oh bull! (a whole herd of ’em)

christmas in the paddocks with a sheep dog

it sounded so nice. a house on a hill overlooking the ocean on sunny south bruny island, south of the tassie (tasmanian) capital, hobart. a great year-end family getaway for the kids who are escaping from a bout of foul wintry weather in the northern hemisphere. you can’t get more southern than bruny, and at the height of summer to boot. pack yer shorts!

well, pack yer handkerchiefs and antihistamines.

don’t misunderstand. pernille has booked us just about the best place imaginable. a lovely, modern house on a hill overlooking the ocean. lots of sun. outdoor space. miles from the nearest neighbors. (we make a lot of noise with our incessant birdwatching.) it’s not far from the beaches (nothing is on bruny island), and there’s plenty of room for billabong, our border collie, to roam. only catch is, it’s surrounded by acres of alfalfa fields, and one of us — me — is deathly allergic to alfalfa (hay). yep, hay fever.

it follows, of course, that alfalfa fields are feeding grounds for farm animals, and our arrival must have been cause for great excitement in the neighborhood. minutes after we pulled into the driveway, a greeting committee trotted up to the fence in the form of a dozen big, black bulls, prompting an impromptu standoff between our self-styled herding dog billabong, who tips the scales at a mighty 22kg (almost 50 pounds), and probably about 30 tonnes of belligerent bovines. 

a showdown was avoided thanks to a wire fence separating the driveway from the paddock. it was a close call, though. the fence runs just a few meters from our back porch, and billabong fancies himself a minder of grazing animals, never mind their own opinions on the subject.

to add insult to injury, while we were unpacking, a tractor pulled up at the hay field and our neighborhood farmer cut the mature hay down. we then learned about the phenomenon of the “roaring forties,” the winds that are a blot on tassie’s otherwise spotless reputation, as gusts of hayseed buzzed around the house all that evening and into the next several days, sending my allergies into orbit. 

conspiracy, anyone, or just a coincidence?

anyway, enough of my whingeing.

 from L: family friend nathan stambaugh, laura (lopp), karl (moose) and pernille.

christmas dinner. a juicy ten pound turkey that, believe it or not, provided leftovers and turkey sandwiches for five people for days afterward. a “loaves and fishes” phenomenon that lasted until the final morsels of wing meat were dipped into a sea of sriracha mayo between two slabs of supermarket white bread and sandwichized on new year’s eve. NEW YEAR’S EVE! fer chrissakes! and it was dee-licious to the last bite of our final meal of the year. though to be truthful, the last bites were mostly sriracha mayo between the bread slices, with a hint of generic bird meat. miraculous.

(full disclosure: this wasn’t actually the ultimate meal of 2022. pernille prepared a champagne and lobster feast as the clock wound down toward the midnight hour. we never made it. (the lure of the pillow was just too powerful.)

for the rest of the family, it was almost two weeks of bliss; hiking the mountains around our house, exploring bruny island’s rocky coast, running, kayaking, oyster feasting, stargazing at the aurora australis (the southern hemisphere equivalent of the aurora borealis), chasing bulls (for one of us); in short, enjoying the moderate summer days and brisk island nights. for me, on the other hand, it was itchy eyes and soaked hankies until i was finally able to get medical attention after christmas in the nearby town of alonnah, which has a surprisingly well-equipped hospital for a population of probably no more than a couple thousand hardcore islanders.

2023 has dawned, and with it all the vagaries of aging as everyone gets — as the old tennessee ernie ford classic (“sixteen tons”) goes, — “another day older and deeper in debt.”  the year 2022 saw a historic increase in mortality from all causes in australia and many other countries. my fervent wish is that all you reading this today are still around to check out the “end of 23” blog a year from now. we’re already planning another big tassie holiday bash, and i’ll do my best to be here to blog it.

lest we forget

the strength of a nation rests on the ties that bind; a common language, a common heritage, a common purpose; the experience of fighting, even dying, for shared values.

there’s probably no way for a newcomer to grasp the depth of emotions aroused in the aussie soul by a single name: gallipoli. for more than a century, the shared grief elicited by that military disaster has done more than perhaps anything else to galvanize the nation’s identity.

