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Review: The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)

Review: the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)

| On 23, Jun 2015

We ventured to Hobart to see what all the MONA hype was about.

On our first morning, we take the bus to The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) from the Elizabeth Street bus station in Hobart. It is a trip that needs no accompaniment by headphones, only quiet eyes as we roll through the orange and green suburbia of Montrose and Rosetta. Mountainous, green sierra is littered with thousands of houses. These terracotta-roofed homes reach halfway up; not so far to near the snow and low hanging clouds at the mountains’ peaks. Hobart’s neighbourhoods are a different strain of Australian living. Suburbia and nature are so entwined that it is easy to let go, to feel content in total silence.

Fog hangs over the gravel as we power walk up the long road onto MONA’s island. The velocity in our pace wanes off the biting cold. From afar, she is an ominous, otherworldly castle. The glossy flux of the Derwent River draws the line between suburbia, and the cliffs that lead into the monolith-like steel structures that make up MONA’s estate.

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Upon the body of the island there is a vast landing, from which the views of the green and white sierra and the Derwent are dumbfounding. The landscape almost entirely obscures the Museum’s entrance; an inconspicuous mirrored box with sliding doors.

We are lowered into the museum in a glass elevator. It is vacuumed into a cylinder of carved sandstone that rises as we dip into the underground. Between the sandstone and the elevator, there is a spiral staircase where dozens of visitors scurry past one another. Before even entering the body of the gallery, there is the sense of an ecosystem of human life between the raw earth and us.

A wooden bridge on the bottom level passes between soaring sandstone walls. The smell of earth, clay, the old world is pungent as visitors walk into the first gallery space.

There are three levels of dark, labyrinth display spaces. Inclined steel or wooden trajectories adjoin the levels, inviting viewers to experience the gallery from the bottom-up. It is a path similar to the descending spiral that visitors follow at New York’s Guggenheim.

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Some of the spaces are commodious, floor-boarded rooms ceilinged by geometric steel barricades. Others are boxed off to the side, painted black and only lit up around artworks.

The museum contains hundreds of artworks from David Walsh’s private collection. Walsh’s collection is alarming in its unfamiliarity. He is acclaimed for his rejection of trend. Rather, he choreographs a collection that is fun, confronting and grabs your attention.

A personal favourite of mine was Kryptos by Brigita Ozolins (2011). It is a hypnotizing and surprising concrete maze, built into MONA and commissioned by Walsh. It consists of three box-like chambers, the walls of which are encrypted with binary codes and words. Underfloor lighting leads the viewer through to the final room, and is the only source of comfort in the cold, grey space. The small doorway that leads into the third space forces you to lower your head, a non-human cavity into the unfamiliar. At the end of the maze, one’s first instinct is to look up, where the sight is enough to shake you. It is not some grotesque abomination, but a plain mirror. The unfamiliarity of your own face in a space so confined is the gripping climax of the piece. It allows for reflection, confrontation; it is not for the faint-hearted.

Each of the spaces is eerie, sending visitors into a trance of light-step and silent observation. It is an atmosphere unmatched by the likes of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), in which vast, white spaces are filled with hundreds of tourists crammed around artworks, phones up.

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Perhaps that is what is so engaging about the MONA, it is easy to entirely disregard the bustle of the outside world. After spending an hour in the main body of the underground, a cylindrical, inclined tunnel led me through to the Roundhouse library extension. The Roundhouse is a mid-century modernist, architectural masterpiece designed by Roy Growls (1958). It was originally designed for Claudio Alcorso’s family, and now extends into a separate gallery space. At the end of the space, an isosceles glass room looks out across the cliff of the island, over the river, and back to suburbia.

Relics of the outside world are presented to the viewer through vast windows. In one room, viewers are invited to take a pair of sound-blocking headphones and lay back in a canvas beach chair, to observe the landscape through a ceiling-high window. These windows serve to remind the viewer of the complete uniqueness of the space that is MONA. It thrusts you into an unfamiliar world, before allowing you to silently observe the real one from the other side of glass. It is an immaculately conceived paradox that invites reflection, thought, and invokes a unique sense of ease unmatched by any gallery or museum experience that I have ever had.

Entertainment at the MONA goes way beyond the gallery itself. CineMona screens ever so slightly left-of-centre films throughout the days. Hour-long Cellar Door wine tastings are only $10, and wine and beer tours start at $15.

If you can get down just for the weekend to experience MONA and Hobart itself, I guarantee you’ll have no regrets.

Image Credit: MONA.