For all of the convenience that air travel provides, It is rather easy to forget how far you have come, or even that you have travelled at all. It took over 30 hours to get from Minnesota to Tasmania, most of which, is spent sealed in a metal tube, looking out a window in a night that seems to never end. A disorienting illusion, that comes from taking off at sunset, and flying west, a half step behind the rotation of the earth, as it too makes a long, strange journey of its own. So, it wasn’t until i finally arrived in Hobart, and checked into my hostel, that i realized just how far i had actually come. Looking over a map of the tiny island state tacked to the lobby wall, seeing Hobart hanging off the bottom of that island, i realized, this was the furthest south i had ever been…and damn…it is REALLY far south. The warm sun and idillic breeze blowing in the open windows serving only to further remind me how far away i was from the frigid city i call home.
All i knew about Tasmania before my arrival was that it was far south, there is a town there named Bothwell, and tasmanian devils are way scarier in person then they are in cartoons. After three days there, Hobart may have become one of my favorite cities in the world. That tiny little port city reminds me a lot of another little port city i love, Portland, Maine…only a little weirder and a LOT warmer. Among mainland Australians, Tassie has a reputation as being backwards, “bogan”, and slow. I have always heard Aussies take the same tones when talking about Tasmania, that American take when talking about Appalachia. But after spending some time in Hobart, it became clear that Tassie is far more than desolate outback, and sleepy fishing villages…
Outside, the small port city was coming to life in preparation of MONA FOMA. An absurdly eclectic music festival curated by Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes) and funded by admirably eccentric gambling tycoon David Walsh, in conjunction with his Museum for Old and New Art. Performances were happening in old cathedrals, on fishing wharfs, and the tiny town was flooded with wonderful weirdos from home and abroad.
The MOFO fest was such a perfect mix of weird and wonderful, i mean…i played AFTER Mick Harvey (The Bad Seeds) and The Sun Ra Arkestra…and people stayed to watch me!?! Nuts! The after party was a hilarious tangle of dance floors outside of the city. My favorite of which, was a tiny italo-disco dance party that you could only enter via slide. Though the silent dance party was fun too (no music, no sound, everyone dancing to their own song in their head…and a woman making PB&J? shhhh…just go with it). The tickets for this festival are kept insanely low, (i only assume the whole thing operates at a loss to Mr. Walsh) so that everyone can afford to attend. Everything about this fest seems to be focused on being inclusionary, and injecting exciting contemporary performance into a beautiful, albeit, tiny town at the very bottom of the world. Mr. Walsh clearly gets his kicks from hitting his sleepily little home town with beautiful little shocks and jolts. One of the exciting pluses of this objective/mischief, is the incredible people watching that arises from witnessing the intermingling of the working class of Tasmania, meeting the weirdo class of the rest of the world, as they all converge on the harbor of Hobart. on the weekend of MONA FOMA, this is the biggest thing going in this sparsely populated state, so grab a Cascade and some delicious food truck food, find a seat on a bean bag chair, and watch all the magic unfold.
The next day, i went to MONA…
Now, i used to work in an art museum, i grew up going to museums, and i will happily attend most any museum if given the time, but generally, i choose to opt out of museum visits while traveling, in favor of more adventurous experiences. I always look at it like, “i can come back and see this when my tattoo collecting, strange alcohol drinking, abandoned building exploring days are over”. (I have made not one, but TWO visits to Venice with the intention of seeing Giorgione’s “La Tempesta”, and have yet to set foot in Gallerie dell’Accademia where it is housed. And i regret nothing, because the stuff i did in it’s stead, was a fantastic use of my time.) However, when i was told that i had to take a high speed hydrofoil ferry boat to get to the Museum of Old and New Art…i felt this was an appropriate adventure to get into. (Plus, i was really hung over from the night before, and wasn’t up for hiking into the mountains)
No discussion about MONA is complete without discussing the museum’s creator, and financial backer, David Walsh…Which requires an important personal preface on my part: I AM NOT A JOURNALIST…i am a storyteller and a rapper. While there are some moments in my travel-writing that i will extensively research details about a place, or a piece of history, there are other times i like to let the legend do the talking. I am, first and foremost, a storyteller, and what is the point of being a storyteller, if you can’t enjoy a little “creative non-fiction” (a term coined by my uncle Ronnie, who is, himself, a fantastic story-teller). A story without a little exaggeration is just journalism, and as we have now established, I AM NOT A JOURNALIST. So, with all that being said, i have chosen not to research into the life of Mr. David Walsh, because the legend i heard from several sources throughout my travels in Australia, is FAR too interesting to not share. If you want to know more about Mr. Walsh, and wade through the legend to find the sterile truth, be my guest, google is just a click away. Me, i am going to lavish you with the legend and let you decide where reality stops and fiction begins.
