Mona: The Museum of Old and New Art, supposedly the top attraction in Hobart, or so our tour guide says as we follow her around the city. Others have given it the infamous slogan of ‘The Museum of Sex and Death’. We stand at the edge of the water, pointing out the nude women depicted subtly in the camouflage exterior of the ‘famous’ Mona ferries and learn that the museum has put this city on the map; Since it opened in 2011 the museum has brought in tourists from all around the world and began somewhat of an art and creativity ‘revolution’ in an otherwise very industrial town. We thought we’d check out such a well renowned spectacle and take a trip.
We arrive like the rabble on foot on a clear Thursday morning, not wealthy enough to take the ferry and sail up to the cliff-face the way the artist intended, and arrive atop noble steed along with the suitably intoxicated posh-pit people, or aboard the convict bus, or – strangely more expensive – bicycle trip from Hobart city. We arrive alongside the peckish chickens and a strange Australian variation of a turkey wandering aimlessly and getting caught in the netting around David Walsh’s personal vineyard on the roadside approach, and are met with a puzzle.
The way in is hidden at the end of a labyrinth of pathways and staircases leading up to the top of the cliff the building is constructed into. We find our way past a spectacular array of ornate steel fences in the shape of a cement and flatbed truck and trailer, to an outdoor trampoline; a piece of the art or entertainment for the more playful guests I am not exactly sure, probably a mixture of both. It is a promising start to the harrowing day that lay ahead, and I am hopeful that the exterior to the museum is a good indication of the delights we would soon encounter inside.
I am quickly proven wrong; stopped short by a stern younger woman pointing out something rather inconsequential about the bells I am absently playing with on the trampoline, and she makes me wonder if all employees’ job description involves making the viewer uncomfortable from the very beginning of the day, or if she is just having a dull time sitting alone outside, and simply wants to assert some power and have her own entertainment. We were told this experience would be confronting, “come to be shocked” our tour guide had said. I am put on edge from the very beginning and the rest of the day would only get worse from here.
“I designed Mona to be manipulative—I want it to thrust itself into a visitor’s worldview in the same way that God is at the centre of the experience of a medieval cathedral. Mona isn’t benign, it’s a leech, or a tumour.” – David Walsh
This place has a way of singling you out, separating you from your companions with lengthy iPhone descriptions and headsets. The ‘O’ is a digital alternative to descriptive labels on the walls, and yet another metaphor I suppose for the isolating force of ‘The Internet’. The ‘O’ shows itself off to be yet another ‘fuck you, I’m rich’ from the wealthy curator rather than a useful tool; it is an iPhone thrust into the hands of every visitor, giving you the option to learn about the art as you explore, listen to interviews and get an insight into David Walsh’s ideas of each piece. Instead we found it to be a complete hindrance; as the data is not available on Android most guests carry around the extra phone and headphones, with heads bowed downwards reading about the works and ignoring each-other instead of experiencing what was actually around them.
We are handed the devices after entering, and shuffled towards the first exhibit. After a quick giggle at the outrageous ‘Art Wank’ section and phallic icons on the screen, I look up and play an interview with the artist of bit.fall, Julius Popp. This piece is a frustratingly pleasing exhibit of modern technology; water in the shape of relevant words falling from its construction to a pleasant ‘splat’ on the concrete below. I learn of the artists intention, of representing the overwhelming saturation of information we are exposed to via modern technology (which will become strangely relevant to me later on in the museum), and his annoyance at how people seem to enjoy this piece so much, and move on.
Further in, we discover a timeless light tunnel as part of Mona’s Pharos section: Beside Myself, “a labyrinth of sensory delights”, and after walking through and listening to the relevant and oddly sensual audio on our ‘O’ devices, decide not to pay the $25 to experience James Turrell’s Perceptual Cell, a meditation sphere in the next room. The exhibit involves climbing into a ball of strobe lights and self-identifying magic tricks, and experiencing something “somewhat similar to a 1960’s acid trip”, I am told. Usually I would jump at the chance for such intense self-reflection and momentary tranquillity in the overwhelming world we live in (maybe it would be interesting and somehow useful to see the inside of my own eyeballs), but to be honest I’m not sure I want to hear what my inner-conscience would have to say.
