A Trip Across The River Styx to the Underworld: The MONA Museum, Hobart, Tasmania.
Tasmania (known as Tas or Tassie by locals) certainly lives up to one of its slogans: The Island of Inspiration. This Commonwealth, island state just south of Melbourne is home to approximately 500,000 residents, half of whom reside in the port city capital of Hobart. Known for its World Heritage wilderness, good food, and clean air, I think most people would agree that what has really put Tasmania on the map as a destination is the privately owed MONA museum(Museum of Old and New Art), which is dedicated to sex and death. With only three and a half days in Hobart, it was the focus of my visit.
The MONA is like no other museum in the world. Since it opened in 2011, it has been hailed as both visionary and profane and has drawn over 1.65 million visitors from around the world (Tasmanians have embraced it and get in free). The man inspired to create this is as interesting as his collection of modern art and antiquities. David Walsh grew up in a poor, working class suburb of Hobart(across from where the MONA is built), was considered a shy nerd, developed an algorithm, and became one of the world’s top gamblers earning millions. A self proclaimed atheist, Walsh gambled 150 million dollars on what he describes as “a secular temple and subversive adult Disneyland” with art that he wagers could become worthless in a decade or two.
Going to the MONA for one day just wasn’t enough… too much sensory overload. I had to go back a second time. Even so, it was several days later before I could make sense of it all. The experience had to be ingested and digested before I could excrete anything I could express verbally ( you will come to appreciate this analogy later).
Visiting the MONA is like crossing The River Styx to the Underworld, but this time Charon is taking you across the Derwent River on a luxury, two story ferry, and it only costs $20.00 round trip for the half hour ride. If you want to “escape the riff raff,” a $50.00 Posh Pit ticket will get you an exclusive lounge and lots of extras including a 30 minute wine tasting at Morilla Winery next door to the museum.
A light drizzle, grey skies, and cold temperatures (by Australian standards) provided what seemed like perfect weather for my first visit. It’s quite dramatic approaching the museum from the water. This steel and sandstone edifice sits theatrically up high on a promontory, and after docking at the ferry wharf, a ninety-nine-step climb takes you to the entrance.
What I immediately loved about the MONA is that there is nothing sanctimonious about it. So often when entering museums, and even some art galleries, there is an atmosphere that suggests conversations should be spoken in whispers… that maybe genuflecting is required. There’s serious stuff at the MONA, yet the place doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a healthy dose of humor and irreverence everywhere.
First of all, there is no writing or labeling of artwork on the walls. After getting through the lobby, a smart phone-like device called the O is handed out. The O is the first system in the world designed to replace traditional artwork labels. Walk into any of the galleries and a click on the device brings up pictures of the artwork. An additional click on each piece shows a selection of information you can access such as ideas, artist’s interviews, art wank, Gonzo (Walsh’s commentary–he thinks Madonna is shit), music, and videos. Who wants to read stuffy art discourse bunched up against other viewers when you can listen, at your convenience, to what interests you? Save your tour gets you an email later that night of your path through the museum including a list of viewed, loved, and hated works.
Armed with the O, you are directed by “front of house staff” to a circular, steel staircase that descends 55 feet (17 meters) to the bowels of a dimly lit underworld… complete with a bar. The basement level is otherworldly and feels a little cave-like, with a narrow hallway lined with a huge wall of ancient sandstone left exposed. It seems fitting that Cinerarium, velvet drapes surrounding three shelves containing elaborate, egg-shaped cremation urns, is the first artwork seen. A reminder of death, but also a reminder to celebrate life. Just beyond, a huge water installation, Bit.fall, rains paintings of words most commonly seen on the internet.
The remainder of space in this level is dedicated to new exhibitions that change every few months, and the latest, Field Lines, by Cameron Robbins had just opened up. Robbins somehow harnesses nature using “instruments” set up outside that draw the wind and map geothermal dynamics using neon light against a night sky.
The remaining three levels house Walsh’s collection of contemporary art and antiquities, and the two are intermixed. An ancient Egyptian coffin stands along side a contemporary ink on paper drawing inspired from forensic photography and scientific textbooks.
If you should ever meet someone who has been to the MONA, he/she will undoubtedly mention the wall of vaginas. Entitled Cunts… and other Conversations, the installation features 77 life- size, porcelain, molded sculptures of women’s vaginas modeled by women from all walks of life ranging in ages from 18 to 78. It’s a little titillating and pretty much in your face (literally, they hang at eye level). But what inspired the artist(a man) was an article about three young women who had undergone labioplasty surgery because “…they feared men wouldn’t find them attractive if their labia did not conform to a standard seen in pornography, in which labia are airbrushed out.” These women models wanted one thing: for young women to be free of growing up with fear, ignorance, and loathing of their bodies and sexuality. Let’s face it. How many of us women really know what we look like down there? It’s amazing how different we all are. Who knew?! (The gift shop sells vagina soap replicas, apparently very popular).
One of the most hated and popular installations is Wim Delvoyes’s Cloaca Professional, a large machine that replicates the human digestive system turning food into feces(remember that earlier metaphor?). At appointed times of day, you can witness it being fed or taking a dump (making fun of modern art?).
On the other hand, one of the most disturbing and painful works is that of Jenny Holzer who makes words into art, and in this case, words printed on human skin. Inspired after reading about rape as an act of war carried out in Bosnia, Lustmorde, is a series of photographs with a narrative from three different perspectives: the perpetrator, the victim, and an observer (most often a family member). They are excruciating to read. Hotzer’s work hangs near a Goya etching entitled This is Worse, from a series known as The Disasters of War. Walsh is right when he says a lot of blood and guts are represented.
A visit to the MONA isn’t something that is quickly forgotten. It confronts, it entertains, it stirs things up. Its effects are residual. Almost six months into my trip, I realized that this was the first time I had felt lonely. Maybe it was a combination of things. The skies had remained overcast the whole time with the constant threat of a cold rain. My airbnb room was not in a welcoming, private home but rather in a kind of chilly rooming house, and I appeared to be the lone occupant. During this visit, I was totally on my own and never met up with anyone to share a meal with or have a friendly chat over coffee.
The MONA did what it does best, and that is it left me overwhelmed with a lot of mixed feelings. Like an unwelcome visitor, that what-is-the-meaning-of-life existential angst crept in during the night, kept me awake, and wouldn’t leave. I finally figured the only way to get angst to leave was to make him laugh and not take myself or it too seriously. For me, the MONA reminds us that we are mortal–and to find the humor in that.
Postscript : Hobart is a beautiful city. I loved it!