Thursday, April 25

MONA Ladies Lounge accused of gender discrimination

A wall of vulvas. A show featuring a recently slaughtered bull. A “poop machine” that replicates the journey of food through the human body.

The Museum of New and Old Art, or MONA, in Hobart, the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, is no stranger to works that can shock or dismay, nor to the criticism they can provoke. But this week he found himself defending an unusual claim: that a work of art, one visitor complained, violated discrimination laws.

The Ladies Lounge – sumptuous green curtains, sumptuous surroundings, original works by Picasso and Sidney Nolan – is an installation by American artist and curator Kirsha Kaechele. Opened in December 2020, it is accessible to “all women,” according to the MONA website – and precisely to no men, except for the attentive butlers who look after the women there.

Like other men, Jason Lau was not allowed to enter the facility when he visited the museum in April 2023. Mr Lau lodged a complaint with Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commissioner, saying he had been discriminated against because of her gender.

The case was heard in the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in Hobart on Tuesday.

“I visited MONA, paid 35 Australian dollars,” or about $23, “in the hope of gaining access to the museum, and was quite surprised when I was told I couldn’t not see an exhibition, Ladies. Lounge,” Mr Lau said during the hearing, according to Australian media. “Whoever buys a ticket expects a fair provision of goods and services.”

In an interview, Ms. Kaechele said she agreed with Mr. Lau, but that her experience of discrimination was at the heart of her work.

“Given the conceptual power of the artwork and the value of the artwork it contains, its downsides are real,” she said. “He is lost.”

The work was necessarily discriminatory, admitted Catherine Scott, Ms. Kaechele’s lawyer. But, she argued, denying men access to this phenomenon nevertheless allowed them to experience it, albeit in a different way.

During Tuesday’s proceedings, Ms. Scott cited a legal exception that says discrimination can be acceptable if it is “designed to promote equality of opportunity for a group of people who are disadvantaged or have a particular need because of an attribute prescribed”.

“This case asks the court to understand that art can, in fact, promote equality of opportunity in a different way, in a more conceptual way,” she said in an interview.

Ms. Kaechele, married to David Walsh, the museum’s founder, appeared at the hearing Tuesday, followed by a phalanx of 25 women dressed in pearls and navy blue suits, many of them also artists, who silently read from texts feminists and posed: crossed their legs and applied lipstick in unison.

In August, another male visitor filed a gender discrimination complaint regarding the work, according to a museum charge. This led to a dialogue with Ms Kaechele.

“I said, ‘Well, you had the opportunity to experience the work of art, because the exclusion of men is the work of art,'” Ms. Kaechele said . “So I appreciated that, I understood, and I let the matter go.”

The Ladies Lounge is inspired by men’s spaces in Australia, past and present, she said. Australia had only allowed women into public bars since 1965, and they were often relegated to the so-called “ladies’ lounge”, a smaller space often selling more expensive drinks.

But discrimination against women is not just a matter of history. Australia still has a gender wage gap by around 20 percent, women are still underrepresented in management and leadership positions in almost all sectors, according to the Australian governmentand a number of elite gentlemen’s clubs, such as the Melbourne Club, still exclude women from membership.

These clubs exist to connect important men to each other and reinforce patriarchal power structures, Ms. Kaechele said. “In our living room we drink champagne and sit on the sofa. “I don’t think there’s really a parallel.”

The work was intended to be funny and its sense of humor came from the fact that women remain marginalized in Australian life, she added. “It’s supposed to shine a light on the past and be light,” she said, “and we can only do that because we’re women and we lack power.”

Mr Lau, who could not be reached for comment, demanded a formal apology and that the men be allowed into the lounge or pay a discounted ticket to make up for their loss, which Ms Kaechele has refused. “I’m not sorry,” she said, “and you can’t come in.”

A court decision is expected in the coming weeks.

For MONA and Ms Kaechele, as artists, even the potential closure of the exhibition had some advantages, said Anne Marsh, a Melbourne-based art historian.

“Loud art is good art, loud feminism is good feminism,” she said. “This puts it on the agenda.”