MONA, Hobart, Australia: World's best modern art gallery isn't all about 'the weird'

I've reached my fuddy-duddy years. Or at least I must look like I have. We haven't even entered the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart before our guide Rebecca Fitzgibbon has sized me up as terminally uncool. MONA has a reputation for being "out there" and maybe I don't fit the mould.

"You're looking confronted," she observes.

"Not at all," I stammer back, now feeling confronted. OK, so my haircut is more conservative than Bec's funky side-shaved do and I have don't have enough piercings, but confronted? Moi?

We begin our tour and Bec keeps an eye out for signs of confrontation-induced trauma as we explore the world-renowned gallery. Desperate to shake the fuddy-duddy tag and be thought of more as "F. Duddy", I overcompensate for not having black nail polish and suggest to Bec a particular piece "is evocative of a nihilistic fractal style of gonzo iconoclasticism".

She nods politely, either admiring my acute perception or wondering how she got lumbered with such a tosser.

The MONA building is a work of art in itself. The gallery space is encased in a three-level subterranean "cave" cut into 240-million-year-old Triassic-era sandstone on the Derwent riverbank. A mind-warping spiral staircase winds down 17 metres to the bottom to recycled jarrah floorboards from an old woolshed, polished by years of lanolin contact. It is not just the art that is engulfing.

MONA is edgier than a high cliff and makes you just as giddy. And in fairness to the fuddy demographic, there are many racy pieces. Some cannot even be named in a family newspaper (I'm looking at you, C---s and Other Conversations) but there is no doubting the diverse genius at play in this cavernous 9500-square-metre underground ode to aesthetic extremism.

Monanism – An Evolving Exhibition is founder David Walsh's private collection and includes not just the aforementioned installation of about 120 vajayjays in stark relief but an eye-popping array of other clever stuff.

We're on a tight schedule but Bec says we can still make the 11am feeding of the Poo Machine. More correctly known as Cloaca Professional by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, the machine mimics the function of the human digestive system. It is fed twice a day and seven adjoining glass containers process the food "naturally" until it defecates at 2pm, exhibiting a regularity of which fuddy-duddies can only dream. Bec tells me Cloaca is a commentary about art being shit. Sadly I won't be here for the afternoon dump, which by all accounts makes the point redolently.


MONA is not all about genitalia and poo. Bit.fall, by German artist Julius Popp, is a two-story pulsing waterfall of 128 computer-controlled nozzles that briefly drip a display of words streamed from real-time Google searches. "Abbott" appears briefly and tumbles to the ground with a splash like a discarded budgie smuggler. As do "climate", "Barnaby", "terrorism" and "Pell".

Bec points me towards a pudgy Porsche called Fat Car and an enormous internally strobe-lit bronze head called Artifact. We stand on the stairs and stare at the 44-metre Snake by Sidney Nolan. All up, it' a head-spinning encounter.

The installations are all over the place, literally and taxonomically. Antiquities such as a 1500-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus stand alongside modern art in an up-yours to the art establishment. And there are plenty of up-yours, or his, or hers, or its, to see.

Bec says the deliberate thematic incongruence is "to avoid the didactic and surrender to discombobulation". There are no plaques explaining what you are looking at – or what it means – as you are supposed to experience the works personally. If you want detail you can consult the O. Typically obtuse, the O is an iPod you receive on admission that provides all the information that traditional, uncool galleries usually display on labels besides the artwork. The multimedia O interface offers detailed explanations of the work and the artist and you can even save your entire path through the museum and retrieve it from the MONA website and share your favourite works with friends via Facebook and Twitter.

Last year Lonely Planet named MONA the best modern art gallery in the world. Eye of the beholder stuff, of course. And as subjective as an appreciation of Cloaca Professional. MONA is not for everyone, especially the squeamish, prudish, pious or morally or politically conservative. Or the snooty classicist. Shock value is more highly prized here than any actual mainstream art prize would be but MONA is a vibrant, eclectic phenomenon and a national treasure.

And if don't like what you see, non-confronting, post-modernist martinis are available at the bar.



Museum of Old and New Art

655 Main Road Berriedale, Hobart


MONA Roma ferry departs hourly from Brooke Street Pier near Constitution Dock. $20 return. Posh Pit VIP lounge $50 return includes drinks and nibbles. You can also drive, cycle or arrive by public transport.


$25 admission for non-Tasmanians. "If you are Tasmanian, and identify yourself as such (yes, yes, second head etc etc), you get in for free" – MONA website. Under 18s also admitted free, regardless of head count.

Mal Chenu was a guest of MONA, Coral Expeditions and Tourism Tasmania.