Art’s Subterranean Disneyland

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

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.

What awaits you inside is both spectacular and completely unexpected. MONA is huge, with around 65,000 square feet of display space over three floors. The result is breathtaking. One wall of the museum is the sandstone cliff. From there the structure is built out toward the river using steel and concrete.

While most galleries greet the public with a ticket or information desk, the first thing visitors to MONA will encounter is a bar in the foyer. Drinks will not be allowed inside the galleries, but Walsh says he likes the idea of “visitors revisiting the art with an accumulating alcoholic insight.”

From the bar one enters a labyrinth of rooms in every shape and size. Some have low ceilings because of the physical constraints of the site and are too small to contain more than one installation; others are vast and offer long vistas toward distant works of art.

The art on show will cover three main areas. There are the antiquities, including Egyptian mummies, Roman mosaics, Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, and thousands of Greek coins. Then there are the works of Australian modernists, including Sidney Nolan’s monumental Snake, made up of 1,620 individual panels that will cover a 50-yard curving wall.

Finally, there is the international contemporary art. Walsh owns some 300 works, and more have been commissioned for the opening of MONA. These include an untitled 1998 installation by Jannis Kounellis that incorporates seven rotting beef carcasses and a new version of Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca. The machine, which simulates the human digestive process, creates excrement that is apparently indistinguishable from the real thing.

The smell of rotting beef and excrement may be too much for some visitors, but to Walsh they are important. “Aren’t we just machines for manufacturing shit?” he asks.

Some visitors may find these displays shocking, a reaction Walsh welcomes. “There’s a lot of controversial stuff [that will go on display]. And, hopefully, it will cause a backlash because that’s how you attract visitors–and also I want to get some discussion going.”

Other works likely to produce strong responses include Stephen J. Shanabrook’s On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell, a chocolate sculpture depicting the mutilated body of a suicide bomber, and Gregory Green’s Bible Bomb #1854 (Russian style), a mixed media “bomb” in a Bible.

To suggest, however, that Walsh is interested only in the controversial is to miss the point, says Olivier Varenne, a curator who has worked for him for five years scouting out potential purchases. “David has a very big sensibility. Every time there is poetry or humor or derision in art, I enjoy showing David these works,” says Varenne.

There is indeed poetry and delicacy in many of Walsh’s acquisitions. Tracing Time by Claire Morgan is an installation of hundreds of 13-foot-long threads that run from the ceiling to the floor on which Morgan will glue, by hand, 3,000 to 4,000 dandelion seeds.

Another beautiful installation will be Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto’s Untitled (White Library), which consists of 6,000 blank white books and newspapers in a library that fills an entire room.

The museum will host exhibitions, and the displays from Walsh’s collection will rotate regularly. And Walsh will have sophisticated technology to help him decide what to put on show. Visitors will be given a device that will help them navigate the galleries and give them information about the works of art (there will be no wall labels). It will also track the time visitors spend in front of each work.

He will also observe visitors in another way. An apartment for Walsh and his two daughters will be accessible via a concealed doorway in one of the galleries. A small window is being built in the floor so he can peer down on the public below. What Walsh still doesn’t know is how many members of the public he will peer down upon. His estimate is around 1,000 a day.

Many collectors want their names permanently inscribed on museum buildings or forever associated with endowments and bequests. Walsh is not one of them. “I don’t believe that I am anything other than organized matter,” he says, “and I am quite sure that whatever is the essence of me will cease to be [after I die]. I find projecting myself into the future beyond the point where I am organized matter is of no interest to me at all.”

He’s not kidding. MONA is essentially programmed to self-destruct. “If I cared about longevity,” he says, “I wouldn’t have built a museum a couple of meters above the sea level. The Derwent is a tidal river. In 50 years, a lot of money is going to have to be spent on MONA or it’s going to be underwater.”

Cristina Ruiz is an editor at large of The Art Newspaper, an Italian-owned, London-based publication that covers the arts world with a global network of correspondents. This excerpt comes from its July-August 2010 issue.

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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