There’s a film being projected onto the third-floor wall of a cartoon character chopping off his fingers with a meat cleaver. The character – a larger-than-life fellow with a big nose and scruffy grey dungarees – hacks away at the ring finger on his left hand while defiantly crying out in pain.

It’s almost impossible to watch – and nobody is; those guests wandering through Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) give the film a wide berth.

Paul McCarthy’s finger-hacking Painter is only one of several dozen infamous works on display at MONA. On the third floor is The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting by British-born Chris Ofili that depicts a black Madonna surrounded by female genitalia and elephant dung. When the painting was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York in 1999 it caused such an uproar that then-mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani called it blasphemous and tried to sue the museum.

Also on display is Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, a gastrointestinal machine that devours, digests and then excretes food in an exact but dreary way. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Great Deeds Against the Dead displays the knackered and decapitated bodies of three naked models.

Death, sex and religion feature heavily at MONA, the non-profit museum that recently turned one. Built by Hobart-born David Walsh to house his extensive collection of art, the museum stormed Hobart when it opened on January 21, 2011. Compared to Bilbao’s Guggenheim in art-world importance, this daring, irreverent, sometimes even saucy collection was in stark contrast to sleepy Hobart, which is affectionately nicknamed Slowbart.

For Walsh, the dramatic $90-million sandstone building and $100-million collection are a reflection of his darker side, a soapbox of his character and dispositions. “My name is David Walsh and I am an arseholic,” he begins in his long-winded book, Monanism, which was published to coincide with MONA’s opening.

“David wanted to shock and offend people with the museum”, the research curator at MONA, Delia Nicholls, says. “If viewers aren’t shocked, then he is shocked.”

Walsh, 50, was brought up by his mum in a council house in Glenorchy, a working-class district neighbouring MONA. A mathematical whiz, Walsh dropped out of university and, with some friends, developed a gambling equation that could repeatedly beat the house. It’s rumoured he won so much money at a casino in South America that the country’s treasury ran out of cash and had to pay him in artefacts.

In 1995 Walsh bought Moorilla, an established winery set on a thumb-like peninsula on the Derwent River, 20 minutes’ drive north of Hobart. There he established a cellar door, a restaurant, four cosy guest villas overlooking the river and a free-to-the-public antiquities museum showcasing an extraordinary collection of Egyptian artefacts, including a 7th-century-BC Egyptian mummy and stunning bright-blue bowl from the New Kingdom. But nobody came, prompting Walsh to spend more money.

A few years and $190 million later, MONA opened its doors. Designed by Greek-born Nonda Katsalidis, the building is almost as dramatic as the art collection inside. Plunging into Triassic sandstone, Katsalidis drilled 17 metres underground to form three subterranean levels housing 6000 square metres of gallery space. From the river the museum looks like a fortress, its rusty red facade in startling opposition to the lush vineyard and working-class neighbourhood of Berriedale surrounding it. Standing in front, a nondescript stainless-steel wall butts up to a tennis court. “David wanted to give no signal you were approaching a museum,” Nicholls says.

It’s difficult to determine the motive behind MONA. Ego, perhaps? By creating a world-class museum driven by his interpretation of beauty and darkness, then deliberately steering clear of the media, Walsh has turned himself into as much of an enigma as the museum itself. Or perhaps it’s a social experiment. Walsh keeps an apartment that looks down into the museum. Coupled with the iPods given to visitors as a substitute for wall mounts that are able to track guests’ every movement, it starts to smell like Big Brother.

When Walsh was 12 he decided he didn’t believe in God, so instead of attending church, he hung out at the Hobart Museum and Art Gallery. Although modest in both its size and collection, the antiquities and art had a profound influence. “David wanted all Tassie kids to have an opportunity to see and feel art,” the museum curator, Nicole Durling, says.

“He wanted to create a free museum for everybody, a place where people can have an opinion and not be intimidated by what others think they should think.”

Whether people are shocked or not, MONA has well exceeded everybody’s expectations. Staff anticipated 250,000 visitors for the first year; they received 400,000, catapulting operating costs and prompting Walsh to start charging non-Tasmanians $20 entry.

