Sunday, 25 May 2014

Tasmania's MONA and Chicken Curry in an Extra Hurry

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of going to Tasmania. It was a girls weekend that my friend, Neeta, had planned. A girls weekend away here usually means a 1.5 hour drive to the Hunter Valley, a wine region OR a drive to a cute quaint seaside town. That would be too ordinary for the wonderful and adventuresome Neeta. Besides, Neeta is an "Expiring Ex-Pat," an ex-pat that is soon returning back to their home country. In their final months, they do and see more of Australia and/or the area they live in than most residents will see in years.

Tasmania is an Australian state located about 400 miles off the coast of southern Australia. It has a population of 515,000 and is about 70% of the size of England. The state capital of Hobart is known for the Sydney to Hobart sailing race (click to read previous blog on this race). It is also known for good weekend markets, great scenery and a gourmet food scene. Many Australians and visitors go to Tasmanian to go hiking and/or rent a camper van and drive around to see the natural beauty and coasts. On the flip it also has a reputation, something akin to the US state of West Virginia - a hick place full of inbreds. You know, a place where men are men and the sheep are scared. Trust me, there are a lot of sheep in Tasmania. My only knowledge of Tasmania was the Tasmanian Devil, another unique Australian creature that can only be found in Tasmania and on Looney Tunes cartoons.

Real Tasmania Devil,
With Neeta planning the trip, I didn't have much to do or worry about. I was in great hands and I knew Neeta would not leave a stone unturned. All that I kept hearing about was a museum there, called the MONA - the Museum of Old and New Art. Right off  the bat, I was put off by the name, MONA, as there is a world renowned MOMA in New York City. I wondered how someone in Tasmania of all places could have the audacity to call their museum the 'MONA' if. I am snobby about a lot of things and one of them is art. I have been fortunate to have done a lot of travelling and everywhere I go, I always seek out art museums. If there isn't an art museum, I will go to the local cathedral to admire the paintings and art work there. I have gone to many of the world's best art museums in Europe and the US and didn't think a little museum in Tasmania would be on that all. Plus, I am not a big fan of modern art. I think most paintings by 3 year olds are better than the many vague and sparse modern paintings I have seen. So, despite all the hype for the MONA, I was already skeptical that it was not going to be much of anything. Boy, was I wrong. The MONA! All I can say still, several months later is, REMARKABLE! If this museum was in major world city like New York, Paris, London, there would be lines down the street. It was THAT GOOD at least in my little art eyes.

The tone for a great adventure was already set when we boarded the special MONA ferry in Hobart to transport us there. The ferry was a large catamaran in camoflague colours outfitted with a staff in uni-suits that looked like something out of the movie, Top Gun.  Neeta had paid a little extra so we could ride in the Posh Pit of the ferry which gave us free stimulants (alcohol or espresso) and canapes on our ferry ride to and from the MONA

MONA ferry docks at Hobart waterfront
MONA ferry, source:
Once we reached the museum, it was a bit odd as you couldn't really see the building. Once you ascended the stairs, there was an astro turf tennis court that you had a walk across to a black mirrored opening/door. While I am a big tennis player, I found the tennis court bizarre and the non descript mirrored front door entrance to be strange. I thought there might be a big MONA sign but instead there was the court and a cheesy disco- like entrance. (I later found out that the museum owner, David Walsh, is an avid tennis fan.)

Once inside, there is a cafe with a fireplace to the right and a museum shop to the left. To get to the art, you descend down a long winding black iron staircase that goes deeper and deeper down into cut sandstone and underground. Unlike most museums where you rent a audio tour, the MONA gives you a free iPod that has a GPS system in it so anywhere you are in the museum the GPS tells you which art is around you, some information on that artwork and some pieces have music that is hand selected for that artwork - very impressive. In front of you is a big black and white board, that reminded me a bit of the boards in Grand Central Station, New York. To the left of this entry is a bar. Yes a bar, in case you want a drink before you begin exploring the museum.

