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Ladies Lounge: The Story of One Man’s Entitlement and Why That’s The Point

Holly Cromwell

Thursday, 18 April 2024

The Ladies’ Lounge installation at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania has drawn international attention recently, as one man launched a gender discrimination complaint after being turned away from the women-only exhibit. Holly Cromwell reports.

The Ladies’ Lounge installation at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania has drawn international attention recently, as one man launched a gender discrimination complaint after being turned away from the women-only exhibit.

The whole point of Kirsha Kaechele’s installation is for men to feel rejection. In a commentary on social politics - namely the gentlemen’s clubs of the last 200 years and the way they still exist today - those who identify as women are pampered by butlers as they peruse some of the finest art in the museum. Of course, men are not allowed entry. MONA has evidently received many complaints over this although Jason Lau is one of the first to seek formal retribution. Kaechele says the first accepted the same defence she applied at court: the Ladies’ Lounge is both a physical space and performance art. Whilst men are free to pay to see the exhibit, the refusal of entry is the exhibit, so, whilst they experience the installation differently from women, they are still fully experiencing the exhibit as it was intended. Mr Lau’s complaint is that it is discriminatory to refuse men access to the most important of the museum’s works.

Taking this opportunity to address the phenomenon of gentlemen’s clubs. Historically, private members clubs with all the amenities of an aristocrat’s home, they were designed to promote socialising. They have been discussed by academics for their influence on literature, politics, social-culture, and the inevitable impact they had on gender and class inequality. Note that they still exist – there are still 25 private members’ clubs in London alone, with more still in large cities around the country including Bristol, Ediburgh, Birmingham and Manchester. I could not confirm whether there are any in Nottingham.

The installation itself is in Australia, where ladies’ lounges, a room specifically for women to keep the rest of an establishment exclusive for men, are barely part of history. Part of Kaechele’s inspiration for the exhibit was an incident in which she, herself, was told by male patrons of a bar that she and her friend might “feel more comfortable” retiring to the ladies’ lounge.

In the case of this civil complaint, the argument was over the interpretation of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act, specifically Section 26 under which people are allowed to discriminate against others in a situation designed to promote equal opportunity for a group of people who are disadvantaged by a prescribed attribute. Nottingham students will see the logic here mirroring the structure of certain internships, talks and workshops held by our own careers service which exclude majority groups for the purpose of helping students of colour or LGBTQ+ students, for example, to navigate industries that are traditionally hostile to them. Other examples include women-only gym spaces, and men’s mental health support groups. Men-only and women-only clubs are permitted by specific exemption to the Anti-Discrimination Act, but the Ladies’ Lounge was an exhibit simulating a club environment and not actually a club.

Needless to say, Kaechele was thrilled by the complaint and the chance to take her art from the gallery to the courtroom. She and 25 supporters entered the courtroom in uniform business attire and “engaged in synchronised choreographed movement” such as leaning forward or crossing their legs. They were otherwise silent for the entire proceedings until the end when they left to the song ‘Simply Irresistible’.

Last week the tribunal came to its ultimate conclusion: MONA has discriminated against men by putting on this installation because the Ladies’ Lounge, as Lau alleged, did not promote equality. Kaechele has said that the complaint, and this ruling, misses the point of the installation, arguing that it aims to highlight and correct a historic disadvantage and that the “power still lies with men”. She has said she might take this to Australia’s Supreme Court on the grounds that the ruling, giving MONA 28 days to permit men entry, defeats the point of her artwork, although she has also noted that being forced to close down would also be a powerful social commentary. Representatives of Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (TASCAT) that the installation was “for good faith artistic purposes” but still “direct discrimination” and the deputy president noted that if MONA had made the Ladies’ Lounge a genuine private club, its actions would have been legal.  

This story blew up across the world, and across social media. In a time of culture wars, particularly with feminism and gender politics being utilised as a hot-button issue across the political spectrum, this headline was always going to attract notice. The decision that Lau was entitled to experience this artwork in the exact same way as women, despite the intention of the artwork, legal precedent set by clubs and the idea that an artwork that no one would describe as subtle wasn’t promoting equality, may well impact the way Australian institutions handle feminist art of this type in future. Not to mention, giving the international reception, it feels like a sign of the direction of social politics; a single man’s entitlement could undermine a successful performance work, with the full support of a legal establishment that could easily be expected to defend the artist.


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