MONA – The Best Damn Art Museum in the World

Have you ever heard of Hobart?  Neither did I.

Until one day I heard about an eccentric multi-millionaire who decided to build an art museum in the side of a cliff on the island of Tasmania. When I found out about the pooping art installation, that’s when I knew.

The MONA is the best damn art museum I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to that many).

I never spent so much money on a museum experience before. From start to finish, there was always something absurd, exciting, enlightening and fresh to witness. And I gladly paid. I never left a museum feeling anything other than fatigue but MONA left me wanting more. 

My first taste of MONA was at their weekly Sunday market, which they described as “flipping the script”, where you can go to their “world domination headquarters as [they] declare independence and invent a brave new society”, as they give the “middle digit to the system with [their] very own digital currency”. Intriguing. I took the 45 minute bus ride north to see what it would actually be about, and left feeling delighted with the world’s people. The market is curated by Kirsha, the wife of David Walsh (the millionaire gambler who funds the whole thing). It was cohesive, which is unusual for a market, with a mix of underground artistic talents, vintage curios, scrumptious foods, music, and even reusable plates, cutlery, denim napkins and cups. I even bought buttons! I usually never buy stuff at markets, except for food, but the market and its peoples were just so charming. Gosh.

The day after, I got up early, did a work out, ate some food, and psyched myself up for a full day of MONA-isms. I decided to take the official MONA ferry, christened the MR-1, which at $22 round trip is not exactly the cheapest way to get around, but it was the coolest ferry I had every been on. I actually regretted not being elitist and upgrading to the Posh Pit for the free canapés, but seeing absurd satirical graffiti all over the boat, and life size sheep and cow statues was still stupidly joyful. I guess that’s what the website meant by “sit on sheep” when you look at the description for the ferry tickets. Once the MR-1 docked, I was told there were 99 steps to the top. I counted, and found they weren’t lying. I wonder why it was 99. Wondering ‘why’ becomes a big theme for me in this experience. 

What is it about MONA that made it so appealing? The first thing you notice – it’s mostly underground. You’ll notice it’s not downtown. It’s a bit expensive. Where’s the entrance? Holy cow there’s a spiral staircase that goes all the way down to… where? It’s a bit dark. It’s event got its own app! It’s absurd how badly I wanted to stay down there. As absurd as the satirical modern art that you’ll see if you ever visit. 

In spite of the ticket price (unless you’re a local Tassie), the damn thing is just unparalleled (but I could just be very easily impressed). Dotted around the grounds you see some impressive structures made of rusted metal, a giant post-zen-modern concrete gazebo, a trampoline with bells attached underneath, chickens, vineyards, and a grand view of the Hobart river. Upon entering, you see sunlight shine ever so playfully from the courtyard, and hear the clink and clamour of the cafe (super trendy). I read an article about Erykah Badu while sipping a cuppa (cup of tea/coffee in Australia) before heading down the spiral staircase (titillating) into what was the ultimate art-bat-cave. I checked my phone to make sure I had an alarm for 2:00PM, which was when the Cloaca was scheduled to take a dump. Apparently that work was commissioned by MONA, which did and didn’t surprise me. Since it was still a few hours away, I figured I’d check out their new special exhibit, “On the Origin of Art”. This was actually amazing. The exhibit was curated by four scientists/writer, and each person had his own room (not sure why it was all guys) to explain why they thought we make art. Which, I think, is absolutely brilliant. These kinds of interesting ideas need to happen more often. I ended up actually learning something, and it was actually a very memorable experience. It helped me understand my role as an artist, and more importantly understand what the hell every other artist was doing. 

