MONA, Tasmania: Quirky island's $200 million 'pleasure palace' of 'sex and death' just the ticket

For most of its existence, Tasmania was known as a faraway island at the bottom of Australia, a grim 19th-century redoubt where British colonial officers imprisoned convicts in the harshest of the empire's jails and killed much of the aboriginal population.

So perhaps it was not entirely surprising when a wealthy local gambler and mathematician opened a lavish art museum here three years ago and announced with a flourish that it would be devoted to the themes of sex and death. The venture, housed in an underground labyrinth of sandstone and located on a spit of land upriver from this sleepy harborside city, conjured more darkness.

But then its owner and creator, David Walsh, slightly amended his original premise, opting instead for an idiosyncratic, $200 million museum that blends top international contemporary art with well-stocked bars and lounge areas. To the shock of Tasmania's patricians, some of whom can trace their lineage to the early settlers, and to the surprise of most of the island's 500,000 largely working-class residents, the Museum of Old and New Art has been a huge success.

More than 1 million people have visited the hard-to-reach showplace. Lonely Planet catapulted Tasmania into the Top 10 of the world's must-see places this year. Curators from New York and Paris have marvelled at how the museum flouts convention: There are no explanatory placards fixed to the walls, and visitors are encouraged to wander through the subterranean spaces at will.

They can stop at the "Fat Car," a glistening red Porsche plumped with fiberglass into a bulbous symbol of conspicuous consumption by the Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm. They can admire the large installation of sheaves of gray steel by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, housed in its own building. They can squirm at the "Cloaca Professional" by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who devised six machines suspended from the ceiling that every day duplicate human defecation, and its smells.

"The museum is born of risk, just like David's early life of gambling," said Leigh Carmichael, a close collaborator of Walsh's and the creative director of the museum's winter festival, Dark MOFO. "He stripped down the old museum of white spaces and interpretation and created immersive material so that you don't feel guilty if you are not learning something."

For many, the first glimmer of the museum - colloquially referred to by its friendly-sounding acronym, MONA - is a high-powered catamaran that glides from the city's port down the Derwent River to the museum entrance. On the way, three bars serve Champagne, wine and beer (one is called the Posh Pit) accompanied by delectable pies and pastries prepared by onboard chefs. The catamaran, painted in camouflage to signal that it is protecting the once-polluted river, offers a baroque-style comfy sofa for relaxation on the lower back deck and stools shaped like sheep in the outdoor upper saloon.

At the museum's dock, visitors clamber up 99 steps as if going to a temple. At the top, however, they are confronted with a well-kept, hard-surface tennis court; Walsh lives on the site and likes to play, guides explain. He also likes omelets. Hence, chickens roam the grounds. And he enjoys wine, so there is a small vineyard, too, making the museum a kind of personal pleasure palace that its creator shares with many others.

A mirrored outdoor wall surrounds the entrance. Inside, smiling guides hand out iPod-like devices, called O machines, that use location detection technology devised by an Australian company to tell visitors what artworks they are looking at.


A visitor can roam three levels of dimly lit rooms displaying art (definitely no white walls) and along a corridor of sandstone carved 18 meters below ground. Victorian armchairs line a wall opposite the bare rock, an area called the Void Bar where on a recent day people sat chatting, drinking Champagne and checking their mobile phones.

On the sprawling grounds an austere marble and steel gazebo by the American artist James Turrell serves as a place of contemplation. Nearby, a concrete mixer fabricated by Delvoye from intricately patterned laser-cut steel looks like the ultimate boy's toy.

In all, about 200 of Walsh's collection of 1,500 artworks are on display, said Delia Nicholls, the museum's research curator. Not on show at the moment: "The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili, the painting of a black Madonna that incorporated elephant dung and created a political furor when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999. Walsh acquired it some years ago from the Saatchi Gallery in London.

The museum attracts all kinds - traditional art lovers, young art students, tourists who have come to Tasmania for the island's natural beauty. Yet, even with the tourism the museum has generated for the struggling Tasmanian economy, Walsh, 53, is a figure local residents cannot quite embrace.

He grew up in a poor family not far from where MONA now stands. His father trained greyhounds. He talks in an autobiography of loathing school and hiding in the 19th-century Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery so that he could read what he wanted.

The University of Tasmania, where he studied as an undergraduate, was close to a casino, where Walsh applied his aptitude for mathematics to high-stakes gambling. He formed a syndicate, Bank Roll, and travelled the world winning big.

In the first catalog for MONA, he explained his motivation for the museum: "I invent a gambling system. Make a money mine. Turns out it ain't so great getting rich ... What to do? Better build a museum; make myself famous. That will get the chicks."

Beneath the bravura, he says he has long been interested in why humankind has always made art. He suspects, he says, that the drive is biologically based, an evolutionary adaptation.

"So the question becomes, 'How does art help us to survive?,'" he wrote in an email. "This seems to me the most important art question available (except possibly, 'What is art?'). There are probably a number of correct answers, since evolution is opportunistic."

To explore the question of art and evolution, Walsh has invited two American experts in evolutionary psychology, Steven Pinker and Geoffrey Miller, and the cognitive scientist and neurobiologist Mark Changizi, who have all visited the museum, to curate exhibits at MONA in 2016.

"I am opportunistic also, and I will grab any opportunity to ask a good question while putting some great pictures on the wall," he said.