Prescott and I are in in Tasmania! Specifically, we are in Hobart, the island’s capital and largest city (though at 225,000 people, “city” seems a generous term). This seafaring hub was founded as a penal colony in 1804, and it was long known as a fairly rough-and-tumble place. But there’s now a thriving cultural scene, thanks in no small part to the 2011 opening of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).
The museum’s facade looks fairly modest because the exhibition spaces are all subterranean — they’ve built three giant levels of museum space right into a rock face. The architecture is impressive. When you enter the building, you go down and down and down a set of spiral stairs. You feel like they’re never going to end … and then you find yourself in this long underground passageway:
Once downstairs, you’re given a pre-programmed iPhone that acts as your tour guide. It cleverly knows where you are via a series of beacons, so it’s easy to read about the piece you’re looking for. I’m not a huge fan of reading about art on a phone around my neck, but this does give you the option of having a whole lot of information or none at all. Plus, there’s a “Like” or “Hate” button that you can push for each piece.
Most of the art here is enormous. The first piece you encounter is bit.fall, a water installation that pulls words from Internet searches and sends them rushing down the wall:
Other large installations range from the serious (a giant pool of used motor oil) …
… to the whimsical (a very shiny grotto):
Some of the art has been developed on a more human scale. This one, Tim, is literally so — the artist has paid this man to be tattooed and sit all day as a museum piece:
Another life-sized object is Untitled (bowl & fish):
I loved the conversation to my right that these fish occasioned : Child: “Mommy, what’s the knife in bowl for?” Mother: “Hmm … I don’t know.” Child: “Oh — it’s a slide for the fish!”
My favorite pieces of all were James Turrell’s light installations. Event Horizon, an immersive color-light experience, is probably the most amazing of the available options, but you have to make sure to join the queue 100 minutes in advance, and you can’t take any photographs. If you want to satisfy your Instagram quotient, you can spend time enjoying Beside Myself instead:
This hallway of light allows visitors to be bathed in yellow …
… or green …
… or orange:
There’s one more Turrell piece inside of a giant sphere, but you have to purchase tickets separately (and in our case, in advance), so we just admired it from our seats in the basement cafe:
We found the museum’s Spanish-inspired cafe both overpriced and somewhat disappointing (in retrospect, we should’ve eaten in the simpler cafe upstairs), but we did love the view out over the river:
As promised, MONA has old things, too, though they’re vastly outweighed — both in size and in number — by the new ones. It feels like someone had a collection of a few antiquities and decided to toss them in with a bunch of contemporary art, a conceit that largely works, though the ancient art sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. One ancient piece that manages to take center stage is this coffin of Pausiris from 100 CE Egypt:
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, this coffin is set up on a block that’s surrounded by water. If you read the room map, you’ll get a sense of the curators’ senses of humor: warnings over the water sections of the room read “if you are here, you are wet and cold,” and “if you are here, you might drown.”
Off in other corners of the museum are this wonderful Egyptian tomb door …
… complete with spectacular hieroglyphics …
… across the hall from a Mesopotamian cuneiform slab, which offers one of the the oldest forms of writing known to man:
If you want a translation of this 879 BCE script, it reads: “Palace of Ashurnasirpal, great king, king of the world, king of Assyria, son of Tukkti-Ninurta, great king, mighty king, king of the world, grandson of Adad-Ninurta, king of the world, king of Assyria.” That writer lost no opportunities in making his point.
Prescott and I spent a lot of time in the extensive “Zero” section of the museum, which celebrates the Zero movement of 1950s Europe (especially Germany, Belgium, and France). The artists of this movement, which was named after the countdown of a rocket launch, were interested in light, movement, and perception.
Their works include water …
… patterned lines …
… rotating lights …
… mirrors …
… and occasional splashes of color, both small …
… and large (this is an entire floor of blue pigment):
Our last stop at MONA was at the heartbeat light exhibit. You squeeze two handles that measure your heartbeat, which is then reflected in lights across a giant underground room:
Once your heartbeat is in the system, it then follows the heartbeats of everyone else who has come before. So in this sequence, my heartbeat is in the first lightbulb — and the subsequent bulbs are everyone who stood in line before me:
If you get tired of all of the art, you can sit down on the eclectic furniture and have a yummy cocktail.
There’s a bit of art outside, too, though we spent less time there.
Not everyone believes in MONA’s artistic vision — the founder has been criticized for being self-centered and irreverent (his parking space says “GOD”) — but we had a great time there. It’s well worth three or four hours, and I can see why it’s boosting Hobart’s cultural scene.
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