Winter at MONA | The Saturday newspaper

We arrived at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Berriedale, Tasmania an hour before opening to see the three winter season exhibits before the crowds – swollen by Dark Mofo visitors – arrived and made it significantly harder to get through. go space. The works are located on the lower floor, three levels below ground. It is recommended that visitors start at the bottom and walk up through the gallery.

Not many private galleries were able to host the three exhibitions that opened at MONA last month. Each is large enough to be a main exhibit at a biennale. For example, Fiona Hall and AJ King’s installation is just as epic as Fiona Hall’s Wrong way time – originally installed in the Australian Pavilion as part of the 2015 Venice Biennale – albeit perhaps less complicated.

Brisbane-based artist Robert Andrew’s Within an expression doesn’t talk about the importance of country to language and language to country – it screams. Works in charcoal and ocher on paper are drawn in real time by a machine of strings and pulleys that stretch throughout the vast space. Land itself – burnt sticks, bits of ocher and stones – is integrated into the machine, acting as weights and making marks.

The input to the machine is Palawa kani, the reconstructed revival language for the local Palawa people. It’s specific to where it was assembled – for the room – and made from Country stuff. A machine to write Country back to itself. The language, the place of meeting and the country itself make the markings.

Aboriginal languages ​​belong to, and to, Land and to the landscapes that produced them. Country can best be described using the language that grew there with the people of the country. We need a word or phrase for works that can only be done on Land: “site-specific” doesn’t cover it. The closest I can think of is “On the land”, an expression that has been used to describe work to be made on the land it depicts.

In the next big gallery we are confronted with phase shift index, by Berlin-based artist Jeremy Shaw, which consists of six huge back-projected screens. On each screen, a group of people perform ritual movements. Each group seems to come from a slightly different subculture or culture, perhaps from different decades in the 20th century. For me, the experience of watching the videos was driven by my cultural background: I was reminded of raves and dance music culture and the physical movement practices in collaborative arts.

The movement slowly rises to a crescendo, an ecstatic moment, as the videos develop in unison. The light and movement abruptly reminded me of Faithless video clips (in a good way). Dance brings events to a frenzied end after about 20 minutes, before the world falls apart in a data-moshing apocalypse. We have to imagine whether the ending was destructive or transcendent.

From that ecstatic end we move on to the visceral jolt of the next gallery, from noise and light to darkness and almost silence.

An apocalyptic landscape, Exodust: howling land by Hobart artist Fiona Hall and AJ King – a Bigambul/Wakka Wakka cultural practitioner – is one of the physically darkest spaces I’ve seen in a gallery. On the other side of the apocalypse is a burned-out house. The path there leads through a burnt forest, dead blackened stumps, ash on the ground, the air filled with the scent of the days after a forest fire. Every Australian will recognize that smell; in me it evoked a feeling of doom and fear. I remember fires that invaded our backyard when I was a kid, and my father, a firefighter, who took off to fight another wildfire, perhaps never to return.

The cottage or hut is made of charred wood and burnt books, speaking of loss and destruction, of the end of civilization. The name of the artwork, Exodus, is highlighted on the rear wall of the cottage in backlit colored plastic bottles in a clear bottle frame, creating an effect reminiscent of a stained glass window. The whole space is a chapel, in which a burnt coffin supports a burnt cradle, from which a rope ladder ascends to the sky.

The work on the entrance puts the debt where it belongs. It’s a re-edit of Hall’s hack (2015), a camera-like box that puts Rupert Murdoch firmly at the center of all the problems in our world.

An hour after we arrived, just before we finished Exodus, the gallery opened to the public. It took the crowd a while to get to us, either the famously slow elevator or the deliberately “endless” spiral staircase, so we ended our tour with the room empty and fought our way through the crowds to the bar – for coffee, not cocktails.

If there’s one complaint about MONA, it’s the crowds. It quickly gets claustrophobic when full and the entry line is ridiculously long. When we went back to see the exhibits again, the crowd was too thick to see the works well enough for my liking. Get there early.

These three exhibits are well worth a visit, perhaps worth a flight to Hobart. Both Andrew and the Hall and King collaboration made art about Country, about place, about what defines Australia and about the danger we find ourselves in. Interestingly, both installations focused on burnt wood – Andrew as a pigment or for marking, Hall and King uses it as a sculptural element. Shaw was less concerned with Country, though the concept of using dance and ritualized movements to escape an apocalypse resonates with Native culture.

When I think about it now, I remember that the three exhibitions, in the order we visited them, tell a story. Andrew leads us in, talking about language loss and revival, about how important language is to saving land. Shaw’s work speaks to us about the end of the world, the Anthropocene and the failed attempts to save us all. Hall and King talk about the end of the world, at least in a local sense, and the loss of land and culture if we don’t act.

We think about freedom, culture and escape, we think about what’s to come and what we can do, we imagine the world we have and the world we can leave behind. This exhibition season at MONA is a call to action.

MONA’s winter exhibitions are on display until October 17.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as “Calls to action”.

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