MONA opens its ‘perceptual cell’
There’s a new reason to head to Hobart’s hottest art spot.
‘ UNSEEN SEEN’ IS a hallucinatory artwork crossed with a neurological experiment. It’s the work of American artist James Turrell, celebrated for his pioneering perceptual work with light. But unlike many of his works, which cover vast expanses of space, ‘Unseen Seen’ is an intimate experience for just one or two people. After signing a lengthy waiver – guaranteeing that you do not have epilepsy and promising not to commence legal action if you experience any long-term effects – you’re led through an aeroplane-style door into a large white orb, and up a curved staircase. At the top, you lie on a tilted bed and stare at the curve of the white ceiling. You’re handed a panic button that you can press at any point if you find the experience too intense and are asked to choose between a ‘hard’ cycle and a ‘soft’ cycle. Given the severity of the waiver, I opt for ‘soft’. The technician tells me this would be the closest thing I would ever come to a 1960s acid trip, so I brace myself and pray I wouldn’t have a bad one. The technician closes the door behind you and the top of the orb is immediately illuminated with bright lights in evolving colours. There’s a soft scratching and stuttering soundtrack that intensifies as the lights brighten and start to flash through a series of colours. The lighting states trigger intense, hallucinatory visions that are by turns overwhelming, meditative and awe-inspiring. Closing your eyes won’t block out the light, but it will alter it – the patterns you see may reverse, or the colour may warp. I saw extraordinary patterns of colour whirling at fast speed. The next moment I was convinced that my eyes were closed, when they were wide open.
Turrell has been making works like this – he calls them ‘perceptual cells’ – since the late 1980s, but he’s refined the technology significantly over the decades. The one at MONA is the biggest he’s ever made. It’s accompanied by a second work, called ‘Weight of Darkness’, which you experience immediately afterwards. You’re asked to navigate your way through a small pitch-black maze to find a large armchair. Here, you sit for a further 15 minutes as your eyes adjust and you experience nothing but darkness and near-total silence. It’s a gentle comedown after what’s a genuinely unforgettable work.
‘Unseen Seen’ is the centrepiece of MONA’s new $20 million wing, called Pharos, after the ancient Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria. Pharos juts out dramatically over the water and includes largescale artworks – four by Turrell – and a chic tapas restaurant. Tickets to the ‘Unseen Seen’ and ‘Weight of Darkness’ experience cost an additional $25 to your museum entry, and you may have to book ahead. But we’d argue it’s now an essential part of the MONA experience. MONA curator Jarrod Rawlins describes Pharos as owner David Walsh’s “legacy building”.“The way he’s designed it with the architect is, in his words, so that when he’s no longer with us, dickheads like me can’t take these works out of the building and change it,” Rawlins says. “Everything in here is too big to get out the door. We put everything in and put the lid on. It’s sealed.” Museum of Old and New Art, 655 Main Rd, Berriedale 7011. mona.net.au. Wed-Mon 10am-6pm (10am-5pm from Apr 4). $0-$28. ‘Unseen Seen’ is an additional ticketed work costing $25.