Private art made public

Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne
Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne

Contemporary art is intriguing partly because it is often impossible to define, crossing boundaries and mixing mediums to create ever-changing hybrids. The works themselves are increasingly reliant on digital technology and seem to be growing exponentially in size. It is one thing to admire this new art in a public place and quite another to experience it within a home.

Before leaving Melbourne, I was fortunate to have visited the Lyon Housemuseum, at once a private house and a private art museum.


The Lyon Housemuseum is modern, light-filled, and spacious, serving equally well as a family home and a repository for the Lyon collection of contemporary Australian art. It opens its doors to the public on designated visiting days when the lady of the house, Mrs. Yueji Lyon, graciously offers a glimpse into what it is like to live intimately with some monumental and complex artworks by artists such as Howard Arkley, Patricia Piccinini, Kathy Temin and Linda Marrinon (whose work I saw at the National Gallery of Victoria the previous week).

Looking down into the white cube from the second floor
Looking down into the white cube from the second floor

Corbett Lyon’s vision integrates the art seamlessly with the architecture, making the most disconcerting works appear quite mundane as if, for example, there was nothing unusual about making sandwiches at the kitchen’s expansive marble counter while artist Piccinini’s streamlined, oversized pink and blue baby trucks squat a few meters away watching a bank of video screens in which teenage girls talk about the rules of the road in a foreign language.

Patricia Piccinini's (Tender) Creatures courtesy Artium Musuem, Spain
Patricia Piccinini’s (Tender) Creatures courtesy Artium Museum, Spain

The immense black cube at the other end of the house is for viewing videos projected to a height of 20 feet or more. The space also transforms into the family’s party room or private media center. I was particularly tickled by several series of works cleverly hidden behind wooden walls that revealed their treasures when swung open with the slightest touch of a hand. So elegant!


It was a treat to see the way in which contemporary art can make itself right at home when given the correct environment.

Howard Arkley's interior panels line the dining room walls
Howard Arkley’s panels line the dining room walls, expanding the space further into a fictionalized interior

Throughout the house, the family’s own written histories and stories were subtly engraved in text art covering much of the ceiling, reminding visitors that at the end of the day, this was an intensely private collection. Both inside and out, the art made its presence felt – sometimes quietly and sometimes violently. I think it is both noble and generous to share with the public a private collection that has been acquired with such an obvious love for the art of the here and now.


Images courtesy of the Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne, Australia.

To the ends of the earth and back: PART I

I was raised in Australia and my immediate family still resides there, necessitating regular pilgrimages to the ends of the earth and back. That is no exaggeration. Australia is a hell of a long way away from anywhere, which may actually explain why everyone there is just so-o-o nice! One of my art goals this time round was to visit the wryly named Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania. This relatively new museum has placed sleepy Tasmania, the large island to the south-east of the main continent, on the global art map. Tourists are flocking in to visit this unique museum which is reached by ferry from Tasmania’s capital, Hobart.

Approaching MONA by ferryThe understated exterior architecture  represents the tip of the iceberg of this underground museum, which was dug into the cliff face and descends six floors down into the bowels of the earth. I personally prefer a museum to literally vibrate with natural light. It was only several days after an intense visit to MONA that some research revealed that the museum is in fact perfectly designed for the collection. But I am getting ahead of myself. The story behind the art museum is almost as interesting as the art itself. The $80 million wonder houses art estimated at over $100 million and has already been hailed as the Bilboa of the Southern Hemisphere. Not too shabby considering that the collection belongs to one individual – 50-year-old multi-millionaire David Walsh, a homeboy who made his fortune by gambling. A modern-day tale ripe for the big screen. For a truly fascinating read into Walsh’s unorthodox thinking and anarchic personality take a peek at Amanda Lohrey’s interview for The Monthly.

Even before learning of Walsh’s anti-citadel approach to museums, the cave-like undertones mirrored the often dark and disturbing art.  The collection is at once wild, downright gross and superb. And every so often the parade of mostly contemporary works is interrupted by ancient treasures such as a mummy in its own temperature-controlled room, or prescious Ming dynasty vases dotted around the various halls. It must be wonderful to be David Walsh, to be able to purchase art which appeals only to your sensibilities and not blink at the outrageous price tags, nor worry about pleasing the public, the board of directors or the donors.The works were relentlessly challenging and the scope overwhelming. I am devastated that I did not conscientiously research the names of the artists when I took photos of the following artworks but in the absence of any labelling, I am not entirely to blame.

One of the very coolest features offered by the museum is the option to view your own personal tour of MONA after you leave. The touch screen on the museum’s smart guides record the artworks you tapped and when you are done for the day you can request a link to your individualized experience for future reference, with full info and 3-D images of the art you saw. Please check out part of my personal tour (use the password My tour focuses on the enormously talented Wim Delvoye, creator of the poo machine, illustrator par excellence and unparalleled conceptual artist. Click here for the latest revolutionary exhibition Theatre of the World.

So next time you think of Australia solely in terms of koalas and kangaroos, think again…!

(Postscript July 10, 2012:  Astronomical Tax Bill Stalls MONA Expansion: In Australia, quirky art collector and professional gambler David Walsh is in hot water over a backdated tax bill to the tune of over $40 million. While Walsh denies that his personal finances will force the closure of his private museum, Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art, he acknowledged that a planned expansion, which has already cost him $180 million, will have to be put on hold. [Sydney Morning Herald])