Art’s Subterranean Disneyland

An audacious new “unmuseum” in Tasmania will be one of a kind—while it lasts

| January-February 2011

  • Art's Subterranean Disneyland
    Stephen J. Shanabrook's "On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell"
    Courtesy of the artists and MONA

  • Art's Subterranean Disneyland

Imagine a museum that assaults every sense as you walk through its rooms. A museum where one work of art incorporates rotting flesh and another manufactures excrement; where the mutilated bodies of suicide bombers are sculpted in chocolate and the Bible and the Torah are displayed with bombs inside them.

Imagine a museum that overturns virtually every accepted notion of institutional practice: an underground museum with no natural light, with a deliberately confusing design so visitors get lost as they wander through its halls; a museum that, in places, is incredibly noisy and very, very smelly.

This is the vision of David Walsh, mathematician, professional gambler, vineyard and brewery owner, who describes his Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) outside the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, as both an “unmuseum” and a “subversive Disneyland.” MONA was scheduled to open in January 2011.

David Walsh is not like most collectors. For starters, he does not seem to care what people think of him or his museum. Here are his views on the potential benefits MONA will have to local business: “We don’t know whether I’m going to make any difference to the economy, and I must say I don’t particularly care.”

The 49-year-old Tasmanian, who made his money by developing complex gambling systems, describes himself as a “full-on secularist.” “MONA is my temple to secularism,” he adds, explaining that he is interested in “talking about what we are”—in other words, what makes humans human. “People fucking, people dying, the sorts of things that are the most fun to talk about.”

The first of many surprises for visitors will be the building itself. When you approach MONA from the ground, it is nowhere to be seen. Visitors to Moorilla, Walsh’s six-acre estate overlooking the River Derwent, will see a glass-fronted restaurant perched on the edge of a cliff, eight pavilions offering luxury accommodation, a vineyard, and a brewery, but no sign of a major museum building. The entrance is a small podlike structure leading to an elevator and a staircase that winds its way underground.

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