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When a Hard Rock cafe, a museum, and a fun house have a baby…
...David Walsh's MONA in Tasmania. A little exploration.
Around the Globe 20 Nov 2023

I rate my museums like the guide Michelin does his restaurants. There is: worth stopping it if there are on the way ( *) there is: take a little detour (**) and there is: make a journey to get there (***) 

MONA the Museum of Old and New Art, situated on the Australian island state Tasmania just between Australia and Antarctica, falls firmly for us Northern Hemisphere folks into category ***. Let’s see if multiple planes and many hours of travel truly are justified for this white whale of museums. 

First I read about MONA when it had just opened in 2011 – I vaguely remembered something with meat, the fact that it was built into the rock, and that back then, the art world was unsure if it was to be considered a loss that so many great unique works were now only on display on the other end of the world (hello, eurocentric world-view) or if it was going to be just another billionaire’s vanity fair.

Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania

Photo: Mona/Jesse Hunniford
Image courtesy of the artists and Mona, Tasmania, Australia

Now 12 years later I found myself on a ferry with a lot of other hopefuls to discover what MONA-the myth held for us. There were Mimosas on sale that day – 11 am but who does frown upon a morning drink, not the art world – and the speakers were blasting Beyonce, Backstreet Boys, and other pop cultural anthems. The crowd: a mixed bag of tourists, locals (and I count all of Australia as somewhat local ;), and a handful of “art folks”. The playlist was such a random selection that I put forth the theory that the boat was provided with whatever 20 songs David (Walsh – the Museum’s founder) had played last in his kitchen or bathtub, alas no information was to be obtained on where the random mix came from.

We passed a frighteningly industrial section of Hobart coastline, all giant machines, and warehouses – the recorded “guide” that interrupted the cotton candy musical amusement informed us that catamarans were built here and then we already cruised into the dock. Once we disembarked we were shepherded up the stairs like kids on a school trip. 

Museum internal staircase (detail)

Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image courtesy of Mona, Hobart, Tasmania

Granted I went on a Friday between a public holiday and the weekend, so a lot of people had probably taken the day off and like us, made the hard choice between watching a sheep shearing competition at The Royal Show or trecking out to see the art at MONA (it was almost a tie). 

Now I kinda feel like we need to divide this article. Continue reading here, for the “art world view” jump to the “tourist” take for that perspective.

Having been to a lot of the important and unimportant exhibitions all over this planet over the last two decades, gallery shows, as well as – and granted it is a love/hate relationship for me at this point – the Art Basels, specifically Unlimited, the Biennales, Venice and beyond, all the Friezes, Tefaf’s and whatnot you will encounter a whole lot of familiar faces. Yes, the architecture is fun, but not that out there, I’ve been to caves with art, boats with art, islands with art, former industrial plants with art, former bunkers with art, former sex clubs with art, and so on. For the jaded, I’ve seen it all, it’s not that incredible. Evocative of a beehive, a wee bit chaotic: a funhouse. And having read how scandalous and different and exciting this museum is, you might just be a bit bummed. I was. Trust me, there is a whole lot of good work (Upon request I wasn’t able to get a list of artists/works/ demographics, as I wanted to see if my sense that here was another art collection by an old white male, consisting of a whole lot of old white male art. Maybe that is just because the Delvoye, Picassos, Kiefers, and Wurms stood out to me). Especially the Australian positions in the collection were new to me, and it is a fun place to explore, but I honestly came to the conclusion that this is not made for art world folks, but for someone else entirely.

Pulse Room, 2006 & Fat Car, 2006

Artist (Pulse Room): Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Artist (Fat Car): Erwin Wurm
Photo Credit: MONA/Jesse Hunniford
Image Courtesy MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

“The Tourist” – or the non-art world person, or the random visitor that decided this is the museum to start with. And boy, are they having fun, and it is so darn refreshing to watch the show with them. At Basel First Choice no one is gonna gasp or truly be fascinated by anything anymore. Not so at MONA. Museum visits are in my opinion 25% art, 25% experience (architecture, smell, scenography), 25% other people, and 25% your personal mood. I was in an explorative mood, had signed up for all things one could via the app, and ran around the caves and levels like a character in a jump-and-run game. My fellow visitors were yelling at each other to see something stunning they had discovered, were fascinated by vulvas (see header image 😉 on display, grossed out by poop being emitted by an installation, and stunned that they get to see a human corpse in the form of an Egyptian mummy displayed side by side with contemporary work.