each april 25th, the day in 1915 when australian and new zealand troops stormed the turkish beach at gallipoli, both nations stop to honor their war dead, on what is known as anzac day.

scottish-born australian eric bogle perhaps best captured a nation’s agony in his 1971 song, “and the band played waltzing matilda (click the link)

as shadows fall over australia’s national war memorial, crowds gather for the daily “last post” ceremony

the national war memorial is canberra’s #1 tourist attraction.

museum director matt anderson points to the wall where the names of 102,000 australians are engraved. of those, he tells us, 62,000 were lost in four years of world war one, including 8700 in the bloodbath at gallipoli.

memories fade, and the last world war one veterans have long passed. still, anzac day observances are held all over australia each april 25th. that first war left an indelible scar on a young nation’s psyche. almost no one was spared the loss of a loved one. on well-manicured lawns in village squares across the hinterlands of oz, the names of would-have-been husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, are chiseled in stone.

except in the tiny tassie town of legerwood (pop. 193). its boys are memorialized in trees.

legerwood wasn’t even an official town until 1936, but in october, 1918, residents gathered along the main road to plant saplings in memory of each of the seven local boys lost in the fighting.

for the rest of the century the trees stood as a silent reminder of the stolen promise of a generation. by 2001, the trees had become a hazard and had to be lopped. the local folk were having none of it, however. they commissioned chainsaw artist eddie freeman to carve the tree stumps into likenesses of the fallen soldiers.

pernille and i might have missed the modest collection of houses that calls itself legerwood as we drove along tassie’s back roads, except for the roadside sculpture garden that commanded our attention. we stopped for a closer look.

what we found was a window into seven war-shortened lives.

thomas edwards was the oldest of the legerwood volunteers. he and his wife of six years, florence, are shown in a goodbye embrace at the center of a carving that depicts the townspeople’s grief.

interestingly, none of the legerwood boys actually died at gallipoli. they all were killed on the western front in belgium and france toward war’s end.

if anzac day and the legerwood memorial weren’t enough, australia’s military legacy was underscored weeks earlier as the royal australian air force celebrated its 100th birthday.

the r.a.a.f marked the milestone with a nationally-televised aerial spectacular in the skies over canberra’s lake burley griffin. (which incidentally didn’t exist then, either). imagine what might have been if the boys storming gallipoli had been able to call in air support.

the roulettes acrobatic team put on a show for canberrans and a live nationwide TV audience

canberrans poured out of their homes and offices on a picture perfect day to witness the flyover. they came by bus, car, bike, on foot; children in prams or on dad’s or mom’s back, with cameras and binoculars, stationing themselves on hills and bridges and along the shores of lake burley griffin, (which is named for the american architects, walter burley griffin and his wife marion mahony griffin, who won the competition to design the capital city in 1911.)

the throngs weren’t disappointed.

governor general david hurley hosted a phalanx of dignitaries for a gala event at government house at the west end of the lake to witness the display, while the band played “waltzing matilda”.

government house as seen from across the lake during the ceremonies

a bird perches along the shore of lake burley griffin to watch the flyover

it’s interesting to note that if the air force didn’t exist in 1915, neither did canberra, and this might be the time to introduce our home town.

in 1911, australia’s parliament formally set aside land for a national capital territory, but nothing much was there. it was just a mountain outpost noted for crisp alpine air and cold clear nights, a sharp contrast to the balmy coastal climate of the country’s major population centers. it wasn’t till the 1920s, after the falling out that prompted walter and marion griffin to return home to chicago, that their vision for a grand city began to materialize. canberra officially became the capital in 1927.

newcomers arriving in the city today see a fully formed metropolis, unaware that the lake, which forms the heart of the capital and seems as if it was always there, was only inaugurated in 1964. only in this century has the griffin’s vision of a grand capital (based loosely on l’enfant’s design for washington d.c.) has come into full view.

the parliament building, the national museum, the trendy kingston foreshore, and other distinctive features dotting canberra’s lakefront are less than 25 years old.

