Travels in Tasmania — Part 3 of 3
Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) opened in 2011 to both raves and brickbats. Founded by mathematician and world-class gambler David Walsh, it at first appeared to house one man’s eccentric obsessions from old coins to works by Anselm Kiefer. Critics lambasted it as a monument to a global civilization in decline, as one might expect for a museum including a machine that processes food into odorous excrement. Admirers, however, noted that the unique juxtaposition of cultural objects from across 4,000 years could not fail to create new perspectives. The admirers are winning: MONA is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in Australia, and its new exhibition, “Theater of the World,” is utterly fantastic.
Photographer David Stephenson wrangled us an invitation to the opening, which was attended by more than 800 people. We joined a long queue from which ten people were admitted at a time. In part this was to assure a smooth descent several floors down a spiral metal staircase next to the exposed sandstone cliffs created when the site was quarried to admit the building designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis. It’s not a small museum, holding as much gallery space as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
MONA hosts a legendarily egalitarian demography. I was there in jeans, a fleece jacket, and hiking shoes. Young women in short black dresses, young men in tight shiny suits (and short black skirts, come to think of it) mixed with the Tasmanian Premier, all of whom dove eagerly for glasses of champagne and wine from the local winery that is part of Walsh’s property (and a revenue source for the museum). Long trays of skewered roast birds, rounds of brie and slabs of ultra-rare beef were offered up as finger food. Bacchanal would be the right word. Think Burning Man in a black suit underground.
“Fantastic” is a word that conjures up the dark circuses of Ray Bradbury, interstellar voyages to galaxies far, far away, and the musings of Monty Python. It is, in short, a perfect word to describe MONA’s second exhibition. Drawing equally from Walsh’s private collection and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s trove of objects, the wandering exhibition sets Picasso’s famous Weeping Woman next to the eyes of an anonymous Yoruba beaded bag. Andy Warhol meets Japanese erotica, Damien Hirst’s flies trapped in resin resonates with an Egyptian sarcophagus, and 80 tapa barkcloths from the Pacific Basin are gazed upon by a Giacometti figure. Sex and death remain evident in the new pairings, but there is a sense of play and a deep engagement of intelligence as well as the senses.
The result is a cabinet of wonder, an experimental theatre, anthropology as alchemy. It’s an exhibition that I could visit weekly to learn from, be inspired by, and occasionally groan at. I wish it were in the United States, preferably in California — close enough to visit, but not so near as to take over my life. As a consolation, the website is excellent (and strange): http://mona.net.au
The thing about Tasmania, which I happily seem to visit almost every year now in search of art and archives, is that it retains that sense of life on the edge of the world. Walking the small harbor past both TMAG and the stalwart Aurora Australis, or traveling the length of the Derwent beside which sits MONA — it’s life as recombinant cultural DNA that is evolving in front of your eyes.