Cool board with changing patterns and changing words at entrance. It reminded me
of the boards at Grand Central Station in New York City. Source: my phone

Drinks anyone? A great looking bar that pours everything, including the wine
made at the on-site winery. Source: my phone

From there, you start exploring the museum. My favourite art exhibition from the whole museum was there, right in the beginning of the museum.This is artist's Julius Popp's Bit.Fall. It's a waterfall that releases droplets of water that form words from news headlines before dropping to to the ground. The meaning behind it is to expose us to to the constant stream of information that we receive from the world each day. It draws you in quickly due to the sheer size of the art, the desire to see what words will come out next and the constant thumping noise its makes as the words drop to the ground.

Julius Popp's Bit.Fall
I hope you can view this video from my phone
Right after Bit.Fall was a ping pong table with lots of intricate painting and drawing on it. The museum encourages you to play on it. How cool to be in a museum where people are actively playing on and with the art pieces! 
Ping Pong Table source: my phone
Another piece I liked was a fat Porsche which symbolised our over consumption society

The Fat Porsche by Erwin Wurm, source:my phone
Then there is the famous piece of art, The Cloaca by Wim Delvove, where lots of glass "vats" turn food into feces. I prefer to call it the Poop Room. I didn't know poop was art as we all poop everyday so what's the big deal?! It appeared to be more of an elaborate science project, where they give the machine some food from the museum cafe, and as it passes through various cylinders various enzymes are added until it poops at the end. Despite the vile smell, I had morbid curiosity and happened to be there for the daily poop - lucky me. I thought of including the photo but it's quite gross.

Time for a poo? The Cloaca by Wim Delvove, source:my phone
 Another area of interest and discussion was the Wall of Genitalia which was filled with many paintings. I actually didn't find it shocking at all as the paintings were pretty watercolours where you wouldn't realise there were private parts unless you looked up close.

One painting from the Wall of Gentitalia, source:my phone
There was also another room where only 2 people could go in at time. You entered the room and had to follow a path of stones over black water to reach an ancient Eygptian mummy who was entombed in a glass case on your left and on your right was another glass case with a computer generated image to show what the mummy would look like inside. In front of you was a spotlight on a noose hanging from the ceiling with a poem about death on the wall. Unfortunately, I do not have any photos but it was very powerful. There was so much more art but I don't want to bore you so I just gave my highlights. However, if you are ever in Tasmania, all I can say is go, go, to MONA!

The MONA was an all day event. The nice thing is all the amenities it has there to enjoy your experience - a winery with wine tours,  2 casual and 1 high end restaurant, and a hotel hidden out of view. We went on the wine tour and had a nice lunch which were all good things to bring my mind back down to earth and give me a break from the museum overstimulation. I could have spent another day or two there and I hope to go back again.

One of the most interesting things about the MONA is the man behind it, David Walsh. In doing my research on him, he is the pure definition of an 'enigma' - a person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand.' David Walsh grew up poor in Hobart, Tasmania and was raised in the Catholic faith. He was a shy geeky kid who was very good at mathematics and later computer programming. While at University, he teamed up with a fellow student and later business partner Zeljko Ranogajec, and they started counting cards at black jack tables. Walsh then dropped out of University and spent a lot of his time at a  Tasmanian casino before being kicked out by the casino for winning too much. They then became traveling gamblers, counting cards and gambling at casinos throughout the world and amassing a fortune.  Using Ranogajec's gambling skills and Walsh's mathematical abilities, they were able to read and count cards which caused them to win (and lose) alot of money at casinos. They went on to form the company Bank Roll, which is one of the worlds most successful gambling syndicates, with business in Europe, Australia, Asia and the US. 

David Walsh at his MONA, source: Peter Mathew/News Limited
David Walsh, (only) 52,  used his gambling earnings to buy art from around the world. It started on a gambling trip to Africa where he wasn't allowed to take more cash out of the country than he took in. However, you were allowed to take art out of the country so he put his winnings into art and it's said that was the beginning of his art collection. Over time, he amassed a multi-million dollar art collection, built a small gallery in Tasmania and eventually decided to fully fund and build the MONA., which was estimated to cost between $150-$200 million. He considers MONA a gamble, and admits to doing extra gambling while the museum was being built. Luckily, he won and the museum opened in 2011. In the past 3 years, MONA has had over 1 million visitors which has been a huge boost for Tasmania's depressed economy.

