19 April 2012

Letter from Tasmania

The first man to pick us up, as we hitchhiked out of Launceston on our way to Cradle Mountain and down to the capital city of Hobart, had his fingernails cut into rough polygons and a lot of tools in the back of his extended cab pickup. But right away he made it clear to me (an American) and my travel companion, Remi (a Sydney native living in New York), that he didn’t take kindly to insinuations that Tasmania is less culturally developed than the mainland. When I asked him what he thought distinguished Tasmanians from other Australians, he reckoned, with a smile, that “For one thing, the rest of Oz isn’t worth a shit.” He then turned to Remi, and added, politely, “No offense, mate.”

From my two hours in the state—which had consisted of standing by the side of a road and eating some dry fast food chicken with a Styrofoam cup of brown gravy—I was having trouble discerning any distinction from the mainland whatsoever. The cuisine, customs, and accents seemed surprisingly similar. We’d heard it would be colder here, but the sun glowed like a white-hot coil. In Tasmania, as in the north, the roadsides are dotted with yellow signs depicting Pokemon-like creatures (cuddly wallabies, echidnas, and wombats blindly crossing the road; super-strong kangaroos overturning cars) and alarmist PSAs urging drivers to pull over every two hours to take a rest. People bemoan the latter as the work of “the nanny state,” which makes it illegal even to hang one’s arm out of the driver side window. As Remi explained it, Australians love to be governed because Australians love to do reckless things, but don’t want others to do the same.

Our first driver, arm brazenly dangled out the window, went on to recount a story from when he’d traveled around the mainland, working odd jobs. A group of Queenslanders had once asked what happened to his second cranium. (Tasmanians are often teased as being so deeply inbred that they suffer from polycephaly.) He responded that he’d sliced it off, boxed it up, and sent it over to the mainland so they could “sew it on to the asses where their heads should be.” Again, an apologetic glance to the backseat. 

The economics of hitchhiking are simple: people pick you up, and you keep them entertained, either by stroking their egos with easy questions or providing exotic anecdotes from your travels. Nine times out of ten, for us, it was the former, which meant we found ourselves talking about the decline of the famed Tasmanian devils. (Tasmanians just call them “devils.”) The charmingly ornery little marsupials are dying of a contagious cancer that travels from snout to snout. Since 1996, the scourge has reduced their population by at least 70 percent, putting the species on a fast track to extinction.

I mentioned to one driver—a well-tanned woman in her late thirties, with the smoky voice of a barfly and a baby seat full of potato chip wrappers—that I’d read that a team of researchers had created a sperm bank to preserve the devils’ DNA. She laughed that that would be one hell of a tricky job. With some regret, I punctured the thought bubble floating above her head. No, I informed her, in order to harvest the devil’s seed the researchers are forced to euthanize them first.

She in turn recounted the story of a local man who was recently startled by a Copperhead slithering up his pant leg for warmth. Another driver, a kindly rancher driving a flat bed truck, dittoed the warning about snakes. The antipodean summer is their mating season, and sex apparently makes the local Copperheads and Tiger snakes irrationally aggressive. The rancher drove with one hand on the wheel, the other at turns shifting gears and pointing out the passenger side window at the scenery: a mountain that loomed like a rotten tooth, the soil all fallen away from the jagged brown dolerite; his ranch, with low yellow grass stalked by jet black Herefords; and a string of high-voltage wires, which he had strung up at his day job as an electrical technician.

A little farther along, he motioned to a grove of Eucalypt trees standing in a rectangular grid, like gravestones. He said that eight years ago, Gunns, the state’s largest timber company, had proposed to build a $2.3 billion pulp mill outside of nearby Launceston, mostly to sell paper to the Japanese market, and landowners were given tax breaks to start up tree farms to feed the mill. But the state’s surprisingly robust Green Party (the world’s first) argued that the mill would spill dioxins into local waterways and incentivize razing old growth forests. State officials threw the brakes on the project. In an effort to appease the Greens, Gunns pledged to stop logging old-growth forests and transition to exclusively farming trees. This inspired farmers to plant even more trees and invest in even more expensive harvesting equipment. With the pulp mill still tangled up in red tape and Gunns hemorrhaging millions, those machines now sit rusting in sheds. Meanwhile, the Eucalypts keep growing, by as much as twelve feet a year, and the Tasmanian countryside looks to be landscaped with some of the world’s most symmetrical forests.


Snakes, trees, devils, and also dams, vineyards, and Martin Bryant, a young man with hair like a Dogtown skater who murdered thirty-five people one day with an AR-15 machine gun. Of all these topics of conversation and others, the one that kept sprouting in the most unexpected places was a new museum in Hobart, the Museum of Old and New Art. The MONA was founded last year by David Walsh, a native Tasmanian who made millions of dollars designing computer programs for gambling and then sank the entirety of his fortune into this passion project. Walsh describes the MONA as an “un-museum,” partly because it compulsively breaks taboos of a sexual, morbid, or scatological nature. It proudly features a number of artists who have been banned by the National Gallery of Australia. 

