The captain on this camouflaged high-speed ferry resembles Fidel Castro. The couple next to me is making out in the sunshine and the two couples behind me are well into their second bottle of wine and chanting “MONA! MONA! MONA!” as if they’re on their way to an Aussie rules football game.
MONA is the unassuming acronym for the Museum of Old and New Art, better known as the Museum of Sex and Death, built by local Tasmanian hero David Walsh, who grew up poor in a Hobart suburb then founded the world’s largest gambling ring. His two-year-old, $200 million museum at the mouth of the Derwent River, 20 minutes from downtown Hobart is, by his own description, a “Subversive Adult Disneyland.”
That’s where this ferry is heading.
“He’s very controversial. He’s obsessed with sex and death,” my taxi driver told me, unprompted, on my ride into Hobart from the airport yesterday. “He also has Asperger’s and he just got engaged to a lady from New Orleans.”
Walsh and his lady live in a penthouse on top of his museum, which from the ferry, looks like a steel bunker built for the apocalypse, cantilevered into a hillside. I had hoped to meet Walsh but was told he doesn’t grant interviews (unless it’s with Richard Flanagan, who wrote “Tasmanian Devil,” a profile of Walsh for The New Yorker). After the ferry drops us off, the collective mass of tourists climbs what feels like 1,000 steps to what looks like a mirrored fun house. This is the entrance to Sex and Death and I descend. *
It feels like a nightclub down here. A young docent passes me the “O,” a souped-up iPod made specifically for MONA that visitors can use to zap installations to learn more about them—there are no descriptions of the art on the walls. They can also press a “Love” or “Hate” button to indicate a strong reaction to a particular piece. Rumor has it that Walsh will jettison any piece in his collection that gets too much Love, just to keep everyone on edge. I slip around a group sipping cocktails at the cave-like limestone bar and enter the maze of art.
It’s irreverent, edgy, disturbing, violent, evocative, provocative, maddening, outrageous, sexy, and voyeuristic. And most everyone around me loves it, if the surround-sound laughter is any indication. This isn’t a hush-hush, dead-masters museum tour. I feel like I’m at a cocktail party thrown by a twisted Wizard of Oz.
On my “O,” I zap the work in front of me, “Delicacies of the Dead,” and find out that the large glass canister contains artist Alicia King’s human tissue. Then I flop into a beanbag to watch a video installation on the ceiling of a woman in four-inch stilettos delicately walking across an iron grate. It makes me anxious, so I move on to “On the Road to Heaven, the Highway to Hell,” a sculpture of the remains of a suicide bomber cast in dark chocolate. After passing the self-explanatory “Kitten Trophy Rug,” and guests playing ping-pong at a table folded like an accordion where the ball falls through the crack on every play, I enter a room with “The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum.” Hundreds of dead insects are hung by microscopic string as if to look like a live swarm. Then it’s on to 40 televisions playing an endless, varied cacophony of talking heads, which leads me to a massive space, empty save for a streaming matrix of data running nonstop down a two-story wall. I’m dizzy and mesmerized.
By the time I ascend into daylight I’m fully disoriented, but not so much so that I miss the parking space reserved for “GOD” and inhabited by a Mercedes SUV. The mad genius must be home.
*No photos for personal use on websites were allowed…so use your imagination.