Thursday 29 December 2011


MONA is an extraordinary place, an art gallery that is a Pharoah's tomb meets a Bond villain's complex. And I mean those both literally. It's hollowed out inside a hill beneath a vineyard. The vineyard was bought in 1995 by a local gambling savant: David Walsh. Walshy is Hobart's benevolent anti-Bond. He has an Aspergian mathematical ability, and heads a syndicate banned from most casinos around the world but now plugging a data-brain into horse races globally and leveraging a tiny edge on a massive scale so that rivers of gold flow his way. And he's diverted a lot of that into MONA.

You're best taking the boat there. From the jetty you walk up steps and onto... a red tennis court. It feels like some Ballardian construction, but actually it's just there because Walshy likes tennis. A mirrored wall on the side of the court is the entrance. Through you descend a spiral staircase into three floors of caverns, sculpted for the very installation of some particular works.

The collection is remarkable: some really exciting contemporary art by artists ranging from Sidney Nolan to Pipilotti Rist, Damien Hirst to Tasmanian artist Brigita Ozolins (hers is one of my favourite pieces here), all vividly themed around sex and death, alongside antiquities especially Egyptian. You understand perfectly why it is the Museum of Old and New Art. But the collection is secondary to the experience.

Not just because of how the work is displayed - Aztec stone skulls beside video art in an underwater Wunderkammer, for instance - but because there is no signage of any kind around the art, so that you can immerse yourself completely in its presence. Your guide is an iPod with an app called the O that tells where you are and beams information on nearby works to your fingertips. It asks you to rate whether you love or hate any piece of work; no place for mealy-mouthed emotions here. It often streams writings about each work under channels called Ideas, Art Wank, and Gonzo. Walshy himself writes most often the last section, meticulous and insightful, making what could have been a channel called Hubris into something else entirely.

I spent all day here but could easily have spent three. Just before leaving I found a cabinet cloaked in red velvet in the basement, with a stuffed raven rearing above nevermore. In the cabinet is an urn, dedicated to Thomas Dexter Walsh. It's the ashes of Walshy's dad. You too can pay to become a beyond-life patron and be interred here in this Pharoah's tomb.

Ian my host drove us down there on a Tuesday when he didn't realise it was shut, but it was still something to see even when deserted. Deserted except for workers from a furniture firm called Osiris.

In Watchmen, the best graphic novel ever made, the anti-hero is revealed in an Antarctic complex, obsessed with saving the world and his own legacy, a pharoah masquerading behind a security firm called Rameses. Here is perhaps the closest for real, here in the place where boats can sail down the river Derwent out into the Southern Ocean and to the land of ice.

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