David Walsh and Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art
The Moorilla estate is set on a peninsula of sandstone cliffs that juts out into the Derwent estuary on Hobart’s northern fringe. Framed to the south-west by the looming grandeur of Mt Wellington and to the east by Mt Direction, the slopes of the peninsula are planted with grapevines, and a cluster of modern buildings perch atop the rise. It is here that the visionary project, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is due to open on 21 January 2011, an $80 million wonder that will house a private art collection valued at over $100 million. Already it has been hailed as the “Bilbao of the south” and the “Getty of the Antipodes”, expecting an estimated 350,000 visitors per annum, contributing a major boost to the Tasmanian economy.
The owner and presiding spirit of MONA is 49-year-old David Walsh, a professional gambler and art patron. I have arranged to meet Walsh in Moorilla’s restaurant, The Source, named after a John Olsen painting suspended from its ceiling, and on a wintry July afternoon I wait there in the company of his research curator, Delia Nicholls. It has been reported that Walsh dislikes being interviewed and can be difficult to engage, and while I dwell on the prospect of a fraught afternoon the man is suddenly beside me. He is tall and slim with grey-white hair that hangs almost to his shoulders; he is dressed in jeans, sneakers and a street-chic grey wool jacket. He looks younger than I expected, almost boyish, but has a vague, distracted air. When I thank him for agreeing to the interview he stares out over the winter-bare vineyard and says: “Oh, well, Delia tells me I have to do this.”
Walsh is a man about whom a good deal of urban myth has arisen and I’ve long been curious as to how a working-class boy from Hobart’s struggle-town suburb of Glenorchy, raised by a single mother, came to be a war lord of the international art world. I’ve read a rare interview granted to the German art magazine Kunstforum International in which he describes himself as a “misfit” child, “internal to the point of autism”, a boy who lived inside his head and read his way through the classics of the western canon while collecting coins and stamps. Academically gifted, he might well have gone on to a career in research but, in the second year of his science degree at the University of Tasmania, he was asked by friends to develop a model that would enable them to win at blackjack in the nearby Wrest Point Casino. When he discovered that the scope for winning at card games was limited he dropped out of his degree and, for most of the ’80s and early ’90s, spent 100 or more hours per week developing a mathematical model that would enable him and his partners to win at other forms of gambling, especially horseracing. This he now pursues on a large scale in a number of countries.
There is a network of people involved in Walsh’s outfit, most notably his business partner of 30 years, Zeljko Ranogajec. Walsh met Ranogajec at university where the latter studied law and economics before he too dropped out to pursue a career in gambling. Walsh describes Ranogajec as a “relentless motivator and a loyal friend” who, despite not sharing his interest in art, has provided financial support for his collecting mania “whenever my cashflow dried to a trickle”. As Walsh inelegantly puts it: “I am throwing the shit, he is happy to be the fan. And he doesn’t even like the shit.”
In 1995 Walsh and his consortium bought the picturesque Moorilla estate for a modest $2.53 million. The estate and its winery had been established by the Alcorso family, immigrants from Mussolini’s Italy in the late 1930s, who set up a successful textile business and then moved into wine-
making. Claudio Alcorso acquired a national reputation as a patron of the arts until family strife and insolvency forced Moorilla into receivership. Whereas Alcorso was an art patron in the patrician European style, Walsh – by this time a collector of antiquities – was more your local hi-tech super-geek model.
While in South Africa in the 1980s on a blackjack expedition he made his first significant art purchase, a Yoruba palace door from Northern Nigeria. As he tells it in the Kunstforum, he saw it in a gallery in Sandton with a price tag of $18,000. At that time it was illegal for a visitor to take more money out of South Africa than they had taken in, and since $18,000 was the approximate amount of excess money Walsh had on him he bought the door. This was the beginning of a world-class collection encompassing Roman, Hellenic and Egyptian artefacts and, in need of somewhere to store them, he set about transforming the original villa on the Moorilla estate – designed by the Australian architect Roy Grounds – into a small antiquities museum. It was an enchanting little place of rare intimacy and charm; when I first visited it in the late ’90s I was smitten. Little was known about its obscure owner and few visitors to the museum even knew his name.