An iPhone device that they lend you with their app “The O” really enhances the experience. It geolocates you in the museum, and you can then listen to interviews and read things about all the art that’s around you. Truly informative, enlightening and sometimes entertaining. I had never felt so connected to art and art-making in a museum before. Museum experiences tend to be too sanitized and clean, devoid of context, which is what I think makes art meaningful to humans. In regular museums, I mostly only see technical details about the art. Maybe I’ll stumble upon something in the Guggenheim with sausages and flies arranged on a blank canvas, and all I learn is that the canvas was 48″ x 36″, the media used were sausages, flies and gouache, and then I could come up with a million possibilities of what the artist was trying to convey. “The O” really helps contextualize all the pieces. Reading David Walsh’s diatribes on the art is great too. He’s sarcastic but can back it up by offering intelligent insights on what the art is trying to do to people. While I unfortunately get a sense that most modern art is pointless crap, that’s only half of the picture. Artists are fed up with the art world/market and its absurdity. How is it that an artist can sell boxes of crap (literally, a box of poop) for $7000, forty boxes at a time? The fact that people will buy this shit (ha…ha.) is a testament to how irrational humans can be. Which reminds me of this conversation I had with one of the security staff there….

I couldn’t help but be intrigued by what the man was discussing with his colleague – he kept throwing around words like “consciousness” and “nature of reality”. He brought me up to speed, telling me that we’ve reached a point where “thinking” about things has solved as much as it can for us, and we need a new tool to help us perceive reality, which he thought was introspection (I guess meditation). He described thinking as “violent”, and I realized, to my astonishment, that he was right. What happens when we think about something? Often, we break it down. We deconstruct it. Which is …. violent. I couldn’t believe it, but all our lives we’ve been destroying our reality by thinking so much about it. We want to see the pieces, but we lose the whole. It’s like smashing a radio with a hammer so you can figure out what’s in it. He thinks that because we have learned to not trust our feelings when we’re children, we don’t know how to listen to ourselves and that’s why it’s so difficult for us to introspect holistically. His example was the mother trying to console a kid in pain, by lying to them and saying that shush, don’t cry, it doesn’t hurt. I don’t think things play out exactly that way, I do see the idea. There are a lot of white lies we tell ourselves to help us deal with uncomfortable emotions, instead of just dealing with the emotions head on. And so, like the person with a hammer, we start to imagine all the mysteries of reality as nails that need to be thunk-ed into oblivion. I never expected to have that kind of conversation with a museum security guard. 

Pre-MONA, I guess I didn’t really get most modern art. Post-MONA, I understand pieces better as I know what other artists have already done and why. New art makes more sense when you understand what other people have already been doing. I also met this cool jazz band that only has 11 likes on Facebook – super indie and maybe they’ll be famous one day (so am I a hipster yet?). Could I explain why we make art? Off the top of my head I can remember that one guy thought we made art for sexual advantage. One guy said that we make art just because we can. Another guy thought that it’s because we love and respond to patterns. And there was one more idea that I can’t remember. Luckily, “The O” saved my visit, so  I can go back and browse the exhibits I did and didn’t visit. So while I don’t remember everything the museum “said”, I do remember how it made me feel about art.

After climbing the spiral staircase once last time, I feel like I got a sense of who David Walsh is. Stepping into MONA was like stepping into his own little Wonderland. I left so intrigued by his commentary that I felt compelled to buy his autobiography, just to see more – another recurring theme here. I read that he believes that the outcome of one’s life is mostly luck – his being a perfect example. His background certainly didn’t predict his destiny to become a millionaire, coming from a broken family in a backwater part of Hobart. The events that contributed to his ultimate success he attributed to being at the right place at the right time. This made me think that perhaps I can do everything right but still not end up where I “want” to be. So perhaps I should try not “wanting” to be anywhere, and only focus on just what I “want” to do, and not worry if it’s perfectly “right”. I put these words in quotation marks because I wonder what the source of these ideas is. Do these wants come from me? Or are they programmed into me? I can doubt as much as I want, but would it matter if I knew? Would it change how I act? Probably not. If I had free will all along, then that’s great! If not, then it didn’t matter what I was doing since I was programmed to have done it anyhow. I just hope there isn’t a third option that I can’t even imagine in my tiny little brain. But until then, I’ll still learn to love the race, not the finish line. 

And now I’m curious. When was the last time you went to a museum? When was the last time a museum inspired you? I’d love to hear your recommendations 🙂 

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