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The poo machine fails

Wim Delvoye's "Cloaca," better known as the "poo machine." Photo courtest of MONA.

I was going to get a tour of MONA from Delia Nicholls, a delightful research curator, but when she came to greet me she told me that she only had an hour or so and then had to go to a funeral for an old friend, another art patron. So instead of walking around, we sat down at the museum’s wine bar for a light lunch and some conversation. I like Delia. She’s very up front. For instance, when I originally talked with her, I asked if I might be able to meet the museum’s owner, David Walsh.

“Not possible,” she said. “David doesn’t particularly like people.”

Since I don’t particularly like people either I was sympathetic.

Over lunch Delia told me that working for David could be “challenging.” She said David personally hired her for her job as curator but then would never say hello when they passed each other. After several months of this she stopped him and asked him if she’d done something to offend him. “He had no idea who I was. He told me he didn’t pay any attention to people’s faces. He doesn’t relate to people that way. He’s a mathematical savant and everything to him is numbers…and he sees numbers as colors.”

She also said David built the museum to follow his passion. “It’s not a museum where you’ll be talked down to or expected to feel a certain way about the art. You’ll just either like it or you won’t. And it doesn’t make any difference to David one way or the other. He’s not trying to convert you.”

She then hurried off to her funeral and I hurried off to see what she and others call the “poo machine,” an installation by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye properly titled “Cloaca,” that simulates the human digestive system. Regular food is shoveled into a long, transparent mouth, travels through a number of agitated glass bowls, and ends up as turds which are pushed through a cylinder and onto a plate promptly at two every afternoon.

Delia told me that the poo machine was at the very bottom of the museum, three floors below ground level, so I hurried down the stairs, through several dark galleries, having no idea where I was going, until I realized I was lost. “Excuse me,” I asked one of the attendants, “can you tell me how to get to the poo machine?”

Never thought I’d be asking that question.

Two minutes later, I found it. Several people were standing around the end of this odd contraption, waiting for the turds to fall. We all waited and waited. About fifteen minutes after two, a tall, blond attendant came into the gallery to have a look at the machine. “I’ve never seen this before,” he said. “It always poos at two o’clock. This is very unusual.”

The attendant got on his two-way radio and reported to someone upstairs that no turds had come from the poo machine. A crackly voice on the other end told him to stand by.

A few minutes later, two middle-aged women in museum uniforms turned up. Everyone, including me, stared at the poo machine. “It didn’t poo at all?” asked one of the women.

“I don’t think so,” said the tall blond attendant. “Did anyone see any poo?” he asked those of us standing around. We all shook our heads.

“Very unusual,” said the woman.

“I’ve never seen this,” said the tall attendant. “It always poos.”

But evidently not today. Seems the poo machine was just a little backed up. I patted the stricken tall blond attendant on the back. “It’s alright,” I told him. “It happens to the best of us.”

And with that I went off to see what else was of interest in the museum.

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A ferry to the sex and death museum

The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart as seen from the ferry.

I got a rental car to drive out to MONA, the very strange Museum of Old and New Art about 20 minutes up the River Derwent, but then the concierge at my hotel said there wasn’t much parking available at the museum and that, for $15, you could take the ferry there, so what the hell; I took the ferry.

While I was waiting for the boat to arrive, I went into a shop along the wharf and bought a polar fleece jacket just to keep me warm on the short trip over the water. I also thought about getting a wool hat but didn’t. I guess the one thing that has surprised me the most about Hobart and Tasmania is how damn cold it’s been. I mean, this is Australia and it’s summer down here but it feels more like Seattle in the fall. I have to keep reminding myself that the major meteorological influence down here is the Southern Ocean and that Hobart was the departure point for Antarctic explorers like Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton.

When I told an Australian friend of mine, who lives in New York, that I was going to Hobart, he said, “Oh, are you going to the death and sex museum?” I had no idea what he was talking about. So he told me about MONA, Australia’s largest and certainly most bizarre private museum whose owner, David Walsh, likes to call it “a subversive adult Disneyland.”

