News & Commentary, Visual Arts

MONA offers a sly wink, but do locals get the joke?

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Taking the local Metro bus is not very enthusiastically promoted as one of the ways to get to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. Most visitors will take the MR-1 Fast Ferry, a brutal machine in military decal that sends waves rippling across the Derwent River in its wake. The garish pink-and-black Mona Roma express bus is another popular choice; it also leaves from the wharves. You can hire a bicycle, take a chauffeured Audi, or book a seaplane.

But I have a Metro Greencard with a couple dollars left on it, so I am taking the No. 37 bus. I immediately notice a poster inside the vehicle that probably gives a good indication of why it’s not on the brochures. “GET ON THE BUS WITHOUT A BUST-UP,” it encourages. The 37 passes through some of the Hobart suburbs with a reputation. Going through Moonah and Glenorchy, it stops in Berriedale — close to the front entrance of MONA — before continuing on to Chigwell and Claremont before reversing its route and heading back to the city. Hobartians associate all of these toponyms with the working class. Or, to use the vernacular, with bogans. This includes Berriedale, MONA’s address. But most visitors to MONA aren’t likely to see that — especially not those who take the ferry, bypassing any suggestion of this end of Hobart’s working-class culture.

When I step off the bus, I head straight for the Granada Tavern, which has an aesthetic reproduced in countless pubs across the country. It’s a great place to make a bet on the horses, watch a replay of yesterday’s footy game, or have a $3 pot of lager. It’s also directly across the road from the driveway to MONA.

The bus shelter across the road from the tavern has been given an overhaul, sleek and black and emblazoned with brand names like Hugo Boss and Chanel. It’s advertising the Southdale Shopping Centre, coming in 2015. Ads went up in newspapers earlier this year, sending rumours rippling through Hobart.

The bartender at the G-Tav (I quickly picked up this nickname from her) is Berriedale born and bred. She went to her leavers’ dinner at Moorilla Estate before it was converted into MONA. Her dad worked on building the labyrinthine gallery. I ask her what she thinks of the shopping centre, but it’s her colleague, older and perhaps more embittered, who chimes in.

“It’s upmarket. It’s not for us,” she says. The younger woman agrees, although less convincingly. “Yeah, it’s Dolce and Cabana, shit like that.” “Funny that they’re putting it in Berriedale, isn’t it?” I ask. The bartender agrees.

But the Southdale Shopping Centre is not going to be built. It’s part of the latest MONA exhibition, which opened in June and will close next month, created in collaboration with Swiss artist Christoph Buchel. The Southdale Shopping Centre has been part of a series of elaborate satires on commercialisation. Some have courted controversy. Complaints from members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community brought a swift end to a fake genetic testing exhibit called “Are you of Aboriginal descent?”.

I’m not taking the piss out of the bartender when I ask, though. Having been out of town for the duration of the exhibition, I didn’t know what was going on. Looking out at the MONA site, I’m confused by the lack of construction — they weren’t going to be open by 2015, I figure — and mildly disgusted by what I envision is MONA’s conversion to overt commercialism. It’s not until I leave the tavern and start chatting to a couple of teenagers at the bus shelter that I discover it probably isn’t legitimate. “It’s a hoax,” one of them says plainly. “It was in the paper.” I feel like a bit of a dill myself.

Local reactions to the various Southdale Shopping Centre projects suggest that it has been effective. The people have been provoked.

The freedom to satirise and pastiche is at the centre of MONA’s ethos, and its recent blog justifies the genetic testing exhibit. The argument is worth considering. “Aboriginal people and history are appropriate subjects for satire in some contexts,” Elizabeth Pearce wrote on the MONA blog. She later continues:

“I believe it is appropriate to engage Aboriginal experiences in a satirical mode because those … experiences are not tangential to, special cases of, the human experience. We should not be afraid to include Aboriginal people when we make fun of ourselves, and in doing so, come to see ourselves … more clearly. Indeed, maybe ‘making fun’ is a measure of our humanity.”

The issue might be an even older one. Contemporary art, with its emphasis on creating work for an “informed viewer”, might just invoke a hierarchy. At the top, of course, is the curator — David Walsh, whose parking spot denotes it is for “GOD”. Gallery staff and fellow artists usually come next. Smart people are next. And at the bottom are all the rest, brand-name suckers waiting for a shopping centre that will never come.

Dr Adrian Franklin, departmental head of sociology at the University of Tasmania, is leading a team of researchers investigating what effects the Museum of Old and New Art has had on Tasmania since its opening in 2011. His book, The Making of Mona, will be released in October, but the evidence seems conclusive. The state’s tourism numbers have risen noticeably, and although the island state remains one of the economic weak links of Australia, Tasmania’s reputation has changed dramatically.

