by Jonathan Leeming in New Art on Thursday 12 September 2013

On a recent trip to Tasmania, I had the opportunity to visit MONA, which after hearing so much hype and doing an abundance of background reading, I predicted would be a highlight of my already-amazing trip. I wasn’t wrong.

For anyone who doesn’t know, MONA is the Museum of Old and New Art, the largest private collection of art in the world, which opened to the public in January 2011, and has been directly credited with making Hobart one of Lonely Planet’s 2013 top ten cities in the world.

Its owner and founder, David Walsh, is a mercurial multi-millionaire who made his fortune as a leader of one of the world’s biggest gambling syndicates, the Bank Roll. The man is a mathematical genius who founded MONA’s precursor, the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, in 1999, at the same time setting up the MONA Scholarship to encourage emerging artistry in Tasmania.

As of 2012, the Scholarship had awarded 14 artists over $175,000, with this year’s winner being announced on 26th September. 

To reach MONA from Hobart takes about 25 minutes. One can drive, but I would suggest doing as I did and taking the MONA ROMA, a 34m purpose-built Catamaran Ferry that departs from the city’s Brooke Street Terminal.

The Cat is fitted with three bars, a VIP section, and boasts all manner of extraordinary artwork both above and below deck. We were given an informative tour over the PA as we cruised up the River Derwent at a decent clip of around 25 knots, with various passengers sitting on life-sized plastic sheep or standing around the giant white cow that stands conspicuously on the stern deck.

After 25 minutes or so, the unique architectural phenomena of the MONA was in sight, and in no time we were being disembarked by its crew – all of whom wore grey boiler suits with MR-1 (MONA ROMA 1) emblazoned on their backs. For some reason they reminded me of the Oompa-Loompa’s from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Looking up from the jetty at the imposing waffle concrete and Cor-Ten steel structure cut into the sandstone cliff – the creation of Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis and builders Hansen Yuncken, working under the close direction of Walsh – I really had no idea of the immense scale of the three-tier underground exhibition space directly below me.

From the water, we had to ascend 99 steps to reach the front entrance, the entirety of which is a smoothly warping mirrored construction, created by Matthew Harding.

Facing the entrance is a full-size tennis court – not what I’d expect outside a museum.

Once inside, there are no entrance gates or barriers, as you might expect in a traditional museum or gallery; but then, there really is nothing traditional about MONA.

Instead, I was greeted by a friendly young lady who simply asked to see my ticket. And then I was on my own, descending via a tightly spiralling staircase into the sandstone bedrock of the Berriedale peninsular.

The typical recommendation is to start at the deepest level, B3. So I did.

Upon emerging from the stairwell, I was met by another staff-member who offered me an iPod Touch, with headphones, which they call the “O”.

The device contains detailed information, commentary, and in some cases additional audio or videos, about all of the artworks on display, and uses GPS-technology to enable visitors to instantly access the appropriate information about each piece. It’s an invaluable tool, made even more so by the fact that if you input your email address, you can save your personal tour and retrieve it again at a later date via the MONA website.

You can even see artworks you might have missed, as well as those that the “O” has detected you’ve visited. It’s ingenious. It also does away with the need for labels and/or descriptions, on the walls, allowing the entirety of MONA’s interior to be as much a work of art as any of the various pieces therein.

The first thing I saw after collecting my “O” was The Void Bar, a lavishly-stocked cocktail bar hewn out of the bare rock, and tended by a gentlemen sporting some serious facial furniture (i.e. a huge beard).

Before I could be tempted by one of the decadent cocktails on offer, I moved deeper into the labyrinthine structure, and encountered my first artwork: ‘The Pulse Room’ by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, an interactive installation consisting of 108 incandescent light bulbs along with electronic sensors that measure the heartbeats of passers-by, enabling the light bulbs to blink in time (every one firing at varied speeds, since we all have uniquely different heartbeats).

Incandescent light bulbs are actually illegal in Australia on environmental grounds, so MONA had them shipped them in from China. Already I sense that Walsh is not afraid to ruffle feathers in his pursuit of uncompromised art.

The next piece I came across was ‘Danser La Musique’ by Chen Zhen; essentially a huge trampoline with a system of ropes and bells that make a sort of basic music when the trampoline is used. I hadn’t been on one in longer than I can remember, so I had a thoroughly good jump around, with an obliging ‘invigilator’ taking pictures of me doing so. I felt like a child and had a huge grin on my face when I climbed down.

The invigilator suggested I check out the nearby ‘Velvet Room’, which turned out to contain an eclectic assortment of artworks depicting various aspects of and elements within sex, and death. I’ll leave it at that for you to check out yourselves.

I then re-ascended the main stairwell to the Information desk, where I’d arranged to meet Emma Bugg, one of the Museum’s many invigilators, and also an artist in her own right (last year voted “one of the top five most collectible artists in Tasmania under 30”), who makes art jewellery out of concrete – with some of her works being sold in the Museum Shop.

Emma and I settled on a nearby couch (despite its unconventional approach, MONA nevertheless offers visitors plenty of comfortable places to sit and take time out), and after the initial introductions, I asked what drives her to be artistic.

Emma responded that unless she’s doing something creative, she experiences a pressure building up inside her – an actual physical sensation that she needs to vent. Just like some people find their release through exercise, Emma is able to find hers making art jewellery.

Experimental in her work, Emma is entrepreneurial too: having chosen this particular avenue (I get the impression she could have done any number of things) partly because “jewellery is easier to sell than paintings”.

I suspect that’s not the whole truth though: Emma’s clearly passionate about her work, with her website openly declaring that she believes “jewellery should enrich your life, and express individuality”.

I asked Emma if she had any advice for someone trying to be creative. Without a second’s thought, she suggested that I try goldsmithing, recollecting that when she first learned to solder, she was really excited by “the point at which it melts, that alchemy of metal”.

I asked why she works at MONA when she clearly has a strong pull in her own direction.

Her response was brilliant: “It’s the ultimate place I’d choose to work within the arts in Tasmania.”

She told me that there’s a really high density of creative people working there, amongst whom there’s a close camaraderie. It’s lovely to hear.

Before I leave Emma to her lunch, I ask her to describe MONA in a few words. Her response: Dark. Light. World-Class. Bizarre.

She’s not wrong.

MONA’s senior curator Nicole Durling and curator Olivier Varenne (both internationally recognised) work closely together with Walsh, the Research Curators and the entire MONA team on every aspect of the Museum.

I could go into long detail describing all the provocatively discomfiting, bizarrely beautiful and serenely strange works of art, installations and exhibits I experienced at MONA, but it really needs experiencing for oneself, so I think the best thing is simply to go there.