All this has changed with the construction of MONA. It’s an ambitious venture with estimated running costs of $7 million per annum and Walsh has decided it must pay its way. Reluctantly, he has begun to make himself more accessible and he offers now to take me on a tour of the museum construction site. I know that almost the entire gallery space of MONA is underground and as we walk to the site office to don hard hats and fluoro vests I ask the obvious question: why down and not up? Most wealthy art patrons build great edifices that rise into the air like modern cathedrals, so why has he chosen to burrow into the earth?
“When you go to the British Museum,” he begins, “you know what you’re going to get. It’s amazing but it doesn’t confound your expectations.” What Walsh wants is for you not to be able to see what you’re getting. “Great museums are like temples and would have you believe that knowledge is a matter of revelation and you are the empty vessel that has to be filled. You turn up and there it all is, laid out for you, the sum total of human wisdom, and you’re there to be enlightened. You always walk upstairs and you always walk into some grand citadel. In my opinion this is not how we learn things.” He wants the layout of the museum to reflect the scientific paradigm: “Gradualism would be a better metaphor, learning by increments through guesswork and experiment, but with constant attempts to falsify.” He says it’s fairly well known that he is a “rabid atheist”, and this has determined the philosophy of the layout. “I’m trying to build a museum that you discover gradually. It’s a secular temple, or you might call it an un-temple, which means it has to be concealed.”
He describes how the ground on top will be landscaped to look nondescript: “I’d make it a car park if I could.” He contemplated turning it into a skateboard ramp but the council deemed it unsafe. As it is, he might hold concerts on the surface or a weekend market. He wants the museum to be fun: a “subversive Disneyland”.
By this time we have arrived at the entrance to the museum, which is the old Roy Grounds villa and former antiquities museum, now partially gutted. As we descend a winding staircase some 20 metres into the earth, Walsh points to the foundations of the original house; he intends to keep them exposed because “they are in themselves interesting”. It becomes apparent that everything is of interest to Walsh – that he is a man who takes nothing for granted and has thought about every detail on the site. He describes the excavation as inverse archaeology and tells me the builders and engineers had to remove 60,000 tonnes of earth and sandstone before the building could begin. To line the interior walls took 3 kilometres of rock sawing, 1.5 kilometres of drilling for rock bolts to maintain the rock face and 5500 cubic metres of concrete to fill the ensuing hole. That ‘hole’ is now 6000 square metres of exhibition space over three levels.
At the bottom of our descent is a vaulting space like a cathedral nave with walls of golden sandstone that look as if they’ve been hauled from some pharaoh’s palace but have in fact been cut from the site. “This will be the bar,” he tells me, “it’s the first thing you’ll see. We’ll have functions here, rock bands, DJs, all kinds of events.” Then he points to an area adjacent to the bar. “Just along here will be a little cemetery where your ashes can be interred.” There will be a charge for depositing these, he explains, and they will be stored in huge urns etched in an eighteenth-century style and displayed in ornate cabinets with velvet curtains on either side and a steel fence in front, of the kind you sometimes see around gravestones. “I like the idea of a resolved secular death where you can go and have a glass of chardonnay and commune with the dead person. I’d love to have had a crematorium but that proved difficult.”
Already I can envisage MONA as a popular site for secular funerals, perhaps with its own resident civil celebrant and performance artists, and I tell him he might be surprised by the demand. “In that case,” he quips, “I’ll put the price up.”
We walk on through empty spaces, a network of nooks and crannies and long vistas from viewing platforms, and a giant industrial staircase that is the one feature visible from almost every vantage point. Walsh is explaining where the major artworks will be installed. Here will be a work by the Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a network of electrodes and light bulbs that will measure your pulse rate; nearby, an installation by the German artist Julius Popp, a waterfall that monitors the internet so that words popular on Google News cascade in the water. The Pausiris gallery on the second level will resemble a swimming pool where you walk over stones in shallow water to see a sarcophagus. In one of the smaller galleries, loosely referred to as ‘the catacombs’, will be the Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto’s Untitled (White Library) (2004–06), a library of 6000 white books and papers, all of them blank. The overall number and variety of works in Walsh’s collection are staggering.
