed. Nevertheless, this quickly became the organising principle of museums all over the world and today we are so accustomed to it that we hardly give it a thought: a room devoted to eighteenth-century European painting is followed by the Romantics, the Realists, the Impressionists and so on, in logical sequence, to the present day. One room is devoted to photography, one to the decorative arts, one over there to Australian contemporary art, with Aboriginal art segregated in an area of its own. Everything is labelled and its relationship to everything else carefully explained.
The Wunderkammer was, by contrast, a glorious muddle. At least it seems so to our eyes. Corals and mineral specimens rubbed shoulders with stuffed birds, books, engravings and oil paintings, exotic shells, sculptures, mechanical gadgetry, even unicorn horns and other evidence of fantastical creatures. A stuffed crocodile mounted upside down on the ceiling was, apparently, de rigueur. The idea was to cram everything together in exuberant profusion, to delight the eye and overwhelm the senses. And, of course, to impress upon the visitor the owner’s wealth and breadth of interests.
This is the important point about the Wunderkammer: it was privately owned—the sometimes highly eccentric expression of one man’s personal taste, intended for the pleasure and enlightenment of his friends and associates. It revealed its owner as a dynamic citizen of the new humanist Europe, shaking off religious dogma and receptive to innovation.
However, the installation at the Belvedere in 1785 heralded a different, more objective and ‘scientific’ approach to the display of objects, based on classification, which would consign the heady delights of the Wunderkammer to history. The nineteenth century was to see the great age of the public museum, whose aim was to lift the toiling masses from their ignorance and lead them into the light of Knowledge and Truth. Today, despite all their strenuous efforts to excite, entertain and motivate, art museums have not managed to shake off that rather stern Victorian inheritance. The wealth of extended labels, audio guides and touch screens that clutter their exhibition spaces suggests that the urge to categorise, explain and control has never been stronger.
Yet now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the cabinet of curiosities is suddenly a hot topic again. Several examples have opened in the United States, and the Fine Art Department at the University of Leeds has established a ‘Wunder Kammer’ course, in which students are encouraged to roam freely among disciplines. The magazine Cabinet juxtaposes wildly differing subjects to reveal unexpected connections among them. Wunderkammer exhibitions abound: for example, the recent Treasures of the Medici, at Musée Maillol in Paris, presented an unlikely mix of Roman jewellery, early Renaissance painting, Greek bronzes, medieval reliquaries, Chinese porcelains and Brazilian folk art, self-consciously taking its cue from the traditional Wunderkammer. Paris also has a permanent ‘Chamber of Marvels’ at the Pinacothèque, where works of art are arranged according to theme: Rothko sharing space with Rembrandt and African masks with Monet.
Should this new-found enthusiasm for crossing disciplines surprise us? Not at all. For we are well acquainted with that universal Wunderkammer known as the internet. Anyone who has ever Googled knows the pleasures of discovering serendipitous connections among widely diverse topics. In freeing our minds to wander, the internet has shown us that the old systems for categorising knowledge—and, more importantly, the old ways of learning—don’t make nearly as much sense now as they used to.
All of which leaves the traditional art museum, with its rigidly defined curatorial departments, its hierarchical collection policies, boards of management and didactically arranged displays, looking increasingly out of step with the times. It has responded with spectacular new buildings, restaurants, cinemas and entertainment areas, and with collections that embrace fashion, video games and the products of mass culture. Yet however much it is dressed up in smart new clothes, however hard it parties, it remains at heart a venerable nineteenth-century dowager, still faithful to the old ways of doing things. Basically, it remains a temple to Knowledge and Truth. There is nothing wrong with that, of course—we need secular shrines today more than ever—but the art museum today, in common with most formerly serious institutions of learning, has developed something of a split personality. Under intense political pressure to meet the demands of mass-commercialism, it is at the same time expected to fulfill its duties to high culture. It must be serious and fun at the same time—both elitist and populist. Having pulled in the crowds, it must then confront them with arcane intellectual games they are not meant to fully understand. As cliché would have it, the art museum is an institution in crisis.
