If atheism could visualize itself, what would it look like? Perhaps like David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), on the banks of the Derwent River in Hobart, the capital city of the state of Tasmania, Australia.
Mr Walsh is a multi-millionaire professional gambler. He is also an art collector and ardent atheist. Fusing these two passions, he has established his museum on three subterranean levels of 6,000 square metres carved directly into the sandstone cliffs of a peninsula. The museum cost US$185 million and the collection is valued at $105 million (a “temple to secularism” as he puts it). In brute material terms that size and those numbers would rank MONA in the forefront of private galleries worldwide, and makes it bigger than the government-built and maintained galleries of three Australian states.
It is also hubristic in aim. Walsh is a committed anarchical atheist post-modernist, and he intends MONA to challenge and overturn on all fronts, from the viewing experience to the supposed idea of what a museum is (his is “an un-museum” he declares), to contributing to the debates that now and then provide profitable spectacle for the media: euthanasia, sexual identity, bestiality, addiction, evolution, deviance, religion.
The remains of a suicide bomber sculpted in dark chocolate, a dog sodomising a man, Bullet Hole (a photograph of a wound), C*nts and other Conversations (150 porcelain sculptures of women’s genitalia), Great Deeds against the Dead (sculpture of Goya’s print of three dead soldiers mutilated on a tree), and the whole of the Charles Saatchi exhibition Sensation highlighting the Young British Artists clique with images of child killers, mannequins with noses and mouths replaced by penises and anuses, religious desecration, sex, sex, sex, dead animals suspended in formaldehyde and so on.
Tasmania is the smallest and least dynamic of the Australian states. It seems like an unusual place to erect a “temple” for avant garde artworks from Europe and America. But David Walsh wouldn’t be the first self-made multi-millionaire to thumb his nose at convention just because he can. Raised in Hobart, Walsh, 49, dropped out of university in the 1980s and through his aptitude for mathematics gradually refined a series of gambling systems that stripped a fortune from casinos and bookies. He owns real estate, a winery, a brewery and now MONA, into which he has poured his heart and his winnings.
Many of the exhibits featured created protest and furore when they were shown in London and New York (Rudy Giuliani sued the Brooklyn Museum of Art for displaying Sensation). But Tasmanians, unfazed, are more open minded and sophisticated: from the Premier of the State down they have embraced the project with an eye to its economic benefits and the supposed potential effect of unshackling the place’s reputation as a cultural backwater.
Walsh’s fellow Hobartians are indifferent to any controversial noise the museum might bring with it and hail him as a loyal working class local boy made good who could have used his money to build his dream anywhere else. Instead he decided to plunk it down in his hometown. MONA will put Hobart on the map, people say, and it just might, for Walsh has said that his art world friends in London have told him that it now is the vanguard of Australian museum culture, more relevant and better-known than the country’s National Gallery.
The national press has flung a string of epithets at it: “unorthodox”,“curious”, “macabre”, “disturbing”, “bordello inspired”, a “nether land”, “ideological playground”, “adult Disneyland” and most pertinently “ungodly”.
Confessing himself a “rabid atheist” Walsh regards religion as simply mindless “group think” and one of his hopes is to make a contribution to relieving society from “zealots” and their “agents”. He offers no involved reasoning for his atheism, which is so much the better as we are able to catch the “thing-in-itself”before it cloaks itself in rationalisation, evasion and justification. MONA is pure visceral experience, meant to shock and discombobulate.
What atheism actually looks like
Despite its iconoclasm, old-fashioned atheism respected the grand Western tradition. Marx and Nietzsche were still too much contained within the Christian worldview no matter how much intellectually they repudiated it. For them art was part of that worldview and despite its ideological falsity, it at least provided refuge from the blank bitterness of life. For Marx it was the final consolation before the revolution was to do away with it and make life itself an artistic enterprise. For Nietzsche it became the reason for any life whatsoever, until perhaps the Superman came along.
But Marx and Nietzsche were only dreamers who never had to really experience living within a fast encroaching atheistic culture. With Walsh and MONA we get a glimpse of what really existing atheism would be like if it ever fully actualized itself throughout all of society — and it would be nothing like what Marx/Nietzsche so naively imagined.
A fully existent atheism would seem to entail a ruthless liquidation of anything ideal, aspirational, contemplative, ordered, harmonious and final, even joyful and life-enhancing (in the Nietzschean sense). Everything reduces to a blank and fleeting materiality and a museum dedicated to valorizing such materiality is similarly completely reductive. MONA provides relevant counterpoint to those advocates who have been attempting to “de-prejudice” atheism in recent years and cloak it in sound morality and healthy human relationship, to prove that it was never really immoral or malign. Being a space where real objects are gathered in all their naked truth, it allows a confrontation with atheism as it really is or would aspire to be in ways that the several degrees of removal of intellectualized speculating and reading about it can never fully provide.