it is quite a paradox that canberra is a young city in a young nation that was still cutting its teeth when world war one broke out. and yet, canberra and australia are home to a civilization that existed in peace for tens of thousands of years before europeans arrived. there is still a reckoning to be done. lest we forget.

a tassie love story — part three — no ship, sherlock!

an escapade worthy of the elementary detective and his sidekick, watson.

sarah island is not a place you’d want to do time. its history is darker than a wintry day in june, when antarctic gales blow fierce across the rugged rocks of macquarie harbor.

hungry sharks are known to come right up on shore in search of a tasty morsel (you!)

when i first saw this, a leg was hanging out the mouth, but by the time i got my camera out, it was gone.

sarah island wasn’t on our itinerary when we plotted our trip to tassie’s west coast. we were seeking wilderness.

maps of tassie reveal a gaping blank spot in the lower left (southwest) quadrant, an area larger than nine european countries and about the size of the u.s. state of connecticut. in some places the nearest (dirt) road is 50km away. we were intrigued, hoping to experience the “wild rivers” and pristine rainforests at the back of tassie’s beyond. (birds, maybe?)

since roads were in short supply, we located a “family-owned” company offering boat trips across the vast macquarie harbor to the “franklin-gordon wild rivers national park”. the company’s ad featured “one of the world’s last truly unique world heritage wilderness experiences”, and a “stroll through an ancient forest”.

the big red boat

what we got was a five-hour trip on a spiffy red ferry boat up to a landing point where we disembarked for a walk through what could have been a disneyland wilderness theme park or a botanic garden exhibit.

so much for the vision of an aboriginal guide with a canoe gliding silently to a secret landing and clearing a path with his machete through dense underbrush to reveal previously unseen life forms. inflated expectations, ya think?

on the plus side, there are some photogenic 19th century lighthouses around hell’s gate, the treacherous entrance to macquarie harbor.

hell’s gate lighthouse warns mariners navigating the narrow passage to macquarie harbor
sorell point lighthouse is the second tallest in oz

the cruise begins at strahan, a munchkin-sized port (pop. 600) catering to the tourist trade astride hell’s gate, on a thin line between fantasy and cold, hard reality. strahan is a pale shadow of the thriving commercial hub that once exported copper and prized huon pine to the world. it’s also the gateway to sarah island, a convict settlement so miserable that….

“…Two or three (inmates) murdered their fellow-prisoners, with the certainty of being detected and executed, apparently without malice and with very little excitement, stating that they knew that they should be hanged, it was better than being where they were.”

the reality is, strahan makes a good bit of its living off sarah island’s horrid reputation.

as for fantasy, pernille had booked us into a former church converted to a bed and (no) breakfast. as kids, we used to get in trouble for sleeping in church, now they have a bed above the altar and charge handsomely for the privilege.

after stashing suitcases in the choir loft, we ventured into town, wondering what other sacrifices had been made at that altar.

strahan (pronounced strawn) runs a couple blocks in either direction from the boat dock. the first thing we encountered was fantasy; a billboard for a way, way, wa-a-a-y-y off broadway dramatic production titled “the ship that never was”, advertised as australia’s longest running play. (27 years! in a town of 600 people?)

hmmm, might be worth a look, we thought. there wasn’t much on the evening’s agenda. “church tv” was on the blink. so it was off to the box office to purchase a couple tickets. “sold out”, announced the young woman in the booth. a second show had been added that evening by popular demand, because anti-social distancing rules limit the theater capacity, but….

we struck up a conversation with the box office attendant, whose name was peta. she asked if by chance we had reservations for the next day’s boat trip. we did. she suggested we might want to wait to see the show til after the cruise, because the story would be more meaningful once we’d experienced sarah island. hmmm, dr. watson. a clue.

we reserved two seats for the following night.

the next morning we boarded the boat, excited about the promise of a “wilderness experience”. the first stop, however, was sarah island, so named by the first englishman to set foot there in honor of his boss’s wife. the aboriginal name for the place is langerrarerouna.

with all due respect to the island’s indigenous peoples, we’re sticking with “sarah island”.

