Monday, March 17, 2014


When Australian millionaire David Walsh opened MONA (The Museum of Old and New Art) in Tasmania, Australia in 2011, it made quite a splash in the Aussie art world for the shocking and controversial works that it had on display. When I visited the Land Down Under in January, I got a chance to visit what may have been the strangest museum I’ll ever go to in my life.

MONA sits on the bank of the Derwent River in Tasmania, Australia.

Walsh described MONA as a “subversive adult Disneyland,” and boy was he right. The museum, which houses his private art collection, is located in a winery, houses dizzying spiral staircases, and contains artwork that range from Ancient Egyptian to Postmodernism, and none of the pieces on display seem to have anything to do with each other. I was able to understand the meaning behind a lot of the pieces on display, and enjoyed the interactive art installments, but I wasn’t able to immediately understand how the pieces related to each other as a whole, or even if they were meant to relate to each other at all. I went with my Australian friend, who sort of gave up trying to understand any of the art about midway through our visit.

MONA’s spiral staircases can give anyone vertigo.

Here are some of the most memorable and controversial pieces we saw at MONA:

Bit.Fall (2005) by Julius Popp
This was my favorite art installation at MONA, and my friend’s favorite, too. “Bit.Fall” used streams of water to spell out the words and names that are prominent on the news and on the Internet. Each word is visible for just a few seconds, symbolizing the fleeting, fast-paced way we consume information. It’s literally a waterfall of words.

Pulse Room (2006) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
This was another really fun interactive installation. You would place your hand on a sensor, and then press a button, which allowed the light inside the bare ightbulbs lining the ceiling to flicker on and off at the speed of your pulse.

On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell (2008) by Stephen Shanabrook

One of the more disturbing pieces at MONA, Shanabrook used chocolate to cast a life-size mold of a suicide bomber. It was unnerving to see chocolate, something we consider delicious and satisfying, used to depict something as horrific as disembowelment.

The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) by Chris Ofili

This is perhaps one of the most controversial pieces at MONA. It depicts a woman in the traditional garb many associate with the Virgin Mary, but her image is made out of a collage of pornographic images, and elephant dung was used to form her breast. When this painting was on exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, Mayor Giuliani sued the museum and threatened to close it down for exhibiting what he described as a “sick” and “disgusting” painting. Many others accused Ofili of “Catholic bashing.”

The Cloaca Professional (2010) by Wim Delvoye

This was easily the most memorable (in a scarred-for-life type of way), and probably the most disgusting thing at MONA. After a day seeing tons of shocking, frightening, eyebrow-raising artwork, there was nothing more shocking, more frightening, or more eyebrow-raising than the Cloaca Professional, endearingly nicknamed “The Poo Machine” amongst the Australians. Food is fed into one end of the machine twice a day. Then the food is ground up in a similar manner to the way the human body digests food, and then the excrement comes out at the other end of the machine. Needless to say, the smell in the room where the Cloaca Professional is housed is too deadly and awful to be described in words. Not only was I dying from the poisonous smell, but my friend, who stands at 6’3”, almost collapsed on top of me in a dead faint, which would’ve been doubly deadly for me. The Cloaca Professional has been described as the most hated piece at MONA, but also the most talked-about piece.

Looking back on my visit to MONA, I’ve realized that all the pieces have the common theme of human decadence and moral corruption. They all somehow relate to sex and death, and display these themes in a very blunt, graphic manner. The museum is one giant social commentary, telling the story of a civilization that is accustomed to expensive tastes, but is also defined by dissention and decay.

--Sarah Allam


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