A welcome contradiction
Gambler and MONA founder David Walsh has written a book
The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart is an underground labyrinth, often dimly lit, but its founder’s domestic apartment is a glassy sunlit box, the light so bright I consider killing eye contact and putting on my sunglasses. David Walsh is warm and engaging, quite unlike the way he appears on television, and he introduces me to his new wife, the American artist and curator Kirsha Kaechele. The two were married at MONA in March 2014 in an exuberantly pagan ceremony in which ten bridesmaids carried fertility symbols instead of flowers. More than 70 local artists, craftspeople and caterers mounted the wedding feast in a vaulting underground space in the museum known as The Void, lit for the occasion by a towering scaffold of steampunk lighting. Like just about everything else the now famous gambler does, it was different.
I’ve come to interview Walsh about his autobiography, A Bone of Fact (Picador; $55), which resembles no other book I know of and is every bit as surprising and entertaining as his museum. When I remark on the similarity, he says, “Both are like the inside of my head.” I ask him why, at the age of 53, he wanted to write an autobiography, and he says it just happened, mostly on planes when he was tooling around on his iPad. For the first half he was “writing to Kirsha”, autobiography as love letter, but he also admits to being influenced by Steve Jobs, who, he tells me, co-operated with biographer Walter Isaacson because “he wanted his kids to know him”. This resonated for Walsh, though he phrases it in his own inimitable way as “writing in a conceptual space for someone who has an interest in me they can’t avoid”.
The chapters in the book are short, seemingly random – in that they are not chronological – and are accompanied by stunning images, mostly of artworks featured in the museum. The page layout is novel: Walsh’s marginal notes feature in columns on either side of the main text, and the notes are often mischievous and self-mocking. Typically, Walsh seems bent on being his own exegete. Some chapters are philosophical (‘Aristotle and Poetics’) while others are intimately conversational (‘Our Man in Vegas’). At its best the writing is intense and evocative, as in the chapter on Walsh’s attendance at a bullfight. (He didn’t like it.) It’s a moving account in which the vegetarian animal-lover rails against the way in which the odds are stacked against the bull. MONA may aim to shock and disturb, but its owner seems to have little time for false glamour.
The title of Walsh’s book is taken from a poem written by his older brother, Tim, ‘A Professor of History Greets His Students’: “Sit awhile and think of me. / As I throw you starving sods a bone of fact. / Sit awhile and think of me. / As I pursue the fantastic butterflies of thought around my head.” Tim died of cancer in 1991. Walsh’s admiration for his brother, and grief at his loss, is threaded throughout his book, although, typically, he looked up the title phrase on Google to see if Tim had plagiarised it. This sets the tone of what is to follow: strong declarations of belief and attachment followed by disarmingly frank and sceptical interrogations of anything and everything. “I always fantasised about writing,” he says, “but I thought it was a thing that other people, important people, do.”
When his first book, MONA’s glamorous and expensive uber-catalogue, Monanisms, made money, it added a practical incentive to the writing fantasy. MONA runs at a loss, which means that Walsh has to find ways to fund its maintenance. This includes plans for an on-site hotel, HOMO, and a small private casino for high rollers (“no poker machines”), MONACO. Experts advised him that an autobiography could make him around a million dollars, and while in the overall scheme of his business this is not a large sum, it is, as he puts it, “not trivial”. Still, writers get only 10% of a book’s retail price, so in order to maximise his profit margin Walsh negotiated a deal with the publisher, Pan Macmillan, that allows him to sell his autobiography in the MONA shop. That way he gets to take the bookseller’s cut, which is considerably bigger than the author’s.
Walsh is so often described as eccentric that it’s easy to forget that he’s a businessman. On the back cover of his book he summarises himself thus: “art, science, maths, smartarse, penis, narcissist”, and when I say this sounds a bit glib, Kaechele intervenes.
“Tell the truth about why you put ‘penis’ on the cover,” she says.
