A Trip Across The River Styx to the Underworld: The MONA Museum, Hobart, Tasmania.
Arriving at the MONA on the Mona Roma ferry. You can also drive or take a coach. I recommend the ferry!
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.
The Mona Roma ferry, takes you on a half hour ride from the harbor to the museum for $20.00 round trip. If you are Tasmanian, you get to go to the museum for free.
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.
Mirrored entrance to the MONA. Walsh is an avid tennis player, so, of course, there’s a tennis court at the entrance. Nothing intimidating or high brow here!
View from the entrance of the MONA, across the tennis court, of James Turrell’s piece, “Amarna,” a kind of gazebo of light best viewed at sunset or sunrise when colored light is reflected on the canopy ceiling. Turrell has built 80 of these Skyscape installations all over the world. This is his largest.
Sandstone lined stairway. You have to climb 99 stairs to the museum entrance.
Another view of huge, metal sculptures outside the entrance to the museum.
View from the entrance looking down to one of two metal sculptures.
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.
Descending to the bottom level where the new exhibitions are housed.
The basement museum bar “The Void” The brochure reads: “Think velvet, sandstone, and making eyes at the chick with the black nail polish while you slurp your postmodern martini.”
With the bar behind you and a seating area to enjoy drinks, this entrance takes you to the Cinerarium, on left. For AUD $75,000, you can enjoy an eternal membership to the MONA. When you die, they have you cremated and put in an urn in the museum! Walsh’s dad is interred there.
View of the basement looking down from the second level.
Julious Popp’s water installation “Bit.fall, that “rains paintings” of different words most commonly read on the internet. It begs the question: Are our brains being altered by the age of communication technology?
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.
Cameron Robbins wind drawings–pigment ink on paper–duration several days.
One of the contraptions used to create wind drawings.
Anemograph, Mt. KcKay. An anemograph is an instrument for measuring wind. Robbins’s anemograph “draws” with wind-powered light and slow photograph exposure!
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.
Skull: Beetle carapaces, taxidermied bird, and plastic.
“Live” art, Tim’s tattooed skin is becoming a work of art over a period of years. Already sold to a German collector for $260,000 AUD, the work will be completed when Tim dies, and the work is handed over to its purchaser! This is Tim, live! He doesn’t show up on the O. Walsh wanted people to wonder What the hell is going on!
Anslem Kiefer’s sculpture Sternenfall. Materials: bookcase comprising two iron elements with lead books (190-200 volumes) and glass.
Extra rolls of toilet paper in one the bathrooms off the library at the MONA.
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!
Another view of the harbor.
A view of the harbor from the MONA Roma ferry.
Next to the harbor Salamanca Place with its backdrop of sandstone warehouses dating back to the 1830s now house cafes, restaurants, galleries, and designer shops.
Entrance with partial view of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Australia’s second oldest museum is right in the CBD and a short walk from the harbor.