Home » Moaning about MONA

Moaning about MONA

I know, I know, I know – I shouldn’t be complaining about MONA. As the first gallery based philanthropic venture in Australia, I should be celebrating and madly tweeting David Walsh’s name around the globe.

MONA, Tasmania

MONA, Tasmania

But to tell you the truth, I was a little disappointed. Not with the art, not with the concept, not even with the expensive lunch options. Nope, all of that I could cope with.

What I couldn’t deal with was the lack of labels. Established as home to Walsh’s amazing and diverse personal art collection, it’s understandable that Walsh feels freed from industry norms in the presentation and display of his stuff, but in my mind it doesn’t excuse actually making it hard for a visitor to know what they are looking at.

The collection is displayed without any labels. None. Zip, zilch. And it really bugged me. Granted, on entry you are given an ‘O’ – basically an iphone fitted with a GPS and a whole lot of data about the collection. Sound good? Well it’s not. What using the O entails is the customary swipe to start and a press of the compass so that the GPS can find to which level in the bunker (that’s another subject) you have descended to. No real problems there. Within a few moments it locates you on the 3rd floor (even though you knew where you were) and presents a range of ‘displays’ around you. Here it starts to get tedious. You have to visually identify and scroll to find the group, panel, piece that you are looking at – then touch to enter the display, then touch again to locate the individual piece you want information about. Then touch again to either find its basic data (as in maker, date, materials) and touch again to read Walsh’s Art Wank (their descriptor, not mine), and touch again to find what else is related to it in the collection. Oh, and you want to find something from an adjacent display that your patient partner Who Does Not Understand Art, has just pointed at quizzically, then start all over again. Touch, swipe, swipe, swipe, click, scroll, go back, swipe, click, scroll.

All this effort of looking down the up then down again to read what you are looking at drove me insane! What’s wrong with a wall panel introducing the display and a few carefully placed discrete object labels?

What really upsets me is that deep down, I suspect that this approach is not just about utilising cool technology, reducing paper waste or keeping the space free of visual clutter and dispersing crowds so that they don’t cluster around the introductory wall text. No, this approach is more insidious that that. It’s a way of forcing us to see the collection in a prescribed way; he wants us to respond to the works for their aesthetic values, their inherent worth (if there is such a thing), be forced into experiencing these objects by stripping away the normal touch points of reference. It felt like the information I wanted was always just out of reach – withheld from me, forcing me to squirm and struggle for understanding and meaning.

To what end, I ask?

The experience would have been far more enjoyable if it had been better lit, easier to navigate around with Walsh’s insightful narrative made easier to access and interact with.

I wholeheartedly endorse thinking outside the square, doing things differently and making something your own. All fine. All good. That’s why I went there. But don’t reinvent the wheel and make it a square one.

6 Responses to “Moaning about MONA”

  1. Susan says:

    But did you stand in front of the Whitely and play the song? So evocative and better than a label!

    • carolebest says:

      Yeah, but how difficult was it to find there was a song to play! Makes a good case to have a label saying ‘Play the damn song’!

  2. noisyoyster says:

    When present, I have a major issue with the labels that galleries put next to the artworks they display. Generally they don’t provide context or much explanation for the work and so if you’re uninitiated you remain excluded. I also have an issue with where the labels and the works are placed – they are generally too high for kids and also for others like people in wheelchairs. Try taking a 5 year old who is fascinated with art to the National Gallery of Australia. She can’t wander freely and see the works up close, you have to lift her to see photographs placed at adult eye-level and to peer into cases. A frustrating experience for both adult and child. Also don’t get me started on the security guards and their intolerance of children. Maybe if we started calling them art museums then the culture would shift a little. I’m not saying that museums are perfect but their heritage (education of the masses, exhibitions/explositions) might change how these institutions view their audiences.

    • carolebest says:

      I agree completely! Not saying that all institutions with labels get it right but more that its not good to throw the baby out with the bath water.
      The O does provide a range of information types and much more information than a label can contain, but felt that the avoidance of ALL signage made it way too tedious. There should be a range oh information and a range of access points suitable (including audio) for young, olds, Rubys’ and those Who Don’t Understand Art.
      I suppose I had an expectation that MONA would offer something more than the norm.

  3. Lucas says:

    Ahh… but not having the labels strip the items of preconceived ‘labels’. You don’t know whether a ceramic is 3 years old or 3000 years old. It’s surprisiningly difficult to tell ancient works from the modern. Perhaps rejoicing in their beauty, without engaging the thought processes, is an engagement option that is lost when you provide printed labels. Control??? LOL

    • carolebest says:

      The point is that you can’t just ‘tell’ that a ceramic is ancient or modern – I guess you’ve been reading all about that particular assemblage somewhere (shock horror, wanting to find out more?? Using written information to understand and appreciate??)
      The real question is whether that precise piece of information matters – whether it should be made available, accessible to an audience. For me, it matters and enhances all the ‘rejoicing in its beauty’ business.
      I’m not saying the labels on things have to be boring, ugly, or prescriptive but to make it hard for people to find out about an art piece once they want to know, is frustrating.

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