Walsh relates how a down-market retailer with many outlets informed his publisher that it planned to sell the book at half price as a loss leader in order to bring a different “crowd” into its stores. “I said, ‘That’s the last thing I need. They’ll kill me. I don’t want them to sell 20,000 copies for nothing.’ So, later, when I said the word ‘penis’ was going to be on the back text, the publisher kept saying, ‘No, some of our sellers won’t want it.’ I’m thinking, ‘I know who that refers to, and so, definitely, it stays.’”
I ask Walsh about the book as an object. I know he has strong views about product design, right down to the shape of the bottles and the labels for the Moo Brew beer produced on his Moorilla estate. One of his lifelong pleasures has been to argue with religion, so did he intend A Bone of Fact to look like the Bible? Because it does: a hard black cover with no images, just gold lettering, and gilt-edged pages. “The answer to that is yes,” he says – or it was, until he read Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, another black and gold book, which he found “trite and dumb”. Still, he stuck with the black. Black has been MONA’s signature colour since it opened in 2011, and for Walsh it signifies the opposite of inerrant scripture: “an aesthetic that is continually probing uncertainty”. Black, he says, signals “doubt without foreboding”’, at which point I am tempted to argue for crimson, or a nice warm grey, but I cancel that thought. It’s too easy and entertaining to argue with Walsh because he welcomes contradiction, indeed relishes it.
All conclusions, he writes, should be “temporary, tentative, and provisional”, and he reminds me that there are chapters of philosophical argument in A Bone of Fact where he deliberately contradicts himself. “Basically I’m trying to expose my uncertainty,” he says, and it’s this mercurial quality that gives the book its liveliness, its ruminative élan, even if in other contexts Walsh’s temperament can be frustrating. He tells the story of how Elizabeth Pearce, co-author of Monanisms, once turned on him in exasperation: “That’s it, isn’t it, that’s your orgasm – being contrary.” This, he writes, gave him the idea for the name of the iPod touch–style device that visitors carry around the museum, the O. Instead of offering authoritative curatorial explanations of artworks, the O offers a range of conflicting opinions and Walsh can be heard on it arguing with his curators.
It seems apposite that Walsh uses a sexual term for a device that imparts knowledge, since the pursuit of meaning is for him the ultimate experience and, in its own way, “an act of love”. It’s also, in one of his favourite words, “fun”. But it made his publishers wary of including too much philosophical argument in his memoir, and they prodded him to write about what they thought would interest readers most: less about Aristotle, for example, and more about his private life and how he developed his gambling system. And he has obliged them – “they managed my personality very well” – with intimate personal detail and some priceless anecdotes, including the time he encountered the actor Jack Nicholson at the men’s urinal in the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of the Academy Awards. There’s also a surprising section called ‘Wives and Girlfriends’, subtitled “Wherein I fail to decode the mystery that love is”. Here, like the mathematician he is, Walsh deals with his former partners and present wife serially, all 18 of them. When I ask about this somewhat unorthodox chapter, he tells me that he read the mathematician Richard Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and was shocked by the fact that Feynman made scarcely any reference to his three wives, “as if they didn’t count”. He didn’t want to make the same mistake.
Walsh’s adherence to a morality of doubt doesn’t prevent him from arguing in his book for his pet theories: evolutionary adaptation and a philosophy of chance. Both determined the way he designed his museum with no linear tours or pathways. “I want you to be lost, to trust randomness and have faith in technology.” Technology is one of his passions or, as he puts it, “As a metonym for human realisation I would rather have the cloud than the [Christian] cross.” His philosophy of chance also shapes his politics. The idea that success comes from virtuous hard work, he says, is a rationalisation of the fact that chance plays a large role in our success or failure. “We should show more sympathy, and more courtesy, to those who appear to us to be failures simply because they’re not the only them they could be.” When we understand this, the principle of equality becomes “more supportable”. Not that he’s averse to work. One of his former girlfriends tells of how he would often labour on the development of his gambling system for 36 hours at a stretch.
I put it to Walsh that MONA has become the opposite of what he planned, in that he set out to shock and provoke but instead has been embraced affectionately across a broad public spectrum. “That’s absolutely true,” he says. “I didn’t expect the degree of acceptance it’s had.” (There has, however, been some dissent, and the sports journalist Roy Masters tells the story of a team of NRL players from Sydney visiting MONA and declaring much of it to be in “bad taste”.)
