Hobart’s $75 million Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) had been on our radar for some time, and my partner and I were not ignorant of its frankly dubious fixations – death and sex. The good, bad and ugly of owner David Walsh’s “subversive adult Disneyland” unfurls over three dimly-lit subterranean levels with visitors relying only on a gallery-supplied iPod and their own moral compass for guidance.
Current exhibitions include a plaster cast of the remains of a suicide bomber, a horse on a meat hook, a self-administering suicide machine, bestiality, a full-frontal transgender nude, anal lipstick kisses and a wall of 150 delicate porcelain vulvas.
In short, hardly the place for someone with a pacemaker let alone two small children. But with no Plan B (read: babysitter) in place, the children were coming with us and that was that. We’d deal with the vexed issue of innocence lost at a later date.
Inside MONA: The sex and death museum
David Walsh, multi-millionaire gambler, art collector and owner of MONA at Berridale near Hobart, Tasmania. Pic shows David with "No Visible Means of Escape" (1996) by Marc Quinn. Photo by Peter Mathew
Upon entry I half expect some responsible adult to pull us aside and say, “What the hell do think you’re doing?” Instead, the attendant happily takes our money, and shows us via a map the areas we should perhaps avoid taking the kids to (this should be easy as most of the more disturbing displays are behind floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains).
We pass the vulvas (which at my eye level literally go over our kids’ heads), catch the two-year-old just before he makes a grab for “The Bowl with Fish and Sharp Knife” (my words) and marvel at the strobed stop-gap animation inside Gregory Barsamian’s giant metal head.
The longer I spend at MONA the more I’m convinced that Walsh, a father of two and something of a former enfant terrible himself, designed the gallery (at least partially) with kids in mind. There’s the theatre, of course, and it’s not all sex and death. Much of the collection is simply playful.
“Look, there’s Lightening McQueen,” our eldest points excitedly at Erwin Wurm’s hilariously unambiguous “Fat Car”. “But what happened to him?”
We do falter the once, during Delvoye’s “tattooed-pig” exhibition. Stretched pig skins line the walls, while playing in an adjoining room is a video of the pigs—pre-tanned and very much alive. The juxtapositioning of life and death leaves the four-year-old bewildered and us pathetically tongue-tied.
We’re saved by the belch. Next door, a Cloaca, ostensibly glass cylinders, metal casing and rubber tubing, is busily digesting day-old café fare. Another sits oddly serene after a job well done. My kids hold their noses giggling madly; shifting readily from disgust to delight and back again.
Back in Melbourne, our decision to take the kids to MONA receives, at best, a muted response. While we remain comfortably numb to criticism, it does give us cause to reflect on how MONA might have impacted our four-year-old. Weeks later, we get our answer.
My partner is collecting him from childcare when he announces, “Dad, I forgot to tell Euan about the water that falls from the sky and makes all those words.”
It takes him a moment to realise our son is talking about a MONA exhibition, bit.fall, a waterfall of words taken from daily Google searches. It’s a curious choice as he’s yet to fully grasp the alphabet, let alone reading.
“Could he be responding to the work on some intuitive, conceptual level?” my partner asks me later that evening. I admit it does give me pause. The room fills with possibility. “Then again,” he adds, “he told everyone about the Cloaca.”