which is where kiah (pronounced kai-ah) davey, the storyteller, takes over.

kiah enthralls audiences with tales of the island’s sordid history

kiah is in several ways an original. she traces her ancestry back to the first convict ships that arrived in australia from england in 1788. her great great uncle tom davey served as lieutenant governor of van dieman’s land, as tassie was known then, from 1812 until he was sacked in 1815.

tom was known as a drunkard who hung with the riff-raff in the slums of hobart. he scandalized the ladies with bawdy behavior in his shirtsleeves on sunday afternoons. he was, as they might say in tassie, a “davious character”. in spite of that, or maybe because of it, tassie now boasts a port davey, a davey river, the davey amphitheater (in strahan) and many davey streets and davey drives and dives of diverse descriptions.

when the big red ship arrived at sarah island, the passengers were divided into groups and assigned guides. so it was the luck of the draw that brought us to kiah, the historian.

kiah tells a harrowing tale of australia’s first “banishment settlement”, a place meant to be so awful it would terrify convicts into behaving. “it didn’t work,” kiah observes dryly. “it never does”.

it isn’t hard to feel the hiss and crack of the cat o’nine tails ripping into human flesh as kiah recalls the year 1825, when a total of 10,000 lashes were meted out to 240 inmates (of roughly 350). the camp commandant and others witnessed the screaming pain to ensure there was no mercy. “It had to be correct,” kiah notes.

very little remains of the settlement. most of the buildings were made of wood. they’ve been lost to the ravages of time, scavengers and looters. only a few meter-thick sections of the penitentiary wall still stand, along with the baking ovens.

the establishment of the sarah island penal colony was based on two premises. first, it was so remote that it would be impossible to escape; second, it would earn enough money to pay for itself. the region’s tall, straight, flexible huon pine trees were highly prized by shipbuilders. but harvesting the logs and getting the timber to shipyards in hobart took a gruesome toll in lives, limbs and lumber. the treacherous one-way journey around the southern horn of tassie and through hell’s gate took eleven days in good weather.

sarah island around 1830, when it was a booming shipbuilding center with a population of nearly 600, including some families of staff and inmates.

it soon became obvious that it would be smarter to build the ships at sarah island. in 1827, when the shipyard opened, what had been a forlorn convict station became a boom town as skilled shipwrights were lured by lucrative offers of cash to man the yard.

from 1827 till it was shut down, sarah island was australia’s #1 producer of sailing brigs, turning out more than 100 seaworthy vessels.

the macquarie harbor penal station was finally scragged (put out of its misery) in 1833, not so much because it was a horrible place as that keeping it supplied was too difficult; even with convict slave labor, it was a money-loser. the prisoners were transferred to the newly opened convict colony at port arthur, just half a day’s journey from hobart, as opposed to eleven days of vomiting over the railing into storm-tossed seas on the sarah island express.

in the penal colony’s twelve year existence, (1822-33) at least 180 escape attempts were made from sarah island. most failed. one notable exception was the last one.

and therein lies a rollicking merry (and mostly true) tale of mischief and mayhem; a convict’s eye view of hardship and heroism, where underdogs rule.

when the play opens, four convicts are discussing ways to avoid a scragging (the hangman’s noose) for mutiny and piracy on the high seas. the four were among ten convicts who had commandeered the frederick, the last brig to be built at the sarah island shipyard.

the ten of ’em were among the last convicts on sarah island. they were putting the final touches on the frederick before it sailed to hobart, where it would be commissioned. instead, they overpowered their guards and commandeered the vessel. they then sailed all the way to south america, where they ditched the ship off the coast of chile and told the locals they had been shipwrecked.

their story worked, for a while, and the ten were allowed to live as free men in the chilean port of valdivia. six of them eventually hopped a lift on ships headed elsewhere before the authorities got wise and turned the remaining four (two) over to a passing british frigate. they were brought back to london, then returned to hobart for trial, where they were found guilty of piracy and mutiny, and sentenced for a scragging.

