In Oz, Matchless MONA

The museum leads to the path of introspection as its artworks are subjects of relevance like information overload & lifestyle choices

As a tourist, it is not often that you visit an art gallery with curiosity, putting it on top of your list as the destination. It is more of a timepass. The Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, in the city of Hobart in Tasmania Islands of Australia, stands tall for this reputation but is actually housed in a three-level subterranean cave, and runs deep. It just doesn’t portray pictures, but provokes.

The reputation of MONA had reached us much before we arrived in Tasmania Island. My friend, Marie, who has been living in Hobart, had emailed us. Describing MONA, she wrote to me: “It is an art museum built in the last few years by an eccentric private individual and now attracts worldwide visitors. It is extremely offbeat and challenging. So don’t go if you are offended by sex or death. It is more than a museum, a cultural phenomenon, having also now established two major art and music festivals. It has attracted activity and interest in Hobart’s art and music scene quite out of proportion to our size.”

After arriving in Tasmania, we were at a small Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. Intrigued by the cosiness of the city, we asked the waitress about what all we could see the next day in Hobart. Quick ly came the answer: “You could wander around the Salamanca market square and visit MONA.” Our friend had also written: ‘I will go with you if possible, as the museum intentionally has no clear map or guidebook, its philosophy being that each person should simply randomly discover for themselves.”

The experience

MONA as an art gallery is easy to experience but hard to explain. Everything about MONA appears unique and unconventional compared to public, government-sponsored art galleries, be it old or new. Approach to MONA is convenient by road or by motorboats.

We rented the car and decided to drive to the museum. On the bank of River Derwent, the surrounding was serene and the weather was pleasant. As we approached the lawn by the side of the building, we could see bean bags strewn around for the convenience of the visitors. The building itself appeared to be a two-storey, conventional building made of glass, steel and stonework. The intricate navigation of the building with its depth and vastness is to be experienced to be believed, in contrast to the deception of its outward appearance.

The MONA gallery space itself is unconventional and a work of art. Unlike the art galleries where you keep climbing up, MONA takes you to a three-level subterranean cave cut into 240-million-year-old Triassic-era sandstone on the Derwent river bank. The entrance is an obscure, mirrored sliding glass doors leading you to the ticketing counter. Entry fee is $25, and entry is free for Tasmanians or anybody under 16.

David Dominic Walsh

It’s hard to imagine a gambler being a benefactor of an art gallery. MONA’s reputation gets accentuated by its creator and stands out by his choice of collections.

David Dominic Walsh is an Australian professional gambler millionaire, born in 1961, in the district of Hobart. He grew up in a Roman Catholic family. He studied mathematics and computer science briefly in 1979 in the University of Tasmania. Brilliant in his thinking and unconventional in his approaches, Walsh developed a gambling system and made his fortune by using it to bet on horse racing and other sports. His quantitative approach to gambling and the role of chance in his life are described by him in his book A Bone of Fact, published in October 2014.

As a businessman and an art collector, in 2001, Walsh founded the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities to house his personal collections. It was closed in 2007 to undergo a $75-million renovation and re-opened in January 2011 as the Museum of Old and New Art or MONA.

For ‘distinguished service to the visual arts through the establishment of MONA, and as a supporter of cultural, charitable, sporting and education groups, in the 2016 Australia Day Honours, Walsh was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

Exploration

MONA needs to be explored, not just visited. Like in conventional art galleries, there are no plaques explaining what you are looking at or what it means, as you have to experience each of such works personally and understand from your perspective. You receive an iPod at the entrance that provides all the information about the work and the artist that are normally displayed in conventional art galleries by the side of the artwork. The gallery itself is built by excavating sandstone and creating spaces that are unique. Sometimes, the long passages with display of art work lead to airy open spaces with enough light and ventilation, and at other times to dark and intense exhibition area exclusive for a single artwork.

An understanding

One of the artworks that intrigued me the most was Bit.fall. It is transient, contemporary, thought-provoking and real-time. It reflects the mental state that we are all going through due to information overload and the after-effects.

Bit.fall, by German artist Julius Popp, is a two-story-high waterfall of droplets ejected by 128 computer-controlled nozzles that spit a series of words streamed real-time from Google searches. Metre-high falling words made of droplets disappear even before you grasp and process them. In a way, it directly reflects what goes on in your mind to the onslaught of information that we receive in this modern world and the momentary nature of them. The words are random and displayed ‘Trump’, ‘Weather’, ‘Crisis’, ‘Religion’, ‘Australia’ and more just when we were watching. Such random words and equally random, unconnected information keeps bombarding us all the time due to the ever-connected mobile technology today. What do we do with it, or how do we cope with it?

Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car is another work of art on display that is more physical example that stares in the eye and reminds you on the obesity issue due to uncontrolled consumption. While Bit.fall connected with the overload to the mind, Fat Car provokes one to think the same issue of overload to the physical body. Fat Car is a full-sized Porsche showing bulges of obesity everywhere by some creative panel work.

Distinctive art

MONA’s collection is a distinctive display of material and thought in an unusual space wrapped in time overshooting into the future. Many times they are grim and thought-provoking. At times, disturbing. The series of female genitals in white plaster displayed at eye-level on the passage wall, the mating of skeletons in missionary position with its reflection on the mirror wall amplified by the groaning audio, and moving sperms on video in a closed room, the body art with live human back as canvas, the white library with all books and no words are a few examples of how different they are. Most of them fall somewhere in between the definition of an art work hung on the wall and an architectural installation filling three dimensions of space added with a fourth one of thought flowing in time.

To an otherwise tranquil city of Hobart, MONA adds a distinctive tickle. While you may fly out of Tasmania Island, the thoughts induced by the characteristic MONA do not fly away easily. MONA is not just another Museum of Old and New Art, but an indelible impression of what art can do to your thought long after return.

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In Oz, Matchless MONA

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