Entering the Museum of Old and New Art is always an attack on the senses. Otherwise known as Mona, David Walsh’s private Bond-like compound on Hobart’s River Derwent is a maze of piercing sights, smells and sounds.
The museum recently unveiled not one, but three new exhibits that feel instantly at home in the gallery, offering profound full-body art experiences. Perhaps none more so than Hrafntinna (Obsidian), the ethereal, immersive installation by Icelandic musician and artist Jónsi.
Shown in New York and Canada before being acquired by Mona in 2022, the work is inspired by Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano, which erupted in 2021 after lying dormant for around 6000 years. As you enter via a tunnel in the depths of the museum, the first thing that hits is the earthy scent of fossilised amber emanating from the blackness. Tom Ford would kill for this fragrance. It’s perhaps no surprise that, as well as his musical projects, including fronting post-rock band Sigur Rós, Jónsi has a keen interest in perfumery.
The scent carries the viewer through thick curtains into a disconcertingly black room, where a web of almost 200 speakers surround a lozenge-shaped bench, providing 360 degrees of sound. The only source of light is a pulsing orb suspended on the roof, which glows grey and orange and bright white in time with the soundscape, bringing to mind the crater of a volcano.
It’s easy to lose track of time in here, the bass shuddering through the bench while a cacophony of seismic clashes, hissing frequencies and dramatic choral arrangements pass over and through you. It’s immersive, moving and meditative, each viewer forced to be alone in the space – even if they’re with a group – as the soundtrack moves through a 25-minute loop.
Stumbling back into the light of the museum, you’ll discover two more new exhibits. The next is a series of works by renowned French sculptor Jean-Luc Moulène and Teams, in his first solo Australian exhibition.
In a large concrete room, four complex knots sit on concrete platforms in a loose square, each made from a different material: ancient Tasmanian rainforest timber, Triassic sandstone, pale wax and alloyed zinc. These newly commissioned pieces sit beside two of Moulène’s older works: on one side, 3240 brightly coloured aluminium cans are stacked on wooden pallets; on the other is a wall-sized black-and-white projection of three naked women swaying in a grassy field.
“Moulène has been described as mercurial, experimental, erudite and poetic,” says curator Sarah Wallace. “His ideas evolve through a deep and considered engagement with material, form and process. The resulting objects are at once mysteriously beautiful and forthright about the means of their making.”
From the very new to the very old, the last of the new exhibits is Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World. This is the first show at the museum featuring exclusively old art, putting the “o” in Mona.
You enter a bright vestibule, offering a kitsch vision of heaven, with hymns playing from unseen speakers. Blue sky and fluffy clouds are painted on the walls and floor, with mirrors on the roof reflecting an endless atmospheric loop. Archways lead to six smaller darkened rooms packed with religious icons. “We want people to really lose themselves in this exhibition and be taken to another realm, hence this fairly extravagant design,” says Mona’s senior research curator Jane Clark.
The exhibition originated at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and features more than 140 devotional objects made between 1350 and 1900, starring various saints, virgins and other holy Christian subjects. They span the gaudy and the restrained, the recognisable and the curious, with forlorn depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and other icons painted in egg tempera on wooden doors and glossy tiles.
Clark describes Heavenly Beings as an encapsulation of art history and culture that demonstrates how much humans have in common across the ages. “Why do people make art? Why are emotions universal? Why do human beings make objects that they consider special, whether it’s the baby’s boot or the holy object?” asks Clark. “It is exceptional how many of these works are here in Australia, but [there aren’t] very many in public collections.”
The three new exhibits are contrasting yet striking additions to the significant collection of artworks at Mona. They’re among the best things to see, hear – and smell – in Tasmania. “Some people can find Mona a bit overwhelming with sounds and the move from old to new,” says Clark. “But (people can) come in here and find a peace and quiet and contemplation and beauty that’s apart from the hectic everyday world of life.”
All three new exhibits run until April 1, 2024. Visit mona.com.au.
The writer visited Hobart as a guest of Mona.