The World’s Greatest Art Museum is in Hobart, Tasmania

Reviewed in this essay: Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania.

Listen to the author read this piece: [audio: issue3/smiley.mp3]

Visit the permanent collection of any national art museum and you will likely find an Impressionist room, with a Cezanne, a Monet, a Manet, and maybe a Pissarro. There will be an Abstract Expressionist room, with a Motherwell, a Klein, a de Kooning and a Pollock. Next will come the Minimalist room, which will feature a Sol LeWitt grid, some Donald Judd shelves, a Dan Flavin neon light in the corner, and a Carl Andre stack of bricks in the middle of the room. Such curatorial stamp-collecting illustrates and reinforces an established art-historical narrative. African art inspired Cubism. Dada influenced Surrealism. Pop reacted against Minimalism, which grew out of Abstract Expressionism. If the curator is particularly adventurous, he or she might try to expand the narrative a little by putting a Manet in the Abstract Expressionist room, or a Rothko by the devotional art. For the most part, however, curators are constrained by the fact that museums are fundamentally a contest between cities, where success is measured by the collection’s completeness (is there a Carl Andre stack of bricks?) and quality (is it major?).

Which brings us to David Walsh, and his Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Walsh is a polymath university drop-out from my home-town of Hobart, Tasmania, a mathematical savant whose skills have amassed him a gambling fortune. According to legend, he was once coming back from a successful trip to the casinos of Macau with a suitcase full of currency. Rather than try to take his wads of bills through Australian customs, he bought an antique Ethiopian carving on a whim. More purchases followed, until Walsh’s collection eventually grew so vast and so valuable that he bought a defunct vineyard on the shores of the River Derwent in Hobart and spent millions turning it into a cutting-edge gallery loosely themed around his two main preoccupations, sex and death.

Credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

MONA is the vanity project of a deeply eccentric man, and as such is not beholden to funding boards, governments, or the community in general. As a consequence, there is no Impressionist room, no muddy Picassos, no Carl Andre stacks of bricks. Instead, a Damien Hirst disc painting rises like an alien moon over John Pylypchuk’s forest of angular trees, each with a lonely little figure made of trash fucking its trunk. Chris Offili’s seminal “Virgin Mary,” festooned with genitalia cut from porno mags and resting on its twin lumps of elephant dung, stands opposite a colonial-era chair on a cougar-skin rug. This echoes another exhibit downstairs, the skin of a kitten, its head and claws intact, cured and stretched into a trophy rug by Julia deVille. This room smells faintly of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca,” an automated assemblage of glass vats, conveyor belts and aluminum pipes that converts foodstuffs into a gooey approximation of human feces. Besides the sex and the shit there are sublime things – the ancient arrowheads arranged like a constellation across black velvet, the stone antiquities submerged in a fish tank, Arthur Boyd’s exquisite “Melbourne Burning.” There are also eccentricities, like the urn containing the ashes of Walsh’s father that sits above the bar, the tennis court you queue across to enter the building, and Walsh’s rambling, self-penned commentaries on atheism, Darwinian evolution, and the curse of mortality.

The Australian rock band TISM had a song called “Whatareya (Yob or Wanker)?” which suggested that all Australians can be categorized as either a sport-loving yobs or a pretentious wankers. Walsh is well aware that he is not only a wanker, but a wanker engaged in a colossal project of self-indulgence in a country which takes any act of implied superiority as a personal affront. Walsh deals with this through a series of self-deprecating gestures. For example, you access Walsh’s commentary by pressing a button marked “Artwank” under a crude cartoon penis on your iPod audio-tour. Likewise, the last page of the glossy MONA catalogue has a full-page photo of Walsh by notorious provocateur Andres Serrano, in which Walsh sits completely naked on a stool, his flaccid cock exposed to the world, blinking at the camera with his harmless marsupial face.

Credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Walsh has also pre-empted any small-town hostility with an act of genuine generosity. Rather than have his creation become just another destination for an international art elite, he has made entry free for Tasmanians. This has led to the locals being exposed to some of the most confronting and transgressive contemporary art imaginable. When I asked my teenage farm-boy neighbour what he thought of the museum he replied “I saw the photo of the dog having sex with the guy and that was it for me, really.” The piece in question, Oleg Kulik’s “Family of the Future, 9,” hangs across the room from a stack of TVs playing Italian video art that includes scenes of a rectum shitting and a cock ejaculating across a piece of steak. When I visited, a group of four elderly Tasmanians were standing in front of it, convulsed in helpless laughter.

Credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Helpless laughter is one response to MONA. It’s a sombre, intoxicating, irreverent carnival, the antithesis of what art museums are supposed to be. Walsh has a lair in it somewhere, overlooking the river, accessible by a secret door. You can imagine him emerging from it after hours and wandering naked through his possessions with his ridiculous poodle by his side, a look of sleepy contentment on his face. If he should stop to tinker with the shit machine or rub himself against the Roman bronze of Leda and the Swan, could you blame him? He is collector, philanthropist, iconoclast and cartoon super-villain rolled into one, the Prospero of his own weird island.