Franklin wrote in the Sunday Tasmanian that “there has been an extraordinary visitation rate to the museum by people from every background”. He also says that within the local council area, Glenorchy, “most people have visited MONA and enjoyed it”. On top of that, “a majority think that it has benefited their community”.

Hobart is undoubtedly lifted by the presence of MONA, but there doesn’t seem to be much change in the more immediate neighbourhood. The folks on the bus show superficial signs of poor health; there’s no reason to believe that business at the nearby Lost Sock Laundromat or Pet Meat Mart is going up. The folks at the Granada Tavern reckon they don’t see many museum-goers, tourists or locals, for a counter meal after their trip to MONA.

This makes me wonder if the relationship between MONA and Berriedale can remain forever peaceful. If the people of Berriedale are now a bit indifferent to the museum, happy to have a laugh at the various artworks on display there (the plaster moulds of female genitalia was popular, and the installation of Mack truck in the walls was seen as the most absurd artwork of all: “Like we’ve never seen one of them before,” one punter scoffed to me), it mightn’t take much to make them sick of it. The perception that they are the butt of a joke would put a strain on matters. Someone who believed a shopping centre was being built in their suburb only to find out that it was a “hoax” (and that many Hobartians have now known this for months) could cause irreversible alienation. Working-class Tasmanians don’t have much patience for people who put themselves on a pedestal.

There is also the threat of gentrification, as a charming riverside town with cheap housing options next to a world-class museum and art gallery is bound to attract a different demographic sooner or later. But for now, it remains something of a happy coincidence that such a humble part of the world is hosting one of the most extraordinary cultural attractions in the world. It mirrors David Walsh’s irony, as well as Tasmania’s strange and dense layers of historical circumstance.

“You’re kidding me,” says the young lass behind the bar when I tell her that people all around the world have heard of MONA. “And here it is, in Berriedale.” Just a 30-minute bus ride from the centre of Hobart.


28 responses to “MONA offers a sly wink, but do locals get the joke?

  1. Went to Mona 18 months ago. Magic.

    Parked the RV at a huge but unappetising, devoid of trees, but plenty of rabbits, Caravan park right next door.

    Asked the punters running the Park..”whats Mona like?”

    ..”dunno they said, never been in there…might go there one day.”

    It’s free for locals.

    Think the rabbits had more intellect.

    1. That’s rather judgmental and snobby of you.

      You know how it is – you always take longer to go to the tourist and cultural things on your own doorstep than when you travel elsewhere.

  2. I’m also a Nth Suburbs boy (similar to a westie in Syd i s’pose) but moved onwards in my early 20s. I actually drive to MONA from my home on the Eastern Shore which is a much easier & cheaper option. Catching the bus through Glenorchy and onwards is indeed an eye opener. Who’d have thought wearing ugg boots over a onesie could catch on? Not all “chiggers” (another Nth suburbs sub-group) are boguns. In fact DW (GOD) himself is a Glenorchy boy who may well be the richest bogun philanthropist ever.

  3. This piece gave left a bad taste in my mouth, but due to the writer’s sense of superiority over the poor old bogans who are too “unhealthy” (is that cue for fat?) to appreciate MONA. I don’t for a second believe that the young girl in the pub called it “Dolce and Cabana”. I guess we should be thanking this guy for connecting with the Little People who live in the area but whose pet meat shops aren’t being patronised by the FIFO MONA goers, and wringing his hands for us.

    The poor bogans, the joke’s on them, eh? The joke was on him too; he was one of the “suckers waiting for the shopping centre that would never come.” But I guess that’s somehow different because he’s not a bogan or a Berridale local, and he knows that it’s actually Dolce & Gabbana.

    I went to MONA early last year and absolutely loved it. We stayed at a motel up the road, too, which was tired and run down, but heavily booked. We also saw some real, legit “locals” going to have a look too – I don’t know whether it’s still free for Tasmanians or people living in certain areas of Tasmania, but at that point it was.

    One of the things I loved about MONA is that you can enjoy it on whatever level you want. You can look at the obese car sculpture and go ‘haha, that’s a fat car’ or you can listen to the art critic’s take on the O thing, or think critically about it yourself, like a good latte sipping hipster. Not that I’m convinced that the majority of people who visit art galleries and museums are necessarily the latter, anyway. The point is, neither is more right or wrong. The writer needs to pull his finger out.

    1. Allie, I’m sorry to hear that what I wrote came across that way – it certainly wasn’t the intention. The ‘joke’ absolutely was on me as well. What I was trying to get at in the article is simply to explore the big cultural difference between MONA’s visitors and what happens over the road at the tavern. It’s more of a critique of the gallery than of the local people, but really, I’m just fascinating by what’s happening in Berriedale. I like both sides of it. I’m not very intuitive with art and you’re right, there’s still plenty to enjoy at MONA. On the other hand, I’m from a ‘bogan’ part of Tassie, so I’m pretty happy having a beer and a conversation (and watching the footy) at the tavern. Especially at $3 a pot!

