Sizing Up Everything in Australia’s Most Ambitious Art Museum
It all starts with sitting on sheep. That’s the first clue that a visit to MONA, Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, isn’t just another trip to the art gallery on an Australia vacation. Boarding the ferry from Hobart’s dock, passengers are invited to grab a coffee, pull up a (somewhat) comfy sheep, then relax for views of the city from the River Derwent.
If you’re not quite feeling the fiberglass livestock vibe, you’re more than welcome to slide into a comfy traditional seat for the 25 minute ride to the museum, taking in the Hobart skyline on either side. Looming over it all is Mount Wellington, the tallest mountain in the Wellington Range. The view from its summit offers the perfect snapshot of Tasmania’s forested peaks and crystal clear bays and inlets cutting into the shore.
MONA however, is a little harder to see from above. Most of the museum has been cut into the rock, jutting out from its location on the Berriedale Peninsula, just north of Hobart. The first glimpse we get of David Walsh’s extravagant vision are the stairs leading up from the river. Resembling a cross between a “stairway to heaven” and the steps from The Exorcist, these lead to the Museum’s main entrance.
Visitors will need to descend into the rock with an open mind and a sense of humour. David Walsh and the MONA team take their love of art seriously, but they aren’t afraid to make fun of the art world’s absurdities. Irreverence is key. While children can certainly enjoy many parts of MONA, this is a museum with an adult sense of humour. The buttons at the bottom of your dedicated “O” handset, labelled “Art Wank” should clear up any doubts. Another button, labelled “Gonzo,” offers more personal input from David Walsh himself, or from one of his numerous artsy friends and colleagues.
The O is central to the label-free MONA experience. Rather than having visitors crowd around wall placards, squinting while pretending to look both excited and intellectual, MONA gives each visitor the O handset. Besides being a handy place to read descriptions of the art (the aforementioned “Art Wank”), it connects to a headset through which guests can instead listen to some very knowledgeable and mostly unpretentious waffle about the pieces they’re seeing from someone who presumably has an art degree, or perhaps just impressed Walsh with a convincingly articulate rant about art in the pub one night. iOS users can download the free O app instead if they’d prefer to use their own device.
These descriptions lean toward the personal – what the curators like about the piece, how it came to be created, or how it arrived at the museum – rather than trying to draw ‘meaning’ out of any one exhibit. In fact, telling visitors how to interpret the work pretty much goes against MONA’s whole philosophy. If you don’t like it, simply move on. Or, if you’re feeling opinionated, hit the “Love” or “Hate” buttons at the top of the O to mouth off a bit in the laziest way possible.
MONA maintains a general collection called Monanism – so called partly to invite speculation and curiosity, but mostly to sell the book of the same name. This includes the only Cloaca digestive machine Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye has ever sold to a museum, Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan’s Snake, a depiction of the mythical Rainbow Serpent made up of over 1600 paintings, and many more, delivered in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and settings. There’s also the all new Pharos wing, which offers frequently immersive works that offer a sharp contrast to the Monanism collection. Anybody up for an oil spill bath followed by a wander down a tunnel of blazing light (artist James Turrell is a MONA favourite), finished off with a fierce time capsule lip-synch to Tina Turner, filmed in three parts to document the artist’s aging?
Our visit, on this Australia vacation, coincides with an invasion! Or a collaboration, as travelling exhibition The Museum of Everything, like many an invading force before them, have called it. While The Museum of Everything will only occupy MONA until April of 2018, a journey through it gets us into the perfect headspace for the rest of the museum. Made up of artwork from art world ‘outsiders’ (much like David Walsh – perhaps a perfect match), The Museum of Everything is a journey through time, space, ideology, faith, struggle, desire, hatred, love, lust, despair, hope, and a good deal besides.
Typical of MONA’s laid back approach, the pre-recorded commentary in The Museum of Everything feels mostly unedited, as if the commentator was wandering the exhibition with you, making occasional mistakes, saying hello to colleagues as they pass by, and occasionally throwing the mike for their opinion. It all offers a far more immersive experience than can be had wandering a traditional gallery with a polished, professional, sound booth artist reading in your ear!
Like many a world class gallery, MONA isn’t just about the art in its collection. The museum not only participates, but has helped to reshape the cultural landscape of Hobart. It hosts film screenings, art markets, concerts, and other events throughout the year. There’s also a small batch onsite winery, Moorilla, and tastings of its premium wines are available every day except Tuesdays (Oh, all right. Every day in January, you lush, you!) on a first-come, first-serve basis. For the beer drinkers, Moo Brew Beer produces seven different beers year-round, with the odd seasonal thrown in for good measure. Tours of the microbrewery are conducted ‘just up the road’ every Friday.
If MONA seems the product of a sky-high ambition… it is. But David Walsh’s vision is far from fully realized yet. While the museum already offers exclusive pavilion suites to arty types wishing to eschew the city for the chance to sleep close to genius, Walsh’s future plans include an expansive casino and hotel. Of course, those really mad on MONA can opt to rest there for eternity, with a lifetime membership earning one lifetime access, along with the right to be buried in the MONA cemetery.
All this leads me back – particularly now I’m descending the steps to catch the last ferry of the day – to the question of whether MONA’s welcome stairway is more heavenly or infernal. The answer is probably both, which I suspect is self-described ‘rabid atheist’ Walsh’s intention. In the museum’s carpark, his spot is reserved simply for God, while his wife, curator and artist Kirsha Kaechele’s parking spot is reserved for God’s Mistress.
The Museum of Old and New Art is located on the Berriedale Peninsula, a short drive or ferry ride north of Hobart. It is open every day except Tuesdays from February to December. It is open every day in January.