Situated 12km north of Hobart, on a peninsula jutting into the Derwent River, is Tasmania's controversial contribution to the Arts, MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art). MONA is Australia's version of the Saatchi gallery, another privately owned collection, which can be visited in London. The museum showcases owner, David Walsh's passion for contemporary art and mixes it up with his impressive collection of antiquities.
The collection of over 2000 art works and artifacts, was funded through a combination of riches accrued through his career as a professional gambler, the mercy of rich friends and the reluctant sale of pieces of his pre-existing art collection, such as John Brack's "the Bar" which was sold to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2009 for $3.2 million.
If you were to describe David Walsh as an eccentric, you would definitely be right. At his fiftieth birthday party this year, his caterers served deserts shaped like vaginas, molded from some of the women of his acquaintance! In fact, one of the first pieces you encounter within the museum, is a corridor of 150 porcelain vagina sculptures by Greg Taylor called "C--ts and Other Conversations". This exhibit is exemplary of the collector's ambition to confront and challenge the viewer with his eclectic and very astute collection of works.
Walsh's collection, valued at over $100 million, is housed within a 9500sqm space designed by Nonda Katsalidis, of the Melbourne based architectural firm Katsalidis Fender Mirams. Opened in 2011, much of the building is buried within the sandstone peninsula, with the exposed exterior faces clad in concrete and Corten steel panels.
Ascending the stairs from the ferry jetty, the visitor is first met by the incongruous vision of a tennis court, with a life size steel lacework truck beyond. This first impression hints at what will become for the visitor an experience that will confound their expectations of how a museum should be arranged.
For those who rely on guided tours and interpretative labels, be prepared for disappointment! There are no maps, no labels and no chronological ordering of work. In fact this is part of the pleasure of a visit to MONA. You are able to view the works without preconceived notions, reject what you don't like and discover information on what appeals to you through the iphones handed out to you at the beginning of your visit. You can even select the art works that speak to your sensibilities and email a list to your email address for later digestion.
The eccentric arrangement of the collection is reflected in the architectural arrangement of the spaces. Entry to the museum is through the restored 1958 cottage, designed by architect Roy Grounds. The entrance façade has been fitted with warped mirrors that distort reflections like the mirrored mazes in a carnival. Staff greet visitors inside by handing out iphones that sense the location of the visitor and provide information about the artworks and artifacts, upon demand. Patrons are then funneled underground, down a narrow circular shaft via a glass lift or enclosing circular stairwell.
To build the museum over 35,000 cubic metres of stone and earth had to be removed from the hillside. This hollowed out space has the atmosphere of a soaring cave, or the dark gothic cathedral. The architect has stayed true to the nature of the site, exposing 14m high sandstone cliffs and making a feature of the concrete reinforcement and coffered concrete ceilings.
Circulation throughout the museum is just as chaotic as the arrangement of the collection, with the visitor never quite aware of where they are and how they should walk through the spaces. Overhead walkways, voids through the three levels and a deconstructed industrial staircase in the centre, reinforce the interconnectedness of the three internal levels.
MONA is a feast for the senses, providing a rewarding and at times uncomfortable experience. It challenges our conditioned expectations of what constitutes a museum. With his eclectic collection of cultural artifacts, David Walsh has created what should appeal to both the purveyor of antiquities, or to the contemporary art enthusiast. If you are a planning a visit to Hobart, this is a tourist attraction not to be missed.
- Ptotos & text by Vanessa Couzens