Tasmania boasts several impressive qualities. For instance, it will make an excellent refuge from global warming. It also has a lot of apples.
Sadly, however, one thing Tasmania never seemed to quite get right was the museum. There’s Hobart’s uninspiringly titled Museum and Art Gallery, with its life-size stuffed sperm whale and yellowing dioramas of the penal colony, and the Cascade brewery, where you can peer at giant vats and wonder what hops are.
Aside from eating fudge, the only rewarding activity Tasmania offers is to hike places, observe vistas, and do energetic orienteering things; rather a nuisance for someone like me who avoids the outdoors.
And yet within this seeming intellectual wasteland lies MONA, or the Museum of Old and New Art, a cultural phoenix arising from the ashes of boredom and the occasional bushfire. Opened in 2011 by eccentric gambling millionaire David Walsh, MONA houses a jumble of quiet antiques and brash modern offerings in a large metal bunker hanging over the banks of the Derwent River.
Walsh, who wore a t-shirt at the museum’s opening reading “Fuck the art – let’s Rock and Roll”, calls his museum a “subversive adult Disneyland”. The Age calls it “macabre and ungodly”.
I call it utterly incredible.
MONA may be wild and offensive, but it provokes thought rather than disgust, as full of tender beauty as lurid shock.
Old blends magnificently with New, as ancient necklaces sit alongside contemporary amphorae made out of plastic bottles. There is a dark labyrinth with the Epic of Gilgamesh printed on its glowing walls in binary code. There’s Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional – a digestive machine fed thrice daily to produce, well, poo. There’s a suicide bomber cast in dark chocolate, and a man (Tim, quite a nice fellow really), whose body is the “frame” for the artwork tattooed on his back. It’s all utterly bizarre but strangely touching, a reaction seemingly shared by the myriad of children, grandparents, Tasmanians and tourists who wander slightly awestruck through MONA’s cavernous halls.
MONA’s novelty can also be pure genius. It dispenses with all signage and instead, brilliantly, gives visitors iPods which find your location in the museum and offer a vast array of information on the artwork before you – from historical and biographical information to aesthetic and academic readings. For those suffering museum fatigue, there’s a bar in the gallery, a cinema showing art documentaries as well as Charlie Chaplin reruns, and a light-drenched café on the cliffside.
As you glide home on the MONA ferry, the factories and fringe suburbs lining the river no longer seem an unsightly blot on the landscape; it’s strange how much beauty can be found in these odd extremes.