Walsh describes the spirit of the building as one of “anti-compartmentalisation” in which design mirrors philosophy. The three levels will consist of temporary walls to maximise the adaptability of spaces, all walls will be angular and there will be no tyranny of the rectangle. “Everywhere is everywhere and there’s no thematic structure, apart from the Sex and Death gallery, which will be the one curated space,” he explains. It will be a “sparse hang”, full of surprising juxtapositions, so that, for example, an exquisitely detailed Egyptian mummy case may sit beside a model of the euthanasia machine designed by Dr Philip Nitschke. Everywhere is everywhere: it reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s description of postmodernity in his novel Fury. Under globalisation everyone’s story will sit alongside everyone else’s, and this is just how Walsh wants it. It drives the more rigid academic curators crazy, he says, but he wants you to contemplate conflict and contradiction: he wants you to think.
Several works in the MONA collection have already generated a fair amount of thinking. These include the Chris Ofili portrait The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) in which the British artist of Nigerian descent depicts a black Madonna with elephant dung over one breast and a background collage of female genitalia from magazine clippings (the work sits on the floor supported by two balls of elephant dung). It’s the same work that caused a scandal in New York when exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 as part of the Charles Saatchi collection Sensation. Mayor Rudy
Giuliani denounced it as blasphemous and initiated a court case against the museum, threatening to withhold its funding. Sensation, which was scheduled to exhibit at the National Gallery of Australia the same year, was rejected by former director Brian Kennedy at the last minute and there have been hints of federal intervention. In a characteristically finger-raising gesture against official piety, Walsh bought it, though he doesn’t even bother to mention this on my tour. He’s more concerned to explain a new version of the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s provocative Cloaca machine – an elaborate model of the human digestive system that will hang from the ceiling and excrete mock turds – or the ingenious Locus Focus, commissioned from the Austrian artists’ collective Gelitin. Concealed within the cubicles of the public lavatories, this work uses a binocular mirror system to give you a view of your own anus. “I’m interested in the way we compartmentalise our lives by concealing from ourselves the processes that make us,” he says. “We sanitise things so we can defer responsibility. So this is a rather unsubtle metaphor.”
I tell him I like this idea of the mirrors, that while it could be interpreted as deconstructive it also takes you back to the innocent curiosity of childhood where you lock the bathroom door and investigate your body with a hand-held mirror. “I never did that,” he says.
While he denies having any collecting strategy, over the years Walsh’s acquisitions have tended to cluster in three major categories. There are the antiquities – everything from Yap stone money to a 5000-year-old basalt altar from the Golan Heights – and there’s a significant collection of Australian modernist painting, with artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley. In 2006, as an anonymous phone bidder, Walsh bought John Brack’s The Bar (1954) out from under the nose of the National Gallery of Victoria for $3.17 million and sold it back to them in 2008 for what he paid for it. Then, when the NGV set up a public appeal to help pay for the painting, he got caught up in the fervour and made a donation. “My strategy is not very cohesive.”
The third category of works is by far the most controversial: his cutting-edge collection of conceptual art by leading international modernists such as Paul McCarthy, Erwin Wurm, Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville. The popular press has chosen to sensationalise acquisitions such as Stephen J Shanabrook’s On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell (2008), a chocolate sculpture of the mutilated body of a suicide bomber, or Walsh’s decision to pay the French artist Christian Boltanski to video his every move for the rest of his life (shades of the Warhol movies of the ’70s). But Walsh says he welcomes confrontation and would be quite happy for people to picket the museum. “I like a bit of drama.”
Given these elements of the scatological and hi-tech avant-garde, it may come as a surprise to some visitors to discover that the heart of MONA will be Sidney Nolan’s Snake (1970–72), a gigantic rainbow serpent of 1620 individual panels of flowers, animals, birds and human heads that will extend 45 metres along a huge curved wall. All of MONA has been built around this single work on the myth of creation. “We started with this and worked out,” he says, and describes how it will be exhibited in concert with three other works on the nature of myth and how the mind processes it; a 6.5-metre high painting by Anselm Kiefer on the nature of myth, a sculpture commissioned from the American artist Gregory Barsamian on “the chaos of thought”, and an installation by Jannis Kounellis of seven sides of freshly slaughtered beef, slung on hooks above sacks of coal. “I wanted to put an abattoir in the museum where the beef could be slaughtered but the idea had some logistical problems,” says Walsh, as if this were merely a mundane practical detail. What he loves about the myth gallery is that each work has “a lot of intellectual complexity and is also a really beautiful thing in its own right”, although I’m having some doubts about those sides of beef. Will the four works come together as a meaningful whole? “We’ve made a video game model of the gallery,” he says, “so we’ve got a pretty good idea.”
