MONA opens its ‘per­cep­tual cell’

There’s a new rea­son to head to Ho­bart’s hottest art spot.

Time Out (Sydney) - - TRAVEL - By Ben Neutze

‘ 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. Wed-Mon 10am-6pm (10am-5pm from Apr 4). $0-$28. ‘Un­seen Seen’ is an ad­di­tional tick­eted work cost­ing $25.

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