We spent 15 minutes inside MONA's new 'perceptual cell'

Written by
Ben Neutze

There's no way of accurately describing the experience of 'Unseen Seen' and capturing its full richness and magic. The main reason is that everybody experiences the work slightly differently, such is the impact of this hallucinatory artwork crossed with a neurological experiment. Flashes of the experience and the wonder it inspires have been coming back to me in the days since I stepped inside.

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 effectively 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 down 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.

'Unseen Seen' at Pharos
Photograph: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

Given the severity of the waiver and my general terror about everything in the world, I opted for 'soft'. The technician told me this would be the closest thing I would ever come to a 1960s acid trip, so I braced myself and prayed 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 in a series of colours. But what the lights are actually doing is just one part of the experience: 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. To completely escape the light, you'll need to place your palms over your eyes; the lighting is so intense your fingers won't do the trick.

I saw extraordinary patterns of colour whirling at fast speed. Then at one moment I could see more floaters in my eyes than I believed could have ever been there. The next I was absolutely convinced that my eyes were closed, when they were wide open. I didn't see any distinctive images, except for the whirling of a hurricane, but apparently multiple people have seen pugs come to life or spinning sculptures, which they're able to move about in their perception.

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' that 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.

'Pharos' at MONA
MONA/Jesse Hunniford

MONA opens 'Pharos' wing

'Unseen Seen' is the centrepiece of MONA's new $20 million wing. It juts out dramatically over the water and includes a handful of big art works – four by James 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 to guarantee a slot. But we'd suggest it's now an essential part of the MONA experience.

The extension is called 'Pharos', named after the ancient Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria. And it's only appropriate that it be named after a lighthouse given both its position on the water and the number of Turrell works that it houses.

Fender Katsalidis, the firm that designed the original 2011 MONA building, has returned to design Pharos. There are similar materials used throughout: concrete, steel and granite. But unlike the rest of MONA, which feels like an underground cave, Pharos has big glass windows, letting in streams of natural light.

There's only a handful of works in Pharos, but they're mostly massive and close to the heart of David Walsh, MONA's eccentric owner.

MONA curator Jarrod Rawlins describes Pharos as Walsh's "legacy building".

"The way he’s constructed and designed the building 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 here and put the lid on. It’s sealed."

The wing houses Randy Polumbo's 'Grotto', a small and sparkling silver room that MONA has called the "selfie capital" of the museum.

'Grotto', Randy Polumbo
Photo Credit: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

It also includes Richard Wilson's '20:50', a work that was first shown in 1987 in London. It features a vast pool of reflective black sump oil that's flooded across the room. Visitors can walk down a narrow pathway into the centre of the pool or observe from above.

One of the major challenges the gallery attendants are currently facing is ensuring visitors don't touch the oil. When Time Out attended, the slick surface proved too enticing for one man, who ended up with the sticky substance all over himself and on the floor of the gallery.

"All I can say is: don’t touch it," Rawlins says. "We’re always running around telling people not to touch the art, but with this one we really mean it. It’s not for me, it’s for you. It’s also that classic thing – if your parents say ‘don’t touch that’, what are you going to do?

"But people are discovering things about the work. All the works in here have some element of discovery about them: that’s what they’re here for."

MONA is open all year round in Hobart. See full opening hours and ticketing details.

If you're heading down south, check out our guide to Tasmania, including a hit-list for dining, drinking, sleeping and seeing in Hobart. 

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