The reason my friend called it the “death and sex museum” is because those are the artistic subjects David Walsh is most interested in. In the introduction to a book about the museum, Walsh wrote: “My name is David Walsh and I’m an arseholic. I originally wrote: ‘My name is David Walsh and I’m an artoholic.’ I thought it was pretty clever but it turns out I was plagiarizing the title of a book by Charles Saatchi, the controversial English collector and dealer. So I changed the first sentence to something completely different and ploughed on…You should know that the most important forces behind me and this museum stem from my dark side.”

Well, that’s just coming right out with it, isn’t it?

In 1995, Walsh purchased the land where the museum is located and installed a Museum of Antiquities. He likes to say that nobody came, so he decided to expand. He met a Melbourne architect, Nonda Katsalidis, and asked him to design a large building for his art that would allow it to be discovered rather than shown off, so that the connection (or not) with the viewer is built from personal experience rather than something imposed.

So how does one do that? By basically removing a mountain of sandstone and building down into the ground, instead of above it, and then encouraging people to sort of wander about as if in a maze. In other words, wander aimlessly and see what floats your boat. Or not.

So who is this David Walsh? According to Wikipedia, he’s a “Tasmanian millionaire, entrepreneur, and owner of a large private art collection.” According to my Australian friend in New York, he’s an autodidact who has made a fortune coming up with a gambling system to beat the house odds. Supposedly he made so much money gambling that certain casinos “bought” his system and then forbid him from using it.

Anyway, he took $75 million of that money to build MONA which opened a little over a year ago. And people are flocking to it. One other thing I might mention: My New York friend told me that when I visited MONA I should be sure and arrive before 2pm. I asked him why. He said, “That’s when the poop installation takes a shit.”

Wouldn’t want to miss that, would we.

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Fish Frenzy

Fish Frenzy on the Elizabeth Street Pier. Photo by David Lansing.

I was supposed to have dinner last night at Smolt, a swanky Hobart restaurant in equally swanky Salamanca Square. It’s small plates with a Spanish-Italian influence—housemade pickles, jamon Serrano, potato gnocchi with wild mushrooms—that sort of thing. Which all sounds swell. My only problems with it is that, one, I didn’t feel like dressing up and going someplace hip, and, two, it’s a joint venture with one of Tasmania’s biggest salmon farmers, Tassal. So they’re also pushing Tassal salmon ceviche and Tassal salmon and prosciutto pizza and roasted Tassal salmon with braised fennel.

Have I told you how much I hate farmed salmon? Well, I do.

So instead of going to Smolt, I walked along the wharf until I came to a fish ‘n’ chips joint called Fish Frenzy. I liked this place a lot. It was huge and not at all like the normal fish ‘n’ chip place you’d find in the U.K. that is all cramped and dirty and smells like old grease. Fish Frenzy is clean and more like an upscale cafeteria. What you do is stand in line with a dozen or more other diners and order up your fish—flake, trevally, blue-eye, or flathead, tell them how you want it battered (beer batter, tempura batter, or bread crumbs), and then go find a table. Five or ten minutes later, a young kid will run the food over to you.

I had the Fish Frenzy itself which was two pieces each of beer battered fish, scallops, calamari, and a big cone of perfectly fried chips. Lovely. Much better than farmed salmon, even if there were no housemade pickles to go with it.

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Sleeping in the old jam factory

The old brick walls and wooden beams in my room were once part of the IXL Jam factory.

We’re motoring around the Huon Valley south of Hobart, Sally and I, passing by roadside stalls selling cherries and peaches and raspberries and apples. Lots and lots of fruit. Sally, who runs a food and wine tour company called Herbaceous Tours, tells me that the acres of fruit trees and berry farms we are passing through are nothing compared to what they used to be around here.

“Did you know that the hotel you’re staying at, the Henry Jones, used to be a jam factory?” she asks.

I did not.

“For a hundred years,” she says. “That’s the Henry Jones of the Henry Jones Hotel. A jam maker. IXL Jam.” Sally pronounces it as “I-x-cell” and says it was the personal motto of Mr. Henry Jones—“I excel at everything I do.” At one point in the 50s and 60s, just about every farmer in and around the Huon Valley was growing fruit of one kind or another for IXL Jam, Sally says. Then in the 70s an Australian businessman, John Dorman Elliott, bought the Hobart jam factory and closed it down. “Thousands and thousands of acres of fruit trees were cut down overnight,” Sally says. “Farmers couldn’t give away their fruit.”

