Secrets are hidden behind a jade-draped cube at Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art. A butler named Hepburn escorts us there; he's been waiting for us at the top of the steps leading to the museum from the wharf on the Derwent River. His recognition is immediate; we stand out easily from the Sunday morning jeans-and-T-shirt crowd in our lavish green frocks and make-up and heels.
"M' ladies," Hepburn says, bowing and offering us the contents of a silver tray: two pairs of opera-length gloves embossed in gold at the wrist with the initials "KK". My friend and I unfurl the gloves beyond our elbows; they are emerald green and velveteen, the final, fanciful touch (or are they?) in our preparation for the newest – and most secretive – experience in MONA's catalogue: the women's-only high tea for two in that silk-barricaded atelier.
The embossed initials belong to Kirsha Kaechele, artist and curator at MONA (of which her husband, David Walsh, is founder). The Ladies Lounge pays homage to her great-grandmother, Tootsie, whose father, she says, was heir to a Swiss watchmaking fortune and founder of an American pickle empire. The lounge is open to any and all ladies visiting the museum.
Leading us to the lounge, Hepburn pauses so we might appreciate Greg Taylor's celebrated "wall of vaginas" (C---s … and Other Conversations, 2008-2009); it's a fitting precursor to the decidedly feminist sensuality that awaits us within. Slipping through a gap in the drapes we find ourselves in a sorcerous cavern; we might've stumbled into a séance or a fortune teller's lair. Inside, Hepburn's sidekick, Robinson, holds out two crystal flutes fizzing with MONA's own sparkling vintage; from the gloaming now emerges an interior plush with the opulence to which Tootsie was accustomed: gilt-framed niches are embedded with antiquities and recessed into the drapery; canvasses float on the silken walls; a pickle-shaped sofa caterpillars across a rug sumptuous with a pandemic-related backstory.
Across the lounge I spy Picasso's Luncheon on the Grass, After Manet (1961) – one of the Cubist's many subversive, fractured retellings of Manet's scandalous Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863). Like us, the artwork's subject is suffused in a malachite glow; unlike us, she is naked.
Hepburn shows us to a corner table lit by an exotic-feathered lamp. The drama that ensues is slow-burning; it recalls Tootsie's shenanigans on her estates in Beverly Hills and Basel where, attended by a troupe of discreet butlers, she would host ladies-only tea parties amid an extravagance of art, poetry, victuals – and shots of absinthe. Our 12-course celebratory enactment is more degustation than high tea, more performance art than banquet. We've been requisitioned into the retelling of Tootsie's story; in parting those curtains we've entered a stage on which we are the thespians and those unsuspecting patrons our hungry, transient audience.
"Are you the artwork?" asks one such woman, greedily eying our spread. "Do you just get to eat all day?"
Eat we do – oh, how we eat. But not before savouring the intricate – sometimes intimate – minutiae encoded in each of the edible artworks created by MONA's executive chef, Vince Trim. We relish, too, the litany of receptacles in which they arrive – cones, crystal, pearl shell, a humidor mocking, it seems, those gentlemen's clubs where men retreat from women to smoke cigars and talk business. Only then do we allow texture and flavour – expertly identified, in the absence of clues, by my foodie companion – to alchemise on the tongue: grassy, marine, spicy and perfumed; brittle, jellied, vaporised and molten. Each bite is lightly seasoned with jest and allusion; we must taste carefully lest we miss these vital components. As we decode each course we're vaguely aware of people in the background casting us quizzical glances, pondering the other artworks, straddling that phallic sofa. Hepburn is there too, stroking the Art Deco chandelier with a feather duster and so coaxing from its glass flutes a spine-tingling tune.
When, finally, we're full to pussy's bow, we take our leave, bearing in our emerald-gloved hands a dossier laying bare Tootsie's life story. Is it truth? Is it artifice, or apocrypha? To be sure, it is art, and we have hungrily – ravenously – consumed it.
Qantas operates daily flights to Hobart from Melbourne and Sydney. See qantas.com.au
Lenna is a six-minute walk from Hobart's Brooke Street Pier where ferries depart for MONA. Rooms start from $200 per night. See lenna.com.au
MONA's High Tea for Two is part of Cultural Attractions of Australia's portfolio of behind-the-scenes cultural experiences in iconic cultural institutions. Tickets cost $500 per pair, and include museum entry; the two hour-long experience runs twice daily on Saturdays and Sundays for a maximum of two ladies per session. See culturalattractionsofaustralia.com. Tickets for MONA's ferry from Hobart to the museum start from $23 return or single trip. See mona.net.au
Catherine Marshall was a guest of Cultural Attractions of Australia, MONA and Tourism Tasmania.