Though the un-museum courts outrage, so far it hasn’t received much. (The only protest of the museum that I’m aware of was led by Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes, who drolly took to the streets decrying the MONA FOMA art and music festival he helped organize.) Everywhere we traveled in Tasmania, no matter how rural, someone had either been to the MONA or was intending to go. I read in the paper that the museum had become the state’s top tourism attraction, with over 400,000 visitors in the last year. Forty-six percent of those visitors came from in state. Over breakfast one morning at the Hungry Wombat, a gas station café near Lake Sinclair, the owner told us she had just visited MONA on a nudist tour of the museum led by conceptual artist Stuart Ringholt. I asked her how it was. “Oh, it was lovely,” she smiled. 

After finishing our breakfasts, we stepped outside and approached a spindly Canadian driving a camper van. We had a hunch he might be heading to Hobart that day, and we were right. Two-and-a-half hours later, his van pulled into the hedged rows of MONA’s vineyard and up to the low-slung, modernist museum. We waved good-bye to the Canadian and queued up in front of the building. Its curved chrome façade reflected and redoubled the sun’s heat. Behind us, a whimsically out-of-place synthetic grass tennis court baked and shimmered.

“If you are Tasmanian, and identify yourself as such (yes, yes, second head etc etc), you get in for free,” says the MONA website. We did not identify ourselves as such, and paid $20. We were issued two iPhones, or, as the docent called them, “O-devices.” This is the kind of racy double entendre that Walsh seems to like: O, as in The Story of; Mona as in Lisa, but also as in “one who moans.” The museum’s ongoing exhibition is called Monanism.

The Os had been specially jailbroken to disable the calling features and web access, but strangely not email, so Remi and I—who had been out of email contact for six days—promptly sat down in a pair of lime green Fritz Hansen recliners and answered emails for the better part of an hour. Afterward, we descended the spiral staircase into the main gallery, which resembled the Bond-villainous lair where the WikiLeaks servers are stored in Stockholm. I couldn’t help wondering if the whole museum wasn’t some grand scheme by Walsh to steal our identities. (Sure enough, when I dropped off my O-device and exited the museum some four hours later, I realized I had forgotten to sign out of my Gmail account.)

Underground, we crossed a catwalk to the main gallery space. On our left, the walls had been dug from 250-million-year-old Triassic sandstone. The air was moist and cold, with a strong mineral smell, and behind that, something laboratorial and decaying. Lower down, the walls had already begun growing a swirled skin of salt crystals and flora from the moisture of our collective exhalations. Far below, the catwalk overlooked a brushed steel bar glittering with cut-glass tumblers, slices of fruit, and bottled amber. Nearby lay the source of the museum’s old-refrigerator smell: Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, a machine that eats turkey wraps and fruit salads from the café upstairs and excretes dry-looking turds.

We spotted a queue and blindly attached ourselves to it. The people in front of us informed us that it was for the mummy exhibit. Off to our left, an electronic poem was projected on to the sandstone. The O told me that it was called “Encyclopedia,” by Charles Sandison. It was too fuzzy to read, but maybe that was the idea.

As we neared the front of the line, I overheard the docent begin to tell a group of people how the mummy died, then stop herself. “Oh no, I don’t want to ruin the surprise.” Curiosity now piqued, we urged her to tell us, but she wouldn’t budge. Instead, she gave us a stern warning. “In the tomb there’s some black stuff that looks like glass, but it’s actually water that’s been dyed black. You might step on it, because it doesn’t read like water.” I thanked her for her nanny-like concern, confidently walked into the tomb’s first corridor, and immediately almost stepped into the water. It had read to me like a stairway leading down into somewhere very dark.

In the main room, Andres Serrano’s famous photograph of a dead man (The Morgue: Blood Transfusion Resulting In AIDS) glowed on the wall and wavered in the fluid inverse. We walked across some large granite stepping stones and up to two sarcophagi, one real, the other a rectangular video display of the same being run through a CT scan—layer after layer melting away, slowly revealing the bones of the interred. The mummy, too, it seems has died a painful death—-his ribs and left arm had been crushed. This was the surprise. Walsh’s installations always seem to always have one epiphanic “point,” turning his museum into a sort of video game where one moves from stage to stage, collecting what the poet-novelist Ben Lerner sardonically calls “profound experiences of art.” After I returned home, I would be able to view a 3D map on the museum’s website displaying all of the exhibits I had visited. (“Gotta peruse ’em all” MONA’s tagline could run.)

At one point, I was followed by the slapping flip flops of a bleached blond woman through a series of corridors upon whose walls the Epic of Gilgamesh had been inscribed in binary code. “Ooh, a maze!” exclaimed the woman behind me, veering around the corners. In each new space, as we neared the center, ambient harmonics rose in register. It was a difficult piece, ideally enjoyed by a cryptologist, perhaps, or a sentient computer. In the final space, the walls rose to a mirrored ceiling, and the harmonics built to a frenzied pitch. I stood for a moment in this dislocated space, staring up at my own staring eyes, surrounded by the coded and the arcane. The woman ducked her head in, glanced around, then called out to her boyfriend, “Nope, there’s nothing going on in here, Nick. It’s just a square!”

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