Gleefully, Sally tells me that Mr. Elliott got his comeuppance. “A few years back he was found guilty of illegal trading and went bankrupt. I hear he’s having a hard time of it these days. Just as well.”

Hearing this story makes me think back to a conversation I had yesterday with Christine Scott, the art curator at the Henry Jones. We were walking around looking at the art work and I commented on how beautiful I thought the exposed brick and stone walls were. She said, “I hear that when they first started to rehab the building, jam was oozing out of the mortar in the bricks.”

I thought it was just some weird Tassie colloquialism for moisture since the building is on Macquarie Wharf and flush-up against Sullivans Cove. But, no. When Christine said the walls oozed jam, that’s exactly what she meant. (From a historical document at the hotel: “In the boiling room there are 17 large copper boilers in which the jam is made—Messrs H. Jones & Co. use no fewer than 2,000,000 tins each season, which are all made on the premises. The IXL Jam people emply from 150-350 hands, according to the season of the year…”)

When I got back to my room later in the day, I sat on my bed and took a deep breath. Was that raspberries I smelled or was my imagination just being particularly active?

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Wallaby, goat, and rabbit

The medallions of wallaby at Henry's in the Henry Jones Art Hotel. Photos by David Lansing.

As I was walking through the hotel lobby Saturday afternoon, the concierge called me over. He had an envelope with my name on it, a note from Chef Andre. It said: “Ross’s wallaby has arrived. Will prepare it for your dinner tonight in Henry’s.”

Well, I’d asked for this but I have to say that now it was coming to fruition, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’m always excited about trying things I’ve never had before–like wallaby. On the other hand, I had agreed to eat–well, wallaby. Something I’d experienced so far as either an animal that looked like a miniature kangaroo or else as a flattened road-kill. Neither image made me particularly hungry. Still, I’d asked Ross to procure a wallaby for me and he had and now Chef Andre was going to cook it.

I have to say that the menu at Henry’s rather bucked me up for what I was about to do. It was broken down into “Classics,” on the left-hand side, and “Evolution” on the right. The Classics were all the normal, boring dishes offered at most nice restaurants—salmon, filet mignon, oysters.

Wallaby tartare. And a good glass of Tasmanian Pinot.

Evolution, on the other hand, was something a bit more exciting: Bruny Island goat, Hudson Valley wild rabbit, Wessex Saddleback pork, licorice braised leg of lamb, duck legs.

When my waitress came over she said, “Are you the gentleman that brought in the wallaby?” I told her I hadn’t exactly brought it in, but, yes, the wallaby was for me. Well, she said, Chef Andre was going to prepare it two different ways: first as an appetizer of wallaby tartare, and then as an entrée of wallaby loin. She told me the portions would be small and the Chef suggested I order a couple of other entrees to get a feel for the rest of the menu.

I figured if I was going to have wallaby tartare, I might as well just go for the whole wild thing menu, so I also ordered the Bruny Island goat (thinking maybe that was one of Ross’ animals as well), as well as the Hudson Valley rabbit. So—wallaby, goat, wallaby, rabbit.

So, you want to know, what was the wallaby like? It was wonderful. The raw meat was blended with chives, capers, smoked paprika and a little local olive oil. It was rich but not the least unctuous (wallaby has very low fat) and much more flavorful than beef tartare. The wallaby loin, rare-cooked medallions the size of half dollars, were as tender as fillet mignon but more flavorful—kind of nutty, actually. They were served on a bed of Jerusalem artichoke puree and lovely fava beans. The goat reminded me a bit of lamb—definitely a rich, full flavor with a bit of crunch to it. And the rolled loin of rabbit almost tasted like an extremely mild, large-flaked tuna. I mean, you couldn’t honestly call it gamey but it definitely wasn’t to be confused with chicken. All in all, great Tasmanian tucker.

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