as the play begins, the four are plotting a strategy for appealing their death sentence. when they walk out on stage, who do ya think they are? it’s kiah davey, this time in convict’s garb, playing the part of the ringleader james “jimmy” porter. her partner in crime, billy shires, is our friend peta, who had been selling tickets the previous evening. that’s the cast.

the other two co-conspirators, william cheshire and charles lyon are played by unsuspecting folks plucked from the audience. in fact, all the eight or so other players are paying customers drafted into the cast.

the result is a wild and hilarious audience participation free-for-all, including a re-enactment of the mutiny, complete with gunplay and axe fights, a parrot that squawks and curses incessantly, a cat, and kiah, all the while imploring the audience to give “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to their crazy appeal to escape a scraggin’.

the argument they concocted was that the crime could not have been mutiny since the convicts weren’t actually members of the ship’s crew, and it couldn’t be piracy since the ship was not on the high seas; and, crucially, since the frederick had not yet been commissioned, it wasn’t technically a ship at all.

“It was canvas, rope, boarding and trenails, put together shipwise – yet it was not a legal ship; the seizure might have been theft, but not piracy.”[12]

so, no ship, no crime. right, sherlock?

in real life, their appeal succeeded. (thumbs up!) the judge ruled that they didn’t give a ship… or take one. so they were spared the noose.

the grand finale is a sea squall that almost sank the frederick in the wind-whipped south pacific ocean. members of the audience play the part of the weather. water squirt bottles are handed out all around, and on cue, everyone starts spraying water at perfect strangers and creating a mist in a real squirt gun rainstorm.

it’s a riot.

interestingly, jimmy porter happened to have been an educated man, and he wrote two books about the convict experience. the first was published in serial form in a hobart newspaper, and was said to have been instrumental in turning public opinion against the brutality of the penal system.

instead of hanging, the four got off with’ life in prison. a few years later, porter had his sentence reduced after saving several officers from drowning after their boat capsized. he eventually escaped again and is still absconding. posters have been printed offering a reward for information leading to his recapture.

“the ship that never was” was among 70 plays written by richard davey, kiah’s father, and co-founder of the round earth theater company, along with his wife kathi. richard played the role of jimmy porter for most of the first seven thousand or so performances. sadly, he fell ill and succumbed to cancer ten years ago, so kiah has taken up the role of jimmy as well as the role as c.e.o. of the round earth company, keeping the family tradition alive.

the story is told seven nights a week, from september to may, at the richard davey amphitheatre in strahan. if yer doin’ time in oz, it’s worth the trip.

and if you go, bring a raincoat.

a tassie love story —- part 1 — the road to hobart

tassie’s easy. she shouts ‘i love you’ from every barn and craggy hillside. for us, it was love at first light.

the sky was bitumen (pitch) black as the overnight ferry from melbourne chugged into devonport, on the north coast of tassie, or tasmania as nobody calls it.

as daylight raised the curtain on the lush countryside, we were bombarded by the “common scents” of australia’s largest island: to wit, a roadside stand offering a “deep doo-doo discount”.

hot steaming meadow muffins – two bucks, chuck

we held our noses as we drove past, but the price got our attention. in hobart, by contrast, where poo seems to be a preoccupation, they slap a clever label on it and jack up the price for tourists. we suspect that stuff might be the cheaper “bull” variety corporate media are peddling.

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the fancy variety at a souvenir shop

after that assault on our olfactory senses, we set our compass toward hobart, tassie’s capital, largest city (pop. 200,000) and, little did we know, a burgeoning global center of the arts.

our plan was to take a dirt road shortcut through the mountains to sneak a peek at a waterfall recommended by friends.

watetfall selfies are obligatory

the waterfall didn’t disappoint, but a sign at the parking lot did. “road closed ahead,” it said. bridge repair. the only option was retracing our tracks back to the bitumen highway.

we shared our anguish with a forlorn-looking couple standing with us as we contemplated our options. they had driven down from tassie’s north coast to lunch at an artesinal farm just past where the bridge was out. the road closure meant adding more than 100 kilometers to their journey. they were out.

