Art City - MONA putting the ART into HobART

There’s a new player on the world art stage and it’s a little city on a little island at the bottom of a big island that’s (almost) at the bottom of the world. David Walsh’s extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, has been open a year. Susie Burge visits the second exhibition.


Images from top clockwise: Artist Wim Delvoye with Concrete Mixer (Roses), 1991, carved teak wood; Untitled - Osama, 2002 - 2003, tattooed pigskin; Double Helix DS 180 45, 2008, Berlin silver; Julius Popp Bit.Fall; Tim, 2006-now, tattooed human skin; Untitled (Monday), 2008, stained glass, steel, lead (All artworks Studio Wim Delvoye, Belgium, except for Bit.Fall (word waterfall) by Julius Popp)

“It’s so relaxing, I could watch it all day,” muses Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. We are in MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, standing in front of one of his own creations, a video piece, microscopic camera footage of worm-like excretions of pus squeezed from blackheads in a human nose. “Look, it’s so beautiful,” he goes on. “It’s like a pussy - look, now they are having sex.”

Strangely, it is kind of mesmerising… until you think about what it actually is. It looks like a nature program (and yes a bit like copulation) there’s an easy listening classical soundtrack (Wim confesses he composed it himself – “it’s just elevator music, it’s easy, better than paying someone to do it”) and I keep expecting a David Attenborough-like voice-over to explain. Instead, I’ve the curious privilege of the company of the artist himself. Wim Delvoye, provocateur, creator of the most hated work in the museum – Cloaca (a smelly robotic machine that simulates the human digestive system and is fed daily to excrete) - has the first solo exhibition at MONA since the museum opened to great fanfare last year. Some would say this is an honour. Or is Wim doing MONA the honour? Hobart has trumped Paris – you can see Wim Delvoye at the Louvre later in 2012.

On the ground floor of MONA, Delvoye’s works are arranged across various exhibition spaces. Arse kisses on hotel stationery. (“It’s hard getting someone to your room – I tell them I’m a fortune teller … the love line, the money line …). A room of tattooed pigskins hanging on the walls with designs including saccharine Disney imagery and a mandala of Osama Bin Laden. There’s also Tattoo Tim, a buff young man whose tattooed back (by Wim Delvoye) has been sold to a collector and is rumoured to be up for re-sale soon at auction. When Tim eventually dies the skin on his back can be cured and hung on a wall. Currently, he sits as a living artwork and gives tours of the Delvoye exhibition twice a day.

There are double helix sculptures of Christ on the cross, cathedral-like stained glass windows of picturing intestines instead of saints, truck tyres carved in intricate designs – Gothic, Hindi? “I try to be a writer,” says Delvoye off the cuff during his opening night talk “- someone who starts something but doesn’t really know where it will end …”

He’s asking contentious questions, tapping into a rich vein - the language of the body, the scatological: digestion as art, art as shit and vice versa, art as blood and bone and sinew. Exploring notions of the aesthetic and the visceral, the decorative and the physical, the Gothic and the base. He’s building a chapel. He wants to start his own religion in India. “Like a designer bag, a designer religion,” he suggests. “I’m not taxonomic,” he declares. “I didn’t want to differentiate between criticising art, acquiring art and making art.”

The lavish opening includes an surfeit of lollies, sweet treats in the shapes of turds, and mounds of pretty vegetables as fodder, as well as trays of drinks, an art world A list, a keen local crowd and various random comments from fashionable collectors like “oh, Wim’s going to feed it!” followed by the creator feeding a Cloaca streams of wine and bowls of food he whips up on the top of a high ladder as we all gather below, as if he’s special guest in an episode of Masterchef or an evil magician. It’s is a hard act to follow. But over the next few days Hobart and MONA rise to the challenge.


Images from top clockwise: Hobart at sunset (Tourism Tasmania); Salamanca markets (Tourism Tasmania and Richard Eastwood); Soaring sandstone walls inside MONA (Tourism Tasmania & MONA); Ethos - wine and tapas bar (Susie Burge); MONA on the River Derwent (Tourism Tasmania & MONA)

The rest of MONA is a mind-blowing experience. Wandering through the subterranean museum, dimly lit, with soaring sandstone walls, floors and chambers connected by an architectural feature staircase of rusted steel, is like inhabiting some kind of post-apocalyptic Guggenheim. This is one man’s collection and – from rare ancient Roman gold coins to an Anselm Kiefer pavilion - his dark and shining selection throws up questions about what art means in terms of ritual and history, what art is; and adds up to a compelling vision of what it means to be human. I spend the best part of a day there, visiting and revisiting works, clicking the appropriate button on the MONA ipod to obtain information, or a soundtrack. I finish up exhausted in the Void Bar sipping good whisky as a waterfall of words, one after another – future, mankind, saleyard – float and disintegrate in front of a massive sandstone rock face.

Beyond MONA, David Walsh seems to have infected the very ether of Hobart itself. Just as the museum is umbilically connected to the heart of Hobart by ferries and hot pink Mona Roma buses, so the philanthropic multimillionaire seems ubiquitous. He’s a substantial donor to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), a collection of magnificent colonial buildings that’s currently undergoing a monumental 200 million dollar redevelopment. We take a hard hat tour, a look at the plans. Then, over lunch, local artists Patrick Hall and Brigite Ozolins reveal stories of “getting the call out of the blue” from the man himself, generous commissions now installed at MONA.

There’s a palpable feeling of excitement. Hobart is the place to be if you are a visual artist. Like London in the nineties when Charles Saatchi might just drop round to your studio and change your life, you are at the right place at the right time. At the University Art School, a complex installation by graduate student Jacob Leary takes up the entire exhibition space. It’s colourful, mad, topical, technically accomplished and possibly brilliant. Has David Walsh been in yet? The string of commercial galleries along Salamanca Place are almost as popular as the Saturday market. There are art bike tours, art maps and art apps. Art is in the air.

Hobart’s thriving food & wine culture is going from strength to strength with the adrenaline boost of national and international tourism. Garagistes won new restaurant of the year in the 2012 Gourmet Traveller Awards. The degustation menu at MONA’s The Source is worth booking, with a flight of Morilla wines. The Farmgate markets – organic, artisan, locovore - are famous. Innovative tapas bars like Ethos are popping up in city streets. And the Henry Jones Art Hotel on the waterfront provides an appealing combination of works by emerging artists for sale on the walls, atmospheric history (it used to be the old IXL jam factory), good food in the restaurant, cocktails in the Long Bar and lovely rooms.

Not the last word: ATL is heading back to Hobart for MONA FOMA (MOFO for short) – the festival of cutting edge music and art conceived by rocker Brian Ritchie & curator Nicole Durling (and Walshie, of course). A spare weekend, a short flight, friends, a kind offer of a place to crash, some new music, dance, performance, art, food and the livin’ is easy. Berlin watch this space.

Susie Burge, all rights reserved
- Images courtesy of Tourism Tasmania, MONA, Wim Delvoye and Susie Burge. Copyright as credited

MOFO runs Jan 13-21 more info
Wim Delvoye runs till April 2, 2012
Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery