REVENGE OF THE NERD
MONA founder David Walsh narrowly escaped being framed for murder, he tells Rosemary Neill in an exclusive interview about his gallery’s new exhibition
DAVID Walsh was a nerd before the term was invented. As a teenager growing up in public housing in Hobart in the 1970s, he had Asperger’s-like tendencies, one friend and a gift for maths — he wrote computer programs even though he didn’t own a computer.
When he was 16, Walsh was falsely accused of murder. This unworldly, socially inept boy wasn’t as shocked as he should have been. ‘‘ I was somewhat dissociated from it. If it happened to me now, I’d understand the gravity of the accusations, but I didn’t then,’’ he tells Review, his eyes small and inscrutable behind square-framed, tinted glasses.
Walsh, the multi-millionaire gambler and founder of the country’s edgiest gallery, Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art, writes about this disturbing incident for the first time in an essay inspired by MONA’s latest exhibition, The Red Queen, to be published in the exhibition catalogue in September. His accuser, he alleges, was a teenage girl whose romantic overtures he had unwittingly rejected. The spurned girl exacted her revenge in chilling fashion: she implicated him in the killing of an elderly woman who had lived in the same housing commission block he did. He writes: ‘‘ It seems reasonable to assume she described me to the police out of malice.’’ He adds with his self-deprecating yet twisted sense of humour: ‘‘( Thin. Pale. Black hair, looks, and acts, like a weasel. Anything else that might help us identify him? He has a limp dick and, oh yes, he lives in flat 49.)’’
The killer turned out to be the victim’s nephew and the case was quickly solved. ‘‘ It ran its course in a week,’’ Walsh says. Still, he remembers vividly the police telling him that the girl ‘‘ deliberately described me as a component of her vendetta’’.
For this exclusive interview, I am talking to the gambler and art collector deep underground at MONA. We sit in an echoing conference room that overlooks neatly stacked oak barrels from his Moorilla winery, which adjoins the riverside ‘‘ secular temple’’ of art into which he pours millions of dollars every year. He wears a pinstriped jacket, T-shirt and patina of stubble. His voice is ragged — imagine Tom Waits reciting a soliloquy — and he speaks in flash floods of words that periodically catch in his throat. As he sits down, he starts scoffing a pastry before an assistant can push a plate at him. It’s noon and it’s Walsh’s breakfast time. Very rock ’ n’ roll.
Asked why he is going public about the false murder claim, he replies off-handedly: ‘‘ Because it came to me while I was writing and I’d never written it down before. It was associated with my inability to read motives.’’
Motives have been on Walsh’s mind a lot lately. Artists’ motives — from the perverse to the spiritual — are the starting point for The Red Queen, an exuberantly eclectic exhibition that includes an oversized trampoline, ancient Bactrian coins, voodoo dolls and watercolours featuring small, mutant girls with penises.
In his essay, Walsh reflects on how his teenage self’s ‘‘ extreme inability to read people’’, coupled with the fabricated murder allegation, might have seen him go ‘‘ down for a murder I didn’t commit’’. A reputation as a murderer, he jokes, could have been good for business. If he had founded MONA as a convicted killer, ‘‘ a museum that has been labelled (even by me) as a museum of sex and death would have taken on a more morbid sheen. And attracted more visitors.’’
Clearly, Walsh’s sense of humour, like his museum itself, can be wildly transgressive. Yet the 51-year-old, who posed naked in a MONA catalogue last year, feels it is time people looked beyond his gallery’s sex and death notoriety — a notoriety he admits he cultivated initially. ‘‘ I think we have earned respect to do things that are still perhaps more accessible than things most galleries do but which require a deeper appreciation,’’ he says.
Underpinned by complex scientific and cultural theories about the factors that drive creativity, The Red Queen, he hopes, will demonstrate how MONA has matured since it opened 21/2 years ago. The sex and death label, he says, is ‘‘ a load of bullshit’’, but it’s bullshit that ‘‘ I unfortunately said. When it got a response, I used the phrase a few more times, then started to regret ever having said it.’’ In his own defence, he says, ‘‘ my context was very different than has universally been applied’’.
He says he was talking about the reasons people produce art, rather than the content of his $100 million art collection. He asks: ‘‘ Do I collect art about sex and death? I don’t think I do.’’ This, surely, is debatable.
As soon as it opened, MONA acquired the reputation Walsh is now keen to ditch. He called it a ‘‘ subversive Disneyland’’ and it wasn’t hard to see why. Its exhibits included a machine that made lifelike human faeces and a suicide bomber cast in chocolate. There was a toilet in which you could view your anus and an in-house cemetery where, for $75,000, you could store your ashes. Today, Walsh stresses that the works that focus on death, human waste or slaughter of animals are not merely about shock value; they are designed to make us think about the things we avoid or deny — how we kill the animals we eat, for instance. ‘‘ I want to make all the things that we do available for perusal,’’ he says.
Also in his collection (and featuring in The Red Queen), is the Chris Ofili painting The Holy Virgin Mary. This work depicts Mary as a black woman with one breast made from elephant dung, surrounded by pornographic images of female genitalia. In 1999, then New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani took legal action, which he lost, against the Brooklyn museum that showed this work. It was to be displayed in Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia the following year, but the exhibition it featured in was cancelled at the eleventh hour. In Hobart, the painting has barely raised an eyebrow — Walsh must be crushed.
Curated by MONA staff members Olivier Varenne and Nicole Durling, The Red Queen doesn’t eschew sex and death, but neither is it wilfully confronting. The title refers to the Red Queen character from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, who runs constantly but remains in the same spot. The show explores different forces that drive creativity, from evolution — Walsh is very big on evolutionary biology — to technology, a sense of play and sexual competitiveness. MONA’s press release says of the latter theory, known as sex selection: ‘‘ The artistic bloke got the girls and spread his genes more generously than his less creative competitors.’’ Walsh is a willing but difficult interviewee. He gives long looping answers that sheer off in unpredictable directions and often involve scientific abstractions. It can be hard to keep up. ‘‘ Sexual selection is definitely at play, as is a whole bunch of other cultural phenomena,’’ he concludes on the vexed question. ‘‘ The jury is out, I think, on whether any mechanism is dominant.’’
Featuring more than 100 works by 46 artists, The Red Queen has involved a radical
David Walsh in front of Kuba (2004) by Kutlug Ataman, above; detail from Paradise (2007-13), left, by Ataman