Art and place in Hobart

Art has lifted its profile in Hobart since the opening of David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art. As a direct result of his investment in a purpose-built underground gallery, the public may view his eccentric private collection. In addition to this, the creation of a series of pavilion style apartments (named after Australian architects and artists) that overlook the broad reach of the Derwent River to accommodate visitors, an existing winery, then the addition of two wine bars (above and below the ground), cafes, and a restaurant that enhance the experience of gallery visitors, he has developed a facility that attracts people from very far away on its own terms. It is place-making at its best, with quality of every experience on a par with international art attractions such as Japan’s Naoshima art island.

However it doesn’t mean that you’ll love all that you see. Contemporary art should be polarising, stretching, which is what I told myself as my stomach heaved when confronted with Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional  (2010). The cold hits you with the smell, reinforced by the visceral brown aesthetic produced by “vacuum-packed bags of shit”. This is only one small element of a collection arrayed over three levels, drilled into rock walls like an archaeological dig. Sex and death (and Egyptology) are the overriding themes of Walsh’s collection, but the journey in between isn’t ignored. At MONA you have the opportunity to view your own bottom (for many of us a unique experience), but it’s not all about the visitor. In fact mostly it’s about Walsh – as is fitting with a private collection, there is a lot of memoir in the art. (His opening statement in the introduction to Monanisms, MONA, 2010, reads, “My name is David and I’m an arseholic.”) Within the viewing technology, the iPod device known as “the O”, the compelling facility is “Gonzo” – anecdotal musings, circumstantial discussion of the art and artists that describe how and why a particular object may have been acquired, speculation about its meaning, down to discussions at the pub between Walsh and curator Elizabeth Mead.

It’s refreshing to experience the how and why rather than the what, although that is available as well, under the header “Art Wank”. A collection may be seen as a record of personal interests – in this case we have access to a whole lot of information about what interests Walsh. Most of us find other people – as much as ideas and academic fashions – interesting, so this style of delivery, that offers humour and often trivial information about (mostly his) life experience, engaging.

On a different and intimate scale is Hobart’s Islington Hotel, but art is an integral part of place-making in this facility too. A boutique hotel, it offers contemporary art in living areas and rooms – guests may take tea, drink wine, or sit amongst a diverse collection of paintings, sculpture and ceramics in a heritage building. The conservatory that serves breakfast and dinner includes a quirky sculpture by Bill Yaxley, juxtaposed with historic sandstone. Given the high quality food and wine that seems an integral part of the Tasmanian experience, and the compelling art experiences developed by individuals, it makes Hobart an inspiring example of the power of one, or two people – willing to share.