I have become far too anxious, especially on this day; the world has become cluttered and chaotic with all the current news: the constant shootings, most recently in New Zealand, the political advancements of the UK (or lack of), the #metoo movement and everything that came along with, the desperately grasping at employment in a foreign country. I feel bad to not be in the financial situation to pay the money without putting myself in a rut, or the emotional state to intentionally become that exposed to the elements, both internally and externally. I suspect that says much more about me than the exhibit. I suspect this is the very purpose of the museum; to make you think in these uncomfortable ways and begin to understand yourself more, just like David Walsh was trying to achieve when he built this place and most likely still is. So we continue our journey untouched by the wonders of James Turrell’s hallucinogenic magic.
We walk for a while discovering artwork after shocking artwork; a light-bulb that flashes to the beat of your heart in the Pulse Room, a shrine to Madonna made by her adoring fans, a bloated bright-red depiction of a Porsche and a pen that draws to the movement of the wind outside, changing its journey to the speed and direction. The museum started to show its intended message, ‘what is art?’ or rather, ‘what can art get away with being?’ and although contemporary art doesn’t always inspire or entertain me the way it might intend to, my mood began to lift a little. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. It was after walking in on a seemingly pointless and very uncomfortable video of a woman on a table being forcefully molested, that I finally lose hope for the day. The hope is truly lost, however, upon entering the next room where two skeletons were ‘doing it’ on a table surrounded by Da Vinci artworks. Great. It is at this point I begin to really pine for the exit.
The museum seems less about looking outwards at the art and more looking in on yourself. I have felt very much ‘them against me’ recently; one example being my disgustingly rich boss back in Melbourne splashing his money around while the rest of us struggle by on his measly wages week by week, and this is no different. Myself, put in the house of someone super successful at poker who has invested all his money in art and carved an egotistical monument to himself; a self-proclaimed megaphone of his own voice. I felt attacked from the moment I stepped foot on his property. Again, this is probably much more about my acceptance of David Walsh’s intended exploitation of my mind-set, and I should have came here with either thicker walls or completely let go of my ideas of self-preservation.
It is difficult to see the bigger picture while wandering the complicated layout of Mona. It’s like seeing Sydney Nolan’s Snake but not each step it took to get there, each stroke the artist took, each separate image and colour winding together as one. In Hobart, I am only seeing the city that won’t hire me, not the decision I made to come to a new city in search of work and a life here, without properly researching and discovering Hobart is bringing in new people but is still incapable of supporting such a rise in population; the accommodation and employment simply isn’t here yet. We’ve arrived too early. It took Mona and a nice Uber driver for me to work this out.
Ken M. on Tripadvisor describes Mona perfectly: “The series of largely negative artworks displayed in a network of dark tunnels that felt deeply underground quickly gave my wife and me a distinct sense of having descended into hell.”
This is what I have taken from our trip to Mona. If you still insist on visiting this outrageous tourist trap, I would recommend going alone so that you can experience as much as you can without outside judgement, with freedom of movement and the time to read the ‘O’ device and take notice of the art you’re most interested in. I’d also recommend changing your nationality to Tasmanian so that you can get in for free.
Fully expect to be shocked and angry by the end, take enough money and patience to do all that you’d like, and according to the lovely (and a bit nuts) Air BnB lady we’re staying with, go at sunset and see James Turrell’s light show. The exterior of the museum is definitely more worth going to see than the so-called-art, and not half as expensive. We left shaking our heads, frustrated at the amount of our very limited funds we invested in our trip to Mona. Maybe we’ll go again and attempt a more positive experience. There must be a reason (other than the monetary benefit) Tassie folk like it so much.