Think, then, of Hobart’s new Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) as a study in what ails the contemporary museum and as a sort of test case. Adventurous, extravagant, ebullient and slightly wacky, it is to the art establishment what Formula 1 is to the motor industry or haute couture to the rag trade: not entirely practical but an example of what is possible.
David Walsh, the Tasmanian gambling millionaire who conceived of and built MONA, has described it as his ‘subversive adult Disneyland’. This is typical of his apparently self-deprecating statements and should not be taken entirely at face value. The Disneyland analogy has been around for a while. It has been used by hostile critics of modern art museums such as Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim Bilbao, who worry about the trend towards bling at the expense of scholarship. That is not a criticism that David Walsh is likely to worry about. He’s big on bling. But his insistence on not being taken seriously, although perhaps defensive, is not without guile.
I agree with him that MONA is subversive—although it has nothing to do with the sex and death theme of the opening exhibition, Monanism. Anyone who has downloaded internet porn or watched SBS news will find nothing the least bit shocking among MONA’s titillating jokes and sometimes puerile provocations. But, as the expression of one man’s personal taste it is surely a gigantic modern Wunderkammer rather than a Disneyland: the plaything of a rich and gifted individual, unrestrained by committees, rigid policies or o1cial expectations. Walsh has made the most of his freedom, cheerfully undermining a host of old art-museum assumptions along the way. MONA’s subversiveness lies not with the art, but with the fact that it gives the finger to the pretensions upon which the contemporary art world is built.
The complaint that art museums are becoming Disneyfied has everything to do with expectations. (After all, nobody complains that Disneyland is becoming Disneyfied.) The assumption is that art is an intellectual undertaking of vital cultural significance and museums must provide an appropriately reverent atmosphere for it. That may be true if we’re thinking of Rembrandt or medieval icons, but it is considerably less so for Damien Hirst or Callum Morton. When art itself has become Disneyfied, the secular shrine starts to look incongruous. It is not the flippancy of so much contemporary art that the public is wary of, but rather the unwarranted veneration lavished upon it by curators, academics and art dealers. There is something absurd—offensive even—about a pop-music video clip being treated like a Tiepolo. Although theorists might well go on about the blurring of the old distinction between high and low art, sensible people are smart enough to know when they are being taken for a ride.
MONA’s most significant achievement, then, is to provide a setting that is singularly appropriate to the modest aspirations of most contemporary art. Despite its imposing structure, it fosters an atmosphere of light-hearted fun that suits of the work it houses. For example, Candice Breitz’s multi-screen video of fresh-faced young people singing along to Madonna songs is entertaining froth, no more. In the hushed, sterile spaces of the traditional museum, where it would be presented as some sort of deep and meaningful critique of popular culture, its vacuousness would be an affront. MONA’s visitors, however, freed from any injunction to pay homage, can enjoy it for what it is, with no feelings of guilt or inadequacy. It is just part of a fun day out.
We are encouraged, also, to get past the pretentious and illiterate title of Damien Hirst’s Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting and see it for what it is: not a seminal work by ‘the leading artist of his generation’2 but a game, a plaything. The emperor has no clothes and we have been given permission to enjoy his nakedness. Forgetting, for the moment, that this splodge cost a vast amount of money, we simply savour its swirly colours and pass on, as we might a shop window or a flash sports car.
While the semi-naked teenagers acting out war games in Last Riot 2, by the Russian group AES&F, have something to say about aggression, innocence and beauty, it can hardly be called profound. Basically this is high-class kitsch—slick, erotic and faintly disturbing, as all good kitsch is. Feel free to let your eyes rove randomly across the three giant screens, with no explanatory labels or curatorial essays to tell you what to think, nothing to intrude upon your reverie. ‘Awesome,’ I heard a boy say to his girlfriend, and that, in the age of YouTube, is as valid a commentary as any other. There is, after all, no possibility of misinterpreting such works, and no right or wrong way of perceiving them, because they make no real cultural connections. Everyone’s experience of them will be different and completely personal. At MONA, you don’t feel, as you do in other museums, that expectations are being imposed. In this sense, at least, this is possibly the world’s first bullshit-free art museum, the first not to patronise its visitors and the first freely to acknowledge, without passing judgement, that art has largely given up any pretensions to cultural gravitas and morphed into a blend of fashion and high-class entertainment.
