Moan, Moan, MONA

26 May 2014 Ricky French

Moan, Moan, MONA

Ed#454, Ricky French, March 2014

“I love you,” says the larrikin, Aussie bloke.  “I love you,” whispers a sultry lass. “I love you,” echoes the frail voice of an old woman. All around, little drawers are slid open and dozens of voices overlap: “I love you I love you I love you…”

Oh, MONA, I hate you.

I’ve long suspected I’m nothing more than an uncultured ignoramus. A winter’s trip to Hobart did nothing to dispel this hypothesis.

Tasmania used to have useless attractions such as untouched wilderness, crazy mountains and lakes, landscapes completely un-Australian. It still holds impressive depositories of despair and suffering: Port Arthur does a good line in both early and recent examples. But not until the opening of MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) did the state realise its true potential. Fact: white people arrived in Tasmania in two waves – the early 1800s and from 2011 to the present.

Hobart sat subserviently on the shores of the Derwent River and a cold, fickle wind darted down the slopes of Mount Wellington. Low cloud formed wherever it damn well liked, merging into the mist on the water. Was there snow on the mountain? Who knows. There deserved to be.

You catch a ferry to MONA. The ferry has sheep for seats on the deck. It was only the second time I’d sat on a sheep seat. The first was at World Expo ’88 in Brisbane, in the New Zealand pavilion. I remember turning around and almost screaming with fright to see that an old woman had crept up behind me and was sharing my sheep.

Oscar Wilde declared, “All art is quite useless.” Was he thinking of MONA? Inside it was dark. I drifted from room to room, looking at grotesque paintings, blood this and that, a couch that simulated euthanasia (evidently through boredom) and, of course, ‘I love you.’

Many exhibits involved old televisions. The pink velvet room was supremely comfortable, although I always feel vulnerable whenever I’m made to take off my shoes.

Best of all was the library room full of blank books. More my level. I sat down and flicked through the pages, before a dude with a badge gestured at me and with a loud whisper told me I must be some sort of uncultured ignoramus to be touching the art.

Worst of all was the Egyptian room that required us to read a disclaimer before entering, in anticipation of the inevitable cardiac arrest that would ensue after being confronted with the bone-chilling sight of a glowing, plastic holographic tomb. We were also told there was a good chance we would fall in the water feature, but not to worry because this is just a normal reaction to the art.

You’re supposed to stop and think and ask yourself questions, a Frustrated Significant Other told me. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t do it. It seemed so infantile. Did the emperor have no clothes?

A couple of years ago I interviewed Ben Butcher, an Australian artist who was then a recent recipient of the Itchiball Prize for the worst painting in Australia. I asked him if he had ever considered submitting his work to MONA. No, he said, but he had plans to sneak a piece into the National Gallery in Canberra while the guards weren’t looking. Even he had standards.

Much better than MONA is the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery. They have awesome stuff like penguins and hiking boots and letters from lost explorers. Best of all, no one pretends to do you in or forces you to listen to 48 strangers sing a capella versions of Madonna songs.

Back on the mainland I drove past a billboard. It said, ‘No one should lose more than $120 an hour on pokies.’ What the hell was that all about? What was it saying? That it’s okay to lose up to $120 an hour on the pokies? Over how many hours? Why $120? Who put this billboard up? Was gambling nut and MONA founder David Walsh behind this? Whoa! My brain was mobilised!

Art was exhausting. I went home and hung a beautiful painting of Mount Wellington with snow on its face, and I smiled. Hobart, I love you.

» Ricky French is a Big Issue columnist.

This article first appeared in Ed#454 of The Big Issue magazine.