A winery, an abattoir, a cemetery, a bar, a market, a space for music, a library, a gallery on sex and death, a museum that radiates out from the serpent rainbow of creation – it brings to mind something I once read about the design of the Taj Mahal. The Taj may well have been part of a larger plan that sought to create in marble the Islamic model of paradise. And here is MONA, designed to be an exemplary experience of the phases of earthly being, a secular map of the underworld. By this time I’m beginning to feel that I’m in some magnificent labyrinth and I half expect to see the Minotaur hoofing it around a corner. What happens if visitors get disoriented?
“MONA is very difficult to navigate and that’s the point,” says Walsh. “I’m trying to say that what we know is extracted painfully and what we know, or what we think we know, is constantly changing. The layout of the museum is a metaphor for that.” But he doesn’t want you to get lost, so every visitor is going to be issued with an ingenious device he’s commissioned that knows where you are. This hi-tech equivalent of Ariadne’s thread will be multi-functional. It will not only guide you, it will tell Walsh and his team how long you spend in front of an exhibit, with a LOVE/HATE button you can press for feedback. It will also provide some information on the artworks, though not of an orthodox kind. “I want no labelling or visual explanation on the wall. I don’t want to create expectations or pre-judge your responses. The need to explain works with interpretive material vanished with the internet. Go home and look it up. I want to create a need to know. If people leave more curious than when they arrive then that would be a great outcome.”
This doesn’t mean there won’t be some intriguing material on the device: music, videos, gobbets of information but no monological or homogenised commentary. Some of the content will be creative in its own right and he cites the involvement of Damian Cowell, former member of the rock band TISM (This Is Serious, Mum): “We showed him a bunch of art and he wrote songs about it specifically for the device.” But not all devices will have the same content. If a couple go around with different information on their devices it will be more likely to stimulate conversation, he says. It’s an idea that arose out of a discussion he had with a museologist in Florence. “You’ll have something on your device that your friend won’t have. You’ll have something to contribute to the discussion so you won’t feel foolish or out of your depth.”
When MONA is completed there will be one way in and the same way out, like a womb, but this afternoon we are exiting through an opening in the unfinished construction works – up and out into the air where Walsh points to the river, ashimmer in Hobart’s crystalline light. There won’t be enough parking on-site so he has contracted with a company to run ferries from the city’s docks up the picturesque Derwent. He shows me the jetty where visitors will disembark and ascend a steep concrete staircase to the museum entrance; he says it has been designed to resemble in feeling the disembarkation from a dangerous sea voyage to a Greek island. “The first thing you did was walk up the hill to give thanks in the temple for safe arrival,” he explains and this reminds me that his architect is the Greek Australian Nonda Katsalidis. Walsh met Katsalidis when buying his Melbourne apartment from the architect–developer, and MONA is the eleventh building Katsalidis has since designed for him. “The sort of thing Frank Gehry builds are temples to himself,” says Walsh. “The inside and outside have nothing to do with each other.” This leads to a discourse on form and function and his admiration for Katsalidis, whom he thinks relates the two “better than anyone else in Australia”.
I ask how many people the site will employ and he says “around 50” with 30 or so already fully involved. After the Yoruba door, he began collecting through dealers and auctions; he found that he got on well with some of the Sotheby’s staff and offered them employment at the museum. One of them is the former managing director of Sotheby’s, Mark Fraser, whom Walsh describes as having had a lot to do with shaping MONA’s present business model. But there is no resident curator. “We’ve got curators on staff,” he says, “but it’s all of us really.” That ‘us’ includes an office in Melbourne with Jane Clark, who advises on the Australian modernists, Nicole Durling, who is also ex-Sotheby’s, and Walsh’s curator for contemporary Australian art, French Swiss curator Olivier Varenne, based in London, and the internationally regarded French consultant curator, Jean-Hubert Martin. There are other curators who research and write, a librarian, an exhibition designer and design staff, a registrar and technical staff. Walsh’s older sister Lindy-Lou Bateman studied painting and photography as a young woman and is involved with several aspects of the museum.