 David Walsh is an enigma. I read numerous articles about him to write this blog which were very time consuming and puzzling as in one article he is very clear and articulate and in another, he is quite vague. He appears to like the attention he is getting and hate it at the same time. An obvious example of his confusing personality is his car space at the MONA. Since he is an avid atheist, perhaps this is a joke, his joke OR perhaps he is extremely full of himself or perhaps both. 

David Walsh's parking spots at his MONA, source:my phone
Of all the information I read on David Walsh, perhaps his bio on the MONA's website is the most insightful. He quotes a a line from Dostoyevsky's The Gambler: "As far as my most secret moral convictions are concerned, there is no place for them in my present deliberations. Be that as it may; I am speaking to clear my conscience. But I will make this observation: for some time now I have found it terribly repugnant to judge my actions and thoughts by any moral standard whatsoever. Something else was guiding me.... 
After that, his bio states, "Like some of the greatest minds of the modern era (the people with the minds) he consumes too much dairy, and sometimes obscures insecurity by acting like a prick. Usually, however, he's a prick because he feels like it." (MONA museum website, link highlighted above). I don't know. I wondered why a rich reclusive geek would want to build an art museum instead of spending his money on himself or making large donations to charity. I found this David Walsh quote in several articles: “Those who make money without creating anything should feel the most social pressure and personal pressure, be the most [susceptible] to moral judgment if they don’t do something with the money.”(The Guardian)  Bravo, David Walsh! This is the best thing I read in the many articles I reviewed and the quote I will remember. And really, no matter, what myself or anyone thinks about him, I am thankful that he spent his millions on art, put it in a cool building, and shared it with me and the world. He's definitely not a prick in my eyes. 

The best thing about my MONA experience was that it kept me in the moment, 100% present and engaged in the museum. I wasn't thinking about my family, my responsibilties, my active cell phone, etc. I was there, just there in the MONA, looking at art I liked, art I disliked, exposing my senses and thinking about the big picture...big questions...things much greater than myself. That is a great museum experience and a rare day for me. If you are ever in Tasmania, I encourage you to run to the MONA. You will not be disappointed and if you are, go again or at least go have a few drinks in the posh pit :).

On to food, glorious food...a simple dinner. I am a big fan of rotisserie chicken, which is called 'BBQ chicken' in Australia. I use it for school sandwiches and wraps, a quick weeknight dinner, and for my chicken enchiladas (click to see recipe from previous blog). During my sister's recent visit, she made Mark Bittman's Chicken Curry in a Hurry from his book, Mark Bittman's Quick and Easy Recipes from the New York Times. Mark Bittman writes a recipe column for The New York Times. It is called "The Minimalist" and he simplifies recipes to make them quick and easy for the home chef.  I have made this recipe even faster by using rotisserie chicken instead of chicken breasts. I omitted the salt and pepper as the chicken is seasoned and the original recipe calls for sour cream but I used coconut milk instead. This recipe is fast, delicious and can be customised to suit your taste. Enjoy!

Chicken Curry in an Extra Hurry
adapted from Mark Bittman's Curry in a Hurry


1 tablespoon Vegetable Oil
1 medium Onion, chopped
1.5 tsp Curry Powder, or to taste
1/2 Rotisserie Chicken, meat removed
1 cup Coconut Milk

OPTIONAL ADD INs: raisins, walnuts

1) Cook Rice.

2) Remove meat from rotisserie chicken and set aside.

3) Put the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Note: It is really important to cook (and not burn) the onions for 5 minutes. This will make them soft and sweet.

4) Turn the heat down to medium, sprinkle the curry powder and continue to cook for a another few minutes.

5) Add chicken, stir through and cook on low/medium heat for 5 minutes.

5) Add coconut milk and stir constantly so onion, spices and coconut milk mix and thicken.

6) Serve curry over rice and sprinkle nuts and/or raisins on top

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