      1. whereabouts in Tassie do they call a measurement of beer a “pot?” I’m genuinely curious. I have always known them as a 10 oz or pint…….Who is the intended audience? I also agree, this piece wreaked of snobbishness and self indulgence. It wasnt particularly funny or clever as the title led us to believe, but merely pointed out the glaringly obvious. A different audience may disagree.

        Sincerely, a Berriedale resident.

      2. I heard the sharpest and most personally reflective critical review of the Nolan Snake a few weeks after MONA opened. From a HSV TShirt, shaved head and proud Bridgewater background, thats right a local bogan. For him “that bloody big one, watsit, that snake, loved it, best mexican wave ever.” It took me a bit to understand that he had looked, thought and reacted in genuine appreciation of a fantastic piece of Australian Art. What a great gift DW has given to all of us. I am a ‘norchy boy too. Top of Tolosa St.

  4. What an irritatingly patronising article about Mona and the local population! Where do you think David Walsh himself grew up?

  5. MONA world class museum/art gallery? Nah, aside from the building itself and The Snake, it’s mediocre at best and just silly at worst.

    1. Really? Taste is a bizarre thing. I don’t like Snake at all. I’ve an idea that Nolan would be spinning in his grave if he knew it was being exhibited but we’ll never know.
      I think the best stuff in MONA are the Anslem Keiffer works but it’s all a matter of personal taste. There’s such a diverse range in there I think there’s something for just about anyone.

  6. these comments below obviously do not see the whimsy with which the article is written. Bert has a genuine intrigue and love for ‘normal’ people – to the extent that on his way to MONA, he dropped in to the local pub to chat to the locals about what they thought of it. He hasn’t approached this from a pedestal at all, but rather as a critique of MONA from the perspective of the local. I love the real and raw character in which Bert writes, obviously a poet and a real storyteller. I encourage those who disagree to read some of his other stuff on Tassie and AFL too – his love for this place is infectious.

  7. The irony and satire that mona represents within its surrounds is expertly summarised in this article. The writer, Bert, is not looking down on the working class, but merely conveying an aspect of the effects of a “world class museum”. Don’t be so sensitive mate. Have a beer.

  8. Bert,
    this is such a disappointing and condescending piece of writing. It is provocative only because it is so oversimplified. You can not make ill-informed, blanket statements about an entire community and pitch it as reportage. I am so disappointed to read this bigoted and ignorant work in Crikey and would implore you to step beyond cliche’d representations of the Northern suburbs when you choose to write about them.

    1. I agree, Rachael. There are lots of assumptions and unsubstantiated claims. Bert, did you ask the museum about the percentage of people who take MONA’s ferry and bus versus their own car, bike or metro bus? Next time you’re at MONA, check out the overflow carpark filled with Tassie number plates. Hobart is a very car-oriented, and most locals tend to drive. Metro has special MONA timetables and MONA has a stack of these Metro timetables for visitors. Unfortunately, Metro’s rigid timetables don’t cope with 6pm finishes in Summer, which is more to do with Hobart’s public transport network than the museum itself.

      Also, to pick out the Lost Sock and Pet food shop as illustrative of economic activity in Glenorchy is misleading and you know it. Why not also focus on the nearby shops that thrive? The Rosetta Bakery, which is far closer than the grim-looking Lost Sock, is always busy and I know for a fact that many MONA staff get their lunch there on the way to work.

      One of the wonderful things about MONA is the broad visitor demographic. MONA would probably supply the local postcode stats if you ever want to write an informed article.

  9. Hmm looks like David and MONA win again. You know what they say: any publicity is…
    I love the fact the MONA team got away with that massive and massively ironic branded banner display down the guts of the museum.

  10. I visited MONA and Tasmania for the first time at the beginning of this month. I absolutely loved MONA but hated the Southdale exhibition – it was really annoying, not provoking – and I think the whole thing got lost on a lot of people and nearly myself if I hadn’t asked one of the staff a question who then explained the concept to me. I don’t think I am particularly stupid but having never been there before it was annoying, not interesting.

  11. I have just returned from a trip to Hobart and MONA. I loved the whole MONA experience, but hated the Southdale exhibition. The cafe had a large ‘Starbucks’ sign, including ‘Starbucks’ mugs and cups, as if ‘Starbucks’ needs this free advertising. The whole Southdale shopping centre coming in 2015 including ‘ironic’ Liberal party advertising all came across as patronising to all who didn’t ‘get’ the joke. ‘Oh let’s trick all those not arty enough to understand the concept’, seems contrary to the quirky egalitarian, open to all, not just art wankers, feeling that MONA has. Looking forward to returning when Southdale is gone.