After the tour we return to The Source for coffee and settle at a table in the corner that looks out through plate glass windows to the river. I tell Walsh that people often remark on his decision to live in Tasmania, not far from where he grew up, and to build the museum there. “I kind of like it here,” he says, adding that he has joint custody of his six-year-old daughter, who lives in Hobart. In any case, he adds, globalisation creates a vertical market so that people will travel to see what they’re interested in “and being in Hobart makes it more interesting”.
In New York it might be just another museum and gallery? “In New York it would probably emerge as having some validity but it would become less a temple, less a destination. The philosophy of the thing that I’m screaming through a megaphone would be drowned out by the crowd noise.”
It’s clear he wants to create a kind of secular pilgrimage and, insofar as the museum is exploratory and isn’t trying to objectify taste, he hopes it may become a rallying point for secular humanism. He also wants to expand the conversation he is continually having in his head. He likes people who are direct, who argue back and who challenge him, though they had better make a good case, something he doesn’t always get from artists. While he credits Gregory Barsamian with helping him to understand “why art is an efficient communicator”, many others, he says, have little idea why they do what they do. “When interrogated their ideas can be vapid.” His own theories about art derive from evolutionary biology. “The underlying motives of artists are either satiation or propitiation, access to sex or avoidance of death.” There’s also a reproductive drive involved; artists are peacocks competing to exhibit the best display of feathers as a way of attracting mates. “I built a museum because I’m a peacock shaking its feathers.” That said, he can imagine a “valid” life without art and the mathematics of gambling still remains his first love.
One of the more remarkable things about Walsh is that he appears to have no sense of entitlement and occasionally refers to his wealth as unfair: “I’ve done nothing for the money.” He believes that his path in life was a fluke, a product of circumstance, and when I try to press him on this I get nowhere. I know, for example, that he attended a parochial Catholic school; I ask him about the influence of his Catholic childhood and he is dismissive. As a child he had an aptitude for science and this brought about his loss of faith, not vice versa. When he gave his religious instruction teachers grief by demanding evidence for the existence of God he was often made to stand outside the classroom in the cold and he resented it. Yes, but might not this humiliation have driven him to construct his secular temple? Christian dogma is full of suspicion of the body, I say, hatred even, and isn’t MONA a form of riposte? “Hatred of the body has no wit,” is all he will say, before launching into a discourse on how the influence of childhood is overrated. There could be a million people with his bleak religious upbringing and exceptional mathematical skills where a different decision or accident brought a different outcome. He describes himself as “basically lazy”; “If Zeljko hadn’t walked into the uni bar I doubt I would ever have made the money.” This is a very important point, he stresses, and tells me he subscribes to the theory of survivor bias. When I ask him to elaborate he offers a gambling analogy. ‘‘There are over 6 billion people on Earth. Let’s say they each have $1000. Let’s have half of them toss a coin with the other half. We then have 3 billion with $2000 and 3 billion with nothing. Repeat: 1.5 billion with $4000; 750 million with $8000; 375 million with $16,000; 187 million with $32,000; 93 million with $64,000; and so on. When we have one person left, after 33 consecutive winning tosses, he (of course) will have all the money, which was $6 trillion. He will believe he is a very good coin tosser indeed, and a very shrewd operator. He will get an article written about him for the Monthly.” People who don’t understand this, he says, believe in the power of positive thinking, something for which he has considerable scorn, and I realise that the coin-tossing analogy is not about gambling as such but his absolute faith in the science of probability. Unlike many who claim to operate on the basis of a scientific paradigm, Walsh is prepared to subject his ego to the logic of that paradigm: “I know that my life is only peripherally related to my own intervention.”
Nevertheless, choices do get made, like building a museum around a single artwork. I ask him why he has such high regard for Sidney Nolan and he says he admires Nolan’s relentlessness in the pursuit of understanding: “He doesn’t give up on a subject, he tears it apart and sees every bit of it.” It could be a description of Walsh himself. After all, this is a man who posed nude for Andres Serrano – despite having a poor body image and knowing he would most likely hate the outcome (he does) – because it might “produce some thought or feeling that turns out to be important to me”.