Many will be disconcerted by the complete absence of printed information. Nothing is labelled. This is a daring and welcome experiment because it breaks the slavish dependence of the art museum on wordy (and invariably excruciating) exegesis. Such a pity, therefore, that MONA’s alternative turns out to be even more intrusive. As you enter, you are issued with an iPod, which you wear around your neck and which, spookily, knows exactly where you are and what you are looking at. (I’m told that word has got around and kids are visiting MONA just to steal the iPods.) Tap the screen and it will give you title and artist’s name, along with a coloured reproduction of the work you are standing in front of (a nice postmodern touch). If you want more, you can tap ‘Artwank’, which delivers a short, uncharacteristically po-faced, explanatory essay, or ‘Ideas’, which usually means some smart-arsed aphorism. You can even learn what percentage of visitors liked or disliked the work you’re looking at (as if you wanted to know). The iPods are annoyingly distracting—one massively expensive manifestation among many of David Walsh’s obsession with new technologies. Sensible visitors will eschew them and wander around in blissful ignorance, for only then will they be able to enter into the spirit of the place and fully appreciate its anarchic atmosphere.
From the moment you descend the spiral staircase into the bowels of its underground caverns, MONA envelops you. It is a total experience, a huge work of art in its own right, with the exhibits serving merely as its component parts. Sometimes (thanks to the absence of labels) you don’t know what is meant to be art and what isn’t. Is that big shiny Mack truck parked in the corridor a work of art? What about Walsh’s father’s ashes in an urn set into the wall? Have the flashing lights hanging from the ceiling of an empty room been installed by an artist or a dodgy electrician? And what are we to make of the tennis court at the entrance? Your iPod will tell you, of course, but sometimes it’s better not to know. The day I visited, a couple of elderly ladies, pausing for a rest on their way to the next roomful of excitements, were suddenly informed by their iPods that the bench they were sitting on was a work of art, making them leap up in embarrassment (although they needn’t have). You find yourself joining a line of people, without the faintest notion of what you are queuing for but not wanting to miss out on whatever turns out to be behind that narrow door or at the end of that dark tunnel.
If all this playful uncertainty is gloriously liberating, there is a price to pay. Art that aspires to seriousness (and there is plenty of it at MONA, despite the assertiveness of the garish and entertaining) tends not to get a fair hearing. Consider, for example, the wealth of ancient Egyptian, Cretan and Meso-American objects, which cry out for some cultural contextualisation. Of course, it is fun to see an Egyptian sarcophagus among the videos and flashing lights, and it forces us to see it in a new way—subjectively, without the usual cultural baggage; as part of an ongoing conversation rather than as an object of study—but this can take us only so far. Perhaps sensing this, the curators have displayed certain of these religious artefacts in glorious isolation, as in a traditional museum. A splendid, 3000-year-old clay coffin from Crete is even given a room to itself (although still no labels).
Most visitors (this one included) will not have the necessary scholarship to assess the relative quality of such things, however, so perhaps it was a shrewd move to take them out of their accustomed frames of reference and reinvent them as artistic statements in their own right. Never have mummy cases looked less solemn. On my first visit (unaccompanied by iPod) I supposed a large squat alabaster jar to be the work of a contemporary artist, and marvelled at its tough, primitivist beauty. Only on a subsequent visit did I learn that it was Egyptian, made around 330 BC. (It is flawlessly preserved.) This is exactly the sort of fortuitous, empathetic conjunction, the peculiar shock of recognition, that the traditional Wunderkammer aimed to foster.
All the same, this is a diffcult balancing act to pull off and inevitably there are casualties. Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall/Shevirath Ha Kelim presents the most glaring example.3 The approach to it, up a long dark tunnel, is teasing, and you emerge in a sort of children’s play area where you are invited to pick up some crayons and make rubbings off blocks of stone. Other people’s rubbings are pinned to the walls by way of encouragement. Then you cross a glass bridge (which offers the only glimpse of daylight you’re going to get) and there it is, in all its physical and metaphysical weightiness: a set of giant books made from sheets of lead, gloomily meditating on myth and historical memory.