  12. This is a hilarious read…and very perceptive if I might dare to say so. Some of you sound so defensive as if you’ve been put upon or attacked by, dare I say it, a “pot” drinker. This is a perceptive and interesting viewpoint of the northern suburbs. The author has told it how he sees it and who cares if you approve or not. Get over yourself Hobart – find your sense of humour before you drown in that 150 year old puddle of inferiority complex.

  13. I’m new to Tasmania and Hobart, and arrived just over twelve months ago. So, I’m interested to read the reactions to Bert Spinx’s whimsical reflections on MONA. I saw Spinx’s article as a celebration not only of David Walsh’s vision, his eclectic and whimsy but of his vision in locating MONA in Berrierdale and his generousity in that gift to the whole community.

    People told me when I was looking around to buy a home not to look north of Creek Road. I did look and had my eye on a place in Moonah West but what I was after was something within walking distance of things and I found a place closer to the city. That advice represented something of a divide in the population. At a personal level, it might mean deciding to barrack for Glenorchy with the same colours as Collingwood, which I support, or Hobart because I live in the municipality and the North Hobart Oval is in walking distance.

    I visit galleries and museums when I travel. And that includes regional ones in Australia. While Hobart has some wonderful cultural institutions – a great live music culture across genres, an active theatre cutlure, the Theatre Royal, the Playhouse, Federation Concert Hall and, doubtless, many other venues I’ve yet to discover – there is no substantial Tasmanian Art Gallery in the State, the gallery attached to the Museum being much of a token to the arts in Tasmania. On the other hand, there are a number of accessible private galleries featuring Tasmanian artists, who like the other arts I mentioned, make a strong contribution to the cultural life of Hobart and Tasmania.

    In MONA when I first visited and had to pay, because I had not by then obtained a Tasmanian licence, I saw the richness of Hobart life was rather more impressive than I first appreciated. I have to say Hobart astonished me – and continues to do so – with its beauty and its natural, cultural and social diversity. I’ve had a ball since I came here. MONA is many things: world class; unique; quirkily modern; wonderfully conceived as a building and in its integration with Moorilla. And its most outstanding character is its location, not only on the water but in the suburbs of northern Hobart. That is no-one’s joke, but it is an irony only because I cannot think of a single major museum that is located out among the real people in the suburbs.

    Out at MONA for a particular event recently, I too was taken in by the Southdale Shopping Centre signs at the entrance and I roared when my companion explained the joke. It’s not just a joke on Berrierdale – it’s a joke on the whole of Hobart!

  14. Well everyone is correct here, the writer , the bar maid, the commentators, the locals. MONA did cause a polemic and that is good and good for Tassie. But the writer is correct about the elitist structure that drives MONA. The ethos of hierarchy in contemporary art is anything but democratic. Contemporary art is who you know not what you know. I myself found that when David Walsh once enthusiastically put a ‘hold’ on a work of mine at a Melb Art Fair (meaning he wanted to buy it) only to have the ‘hold’ taken off by his Curator who didn’t consider my work worthy enough. Yet that work was then immediately sold to a major institution. After 30 years in art I know all about nepotism and hierarchy. MONA is a great place and a real advance for Australian art, there’s no doubt about that. The great problem is it also lays bare the hypocrisy of the ‘trickle down’ aristocratic system fine art still is. And it’s not only the locals and the bogans who are looked down on, artists who don’t fit in are treated appallingly too. In many ways for all it’s glitter and fun MONA is a fake!

  15. I think you are over-thinking it Bert. I’ve been working in glenorchy for years and have heard a myriad of MONA opinions from locals. Not once have I got the impression or been told by locals that the reason they haven’t been to MONA yet is because of any socio/economic barriers/differences. In fact, people seem to be vastly interested in what’s happening in MONA, or at least curious.

    It might seem unusual for a world class art museum to be in a lower, socio-economic area, but Its Tasmania – we’re small And MONA is what it is and it feels locally accepted + that area has been occupied by a winery and the alcorso foundation for years! It’s nothing new in a cultural collide – sense.

    MONA is free for locals and dead easy to access by metro – it’s art on our doorstep. Maybe Not everyone’s into art and wine but that doesn’t make it some kind of joke.

  16. Fantastic research from the perspective of the locals.
    I loved the tale of taking the bus. I thought MONA may help invest in the suburbs around Hobart that are frequently neglected in funding and so on. Your bus story seems to imply that rather than investing, MONA has organised a way (or several ways) of getting to the museum that by passes any local engagement, and identification of any economic inequalities.
    Nonetheless, excellent paper, well done.

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