Though Walsh describes himself as an atheist I observe that he seems quite unlike the Richard Dawkins variety. Dawkins is a high priest of certainty if ever there was one whereas Walsh strikes me as a man of restless intelligence who is suspicious of all dogma, of any thought or statement that sends the mind into lockdown. He agrees, and remarks that Dawkins has often pursued the wrong strategy in making his case, that he doesn’t have enough to say about “the grey areas”. We agree that The God Delusion is a crude polemic and he recommends I read Dawkins’ earlier book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) “in which the complexity of the real world is allowed”. Part of that complexity, he says, is that “ideas are very fluid things, they come and they go. I like a work of art today but I might not like it in six months, or even three. Every conclusion is tentative, and that’s the key: that’s what the museum says. Any time you ask someone something you get what sounds like a cohesive story but it’s all bullshit, it could be different tomorrow.” For this reason the contents of MONA will change from year to year and possibly every few months. It may be that Walsh decides that some of his artworks are not in the end profound, are indeed stunts, in which case he will replace them. MONA will be nothing if not a work in progress.
I put it to him that there is a latent politics in his actions, that he seems to have an egalitarian streak. He wants to keep the museum free of admission charges, he is keen for visitors not to feel intimidated by art as some elitist calling and he wants “the device” to make them feel as if they themselves have a contribution to make. He hates pretension, dislikes the deification of artists and believes in a secular globalised community as a level playing field that is tolerant and inclusive. He seems uncomfortable with this notion, perhaps because he senses I’m manoeuvring him into a position of virtue he thinks is dubious. This is when he’s likely to make some throwaway cynical remark, to pull out the analogy of the peacock feathers or tell you that he’s just another male show-off and in truth he has no fixed opinions.
It’s just after five and the winter dusk is creeping in over the river. Walsh escorts me to the car park, saying he has one last thing to show me on the way. We walk past the winery and the row of luxury accommodation pavilions he has built, each overlooking the river and with its own in-house artworks. Earlier in the afternoon I had asked him about his interest in the Wunderkammer, the Enlightenment idea of a cabinet of curiosities in which the wonders of the world are arrayed in miniature. He thinks I might be interested to see his own twenty-first century version of the concept; as we walk he directs me to an object at the end of the garden that looks like a smaller version of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 space epic, 2001. It’s a plain concrete and metal case, around 3-metres high and curved at the corners. At a certain point our bodies trigger sensors on the path and the metallic facing rises and disappears behind the monolith to reveal a glassed-in display cabinet. It stops me in my tracks. There are coins from the Doges of Venice, pre-Columbian and Egyptian figurines, a huge wheel of primitive stone money and, of course, a television set, flashing with an expressionist video installation, which ought to jar but instead injects a dynamic quality into the ethereal stillness of the antiquities. Unlike the rough miscellany of the traditional Wunderkammer, this is a work where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It has a magical quality, like some hi-tech garden shrine or grotto. As I gape at it admiringly Walsh tells me he curated it himself, and I see that MONA is not all about scale, that he loves his mini-museum as much as he loves anything, and he likes the fact that I like it. I can tell this because he’s smiling. I’ve just spent three hours with David Walsh and this is the first time he’s smiled.
In an essay on Sidney Nolan, the art historian William Laffan writes: “There is a dynamic flux within the art of Sidney Nolan. A fault line lies balanced precariously between the local, specific and quotidian and the universal, metaphorical and mythic.” It’s a line, he observes, that is “blurred constantly, and enigmatically, shifting” and I can think of no better description of MONA, or of its owner. Like his ingenious device, David Walsh is original, surprising, engaged, educative and above all mercurial. I understand now why so many myths have attached to his persona and I sense he likes it that way. It’s not about the money, or art as a collection of trophies; it’s not even about the peacock feathers. It’s about a restless mind and its relentless drive to test the meaning of things, of whatever boundary or reality principle it encounters. MONA will be one long exploratory journey, and in a generous impulse David Walsh wants to take you along with him.