A Day in MONA

11.17.11

First published on The Vine, October 28, 2011.

“Ah, so you’re off to see the vagina wall?”

This is pretty much the first thing anyone in Hobart says when you tell them you’re off to visit MONA, David Walsh’s subterranean Museum of Old and New Art. Well, it’s that or a remark about “the poo machine”, Belgian Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, an industrial installation that over the course of 24 hours converts food from the MONA Café into actual, brown, solid, odorous, human-style faeces. It’s easy to see why they monopolise conversation – I mean, really, who isn’t fascinated by shit and vaginas? – but together they comprise a fantastically small proportion of the almost overwhelming affectual onslaught that is a day spent in MONA’s dimly lit world.

It’s hard to overstate exactly how much of an all-encompassing experience it is going to MONA. Used to the antiseptic white spaces and bright lighting that accompany most galleries of this stature, descending into the dark, windowless, sandstone walled boundaries of the place can feel like a veritable descent into the underworld. (This feeling is further exaggerated if you take the ferry there, a highly recommended option that really brings out the river Styx vibe). Our party had decided to take the full day option, which involved us leaving Hobart at 9.30am and then returning on the final ferry of the day at 6pm. If this seems like a lot of time to spend at a gallery, well, you’d be right, but you’ve also never been to anything quite like MONA.

MONA is the work of Hobart-born David Walsh, perhaps one of the most curious men in Australia, who has embarked upon one of the most curious endeavours in recent Australian history. Walsh, 50, pretty much spent the 1980s locked in a room, concocting a complex algorithm that allowed him and a few friends to become fantastically rich by betting on horse racing. How exactly you beat something as seemingly arbitrary and fickle as horse racing is beyond me, but if you’ve got a spare decade and an eye for numbers, perhaps it’s the project for you.

As his wealth ballooned, Walsh became naturally gripped by a need to do something with it. This began with a fetish for antiquities, in particular Ancient Egyptian caskets and mummies, but then expanded out to include some of the more outré edges of the contemporary art scene. When they talk of Old and New Art, they aren’t kidding: within ten metres of one another you’ll find a collection of Neolithic spearheads and a 2011 work by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota called Dialogue with Absence that features a white dress hanging on a wall with innumerable tubes pumping blood into and out of it.

As his collection grew, Walsh decided he needed somewhere to display it. $75 million later (of his own money, mind) and MONA was born: a vast, four story gallery space carved out of a sandstone cliff overlooking the Derwent River. There’s supposedly $150 million worth of art on display, which, in itself represents 30% of Walsh’s collection. Gambling, hey? The property also hosts a winery, a microbrewery (the beer is so, so tasty), a Café, a Wine Bar, a high class restaurant, a stage (for the MONA FOMA concerts), eight art-laden Pavillions (if you fancy staying on site) and some pretty goddamn incredible views of remarkably picturesque Hobart.

But back to the gallery. You walk in, get given your “O” (an iPod Touch that functions as your guide throughout the experience, tracking your progress, providing commentary and giving you a full map of what you looked at when you leave) and then descend into the catacombs. The design of the place is staggering, the rough hewn walls staring impassively into the suspended walkways and hidden alleys and strange sounds and barely illuminated corners that constitutes the gallery proper. As has oft been opined, it’s almost worth visiting for the design alone – rarely has the shape of a place felt so integral to the experience it contains.

And then there’s the art. The thing that really strikes you about the collection of work on display at MONA is that nothing is there merely because it should be. There’s no walls of Impressionism, on display because the gallery needs to showcase its total grasp of art history. Every piece is designed to elicit a response. Every piece is there because it provides some commentary on or some angle of inquisition into the way we live, or the way we consume art. People have described MONA as being an immersive tour into the gritty backwaters of your unconscious mind and I think that’s a reasonable appraisal. Sex, death, chaos, the body, dreams, decay, language – in this space all are thrown together and scraped along the surface of one another, generating strange sparks of recognition, cognition and, sometimes, disgust. Most of all, it just makes you feel: physically, emotionally and in other strange registers that you perhaps didn’t realise existed.

Gazing into the rapidly strobing windows of Gregory Barsamian’s Artifact, a giant head containing a whirring array of birds and wires and apples and bladders and hats, spinning and morphing and transforming into one another, I almost fainted. Looking at the harsh tubes and metal rigging of Cloaca Professional, I felt an uncanny and inarticulable sense that my entire being was being denied. Watching a bank of 30 televisions each containing a random person belting out Madonna songs – Candice Breitz’s Queen (A Portrait of Madonna) – I laughed my goddamn ass off (they’d hit Vogue by the time I got there). I almost cried reading the devastatingly beautiful prose etched all over Patrick Hall’s When My Heart Stops Beating. I spent over ten minutes standing inside Brigitia Ozolins’ Kryptos, an Aronofsky-esque exercise in sci-fi atmosperics, where creeping soundscapes combine with off-putting architecture, ancient cuneiform tablets and binary constructs on the wall to conjure one of the most soothingly null spaces I’d ever been in. And then I walked out and felt slightly creepy for spending too long in the company of the vagina wall AKA Cunts… and other conversations by Greg Taylor and the 150 women who’d had him make plaster casts made of their vaginas. Or cunts, I guess. (The women I went with both said they found Cunts massively empowering).

I could go on and on and on (hell, I already have), but words on a page can’t really transmit the cumulative impact of it all. At the end, the three of us walked out into the blinding sunlight and didn’t really talk all that much for a while. But after an hour or two the words came flooding back and we spent the rest of the night having furious, strange, sad, impassioned, drunken conversations about everything from euthanasia to love to children to stillness to, yes, vaginas. In the end, I can’t really put a full and unqualified mark on what this time at MONA stood for – it seems to elide such cosy categorisation – but as a profound testament to the continued power of art to make us flinch and reconsider and linger uncomfortably at the edges of the familiar it was a quite unparalleled experience in my life. Make the effort, you won’t regret it.

“People who only collect contemporary art are not collectors, they are just fashion victims” – Wim Delvoye