There are 2,210 antiquities and artworks, from ancient Egypt to today, all placed in defiantly random juxtapositions to eliminate historicity or development or hierarchy. Everything, including art, is just an unordered spray of forces in the atheist worldview, so everything is shoved together in a display of relentless contemporaneity.
The 654 modern pieces are the prize exhibits — what really gets Walsh’s blood running. (And MONA is decidedly a one man show: his advisors confirm that Walsh had the final word in everything.)
Resembling a concrete and steel fortress thrust into the cliffs at the estuary of the Derwent River (along which Hobart extends), MONA appears impenetrable. The entry to its three underground levels is via the roof after traversing a tennis court. Descending 15 metres as into a mineshaft, leaving natural light behind, one arrives at a sandstone cliff which is now an internal wall and along which sits the first exhibit… a bar.
Featured on the opposite wall is a display of human ashes (into which anyone can have themselves incinerated and mixed if they so wish). The first painting is Le Grand Macabre – three dark threatening dancing figures, a welcome to the underworld. From then on, it is one relentless splattering of sex, death, decay and defecation relieved only by the usual atheistic assaults on anything hinting of the religious, contemplative or spiritual.
Among the highlights are paeans to defecation. Cloaca is a machine that simulates all functions of the human digestive system, including producing excrement. Locus Focus is a toilet with cleverly arranged mirrors for viewing everything that happens there.
Matrix is a large painting of a transgender man focusing on his modified genitals. Untitled is an installation of rotting animal corpses. British painter Chris Ofili’s notoriousThe Holy Virgin Mary – a black Virgin Mary, elephant dung adorning one of her breasts, surrounded by female genitalia from pornographic magazines – is also there. It appears along with Bible Bomb, the Bible encasing a bomb.(The Koran and the Torah come in for equal insult).
The modern works are not all relentlessly subvert. There are also the humorously trivial such as the life-sized obese car and a Mack truck wedged into a corridor. And then there is the collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities– exquisite statuettes and votive figures and mummies and sarcophagi (all their beauty apparently somehow cleansed of their religious purport, otherwise they would have been denied entry…). There is also a strong Australian presence, with works by Boyd, Drysdale, Whiteley, and Sidney Nolan. But these seem just filler for the main show, thrown in for relief before returning to the overarching logic of corpses, sodomising beasts, stench and all the rest: the frisson and delight in erasing reality back to its most basic denominators; what an honest atheistic impulse naturally inclines towards.
“Normal” aesthetic response is thus nearly all confined to the pre-contemporary works; everything current is united in a one-dimensional craving to assail or titillate or frivol. Occasionally there is some relief from the battering: a white room shelved wall to wall with white books, pages all blank, or the amusing computer linked cascades of falling water that form into the most popular daily words on Google.
The design is part of the message. There are no quiet places for contemplation. The metal staircase is deliberately designed to accentuate the noise of footsteps; the bar has a regular cast of imbibers and music blares relentlessly.
There are no labels. Visitors may wander aimlessly or can carry touch-screen devices which will inform them about the exhibits, and also track their movements. With this data Walsh intends to eventually excise anything of a too populist tenor so that the viewing experience focuses on what is most on message.
Walsh declares himself as “pretty well anti-everything”. There is “no such thing as ‘good’”, he says. He considers human beings as basically “enterprise[s]for gut bacteria making more gut bacteria” and/or “sides of beef and bags of coal– these are the things that we are”. He tugs the usual atheistic forelock towards Darwin (“he thinks a lot about the theory of evolution”) and freely admits that insulting religious beliefs is one of the themes of MONA. He is thus entirely typical of a generic class of aggressive secularists now on the rise in Western societies. His museum is a boding shot towards where that secularism tends.
MONA is not so much an art museum as a tentative answer to the question: Where does art go, bereft of ideality? It tends towards what is left, the bare fact of materiality, brutal, ephemeral, uninhibited: art as solipsistic manipulation of whatever decays and rots and orgasms and screams and stinks and dies.
Atheism leads to death and nothingness, because atheism is death and nothingness. In artistic terms, by its own logic, an atheistic worldview will end up dispensing with any ideality in art and will simply proclaim an art of what remains – life as decay, depredation, animal chaos and death.
And an aggressive atheism will insolently celebrate this death and ugliness, which for it is life stripped of its delusions; a ground zero of de-contemplation for human consciousness (what remains of it) to be assaulted with.
Steven Jacks is a Brisbane-based writer and observer.