the many shapes of normal

Today i went to visit Hobart’s new MONA gallery.  MONA is the private gallery of Tasmanian David Walsh.  It’s only opened recently in a new purpose built venue at Walsh’s Moorilla vineyard/winery/entertainment precinct.

I went to visit with Cheryl (who reflects on her visits here and here), to encounter the gallery, and it’s opening exhibition “Monanism” (I think it’s basically a collection of Walsh’s favourite pieces).

Visiting MONA is an expedition into the unexpected.  Almost from the moment you turn off a suburban street and suddenly find yourself in the midst of a riverside vineyard, everything is abnormal, and (in my limited experience) its distinctly un-gallery like.

The building itself is stunning.  Carved from the ground, the gallery covers four main levels and is industrial in nature – steel, bare timbers, brushed concrete, and the sandstone that lies under the ground.  It’s all angles, and rust and grunge. And it’s astonishing. (click through to read on…..)

The nature of the place is dark and deep. You feel like you’re lost in the belly of the earth, with no windows or natural light, and the art tucked into all sorts of corners.  Every now and then you catch a glimpse of the centre spine of the building, soaring sandstone walls, and the ever present Bit.Fall – a computer controlled three-story tall waterfall that spells out words in its falling droplets.

One of the unique features of MONA is its eclectic collection of modern, old and new art (the acronym from which it takes its name). You find ancient mummies in the midst of oil paintings, and 21st century video installations or giant sculptures.  It’s unconventional, abnormal, and yet somehow, it seems to work. Each piece seems to say something different because of it’s neighbours than it might in a more conventional themed gallery layout.

Not for a moment do I want to give the impression that I’m an art expert, or understand much (or anything) about art, and gallery curation.  I don’t.  The same seems to be true for many of the visitors to MONA.  Mostly I saw just ordinary people, drawn by the reputation perhaps, wanting to see the most publicised of the art works, coming to see if it’s all really as shocking and controversial as we are told.

The truth is, at least to my eyes, it isn’t. Sure there are powerful statements in the collection, and there are pieces that will offend some, disturb others.  But it seems to me at least, that there is something at MONA for just about everyone.

I found myself not for the first time being drawn primarily to the art that you can enter into (physically). Art that is big in scale, big in vision, and big in execution.  I found a large rock, with a never-ending corridor within. I found a labyrinth of dark corridors lined with with words and symbols. A giant skull, with another world unfolding inside it. Video installations that are mind-boggling, Dr Nitschke’s death kit.  On and on and on.

I have to say that one of the most powerful impressions I had at MONA was that we (the visitors) were in a strange way a part of the gallery itself. We wander, eyes flitting from art-work, to the iPod that MONA provide to guide us, ears glued to the commentary and interviews. Maybe somewhere, someone watches on. The gallery without people, would be incomplete; we ourselves were an exhibit. Or so it felt to me.

MONA houses such an ecclectic mix, a diverse collection of art that David Walsh has aquired in his travels, that it has no right to speak with one voice.  Any maybe to the curators, to the owner, to many of the visitors, it doesn’t.

But to me, today,  it did.

A simple, clear, cohesive message, reflected again and again as I wandered the halls.

There are so many shapes of normal.

You can make of that what you will.  I found the message in a wall full of love messages.  I found it in the juxtaposition of art that is so dark I was moved to question my identity with art that is so bizarre and delightful that I could not help but laught out loud.  I found it in whirling lights, an endless corridor and an encyclopedia that constantly remakes itself.  I found it in a video wall of 30 people singing pop songs.  I found it in a Mack truck impossibly squeezed into a tiny space in the heart of the gallery, and in the collection of 150 porcelain portaits of women’s vaginas.

Everywhere I turned, I heard the same message.

There are so many shapes of normal.

When you visit MONA (and you should, it’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours), be sure to go with open ears, open eyes, open mind.  And see what it says to you.

For me the day was topped off with two other experiences.

Not just limited to the artworks inside, Hobart turned on what can only be described as a stunning autumn day. Sunny, warm, deep blue sky a backdrop to the dramatic Mt Wellington, and a millpond Derwent River. It was spectacular.

And then as I drove home to Launceston, the sun set over the Western Tiers was a sight to behold.

And another reminder that normal comes in many different shapes.

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