Pictured above: MONA in Hobart, Tasmania. The Museum of Old and New Art
Muir Woods Suite | Phase II — George Duke
The CAVERNOUS HEART OF UNDERGROUND ART
By: RAFAEL S.W
– Convergence of Future Architecture, Art and Sound
“MONA is the art of the exhausted, of a decaying civilisation. Display lights and taste and stunning effects illuminate moral bankruptcy. What is highlighted melds perfectly with contemporary high fashion, design, architecture, cinema. It is expensive and tense decay.” — (Michael Connor Quadrant literary and cultural magazine)
It is not surprising that the strangest things are hidden under the ground. Many traditionally beautiful works shine best in the Louvre, where the very design of the spaces, the bright lighting and glass pyramids, reassure the viewers that art is a flat dead thing. As frightening as a butterfly pinned to a wall. MONA is not like that.
Excavated from a natural cliff Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art, is home to collections of work that more closely resemble the pupae stages, or perhaps mutant butterflies of undiscovered origin. MONA is three storeys deep and with its caverns and caves is perfectly suited for the display of dark art. Inspired by Walsh’s wanting to design it as “a temple to secularism”, it is a place for strange, lovely, challenging and sometimes frightening works. It’s also the place where my partner and I went for a holiday.
She always had a fascination with art, and was especially drawn to the contrast of a building of such contemporarily built aside the mountains of sleepy Tasmania. Set on a six-acre estate overlooking the River Derwent, MONA took $75 million to build and costs around $1 million a month to run. Such excess doesn’t seem possible upon first sight of the complex. Besides the occasional sculpture and vineyard, there’s very little of MONA that’s above ground.
“The building is not there” Walsh states, “you’re not given any cues about what to expect.”
Some visitors arrive by charted boat – a ferry that looks more like a bespoke warship – but my partner and I preferred to arrive by bus. As we walked up the hill, we noted how one of the more subversive galleries in Australia looked like nothing more than a farm with some rather large and eclectic tools scattered about. This design is all part of the effect however, Walsh has paid careful attention to the architecture that houses his collection, and this shows in the variety of works available. Some exhibitions have been provided thanks only to his consideration and his awareness of how location informs perception.
One of the more contentious exhibitions, ‘the Cloaca’ has been installed by Wim Delvoye as only one of two in the world, and had a room specially built for it. Delvoye spent two years in talks with Walsh saying that “once we decided where Cloaca would be placed permanently, we started a dialogue with the architects so the space would be completely adapted to the piece…the pipes, the electricity, the air, the water.” A similar consideration was needed to place Sydney Nolan’s ‘Snake’, a series of 1620 images 5.6 metres tall and more than 44 metres wide.
As unintimidating as it looks on the outside, once inside, the place resembles an opulent nuclear bunker made by monks. Immediately after descending the stairs you’re plunged into a world of darkness and light. It also serves as an excellent echo chamber for ‘Danser la musique’ (Zhang Chen), a giant trampoline surrounded by Buddhist bells.
The joyous summer sound of the springs was underpinned by the deep gongs of bells toiling for prayer. The weight of being underground and the stiffness of bus travel was quickly being washed away by my attempts to jump higher than the 6 year old kids around me. It didn’t seem like the place to practice my backflips though, instead I concentrated on making my jumps resonate and chime in sync so that those entering the cave at the far end would think they were being called to prayer.
My partner watched my excitement, as she leant against the cave walls, laughing. Her chest rising and falling like the residue of bells.
This was even more uplifting (and less surreal) than ‘When My Heart Stops Beating’ (Patrick Hall), which was a room with dozens of boxes, all of them saying ‘I love you’, in a unique voice, over and over. We took it in turns to mime all the different voices, spin them like a DJ, playing those we thought humorous, or haunting.
As a gallery encompassing 2210 antiquities and artworks in 6000 square metres, there’s enough examples to fill countless webpages, but a single other artwork drew from me one last strong emotion. I’d experienced joy, love, and lastly, fear.
I was unprepared for ‘KRYPTOS’ by Brigita Ozolins. Even if I’d had warning, such as in the case of knowing this gallery contained a maze as well as fat car and a monk made of incense, I wouldn’t have felt very strongly about it. A fairly unassuming entrance, it reminded me of the maze of a Minotaur but built for a Theseus who had binary instead of string. It was hard to decide what was the art – the architecture or the experience After a few twists and turns, I noticed strange things written on the wall. And then after a few more I heard the groaning. It was a deep bass hum, as if the mountain had shouldered too much weight. The kind of bass that gets into your bones. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from or whether it was human. KRYPTOS wasn’t large, but I spent about two minutes wending my way slowly through the maze, trying to decode what was written on the walls. This was made harder by the dim lighting, close to darkness, and the way I was starting to get uneasy, each new step feeling like string was being pulled from my spine. When I reached the centre room, I had to crouch down to enter, and then looked up. And screamed. Looming out from above, rushing towards me with arms outstretched was a dark boy with his mouth open. It was me, of course, the mirror revealed once I tried to shield my face with my hands. The groaning in the walls was augmented now by my heartbeat, adding a thudding beat that was even more primeval.
‘You alright?’ My partner asked, coming up to me and putting a hand on my face which felt as pale and cold as the backs of mirrors.
‘How did you know it was me?’
‘No one else would scream out loud in an art gallery.’
We stayed until closing. With only one bus home, we had plenty of time to discuss the day. The bus stop was cold as the wind skimmed off the river. I watched as the headlights of cars passed over my partner’s body, and thought about what it housed. The murmuring box of hearts, the trampoline lungs, the unknowable maze of synapses and light. Her body was the architecture, those strong bones that hold us all in.
MONA Museum & Art Gallery is located at: 655 Main Road | Moorilla Estate, Berriedale, Glenorchy, Tasmania 7011, Australia
Rafael S.W was the winner of ZO’s 2014 Poetry Exposé. He is a recent creative writing graduate and founding member of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and is an award winning Australian writer. He also regularly contributes to Going Down Swinging online and competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.