David Walsh has gifted Hobart and the world with a strange and wonderful institution. MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, is dug into a sandstone headland that juts into Derwent River 12 kilometers from Hobart. You can reach it by car, or preferably by catamaran from Hobart. The ferry was running slow this Monday to avoid all the sailboats in Hobart Harbor for regatta.
Mr. Walsh has placed new and old art into the sandstone, protected from natural light and naturally climate controlled, although I suspect there may be some help here. It is free to Tasmanians. Off islanders pay a fee. It’s worth it. The poster for the museum reads “COME FOR THE ART, STAY BECAUSE YOU CAN’T FIND THE EXIT.” There’s some truth to that.
Once you dock you climb 99 steps to the entrance. (If you drive you are already at the top) If you have trouble with 99 steps you can enter through a tunnel.
The art has no labels. You download an app that tells you about the works. The problem for me was in the first part of the museum, an installation “Oceans of Air” by Tomas Saraceno, is very dark. I have glasses that turn dark in the bright sunlight and take their time lightening up. It’s best I don’t wear them in a dark place, but then I can’t read the app. Near the start of my MONA journey I walked into a wall and set off an alarm. None of the MONA staff seemed concerned and I wondered if I had become part of the art. The app registers and remembers what pieces you walked past so after the fact you can retrace your route, read about and even resee the art. It also shows you what you missed. Since walking into the museum is completely immersive experience there were times I did not know what I am seeing but I knew what I was feeling. I just wanted to experience it without labels. The app lets me do that and learn the piece’s name later.
The museum warns you that some of the art may be confronting. That also means challenging. One poster particularly struck me, “God is your Enemy” one of a series of posters by Tony Garfalkis from cut felt. That brought me back to the day before at the Port Arthur Penitentiary where jailers kept people in solitary for 23 hours to do “penance” in the name of God, thinking that it was more humane than the cat of nine tails. But that “penance” broke people to the point where the jailers needed to build an insane asylum.
“God is your Enemy” was cited from the books of Jeremiah and Isiah by Christian priests referring to their enemies in the Balkan wars that we experienced as aid workers. The book of Joshua was used to justify “Ethnic Cleansing.” For me the piece pointed to the dichotomy between the wrathful God and the loving God. This poster had so many levels of meaning for me.
Another piece that struck me was “White Library” by Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto. It is a library of 5,000 books and newspapers that are all white. It symbolizes, I think, the importance of books that are not (or cannot) be read.
One other piece that particularly impressed me, for completely different reasons was “bit.fall” by Julius Popp. It is a waterfall, set against the natural sandstone of the museum, that spells out words. It was the technology that kept me watching.
Once we worked our way out of the tunnels and found the exit we emerged into a bright sunlit garden of modern art and architecture. The Mona Front Entrance Hall was designed by Mathew Harding for Fender Katsalidas Architects. It is shining stainless steel that reflects everything around it in distorted and repeating ways. I spent a lot of time looking at its changing reflections.
The lawn is strewn with beanbag chairs where you can sit, drink a beer, eat a burger and listen to jazz. You don’t need to go into the museum to enjoy the concerts and I think if I lived here, I would spend a lot of weekend afternoons on this lawn or wandering around enjoying the outdoor art.