It’s carved from a sandstone cliff on the edge of Hobart’s Derwent river. Its owner is a public-spirited mathematical genius whose talent for gambling made him a fortune and gave him the means to build an art gallery like no other. It’s called MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) gallery and since it opened in January, 2011, it has become Tasmania’s biggest tourist magnet.
After encountering this strange and mysterious place recently, I see why.
To visit MONA is to experience a shift in consciousness without recourse to drugs. MONA’s surreal, dream-like atmosphere is due to three main things: its design (the gallery’s three levels are all underground), the way in which people must navigate its terrain (with a high-tech gizmo) and the startling nature and placement of its art (the old and the new are juxtaposed in unexpected ways).
On entry, I was given earphones and an iPhone-like gadget with a GPS that tracks your movements through the gallery. A staff member explained that, as all the art is unlabeled, you must use this device to obtain details about each work (and its artist) as you encounter it. You may also record whether you like or dislike each exhibit and your opinion is compared with other MONA visitors.
What became apparent as I stepped from the elevator and began exploring MONA’s subterranean depths was the way in which all my senses were engaged – often in confronting ways. I was especially revolted by an exhibit mimicking the human digestive system – an enormous apparatus occupying an entire room – which smelled, sounded and looked appalling. My gizmo explained the artist’s idea was to expose the degree to which “all modern art is shit”. I left the room, took a deep breath and continued on my way.
I found works of mesmerizing beauty. My favourite was Julius Popp’s Bit.fall. I stood for ages watching a waterfall of short phrases – taken from recent news headlines – that formed in the air, stayed for a second, then dissolved and cascaded to the floor below. The artist’s intention, explained my navigation device, was to illustrate how we are all awash in information, most of which we struggle to process
Time barely existed as I travelled from floor to floor. At one point, I found myself in a long, dark and narrow tunnel that reminded me of a birth canal and each step I took made sounds that echoed eerily off the walls.
More surprises appeared: Egyptian mummies placed beside sparkling modern art; a white library; a room full of light bulbs flashing to the heartbeats of individual gallery visitors; drawers that speak to you as they are opened.
It all felt as if I’d fallen down the rabbit hole into a psychedelic version of Alice in Wonderland. Its owner, David Walsh, calls MONA “a subversive adult Disneyland” and it certainly took me on a wild ride. Even the toilets are magical.
One thing’s for sure.
I’ll be back.