The artist apparently stipulated that it be given its own room, but instead of emphasising its gravitas, this one seems to leave it stranded, lost, like the disgruntled party guest who locks himself in the bathroom and refuses to come out.4 So you scurry down the tunnel back to the funhouse again. As an unexpected confrontation with serious art, Sternenfall is massively disconcerting. Kiefer has spent his career vehemently repudiating the commercial mass-culture that MONA’s other exhibits so heedlessly revel in, yet, despite his power, he has been defeated by them. Perhaps this is instructive.
Mainland critics have tended to be snooty and dismissive about MONA. David Marr, in the Sydney Morning Herald, declared himself baffled (although not, he made clear, in a good way) and couldn’t wait to get out. Christopher Allen in the Australian dismissed it as ‘a mixture of defensiveness, egotism and smugness’.5 Neither could think of a single good word for the place. That an individual has effectively donated more than 100 million dollars of his own money to the public good was, to them, not an extraordinary act of generosity but something deserving of ridicule.
Perhaps their anxiety stems from the fact that MONA has popped up in boring little Hobart and not in a proper city such as Sydney. Their attacks were condescending in the way certain British intellectuals are when trying to belittle the colonials. Yet it could be argued that Hobart is the perfect setting, because peripheries are the natural home of eccentricity. It is, in many ways, a conservative, insular and self-satisfied city. The official culture here can be stultifying. Despite that, it provides a sympathetic environment for creative individuals who want to go their own way, relatively free of competitive pressures. For although the big metropolitan centres are capable of being progressive (the mot du jour is ‘innovative’) within established patterns of thought, they are intolerant of transgression. Everyone is too busy looking over their shoulder to see what the competition is up to. There is a ladder of success and it doesn’t do to step off it. In order to succeed, you must do basically what others have done but take it one step further. This is how the avant-garde works and, by establishing and enforcing the parameters, it is how large cities shore up their power.
Hobart, on the other hand, presents a rebellious individual such as David Walsh with a blank canvas. There are no parameters, no precedents and no established patterns of thought. Big creative risks carry fewer serious consequences here than they would in the hothouse of mainland art politics. In any case, as a private individual, he has no need to worry about his career prospects.
Socially, however, there is a lot riding on MONA, which is the biggest thing that has happened to Hobart in living memory. Expectations are high. In February, when Premier Lara Giddings announced the allocation of $30 million for stage one of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery refurbishment (was that the third or fourth time this same bag of money had been breathlessly announced as new funding?), she cited MONA as the catalyst, thereby tacitly admitting that the government has been caught napping. Some hopeful souls are predicting a renaissance, the symbolic switch from an old dumb economy based on mineral extraction and woodchipping to a new smart one of cultural tourism and creative endeavour. While some of these expectations will no doubt turn out to be unrealistic, it is clear that local politicians and tourism officials, who until now have ranked the arts and culture as about equal to lawn bowls, are at last beginning to sit up and take notice.
One thing is certain: MONA is a source of immense local pride and Walsh has, quite justifiably, become something of a larrikin hero. Of course, we would not want all museums to turn into gigantic Wunderkammers, but it is to be hoped that at least some of the professional curators and museum administrators who came to Hobart for MONA’s grand opening party in January went back to their own institutions feeling energised and eager for change.
© Peter Timms
- I gleaned this information from a paper entitled The Tate Modern and the Future of the Art Museum, by Lisa P. Schoenberg, published at http://www.uqtr.uquebec.ca. She, in turn, got it from Germain Bazin, The Museum Age, Universe Books, New York, 1967, p. 159.
- This is how Hirst’s dealers, White Cube gallery in London, refer to him.
- There is another Kiefer, also titled Sternenfall, in the main gallery.
- At the time of writing, a library was being constructed next to Sternenfall’s pavilion, which might help to give the work a more sympathetic environment.
- ‘Shock, horror’, Weekend Australian Review, 12-13 February 2011, pp. 10-11.