As an acronym, MONA has the ring of a suburban hausfrau about it. The reality is distinctly more glamorous. MONA – Hobart’s showcase Museum of Old and New Art, the elegantly appointed Source restaurant, and individual pavilions, named after Australian artists and architects, for overnight guests – is entertainment, education and relaxation in one potent package. Wrapped in its signature colours of black and pink, it is irreverent, very stylish, and a little dangerous.
Sprawling on a giant, gold beanbag with Mr Smith on the balcony of the Robin pavilion (a homage to the architect Robin Boyd), gazing at boats gliding past on the glassy Derwent River while sipping from a glass of free bubbles, I imagine myself cut adrift from life as I know it for a moment. The peace is deafening. Do my eyes deceive me or is that a cottontailed bunny hopping by? Yes, indeed, and he’s brought his pals. Rabbits may be the environmental scourge of Tasmania, but I delude myself they have been shipped in to complete the halcyon picture that is MONA. Ripening on the hillside, burgeoning vineyards promise an abundant crop. Everything, it seems, is in a state of growth.
The Museum of Old and New Art was conceived by its art-collecting owner, gambling entrepreneur David Walsh, as an adventure in Wonderland for adult Alices. It’s part of his Moorilla estate, also comprising a cellar door and microbrewery, just minutes by car or fast catamaran from Hobart. The museum is a heady mix of art and sex (maybe that’s why there are rabbits everywhere), served up with a good splash of wine. Already, its impact has been compared to the effect Frank Gehry’s radical Guggenheim Museum had on the small Spanish town of Bilbao. MONA has made Hobart sexy, perhaps for the first time. Let’s face it, that’s why we’re here.
Mr Smith and I queue up with hundreds of people, young and old, to see the museum, and we’re not disappointed. It is a striking and important collection. While reflective of a singular passion, there is definitely something for everyone: major international artists sit alongside emerging local talent, Victorian curiosities and Egyptian antiquities, all housed in an underground stone cavern accessed by a spiral staircase.
Descending into the museum, we leave reality behind momentarily to enter a tomblike space. It’s overwhelming, breathtaking. I love the witty curating, from the absurd grass tennis court that doubles as forecourt, through to the bold choice to abandon didactic panels in favour of customised, personal iPods that offer information, musings and thought-provoking statements as you wander the labyrinthine galleries. You choose what to look at and how much or little you want to know. This is not a preachy museum, but fun, egalitarian, interactive, addictive, and pleasingly weird.
What’s more, it pays to stay at MONA Pavilions because the museum bears repeat visits. We feel wildly decadent wandering between the museum and our pavilion and back again all day. This weekend MONA is all ours and it’s a cultural banquet we can’t help but return to feast upon.
Not completely sated, however, we dine that evening at in-house restaurant the Source. The food is just as creative: smart, not arch, an intelligent combination of flavours and, of course, so pretty I take iPhone photos of it. My ethically sourced and prepared fish is marvellous. Breakfast the next morning is similarly experimental yet hearty, starring bespoke sausages and punchy coffee. We follow our meal with a work-out in the sleekly spare gymnasium and a swim in the pool, both for the exclusive use of pavilion guests, though we are completely alone. The gym is heavy on the mirrors so one can admire one’s form, or someone else’s. Yet more bunnies bound by the window: maybe we have actually passed through the looking glass?
MONA is an island upon an island. Somewhere across the water is Hobart but while you’re here you could be anywhere. The entire endeavour is one man’s vision – complex, indulgent and intoxicating – and to stay at MONA Pavilions is to temporarily become part of it.
Each of the eight pavilions is decorated with original art and bespoke furniture from Tasmanian designers. The beds are vast and comfortable, the bedrooms hung with black curtains that muffle sound and light. All the pavilions have a kitchen and, more importantly, a fridge that leaves the average minibar for dead, stocked with wine that may as well be marked ‘drink me’.
Refreshed by the work-out, we crack open a bottle (well, it is almost lunch, which we enjoy later in the form of tapas at Moorilla’s wine bar) and ponder the eclectic selection of art books, cookbooks, philosophy texts and literature arranged on the bookshelf. No trashy magazines here. I opt to watch the art videos that are programmed into the entertainment system. This merging of art and entertainment is MONA’s greatest success. Art seeps into everything, whether you notice it or not. It’s art by stealth.