From Moonah to Mona

creativity = serendipity = generosity

MONA, the Museum Of Old and New Art, nestles into the side of a cliff on a peninsular that juts out into the Derwent River in suburban Hobart. That’s Hobart, Tasmania — the southern most and only island state of Australia.

You arrive by ferry, climb some stairs to the mirrored entrance, then take the glass elevator deep into the earth. Dedicated to the themes of sex and death and all things quirky, it is the brainchild of businessman and professional gambler, David Walsh, and houses his extensive art collection.

Walsh grew up in the nearby working class suburb of Glenorchy, went to Catholic School and dropped out of university after discovering he had a way with numbers. As his gambling millions grew he began to collect antiquities and works of art and needed a place to house them.

“If you build it they will come” and they have been coming in droves ever since. MONA they say, has put Tassie on the world map, not only boosting tourism by 15 percent but raising morale (and house prices!).

exhibit by Jannis Kounellis

I didn’t arrive by ferry on my first visit. I walked from Moonah, where serendipitously my host turned out to be publisher, editor and ABC reviewer, Rachel Edwards. Her small publishing house Transportation, has recently published a collection of short stories called Third Script, by authors from Tasmania, UK and Iran.

Rachel told me it was only an hour by foot along the railway track to Mona. That appealed to me — I spent hours walking along the railway line when I was a kid, so off I set in pretty much a straight line through the industrial warehouse back blocks of Moonah and Glenorchy where David Walsh grew up.

In just under an hour the path began to curve to the right and I could see the glistening waters of the Derwent and what I presumed to be Mona — a bunch of geometric shapes arranged among the sloping green of a vineyard that surrounds the museum on the Berriedale side. (It was a condition of sale that the Moorilla vineyard would carry on as before).

photo from

Walking up the hill on the paved road there was little traffic and I felt like I was coming in the back way. Native hens wandered about the base of the vines, pecking at insects and grubs, poplar trees rustled in a slight breeze and it seemed wonderfully idyllic and provincial.

I found my way to the entrance, bought my ticket and descended to the bottom level to view The Origin of Art exhibition. In a great sandstone cliff hall, a fountain of water cascaded from above, its droplets forming into words currently trending on Google.

To my left, in a close row, four anonymous black doorways beckoned me into the unknown. I chose one and stepped inside.

It would take pages to describe what I saw, that is if I could remember it all. Each doorway led into a labyrinth of rooms upon rooms filled with fabulous art works both modern and ancient, curated by four guest curators. You can read all about them on the Mona website here.

Suffice to say my favourites were two works by Tasmania’s Brigita Ozalins, who takes her inspiration from books and reading. And the dot installation by 86 year old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma.

After a couple of hours of intense viewing, I had to come up for air and lunched in the cafe, just one of a number of cool eating places dotted around the complex. Looking out across the water I could eavesdrop on the excited conversations of the people around me. Regular punters, retired folks, mums and dads, back packers, students, international and aussie tourists, locals (free for them), a few art lovers as well.

Excited, because whether or not you like all or some of the art, find it shocking, provocative or inane, what Walsh and his team have done is given you An Art Experience. He has whisked you away to his private art island on a pirate art ship, invited you into the depths of his/your own/our creative subconscious, and aroused the creative spark in you, even if you didn’t know you had one.

After lunch I went back down, via a fabulous Escheresque stairway for more, checking out the first two levels that house the in-house collection. You can’t possibly like everything of course, but there is so much to see, you just move on to the next piece. View some of it here.

When I finally surfaced around 4pm to the courtyard upstairs (actually a tennis court) a lady from Melbourne was declaring in a loud voice so everyone could hear, I LOVE IT. IT’S THE BEST THING! She explained to me she was a bit of an artist and like David was a bit eccentric too. It was her second visit. I GET IT. I REALLY DO! I’LL BE BACK AGAIN FOR SURE!

Next day I was back too and this time I came by ferry. I’m glad I did, for the experience of motoring in style up the Derwent adds a sense of adventure and appreciation for this outpost city that sits on the edge of the world facing the icy wilderness of the south pole.

View to the Roundhouse from below.

My reason for returning was to visit the Mona library (open to the public) in the old round house, one of the heritage listed buildings designed by architect Roy Grounds in the 50s. I thought it would be a good place to spend the day writing and was interested to see what books David read — again, all his own collection.(I found out later there are “11,000 titles in a range of formats, covering topics such as architecture, science, philosophy, statistics, literature, mathematics, ancient Egypt, and African art; as well as wine, beer, betting odds, religion, socialism, sex, and that old chestnut — death”).