As i hear it, David Walsh grew up in a tiny little “bogan” (read: redneck) neighborhood in Hobart, Tasmania. The kind of place where you either get out, or you get pregnant. Needless to say, Mr. Walsh made it out. Somewhere along the line, he got good at cards, and made money gambling. LOTS of money … from LOTS of gambling. After making heaps and heaps of cash, he came BACK to his sleepy little redneck town and started making some changes. Most notably, he built, the Museum for Old and New Art out on a peninsula facing his old backwards little neighborhood. Some see it as a middle finger jutting out to his past, i like to see it as a freak flag planted high on the mount. Either way…the location was clearly no accident. When you approach the museum, by badass hydrofoil ferry, it feels less like you are visiting the MOMA, or the Lourve and more like you are approaching Jurassic Park. Atop high cliffs, the museum is buttressed by a wall of raw steel ribs, rising out the sandstone like the teeth of some giant beast…from a world where Richard Serra was God.
Once you climb the monolithic stone stairs to summit the hill, you realize, MONA is not at the apex, but in fact, buried deep inside the mountain itself. So down you go, down a glass spiral staircase, down into the heart of the sandstone hill, winding away from the world above and into a place that feels very far away from the quaint little port town you were standing in the middle of just 30 minutes before. Upon entering the museum, you are handed and iPhone, with headphones, after a quick tutorial, you realize there are no didactic cards to explain the art around you. If you want to know the details, the iPhone is tracking your every move, and when you awake it from its sleep, you will see that tabs for all the art that surrounds you. Tap on the image of the piece you want to know about, and you will be rewarded with, not only the usual art info, but also interviews with the arts, “art wank” statements from Walsh himself, and other odds and ends broadcast into your ears.
As you wander through the labyrinthine halls of the MONA, you pass wild contemporary pieces (see the “colaca” above) paired with ancient art and artifact (see scarab to the left), in a way that feels logical and seamless. But, MONA is confusing, there is no clear path through the space. There is no map, there are hallways that lead to nowhere, art hidden behind corners, darkness that can swallow you, only to explode you out onto a gloriously lit library. All you can do is get lost in it all, swim through this strange sea, till you find dry land on the other side. I have heard that Walsh has a house above MONA, and it is connected to the museum by a series of secret paths, that lead behind the walls themselves. I heard he has peepholes hidden behind those walls too, and he watches patrons as they explore his maze. The more one hears about Walsh, and MONA, (and trust me, no matter where i went in Australia and New Zealand, i couldn’t mention ANYTHING about Hobart without it leading into a conspiratorial chat about Walsh and his mysterious museum), the more unclear it becomes, if he built this Museum for us, or we are just another exhibit in his vast personal collection, curated and amassed, all for his enjoyment. Either way, MONA is a museum like no other, and well worth trip to the bottom of the earth to experience.
There are places that i visit, and they feel like a box checked. I was glad to see it, i won’t be mad if i end up back there, but i don’t need to go out of my way to get there again. When i took that 30 hour flight from Minneapolis to Hobart, i was excited to check that box, but i was looking at it as a fun little stop over on my way to the marvel that is Melbourne. Instead, what i found at the bottom of the world, was something a kin to a different dimension, a mixture of familiar and far out. This city cast a spell on me, and when it was finally time to head out to Melbourne, i was sad to see Tasmania fading out behind me. I will get back to that strange place, there is a lot more for me to get lost in.