Until about twelve months ago Tasmanian millionaire, David Walsh was the most mysterious presence in Australian art. He was the invisible man, much talked about but rarely seen. All this has changed with the launch of his long-awaited Museum of Old and New Art. The phantom has materialised in the form of a middle-aged pub rocker: long grey hair, shaggy beard, and a T-shirt saying: “Fuck the art, let’s rock n roll”. The MONA launch a fortnight ago was blissfully free of the speeches and ceremony so beloved of politicians, while Walsh himself had nothing to say to the media or the multitudes. Nevertheless, as the Magus presiding over the entire event, he was regarded with a mixture of curiosity and awe.
Walsh has made his money as a professional gambler but relies less on luck than on a mathematical formula. Through a shrewd system of computer-assisted spread betting he has been able to generate income with the reliability of clockwork. It sounds amazing until one realises that the stockmarket itself is little more than a casino, where the clever gamblers strive to minimise the odds.
It is more difficult to get one’s mind around the vast sums Walsh has made, and the profligate nature of his spending. The MONA collection is conservatively valued at $100 million, while the building reputedly cost more than $75 million. The opening party, and a week-long music festival called MONA FOMA, were extravagant acts of generosity.
I use this word with caution, as every catalogue nowadays seems to thank the artist for his or her generosity in allowing a gallery to put on a solo show. “Thank-you for allowing us to promote your work, sing your praises and push up your prices. That’s really generous of you.”
So what lies behind David Walsh’s display of generosity? What type of selfish gene are we dealing with? Pre-MONA, Walsh was almost fanatically media-shy, but with the opening of the museum he has laid everything bare to the public – quite literally. The last item in the enormous book published to coincide with the museum launch is a nude photographic portrait of David Walsh by Andres Serrano.
In the words of director, Mark Fraser, MONA is “Walsh World”: a soap box for a personal philosophy. Although he may have no interest in public speaking, in the book Walsh has plenty to say on subjects such as sex, death, religion, evolution, politics and alcohol. He comes across as aggressively rationalist, materialist, and hedonist – if we understand hedonism in the sense that the French philosopher, Michel Onfray, uses the term, as an ethically defined approach to pleasure.
Walsh’s writing style is relentlessly self-referential, self-deprecating, digressive and anarchic. It’s intelligent, but it reads like something spoken into a Dictaphone or scribbled hastily into a blog. He even has a female Doppelgänger in Elizabeth Mead, who writes in a similar style. To begin with it makes an entertaining change from the usual catalogue fare, but after 200 pages the self-indulgence becomes tiresome.
It is a style that allows every possible escape clause. Why did Walsh decide to open this museum? He doesn’t really know, but he’ll provide a dozen possible reasons. Is this a gigantic ego-trip? By titling the first show Monanism, he suggests he’s perfectly comfortable with being called a wanker. He says he wants MONA to generate pickets and protests, but by setting up the expectation of outrage he has defused the situation in advance. Of the thousands of visitors who turned up on opening day, nobody uttered a whisper of complaint.
The most profound answer to the question, “Why did you create this museum?” seems to be: “Because I could.”
Walsh believes that in art it is the ideas that count, and his collection is full of provocative pieces and unlikely juxtapositions. The arrangement of work is random, with Egyptian sarcophagi and Roman coins mingling with works by Damien Hirst, the Chapman Brothers, or Sidney Nolan. This randomness has a strangely liberating effect. It is as though we are seeing familiar things through new eyes.
Nothing about MONA is predictable. Nonda Katsalidis’s design for the museum is virtually a piece of invisible architecture. From the river it looks like a fortress, but from the grounds of the Morilla estate, where it rubs up against a vineyard, a winery, a brewery, a restaurant, a concert venue and a set of five-star chalets, all one sees is an ugly stainless steel wall with a nondescript door. Beyond this portal lies the foyer of the house Roy Grounds designed for the great Tasmanian patron of the arts, Claudio Alcorso.
This elegant bungalow, skilfully renovated by Craig Rosevear, has been cannibalised by the new construction. The main living area of the house has become the museum’s entrance foyer, from which one descends into the bowels of the earth by staircase or elevator. It’s hard to understand why Walsh and his architect decided they had to destroy the Alcorso house in order for MONA to be born. The multi-level, industrial-style labyrinth carved into a sandstone cliff bears no obvious relation to the building on the surface. The galleries are as dark as catacombs, the exhibits picked out by spot lights.
The much-publicised innovation of dispensing with wall labels in favour of an iPod and set of headphones seems to create more problems than it solves. It’s handy to be able to push the “art wank” button, to access in-depth information, but if all you want is the name of the artist and the work, it’s a nuisance to have to keep reactivating the machine and scrolling through tiny jpegs. A basic label would be of great benefit and not spoil anyone’s appreciation of the art.
These criticisms aside, MONA is a must-see. With its state-of-the-art facilities, its bold and startling collection, and its radical approach to exhibition design, it sends out a challenge to Australia’s established public art museums. It is twice the size of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and far more entertaining. The only criteria for acquisition is Walsh’s taste, and he has no interest in all the pseudo-serious stuff many contemporary museums buy out of a sense of obligation. Unlike the majority of big-time collectors, he has no desire to acquire representative works by a predictable cast of celebrities – a trend that has led to a dull, global uniformity.
While there are works by high-profile artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Marina Abramovic, AES + F, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Wang Qingsong, and the aging British enfants terribles, there are also important pieces by Australian artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley, John Perceval, Peter Booth, and Fiona Hall. There is no demarcation between the Australian works and the international ones, or between contemporary art and relics of the ancient world. More surprising than any of the ‘sex and death’ works was a group of stone artifacts displayed in a tank of water, complete with gold fish.
One of the major drawcards is Sidney Nolan’s monumental Snake (1970-72), comprised of 270 framed panels, which forms the centerpiece of the museum. There is also Chris Offilii’s neo-Baroque The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), the talking point of the Sensation exhibition of new British Art that scandalized New York in 1999. But apart from a seemingly endless row of plaster cast vaginas by Greg Taylor, the work that is really capturing visitors’ imaginations is Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional (2010), a machine that mimics the action of the human digestive system, producing one excretion per day. It reputedly cost a million dollars, but then again, Walsh owns a single coin that cost half a million.
If none of this is shocking it is because the visitors are all far too eager to be shocked. It is more like a trip on the ghost train than a visit to an art museum, but perhaps this is a glimpse into the future. More and more, the scholarly aspects of museums are destined to be subsumed by spectacular display tactics intended to attract popular audiences. As a self-professed Darwinian, Walsh may say it’s simply a matter of evolution.
MONA is a good enough reason to visit Tasmania, but a supplementary attraction (until 30 April) is Chiharu Shiota’s extraordinary installation, In Silence, at Detached, a converted church operated by another art philanthropist, Penny Clive. A burnt piano stands in the corner of a room, enclosed by webs of black wool that have spread out and colonised the entire building. David Walsh is involved here too, providing support and a few enigmatic words for the catalogue. This is a dark, introspective piece that defies simple description. Like MONA itself, it has to be seen and experienced at first-hand. Like it or loathe it, in Hobart there’s no alternative to being astonished.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, February 5, 2011
Museum of Old and New Art, Berriedale, Hobart, Tasmania
Until 19 July
John McDonald was a guest of Tourism Tasmania