Before MONA opened, Walsh pronounced himself a “rabid atheist” and described the museum as a temple to secular humanism. He was prepared for religious sensitivities to be outraged and even for some of the faithful to picket the entrance, as they had when the National Gallery of Victoria exhibited Andres Serrano’s work Piss Christ in 1997. Walsh paid a large sum for the Chris Ofili portrait The Holy Virgin Mary, in which the British artist of Nigerian descent depicts a black Madonna with elephant dung over one breast and a background of crudely drawn genitalia. The work caused a scandal in New York in the ’90s when the then mayor, Rudy Giuliani, denounced it as blasphemous, “sick” and “disgusting”, and initiated a court case against the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The fuss was later believed to have led to Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia cancelling an arrangement to exhibit the work. Walsh bought it on principle, but once it was prominently displayed at MONA the public couldn’t have cared less. As one young visitor remarked, there is too much on the internet now that is truly shocking for such a work to create a ripple.
Similarly, one of the most photographed sites at MONA is Walsh’s parking bay, painted with a sign that says GOD, alongside another bay, GOD’S MISTRESS (a practical joke carried out by his staff). Far from being offended, tourists appear to find this hilarious. Meanwhile, one of MONA’s most popular exhibits is Zhang Huan’s contemplative installation of two huge Buddhas. When I remark on the irony of a religious icon, treated respectfully, proving to be such a popular exhibit in a temple to atheism, Walsh laughs and says, “Just shows I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
If Walsh were some other kind of businessman who collected art there would be far less public interest in what he does. Given the great Australian passion for tempting fate on a nag, the gods could not have created a figure more likely to command the public’s attention than a working-class boy who continues to defeat the odds, only to spend the spoils on an art museum that loses money. He tells me that when journalists interview him the thing they want most to talk about is his gambling but, as he persistently points out, he is a mathematician who got into gambling by chance. The driving force was, and is, his best friend and business partner, Zeljko Ranogajec (one of the people to whom A Bone of Fact is dedicated). They got together as students at the University of Tasmania, where Ranogajec was looking for a maths whiz who could help him finesse the odds at blackjack, and they’ve been together ever since.
From cards and casinos they moved on to horses, but Walsh is not a racegoer and although he won $16 million in a plunge on the 2009 Melbourne Cup he claims not to remember the name of the horses that placed. Tom Waterhouse he’s not. One reviewer complained that after reading Walsh’s book, he “felt the romantic mystery of the gambler fade away”. To which Walsh might well have replied, “Good.” His advice to mug punters is the blunt injunction to give it away: unless you have a head for algorithms, the odds are against you.
Prompted by Kaechele, who is especially interested in community projects, Walsh is funding a $100,000 gun-buyback scheme in the St Roch neighbourhood of New Orleans where Kaechele was based for several years and where she curated a post–Hurricane Katrina community art project. Recently he and Kaechele announced that they would be setting up a cyber-hacking school for disadvantaged teens in the northern suburbs of Hobart, where Walsh spent part of his childhood as the son of a single mother living in public housing. Both projects resonate with his concern from the outset to “democratise” his museum, and he once planned to build a skateboard ramp near its entrance as a way of attracting the local youth in what is largely a low-income area. (He couldn’t get council permission.)
When I ask him if he has any major ambitions left in the art sphere, he launches animatedly into a description of the science-cum-art museum he wants to build, one that he calculates will cost around a billion dollars. What he needs is access to a good art collection owned by someone else, probably in another country, “perhaps a Middle Eastern oil kingdom making yet another grab for authenticity”. He also needs someone who would let him build a cemetery inside a gallery.
“People would choose to be buried there – it would save them five grand – and I’d have chemical monitors monitoring the decaying process. I’m going to weigh people when they die to see if they’ve got a soul, that kind of stuff, and I’m going to display the data live. Basically I’m going to extract reality.”
At the centre of the cemetery would be a Babylonian-style ziggurat, an “inverted Tower of Babel”, but instead of a shrine on top it would feature a radio telescope pointing at a pulsar or quasar. Why a ziggurat? I ask. Because it’s a good shape, he says, one that would enable visitors to walk up and down pathways that would feature art installations. Science alone is not enough.