When I got to the ticket desk to ask how to get there, they told me it was currently closed due to new building work going on nearby. I was a little miffed as on the web site it didn’t say anything about closures, so I said to the girl, what would I do? I’m here for the whole afternoon especially to see the library and my return ferry ticket isn’t until 5pm. She went behind the scenes, then came back to tell me the librarian would meet me at 3 pm to give me a private tour.

How wonderful, how generous, but what to do til then? I wandered out to one of the viewing areas called Amarna and sat down on a granite seat to do some writing. Have IPad #amwriting. A few people came and went, taking photos, then David walked by. I recognised his grey shoulder length hair, blue glasses, orange jeans, flower shirt, colourful sneakers — a Peter Pan from the psychedelic era. I’d heard he lives here too, with his wife, artist Kirsha Kaechele and their three year old, in some part of the underground complex . I thought of saying hello and thanking him for his gift, but when I looked up again he was gone.

Anselm Keifer’s work sideview, Sternenfall/Shevirath ha Kelim,

At 3 pm I met the librarian Bel, who had driven from town especially to meet me. She showed me around the renovated round house extension, the stacks of books, the Hiroshima stones from the railway station destroyed by the atom bomb, the extraordinary glass and metal book sculpture, Sternenfall/Shevirath ha Kelim, by the German artist Anselm Kiefer.

There is a reading room she can offer if I want to bring a group of writers along, places to sit and research and just take in the ambiance of the stacks. As I thanked her for her time she said, it’s what David would want, if there was someone who had come all this way to see the library he would want to make it possible!

On the way out she showed me the tunnel that normally connects the underground gallery with the library. Now I really felt I was on the island with Wendy and the Lost Boys! She told me not to miss the chapel which is currently obscured by the new building works.

Inside “the chapel” perfect place to write (not in winter says Shuvrs! )

The tiny gothic chapel is designed by Wim Delvoye, the Belgian artist who created the defecating “Cloaca” machine at MONA. Its stained glass (of skeletons and body parts) and intricate iron lacework structure has been called “a monument to David’s ideology”, who by the way, is a dedicated athiest.

Inside the rusted industrial metal walls I found a circular antique table and two red velvet chairs — a perfect writer’s studio! If only I had another day to come back again. I sat down for a while, playing host to the occasional visitor who like me had managed to find this secluded place.

I’ve always loved Tassie, since I first came as a 15 year old to walk the Cradle Mountain/Lake St Clair track, to when Brian Joyce and I with our eleven month old daughter Cyd, toured the island for a month with five theatre shows between us.We gained notoriety as questions were asked in Parliament about my use of four letter words in my Tas Arts Council funded cabaret show. (Tassie has come a long way since then!)

I returned in the last decade to bring writers to the Tarkine Wilderness, taking our inspiration from the giants of the old growth forests and the wild Tarkine coast. This time I was back offering mentoring sessions at the Tasmanian Writer’s Centre and checking out all the interesting work going on in the arts and ecology movements in and around Hobart. I hope not to leave it so long between visits next time.

I spent my last hour in the wine bar musing over a cup of peppermint tea on the connection between creativity, serendipity and generosity.

Here is what I thought — when people do creative stuff it opens the minds of others, when minds are open, serendipity turns up — things happen, connections are made, the right people/opportunities magically arrive, and a generous spirit is born (it doesn’t always have to be in that order). A gambler builds an art gallery to share with his friends (and the world), an old friend cooks you the best fish and chips you’ve ever had, a librarian takes you on a private tour of an unsual library, a publisher plies you with food from her garden, home made chutney from her larder and sends you off with books under your arm. There’s a lot of this going on in Tassie, always has been, perhaps MONA is just the latest version.

And look what’s going on in Moonah!

Photographic work of Lou Conboy at Moonah Arts Centre for Ten Days on The Island Festival

© Jan Cornall 2017

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Jan Cornall is a writer/mentor who leads international writing workshops and retreats.

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Next journeys heading out:

Taste of Tibet, June 7–18, a 12 day creative tour for writers and artists.

Haiku Walking in Japan, 2018 TBC. follow Basho’s footsteps through an autumn wonderland.

Moroccan Caravan, Mar 4–17, 2018. A camel riding/writing adventure into the Sahara.

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Jan Cornall

Jan Cornall

Writer,traveler-leads international creativity retreats. Come write with me at

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