Eccentric Australian gambler David Walsh is shaking up the sleepy city of Hobart with an unorthodox new museum challenging visitors to a new pact with fermenting, defecating and dying art.
It is an unassuming site for what has fast become one of Australia’s most talked-about tourist attractions, a rusted, hulking edifice perched on a hillside 100 steps up from the Derwent River in the island state of Tasmania.
The Museum of Old and New Art, or MONA, has shot to prominence in the two short years it has been open, seeing Lonely Planet name Hobart one of the world’s top 10 cities to visit in 2013.
By design, the first sight greeting visitors to the museum is a tennis court — maths savant Walsh plays there when the museum is closed on Tuesdays. It is intended to dispel any notion that a contrived act of culture is about to take place.
Once inside, visitors descend several flights of stairs to access the galleries. There are no labels on the walls — all information about the works is stored in an iPod handed out at the start of a visit.
The device is loaded with facts and commentaries about the art, some from the artist or Walsh himself under a section called “Artwank” — one of many irreverent touches pitched at a younger audience.
Punters can “love” or “hate” each work, aligned to the device via GPS, and at the end of the day can have a record of their tour emailed to them, complete with all the media.
“You come to a conventional museum, walk up the steps through the columns and you’re told what to think,” research curator Delia Nicholls told AFP.
“(Walsh) wanted you to have a different visceral experience by coming underground, putting a tennis court out the front.
“He wanted to do this thing where you don’t get any clues that you are coming to a museum.”
Some 700,000 visitors have passed through MONA’s doors so far and big names including Elvis Costello have signed onto its annual MONA FOMA (or MOFO) music and art festival, which attracts tens of thousands of tourists to the port city.
“For a little place at the end of the world it’s not bad,” said Nicholls.
Though centred around the Aus$75 million (US$77 million) custom-built museum and its Aus$100 million collection, MONA is about much more than art — it has an on-site brewery and vineyard, accommodation, restaurant and wine bar.
The tale of its provenance is almost as intriguing as its contents. Legend has it that Walsh, a collector since childhood of stamps and coins, bought his first serious piece, a carved door, on a gambling trip to South Africa.
Told he could not take his cash winnings out of the country he asked if he could have the Nigerian palace door instead, quipping: “So I can’t take $20,000 out but I can take your heritage,” according to Nicholls.
Walsh, who once described himself as “internal to the point of autism”, has built a vast fortune devising gambling algorithms after learning how to count cards while studying science at university.
A self-made millionaire from working-class roots, he claims to have gone broke establishing MONA and it is easy to see why.
Among the works currently on display are pieces by Kandinsky, Basquiat and Warhol, Australian modernists Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd along with Andres Serrano, best known for his controversial “Piss Christ”.
French curator Jean-Hubert Martin, former director of the Centre Georges Pompidou, helped Walsh lay out his collection and Nicholls said Walsh sought him for his unconventional eye.
Some of the art is living — French artist Michel Blazy’s fermenting sculptures using fruit and agar are oddly compelling — while others celebrate death.
Greg Taylor’s “My Beautiful Chair” invites the visitor to recline beside a lethal injection machine developed by euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke as a computer counts down the three minutes 15 seconds to “YOU ARE DEAD”.
For Aus$75,000 your ashes can be interred in the museum’s cinerarium alongside Walsh’s father and another family friend.
At 2pm every day a fresh faecal masterpiece is conceived by Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, a complex array of transparent urns fed and functioning as a digestive tract — “a work of art that produces a work of art”.
The smell is overpowering as it is fed its meal of a sandwich and salad from the museum cafe, an in-sink garbage disposal unit functioning as its mouth and the turbid swirl of acids, enzymes and browning sludge laid bare.
Nicholls said Walsh intended MONA to be a challenge — to the senses and the art establishment.
“He hopes that (visitors) see the connections that we have all got, that we maybe help them to see things in a new way,” she said.
“That’s what good art’s about.”