Alas I, an art historian, had been to Hobart many times and had never heard of Claudio Alcorso’s gallery.
View of MONA from the ferry
Tasmanian art patron David Walsh bought the Moorilla winery estate as far back as 1995. But the old buildings were not redesigned by Fender Katsalidis Architects in Melbourne until a couple of years ago. The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) only re-opened in January 2011 with new branding and new facilities. So this is a VERY new art museum on a river-headland in Hobart, displaying David Walsh’s personal collection.
Visitors are transported up the River Derwent on ferries specially contracted to sail from the city’s docks to the gallery. The one-storey winery building appears from the river to be dominated by its surroundings, built as if it they were going into the side of the cliffs. According to Walsh, he wanted to built below ground level to protect the heritage value of the two Roy Grounds houses on the property.
But he also wanted architecture that would be interesting and exciting in its own right. There are no windows and so the stark internal environment is not what the visitor might have expected. The first thing one sees is a spiral staircase that leads 20 metres down through three storeys of space. From downstairs, the visitor must then stride back upwards towards ground level, not unlike the experience in the various Guggenheim museums in the world.
MONA's spiral staircase and underground galleries
The collection is broad. Too broad, perhaps. Reflecting Walsh’s personal and eclectic taste, the collection ranges from ancient Egyptian mummies, a sarcophagus and gold coins from ancient Greece, to African art and contemporary art created last year. The least attractive gallery covers sex and death - white porcelain moulds of genitalia are awful; a model of the euthanasia machine designed by Dr Philip Nitschke is confronting. And I do not want to see a man rooting his pet dog.
But the most exciting works are very exciting - by Sydney Nolan, Damien Hirst, Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley and other moderns. Nolan’s star piece, The Snake, stretches along 45 metres of curved wall!! A 6.5-metre high painting by Anselm Kiefer on the nature of myth is not my taste, but it is VERY impressive. Do viewers find the juxtaposition of antiquities and contemporary art exciting or shocking? I suspect it might be an age thing; I suspect David Walsh specifically intended to shock my middle aged generation.
And more shocks for the middle aged. ComputerWorld explained the technology. When visitors enter MONA they are each equipped with an O device: an iPod Touch running custom software and housed in a specially designed case. Touching the O button brings up a list of nearby artworks. Selecting an artwork offers details about the artist and the work, access to essays or interviews with the artist, and musings on the work by Walsh or his cohorts. Multimedia content can also be accessed through the system; for example artist interviews or the audio track of MONA's video-based works. And, fulfilling part of Walsh's original vision, visitors can love or hate a particular work.
MONA is the largest privately funded museum in Australia. I personally believe that great art galleries and museums have to belong to the entire population (state government), so it will be interesting to see how this gallery progresses into the future. Especially in a small city like Hobart ( pop 225,000).
The MONA site also includes the Moo Brew microbrewery, Moorilla Refined winery and vineyard, restaurant etc. But the greatest joy is that visitors can stay the night at one of eight luxurious art-laden and elevated pavilions, inspired by shipping containers and modern A-frame homes of the post war period. Each of these eight pavilions has amazing views of the Derwent River and each features artworks from the MONA collection. It is in keeping that each pavilion is named after a prominent 20th century architect or painter.
Let me also mention The Henry Jones Art Hotel which became Australia’s first dedicated art hotel when it opened in 2004. The hotel’s location, on Hobart’s waterfront, dates back to 1804 and is based in a former jam factory. And who was this Henry Jones? Recently arrived from Britain, young Mr Jones purchased a share of a jam factory in Hobart in 1889. From those rather modest beginnings, he rose to fame as an entrepreneur spanning five continents. His investments ranged from jam and fruit to timber, mining and shipping. His success was epitomised by the company’s most famous jam brand, IXL, deriving from Henry’s mantra: “I excel in all the products I make”. IXL was the only jam I ate for the first 20 years of my life.
There are 56 suites & 300 artworks in the Henry Jones Art Hotel, showing the hotel’s role as a fusion of art, heritage, tradition and nature. Exterior and interior space present art as part of the hotel’s function and its beauty. Most suites have opening windows and close harbour views, while others overlook the stunning glass atrium and reveal glimpses of the old jam factory interior. Visitors to Hobart love the luxurious combination of history, colonial architecture and modern art space on Hobart’s bustling waterfront.