Australia’s largest privately-owned museum, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in the Berriedale region of Tasmania is a dazzling wonderland of some of the most controversial examples of art made throughout human history.
Over 400 permanent and temporary exhibits are housed in the purpose-built rabbit warren of a building, itself somehow both strikingly at odds and in harmony with the spectacular natural environment it has been built in. The gallery space extends underground, accessible by a spiral staircase that runs right down the middle of the building.
Tasmanian millionaire David Walsh bought the land at Berriedale in 1995 and opened a precursor to MONA – the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities – a few years later. Joking that “nobody ever came” he decided to expand his vision to a 9,500 square-metre site with the help of Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis of Fender Katsalidis Architects. Walsh’s brief to Katsalidis was that the art should be discovered rather than shown off, so that any connection made by the viewer should be a very personal experience rather than something imposed. The MONA as we know it today was opened on 11 January 2011.
A professional – and clearly very successful – gambler, David Walsh has been collecting art for years, and owns pieces by Marina Abramović, Brett Whiteley and Ancient Egyptian sculptors among others. The MONA can best be described as a museum dedicated to sex and death, its macabre and grotesque tone set by both ancient and brand new works of confronting art.
The place can be approached by water on a sexy Mona Roma Fast Ferry (the top deck of which is home to cute sheep sculptures that double as seats for passengers), or by road, and the building itself resembles a fortress from the outside and a cave slash Berlin-style nightclub, all low lights and curious paraphernalia, on the inside. Beyond the art, the whole project is eccentric. Apparently there is a cabinet in the museum that, for a neat sum of $75,000, you can have your own ashes thrown into as an exhibit, and there are special bins for food waste marked ‘Worm Food.’ There is also a trampoline, a couple of speakeasy-style bars and even art installations you watch whilst you’re sitting on the loo!
I visited today – on Australia Day as it happens – and got to see the first Australasian retrospective of works by Gilbert & George along with the permanent MONA collection. Hands down, it has been the most fulfilling and surprising day out I have had in Australia so far. Adventurers, explorers, art lovers and bohemian dreamers, heed my word: head to Tasmania and make the time for MONA. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
All words and photos: Rosie Pentreath