Hobart’s new MONA gallery is set to become one of Australia’s major cultural attractions, writes Kendall Hill.

The Unexpected

10:42:AM 10/02/2011
Kendall Hill

Celebrations on the opening weekend at MONA.
Celebrations on the opening weekend at MONA.
The freshly slaughtered deer and pheasants that arrived, still warm, to form the centrepiece of the buffet display were shocking, it’s true, but for all the fevered gossip about its displays of sex and death, the opening of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art was surprisingly uncontroversial.

MONA’s owner, David Walsh, a Tasmanian maths whiz who outsmarts casinos and makes millions, is a self-confessed “insecure” man with a rare passion for modern art and an aversion to anything conventional.

The arrival of his breathtaking $150-million private museum beside the Derwent River is a bit like a giant finger being raised to the nation’s arts cognoscenti.

Here, at last, is a gallery that banishes boring and is not afraid to explore the darker corners of the human psyche. Prepare to be amazed, disgusted, amused and delighted by the array of bizarre and beautiful creations that make up Walsh’s collection. Monanism, the opening exhibition that runs until July 7, features the owner’s favourite artworks – more than 400 of them.

The museum, which is twice the size of Sydney’s dreary Museum of Contemporary Art, occupies a three-level bunker fused into the sandstone flank of the Berriedale Peninsula. Visitors descend 17 metres to The Void, a cathedral space with one wall shaved from the 240-million-year-old sandstone escarpment. A bar awaits, inviting guests to loosen up a bit before they take the plunge into Walsh World. This is not a bad idea given the sometimes disturbing works that await.

The standout is Sidney Nolan’s Snake, a massive rainbow serpent that coils across 1620 painted panels hung in a purpose-built space 46 metres long and nine metres high. This magnum opus by one of the giants of 20th century Australian art will likely be MONA’s biggest drawcard, which is probably why Walsh decided to hang rotting meat on the wall opposite. Jannis Kounellis’s untitled installation features putrefying animal carcases slung from a steel frame; Walsh, a vegetarian, obviously wants to convey some sort of message. Meat is murder, perhaps?

P XIII by Berlinde de Bruyckere  Belgium.
P XIII by Berlinde de Bruyckere – Belgium.
Nearby is the museum’s newest acquisition, Belgian Wim Delvoye’s custom-built Cloaca Professional, an industrial wonder of glass and goop that mimics the human alimentary system. It farts and shits and stinks to high heaven but it is also strangely compelling.

MONA is defined by its ideas, and they are, by turns, outlandish, grotesque, repulsive, bewitching and radiant. Visitors are provided with no labels or instructions – that would be way too orthodox – but are issued with iPod-like “O” gadgets that harness GPS technology to determine their position and bring up a screen of surrounding artworks. If something catches the eye, tap on the image for a brief description of the work – Bullet Hole, by Mat Collishaw, for example.

Tap the “Ideas” button for a range of comments about the work; in this case: “It’s not actually a bullet hole but an ice-pick wound.” The Artwank icon delivers commentary by curators or the artists themselves, while “Gonzo” contains glib remarks, sometimes by Walsh.

MONA almost feels like an anti-gallery. It is noisy and sometimes it smells, there is either too much light or not enough, the spaces are daunting and you are never quite sure where you are. But the lack of direction and rules is also liberating, allowing visitors to drift between surprises, brace themselves with another drink, and then plunge back into the netherworld.

The Walsh collection has many highlights. When My Heart Stops Beating is a wall of glass cubes decorated with old record covers by Tasmanian artist Patrick Hall. Pull out a cube and a stranger’s voice declares: “I Love You!” Children, especially, are captivated by this.

Santiago Sierra work: Economical Study on the Skin of Caracans, Caracas, Venezuela, September, 2006. Set of 35 black-and-white photographs.
Santiago Sierra work: Economical Study on the Skin of Caracans, Caracas, Venezuela, September, 2006. Set of 35 black-and-white photographs.

Tessa Farmer’s The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host is a whimsical and slightly sinister still-life of a taxidermied hedgehog and friends, including dried toads, wasp nests, crab shells and insects.

Melbourne sculptor Greg Taylor is responsible for two of the more memorable encounters. His wall of 150 porcelain vaginas, called C---s and Other Conversations, immortalises the diverse genitalia of women aged 18-75, of all religions, sexualities and walks of life.

And, in a collaboration with euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke, Taylor has crafted a domestic setting incorporating the suicide machine devised by Nitschke (and used legally but very briefly by four terminally ill patients in the Northern Territory).

David Walsh
David Walsh
Walsh’s controversial contemporary pieces by the likes of Hirst, Jenny Saville and Oleg Kulik overshadow his long-standing interest in the art of the ancient world. Throughout MONA, the sight of gorgeous treasures from Rome, Egypt and Central America relieves the shock of the new.

A spotlit case contains a superb copper-blue sheep, identified simply as Figure of a Ram, from Egypt circa 100BC-10AD. Little peephole vaults inside shimmering walls clad in gold leaf reveal precious visions of a cast-bronze Leda and the Swan from Rome, probably first century, and a monkey effigy vessel made in Guatemala 1000 years later.

MONA is magical. This is no museum or gallery in the straight sense of the word. It might be more accurately described as Australia’s most exciting cultural tourist attraction. Go and see for yourself.

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