How to describe a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)? Well for a start “visit” does not begin to encompass the whole of this journey, the emotional and visual impact of the location, the architecture, the works exhibited… “experience” perhaps comes closer but still does not convey the entirety. Breathtaking, exhilarating, confrontational, beautiful and bizarre, MONA challenges established principles on the display of art and creates an environment where the viewer is at once dwarfed by the enormity of the surrounds and drawn into intimate contact with the works on display.

Travelling to MONA is part of the experience, the first intimation that this will be a gallery experience like no other. Situated in Hobart, the capital of Australia’s southern-most state of Tasmania, you journey 20 minutes by water up the Derwent River in a camouflage-painted ferry with fibreglass sheep seating (for the hardy) or deep leather lounges (for the comfort-seeking).

MONA sits on, or rather within, Hobart’s Berriedale peninsula. On approach from the water the impression is intimidating, the façade reminiscent of a military bunker or perhaps a top-secret research facility. The view then, after climbing the long staircase from the jetty to the gallery entrance atop the peninsula, is surprisingly prosaic – in the words of gallery owner and director David Walsh “deliberately underwhelming”. The only sign that the mid-century modern house you arrive at is more than it seems is the funhouse mirror wall surrounding the entrance.

Once inside, your journey through the gallery itself is inverted, travelling by spiral staircase down to the lower-most level, hewn into the sandstone rock of the peninsula. Stepping into the gallery our first stop is the Void bar, a little alcohol, we are informed by the ever-present and welcoming staff, helps to loosen the inhibitions, free the mind, and prepare you for the journey ahead – and who am I to argue!

The atmosphere is ominous, the feeling labyrinthine when you step into the gallery proper. Works of art are displayed in pools of light amongst the dark surrounds, none of the exhibits are labelled and antiquities from ancient cultures are placed alongside works of modern masters and confrontational contemporary pieces.

All information about the works on display is presented through an electronic device – an iPhone with custom-built interface – you receive on entering. This provides information on any work you are standing near when activated, including amusingly-titled sections called “art wank” and “gonzo”, allow you to rate the works, see how other viewers have rated them, and share them via social media. It will also produce a 3D map of your trip through the gallery and the works you have seen which you can access after you have left, a most impressive use of technology to enhance a museum visit.

There is no simple path through MONA, an M.C. Escher-like pathway leads between the levels and tunnels pierce the walls leading to other exhibiting areas, and the works themselves. There is not the space available on a blog entry such as this to adequately describe even the highlights of MONA; I could describe at great length the visual impact and challenging concepts of works such as Data.Matrix (2009), an immense video installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, Kryptos (2008-10), a maze-like installation by Australian artist Brigita Ozolins, and the vertigo-inducing multimedia Artifact (2010) by American Gregory Barsamian. To do so however would be a great disservice to those many works which could not be included, and do no justice to the way these works juxtapose with ancient artefacts such as cuneiform tablets and Egyptian sarcophagi.

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I do feel compelled, however, to give special mention to an exhibition of works by Roger Ballen, including the dark and provocative installation piece Asylum (2013). Ballen has long been a favourite of mine and this exhibition was worth the travel to MONA on its own.

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MONA is the realisation of the vision of entrepreneur and philanthropist David Walsh, a personal ambition designed by Walsh to shock and offend, challenge, inform, entertain and provoke debate. Spending a day at MONA was enough to whet my appetite to return, for the gallery itself, for the major annual festivals – Dark MOFO in June and Light MOFO in January, and for far more time appreciating the works on display… and to despair for the many around the world who will never have the opportunity to visit this most remote and incredible of Museums.

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…and for those, like me, who feel that a single lifetime would not be enough time to fully appreciate all that MONA has to offer, well they have just the thing for you. From MONA’s web site:

“Most museums offer lifetime memberships. Why stop there?

For $AUD 75,000 you can enjoy all the benefits of Eternity Membership –
parties, catalogues, annoying pamphlets, being sucked up to.
Then – when you die, we have you cremated and put in a fancy jar in the museum.
David’s dad’s there already. Don’t you miss out.

PS. This is not a joke.”

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