we, on the other hand, had to go that way to get to hobart anyway, and the mouth watering prospect of cheddar straight from the udder was irresistible to a couple cheese-aholics. the detour was a minor inconvenience. we were in. they told us the name to look for: pyengana. (pop. 123)

our GPS was a little unsure about pyengana’s location, and for good reason. when we got to the place marked “pyengana” on the screen, there was nothing but fields as far as the eye could see. not a building. not a sign, not an intersection. just as our tummies were cursing the people who’d told us about pyengana, we discovered a dirt track through the fields. as we turned we saw a board among the bushes with a single word: “dairy”. sure enough, up the path a bit, (a hilariously imprecise term in oz), paydirt.

we went in, bellied up to the cheese bar, ordered what we later learned was three sampler plates (oops, we had to eat them), then wandered out to the back lawn to find a table. there we found a troupe of trained cows in the midst of a matinee performance for an assortment of young children, accompanied by their cheese-freak parents. it was modern milking, 101.

each of pyengana farm’s 220 cows wears a computer-coded ID necklace that communicates with a state-of-the-art robotic milking system. so when bessie mae (not her real name) feels the urge, she ambles over to the pen. if it’s been at least six hours since she’s been milked, the gate unlocks and she nudges it open.

once inside, she gets a treat, then sidles up to a milking machine, where suction cups attach to her teats. (the kids can’t actually see that part) afterward, bessie mae can stop at a back scratching device before returning to the paddock to fill up for her next visit. bessie and her pals each happily produce about 10 gallons (38 kilometers) of milk a day.

eventually it occurred to us that we hadn’t come to tassie to eat cheese and watch cows being milked, so we resumed our quest for hobart, which not coincidentally is the birthplace of denmark’s crown princess mary. it’s also a bustling seaport with a thriving shipbuilding industry and a rich, though checkered, heritage.

the route south to hobart was littered with tourist attractions and fine dining opportunities. imagine the culinary delights at “the pavement”. (tables optional)

“Chez Pavement”

i was tempted to check the drinks menu to see if if might feature a “concrete mixer” on the rocks. the imagination boggles at the possibilities. but we only had time for photos.

the pavement restaurant, by the way, is just across the asphalt from an actual park dedicated to ‘tessellated pavement’, a fascinating but not too photogenic natural phenomenon occurring along the coastline.

so what’s the deal? pavement vs. asphalt vs. bitumen. enquiring minds don’t care, so is this worth your valuable time? i’ve always called a paved road ‘asphalt’. aussies seem to prefer the term ‘bitumen’. technically, according to asphalt.com, bitumen is the black gooey stuff that holds the asphalt (the pebbly stuff) together. it’s also called pitch. (as in, that’s strike three on your attempt at aussie humor, mate)

“black as bitumen” is also an apt descripion of tassie’s history. the dutch explorer abel tasman was the first european to set foot there in 1642. he named it van dieman’s land to honor his boss, who had commissioned the voyage.

but then the demons took hold. soon after the british arrived, around 1803, they waged a 25-year “black war” that nearly exterminated the aboriginal people who had been there for tens of thousands of years. and partly to substantiate england’s claim to van dieman’s land, they turned it into a dumping ground for convicts, establishing penal colonies that besmirched the island’s reputation for the next half century.

when they realized this wasn’t working out so well, convict transportation was ended in 1856, and as part of an image makeover, the island’s name was changed to tasmania (after abel tasman)

the remains of the penitentiary at port arthur

to learn a bit of the history, we drove 90 km south of hobart to port arthur, australia’s best preserved convict settlement, where repeat offenders and so-called “incorrigibles” were sent. it’s a hauntingly beautiful campus.

interestingly, port arthur employed a photographer to take pictures of inmates. those pictures are being used to memorialize many of the convicts, such as james rogers, (above) who was sentenced in birmingham, england to seven years in 1849 at the age of 24 for “stealing monies”.

rogers was transported to tassie in a convict ship, did his time, and was freed in 1856, just as port arthur was being transformed from a penal colony to an institution for aged and ill convicts. he remained in hobart, where he ran afoul of the law again twelve years later for altering a one pound note and passing it off as a fiver to pay for a pint of beer for himself and a mate.