On my last visit, I hear people speaking German, Mandarin and English. There are elderly people and kids (it would be wise to monitor their viewing), people in wheelchairs, others on crutches. There are arty types and tradies, suits and jocks. There are grandmas, families, students and groups of teenagers, all sporting museum iPods and pressing the “art wank” button to access Walsh’s own interpretation of the art. In Kryptos, an eerie, dimly lit maze with random words etched into its walls by the Hobart artist Brigita Ozolins, I see an elderly man overcome by its haunting beauty.

The harrowing grief of Claire Morgan’s Tracing Time, which features a dead wren trapped in a shower of dandelion seeds, brings many viewers to tears.

With about 650 pieces of art, MONA has a lot to take in. Most people wisely break their visit into two sessions, stopping for lunch and a much-needed glass of wine, or visit over several days. Staff are helpful and informative, even if the iPod and headphones are tiresome.

The “art wank” is entertaining but it’s a nuisance to keep reactivating the machine at each new piece of work. Nor does the device always record your journey and email it to you, as it promises.

Alongside MONA, Walsh has added four new guest villas, the Source Restaurant and Moo Brew microbrewery and cafe to the Moorilla/MONA complex. Coupled with the launch of MonaFoma – an annual art and music festival organised by Brian Ritchie, the ex-bassist of American indie band Violent Femmes – last year, Walsh has turned this former orchard into a bit of a cultural tourism hub. “It’s a journey,” Durling says. “For many international visitors, Tasmania still has a sense of mystery. It’s a little bit wild, a little bit exotic. That’s why this complex fits.”

The villas were also designed by Katsalidis. Angular cubes supported by steel pylons and with floor-to-ceiling windows soaking up glorious views, they come with one or two bedrooms, kitchens, spacious living areas and plenty of Walsh droll throughout: “Please see reception if you are planning a pool party or ritualistic orgy,” the villa compendium says. Instead of “Please clean my room” and “Please don’t disturb” signs, Walsh has “I’m a messy bastard” and “Go away”.

Sleek and futuristic, the villas certainly look the part. But they lack the luxury touches of a hotel charging these prices. The floor is porous and appears grotty; the bed sheets are starchy and the blackout blinds hopeless at keeping the sun out at 5.30am. These are minor points compared with the mind-boggling wireless touch panels that control the electronics. Change the room temperature and the music switches off; the TV rotates of its own accord; the fluorescent glowing pads beep and whirl at night.

You can cook your own meals in the villa kitchen (“In case of an emergency, call reception and order pizza immediately,” the compendium says) or order room service (“but not after 6pm”, a staff member warns).

If you are around for lunch, the on-site Source has locavore dishes from the kitchen of Brittany-born Philippe Leban, whose earthy, Gallic food is teamed with top-notch service and cold-climate wines.

I start my lunch with a scampi consomme, a delicate broth centred with jellified shallot and ginger ravioli. The flavours are clean and honest, although the dish lacks zest.

My duck breast with almond sugar crust, turnip and olive essence is a little confusing; the duck crust too sweet, the turnip too young and astringent for its colleagues. You could, of course, just come for dessert – this is where Leban excels, with wicked endings such as rich chocolate and praline cake and brioche with perfumed eggnog.

Any visit to MONA is likely to need a tipple at the end, or if you’re like me, mid-session to temper sensibilities. Luckily, alcohol is never far away. There is a bar with wine tasting from Moorilla’s cellars and daily tours of Walsh’s microbrewery Moo Brew, where chirpy head brewer Owen Johnston concocts a variety of beers.

And if you overdrink (quite possible) you can even request a late checkout – but, the compendium says, only for the flirtatious.

Getting there

MONA is open Wednesday-Monday from 10am to 6pm. Tickets are $20 or free for Tasmanian residents and under-18s. Ferry and bus transfers are available from the Brooke Street ferry terminal in Hobart.

Staying there

There are eight one- and two-bedroom Pavilions for rent on-site; double occupancy from $490. The Source Restaurant is open for lunch daily; dinner Wednesday to Saturday.

More information

See mona.net.au.

This article appeared in the February 18, 2012 edition of Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper.