Nudity, Art, Sex and Death – Tasmania Awaits You- page 2 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Bottoms up: Wineglass Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula. (Joe Wigdahl / Network Agency)

Nudity, Art, Sex and Death – Tasmania Awaits You

With one big bet, an art-loving professional gambler has made the Australian island into the world’s most surprising new cultural destination

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(Continued from page 1)

But before I could meet the man himself, I needed to get a sense of his bizarre brainchild, so I decided to make a preliminary visit to MONA, incognito.

If you’re going to confront sex and death—or even just the art world’s latest depictions of them—you might as well do it naked. This notion was cheerfully explained to me by a fresh-faced attendant when I first arrived at MONA and noticed that an after-hours “naturist tour” was on offer. Apparently, participants would be escorted through the subterranean exhibitions while in the state that nature intended. The guide would also be naked, of course. Even the guards would be naked. Since many of MONA’s artworks deal with the intimate workings of the human body, any naked viewer’s involvement would surely be at a heightened level, the attendant said. “Of course, the tour has been booked out for weeks,” she shrugged. “But I could put your name on the waiting list.”

On the assumption that getting a place was all but impossible, I agreed—giving a false name, just in case I decided to back out entirely.

Of course, when I passed by a couple of hours later, the attendant waved me over. “Looks like the waiting list is going to clear!” she chirped. Evidently, quite a number of people who’d signed up had gotten cold feet at the last minute.

“Oh, great,” I said, then made a beeline for the museum bar.

MONA was turning out to be more adventurous than my wildest predictions. I was still delirious from jet lag, and had just taken a catamaran nine miles up the Derwent, which was disorienting enough. Blinded by the sparkling water, I felt the mundane world slipping away for a more vivid dimension. Suddenly, MONA had appeared on a headland like a ziggurat of concrete and rusted iron. From the jetty, I had climbed a steep stairway designed (Walsh has written) to evoke Mediterranean sea journeys, when ancient travelers would ascend to a temple to give thanks for a safe voyage. Walsh has called MONA’s design, by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis, “deliberately underwhelming,” eschewing the usual pomp of art museums, with their grand entrance halls and facades. In fact, the stairway left me standing on MONA’s roof—the whole museum is excavated from the sandstone riverbank—where the entrance is a wall covered with distorting mirrors. Walsh also owns the surrounding eight-acre peninsula, so visitors are also invited to wander off and explore his vineyard, tapas bar, wine-tasting room, boutique brewery and high-end restaurant, or stay overnight in one of eight gleaming, art-filled guesthouses.

Now I was about to get way out of my comfort zone. My 40 fellow adventurers and I descended a spiral staircase to the museum’s most subterranean level and stripped off in a dimly lit theater. Followed by two naked staff members, we awkwardly reconvened beneath an indoor cliff of golden sandstone. I noted that the group was evenly split between men and women, thankfully representing all ages, shapes and sizes. As everyone wondered where to put their hands (and their eyes), the guide, Stuart Ringholt, helpfully explained that we should consider ourselves to be part of a conceptual artwork, which explores “issues of embarrassment and self-consciousness.” He then led us through a series of galleries, past works of art ranging from the playful to the disturbing: X-ray images of entwined lovers, enormous bronzes made from interwoven figures of Christ on the cross, a passage lined with bordello-style velvet curtains ending up with graphic sexual videos and a statue of three dismembered young men hanging from a tree.

Walsh’s collection was curated with the assistance of international art experts such as Mark Fraser, a former managing director of Sotheby’s in Australia, and others are involved in MONA’s temporary exhibitions. (Jean-Hubert Martin, formerly director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, is curating a June show.) There is no overt order or link between the artworks. In fact, one of the most original elements of the collection is its eclectic range: Placed among the contemporary pieces are ancient artifacts, creating juxtapositions that leap across millennia. A sarcophagus and mummy are part of a multimedia installation with an Andres Serrano photograph, for example. Other modern installations include Roman coins and Babylonian cuneiform tablets.

Being naked certainly kept me on my toes: Randomly encountering nude people in a shadowy maze is hardly the usual museum experience. It was disconcerting at first, but I’ve never been more alert to the art itself. Walsh clearly has a taste for the provocative. One of MONA’s treasures is British artist Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, which in 1999 inspired New York’s then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani to threaten to cut off city funding to the Brooklyn Museum when it was displayed, for its use of elephant dung and pornography on an image of the black Madonna. Other pieces include Gregory Green’s Bible Bomb #1854 (Russian style), where a multimedia “bomb” is hidden inside a copy of the Bible. There is a huge close-up of a bullet wound, urns filled with human ashes, rooms lined with 150 plaster casts of female pudenda. Giuliani, one imagines, would have a heart attack. Still, other artworks are less confronting than whimsical. Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car is a red Porsche whose lines bulge like a bloated stomach. A giant indoor waterfall by German artist Julius Popp spells out words that are searched each day on Google.

After an hour of exploring darkened galleries, I finally began to relax about being naked—then we stepped into a brightly lit laboratory-like room. This was where an artwork called Cloaca was maintained. A mass of pipes and glass tubes combined with chemicals, it is able to reproduce the workings of the human digestive system. Museum staff “feed” Cloaca daily, then collect the odoriferous result 13 hours later. But it wasn’t the evocative smell that was shocking. The room was lit by harsh neon lights, and each wall was lined with mirrors, which reflected our images into infinity. Suddenly, there was nowhere to hide. We were visible from every angle. After this clinical episode, nobody had any energy left to be self-conscious. When we all ended up in the bar at the end of the tour, we stood around and chatted casually, still nude.

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