his trial received daily front page coverage in the hobart newspaper, and word-for-word transcriptions of the court testimony are available online. they make fascinating reading. the stories of other convicts are being posted each month as research is completed.

after serving his second sentence, rogers was released in 1874 and lived out the rest of his life in hobart. he died a pauper at a charitable home in 1899, at the age of 74.

with its blighted past and remote location, hobart muddled along, a backwater on the southern edge of the populated world, for more than 150 years after the penal colonies closed.

until….in 2011…

the museum of old and new art, hobart – photo: peter mathew for lonely planet

the art in hobart exploded. (leaving only an artless hob) that’s when mona, the “museum of old and new art” opened, bankrolled with the gambling fortune of native son and art collector david walsh.

the mona experience begins at the docks in hobart, from where a high-speed catamaran whisks patrons 25 minutes up the derwent river and deposits them at the base of a 99 step staircase to the museum’s entrance.

we had a minor misunderstanding at the ticket window, however. we intended to save a few bucks, and thought we’d purchased the “cheap seats”.

there was a cow there, too, apparently to demarcate “cattle class”. we’ll know better next time. on the other hand, it was a better deal than the horse poo.

mona’s entrance, a mesmerizing reflection by the late celebrated artist/designer matthew harding, is different every time you look at it. it’s a mystifying wall of stainless steel distortion mirrors such as you’d find at a carnival
every picture of the entrance wall is completely different

mona was intended as a sort of subversive anti-museum labyrinth. walsh blasted a huge hole in a sandstone peninsula overlooking the derwent river not far from the hardscrabble neighborhood where he grew up. he filled it with three subterranean levels of objets d’art, many of which he had acquired as he traveled the globe popping in at unsuspecting casinos and cleaning them out by counting cards at the blackjack tables (until he was banned). his goal was to put everyday emotions at the center of his gallery, so what better to focus on than procreation, expiration, and oh yes, defecation? (mostly sex and death)

it’s probably not surprising then that mona’s most hated, and most popular display is, can you guess? of course. what else — a poo machine.

“cloaca professional” by dutch artist wim delvoye, is a row of connected bioreactors that mimic the human digestive system. the contraption is fed each day at one end, and solid waste is excreted at the other. photo borrowed with gratitude from the artist’s website.

we missed the daily dump, but people apparently time their visits to be there to see the ingestion, digestion, and particularly the excretion process, complete with the attendant sound and fury (and smell). it’s so… so low-brow.

almost overnight, mona transformed hobart into a global art capital. international critics flocked to tassie to experience walsh’s concept of art for everyone. some raved. one called it a “watershed in the way art is understood”. others ridiculed it as the end of art, or even worse in walsh’s eyes, conventional. but aussies adored it.

in the ten years since it opened , the museum has logged a quarter of a million visits in a city of fewer than 200,000. tassies get in free, of course. all others pay.

in that decade, tassie’s tourism revenue has jumped 50%. in 2013, lonely planet listed hobart among it’s go-to destinations. celebrated chefs are relocating there, and high-end hotels are springing up to meet the tastes of museum tourists.

walsh is considering his own hotel that will include his unique take on the concept of a library. he has said the shelves will be stocked largely with his own books, including a “large and growing nerd fest of bibliophilic paraphernalia courtesy of total lightweights like einstein, newton, darwin and dickens”. he also has over 300 works of isaac asimov (he’s read them all), and i suspect, a few by that other heinlein.

walsh has told interviewers one secret of his success is that he owns the gallery outright. it’s his own private collection, so he can display whatever he damn well pleases. there’s no board or governing body to overrule his decisions; no public funding. he’s single-handedly proven a small city on the edge of civilization can rewrite the rules of a game previously controlled by the art establishment in major world capitals. so who’s to tell him how to do it?

and on top of it all, standing on the rock just outside the entrance, he’s installed another wim delvoye classic; a concrete mixer fabricated from intricately patterned laser-cut steel.

so there it is, folks. a concrete mixer on the rocks. i think i’ll have a double.