Cloaca Professional, 2010, Wim Delvoye

Wim Delvoye (1965, Wervik, Belgium; lives and works in Ghent, Belgium)
Mixed media
275 x 710 x 175 cm
Collection MONA, Hobart
Photo credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image courtesy of The Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

The app – your companion that tells you where you are and what you are looking at – as no work comes with a sign that tells you by whom or what it is (which surely makes re-hanging a whole lot easier, which I hear happens frequently) gives you basic facts and for some works the “art wank”. You can click on a penis icon and the app will ejaculate you a bit more in-depth info. While probably deeply shocking to some, or hilarious to others it reminded me mostly of the kid in my art class, when we were tasked with making a fountain at about age 8, who made a ceramic penis spurting eggnog instead of water.

Screengrab from the MONA App – The O

My art teacher always encouraged him, as the phallus is one of the oldest depictions of human creation (alongside the vulva, one might add), and if you feel the need to draw and paint and craft penises, by all means, do so. In an over 60-year-old, it might come across as a bit needy to “shock” that is still seen as cute in an adolescent boy. 

David Walsh, sole proprietor of MONA – the museum (and bar, vineyard, ferry, soon the Kiefer World – my words, not his – a remake of an existing artwork of Anselm’s) plus a one day to materialize hotel, plus a casino – perhaps) is phallically inclined, made his money gambling, and does not hail from art world royalty. As someone who shares a humble origin and traipsing around the art glitterati, I can somewhat understand his need to not follow the unwritten but keenly observed rules and mess with them all. 

Back to the tourist, who will be forever spoilt for any future museum visit (a thought which amused me greatly, after MONA they will be underwhelmed by even the greatest institutions): Those big institutions do not have a beer vending machine, a fine dining restaurant, or a band playing (arguably somewhat off-key) next to a grill at the chill garden plaza. Maybe that is part of the secret allure. One is reminded of Donkey Kong’s cave level (Game Boy version) while exploring the different parts of the museum, and if you take your “this is what a museum is supposed to be like” glasses off – it is tremendous fun. You queue for some “attractions” merrily chatting away with your fellow enthusiasts, you roam around fun sites all around. Like a day at the county fair.

Museum of Old and New Art, internal view, December 2020

Photo credit: Mona/Jesse Hunniford
Image courtesy Mona, Hobart, Tasmania

My day at MONA continued in a more “traditional” way as we ended up at the upscale FARO – we had no reservation but wanted to see the Turrell and then were offered a table after all – and arting makes hungry. There was the traditional museum – guarded by the across-the-board super kind, knowledgeable, and sweet staff – in this part of the museum clad in lab coats. There we had the barrier, that most people at the museum didn’t dare cross, and where you had to pay extra for the Turrell Experience.

Faro Restaurant + Bar, Pharos

Photo credit: Mona/Jesse Hunniford
Image courtesy of the artist and Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

And there it was again, me having experienced Turrell’s Ganzfeld at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, and many times after larger and smaller versions of his magic were only semi-entranced – but by my side was my friend who had never experienced anything like it and was fully enthralled, emersed, fascinated.  

Faro Restaurant + Bar, Pharos
with James Turrell’s Unseen Seen in the foreground

Photo credit: Mona/Jesse Hunniford
Image courtesy of the artist and Mona, Hobart, Tasmania

So in short: If someone has all the money in the world, and decides to spend a good part of it on art – because it acts “as a lure for me to bang above my weight” (as confirmed in an interview* by Walsh very much means attract females and is currently married to an artist/curator): good for them. If they then decide to not only shove all that art into a cave (looking at you, Swiss freeports) but create a fun place for other people to explore this wild collection of his eclectic ever-evolving collection, yay for them and us. Don’t go to see the Wurm, Kiefer or Picasso. You have seen them. Go have fun, and remember to bring a non-art world friend, seeing it through their eyes is a delight!

Text by Anna Maja Spiess 

*Australian Financial Review, 2020

Tickets for the museum and ferry were courtesy of MONA. Thank you!

Lunch at FARO + Turrell “experiences” paid for by the author/ the author’s non-art world friend. Thanks, Eva, I love you!

**Header Image: Cunts…and other conversations, 2008-11, Greg Taylor Photo credit: Mona/Jesse Hunniford Image courtesy of the artists and Mona, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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