“It’s an extremely accurate communicator but it doesn’t overwhelm the senses. Art, on the other hand, is wide-band. Its bit rate is enormous because it’s impressionistic rather than declarative.”
He thinks he could get five million visitors a year at such a gallery if it were in the right place, and he would be prepared to spend ten years living in another country to get it established. “It would be a lot of fun.”
But he would like this project to be more collaborative than MONA.
“People say I’m a maverick, but one of the reasons MONA wasn’t collaborative was because no one would talk to me. Now I can ring up Steven Pinker and say, ‘Listen, mate, I want a bit of a display for neurology, can you help me out?’ And he’ll be like, ‘Yeah.’ Perhaps I could have done that with MONA, but it never occurred to me that anyone would pick up the phone.”
He cites the occasion when Kaechele encountered obstacles in getting the University of Tasmania to co-operate with her project for cleaning up pollution in Hobart’s Derwent River. “She rang up MIT,” he says, admiringly.
Kaechele shakes her head at me, as if it were no big deal. “I was just so pissed off,” she says.
Walsh: “My personality wouldn’t allow me to have that kind of confidence.”
In his book, Walsh describes himself as a shy youth, and quotes a friend who recalls that he had difficulty ordering a pizza. Now he is constantly exposed and talked about. Does he feel that he has been appropriated by his public persona? Is he in danger of becoming a caricature of himself? I remind him that he once said to me that people who want to be famous are arseholes.
“I would still say that’s statistically true,” he replies, “particularly if when they achieve fame they think they deserve it. But there are also a bunch of people who happen to do good things, things that people interpret as worthwhile or interesting.”
In any case, he says, he’s not really all that famous. He cites a weekend he spent recently in Hobart with the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. As they knocked around Hobart’s bars together, Walsh was reminded what a burden fame could be: “People wouldn’t leave him alone.” He reflects for a moment and says, “I seem to have the right amount of fame,” by which he means it’s enough to help enable his projects. He can pick up the phone now and just about anyone whose brain he wants to pick will talk to him. Indeed he will talk to almost anyone about anything: just don’t ask him for gambling tips.
I express surprise that there isn’t more in his book about the art he’s bought and commissioned, and he points to the fact that he’s already written a lot about that in Monanisms and the catalogues for MONA’s major exhibitions. While he might once have been shy, this clearly hasn’t prevented him from arguing with artists.
“I used to struggle with most of them,” he tells me. “Most of them just meddle around with stuff, then the meaning is retrofit to whatever they create. There are exceptions to that, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.”
He cites a conversation Kaechele was having with one of MONA’s curators, Olivier Varenne. “They’re like, ‘Who cares what it’s about? That’s for the critics to work out.’ And I’m like, ‘How can you say that?’”
The anecdote reminds me of one reviewer of his book, who complained that Walsh is “constantly explaining things”, gnawing at the meaning of life like a dog with a bone (of fact). Walsh believes art should involve a lot of thinking, and he admires the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye “because he’s putting on the wall what he’s thinking in his head”. He once described Delvoye’s famous Cloaca installation, a complex machine that mimics human digestion and excretes faeces, as a perfect mechanism. “I love the way you’ve got all the gauges, how much effort that thinking takes.” It’s why he describes MONA as more of a philosophy museum than an art collection and clearly he is no conventional art patron, more the ringmaster of an interdisciplinary spectacle of enquiry that defies any attempt to categorise it.
Towards the end of our meeting Walsh has a question for me. What did I think of his “misfit memoir”? I tell him I think it’s the perfect gift book, one that is fun to read without insulting the intelligence of either the giver or receiver. I add that although I am now a somewhat jaded reader I found it wholly absorbing and read it in two sittings. He seems disappointed, as if I have damned him with faint praise, at which point I suggest that the highest compliment you can pay a writer is that they compel your attention throughout, all other aspirations, and pretensions, aside. There are plenty of books out there that are both predictable and dull. A Bone of Fact isn’t one of them.