MONA founder David Walsh nar­rowly es­caped be­ing framed for mur­der, he tells Rose­mary Neill in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view about his gallery’s new ex­hi­bi­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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