The pilgrimage to MONA

“Have you been to MONA?” is a question pressed upon self-professed arty types in Australia these days so that the country is now split into two parts it seems – those that have been to MONA and those who dream of going.

Twenty years ago Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum of Art in Bilbao opened to great acclaim and delivered social and economic reform to an industrialised and sometimes maligned city more known at the time for war and violence than culture and art.   Punctuating the Camino de Santiago pilgrims’ way of St James between San Sebastian and Santiago de Compostela, the Guggenheim at Bilbao also now forms part of a pilgrimage for those who like a good serving of art along with their devotions.


The pilgrimage to MONA is blessedly short and blister free. The MONA Roma catamaran starts the endorphins working from the moment you lay eyes on it at Franklin Wharf. We are going to an art gallery on that?  What is not to love already?
As in Bilbao there is an industrial past visible on the Derwent too; the Cadbury factory to one side, the zinc refinery on the other, strangely countered by sandstone and bushland.

Off the boat and the land rises up 100 steps toward the inner world of David Walsh. Despite his ‘rabid atheism’ this is surely Walsh’s theatrical approach to some point of reverence. An astonishing truck and cement mixer cased in laser cut religious gothic architectural shapes sit atop the museum forecourt as a chapel to the industrial giants of mining and manufacturing.


Further on the site rises to a monastic quadrangle of smooth white walls and marble benches set as a choristers’ quire. A square opening in the roof frames only the sky. Heaven sent stillness confirms you are finally arrived at a place of art.


The efforts of Fender-Katsalidis architects to reimagine David Walsh’s MONA has proved as powerful to the small city of Hobart as the Guggenheim has been in Bilbao. A place many would see as a part of the planet too far to venture to is now too converted to a must-do cultural destination.

Fortunately the gambling billionaire and the creators of Melbourne’s flashiest building – the Eureka Tower – subsumed any suggestions of shiny, dominating architecture options to embed Walsh’s subterranean galleries and curious objects deep into the sandstone of the Berridale Peninsula at the cool cost of $AUD75mill. This decision to remain unseen may offset the risk that icon architecture can have – as John Thakara points out  for Bilbao – a building as a catalyst for development can run its course … once the (insatiable consumer) has been through the great halls, eaten in the cafe and bought from the gift shop.

The descent into the crypt like spaces of MONA is most alike to the Sir John Soane Museum in London which delivers the same sense of revelation that only a personal collection of art, barely touched by a curator and spared the hammer of the State censor, can share with a naively eager public. The sort of rash spontaneity and personality which allows the exhibition of humour, candour, honesty, doubt, bravado, sex (of course), death, ugliness, pastiche, true beauty, mystery.


So that was the first hour at MONA.

The next five hours would be much harder to recount (particularly given the spacetime issues encountered earlier) so I can only urge you – my fellow artists – to peregrinate in the direction of MONA wherein you can take your rest.

As for the Guggenheim at Bilbao and the road to Santiago de Compostela – that is where I am still in the other half of the world – yet to set off on the pilgrimage but already having it in mind.

(Also I have to share the photo credits with my dear fellow traveller whose phone battery hadn’t died)


Bilbao images and quote from article by John Thakara in Design Observer and Recent image of the Guggenheim at Bilbao from roamingtheworld blog by Lauren.


6 thoughts on “The pilgrimage to MONA

  1. I think it is the design of MONA that enhances your appreciation of the art on display. It is so unlike a usual gallery, with different spaces to explore and lightening that leads you around. You want to take time to look and be delighted, confronted and all those other wonderful adjectives that Kate used!
    I went with my elderly Mum, who loved it too. We had a laugh when she went to have a rest on a chair, only to find it was an exhibit!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anne – how are you? It’s such a marvel of space and sound. The exhibition on painting using photographic type techniques assumed to be used by Vermeer and Caravaggio was quite wonderful – I loved the way that was being explored by different artists.


  2. My response to MONA was quite different to the way I felt about Bilbao’s Guggenheim. You see Geary’s amazing masterpiece from many aspects of the city streets, art itself in the cityscape, it’s an overt statement and for me when we visited, the building was more significant than most of the American modern art exhibited. MONA for me is much more about a reverential journey to an exhibition space and it’s design, while awesome, somehow concentrates your attention on the confronting works of art.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sandra – how fantastic to have both perspectives. We did have to pinch ourselves that we were at MONA and we had such a lovely trouble free time. Last time we planned a special anniversary trip sans kids – which was to go to Spain – we ended up in a snow blizzard on the M25. Perhaps we will try to go again – I do so want to get to Bilbao, but as you say MONA was just glorious for the senses – I could go on and on. I couldn’t believe I would see such iconic Australian art there – Perceval, Boyd, Nolan etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s an astonishing, revelatory, confronting, moving and delight-inspiring place, isn’t it? And for me, the approach by water makes it all the more magical, like landing on some wild foreign shore and discovering vast antique ruins filled with treasure. I was there for 5 hours the first time and 4 the second, and I still don’t feel I’ve done justice to the place!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kate – no we didn’t even scratch the surface but I’m so much more relaxed now about not even trying to ‘see everything’ like I did in my younger days. Such a perfect experience. Quite funny though bumping into one of our work colleagues among the Japanese erotic prints – it’s just one of those places :>>

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