Features Australia

The art of dying

David Walsh sees fear of death and access to sex as integral to old and new art

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

‘People can go and die [in my science museum] – and then I want to bury them,’ says David Walsh looking me straight in the eye. Australia’s infamous multi-millionaire, art collector, and gambler-turned author, is not joking. In 2011 Walsh opened his private Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in his hometown of Hobart, Tasmania.

The subterranean island tomb is packed with mummies, ancient coffins, and the ashes of his late father (as well as often dark and subversive modern art). But with success MONA has become mainstream: a bona fide world attraction, now drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

Walsh, who is 53 and about to become a father for the third time, is anxious to make his mark again. He wants to return to his own world: science, the laws of mathematics, facts, and reason. He insists that, if ever built, his new museum will not stand on marble but atop a hospice and a cemetery.

‘I’d follow [the corpses] all the way, follow their molecular decomposition, weigh them, prove that there isn’t or is a soul, this ‘21 grams’ (all bullshit, of course) and as you go up there would be art – Caravaggio’s that deal with this stuff,’ he rhapsodises.

In Walsh’s vision a vast pyramid will taper from an underground graveyard to a rooftop with a radio telescope. The latter will point at a quasar, extracting electromagnetic signals. In-between there will be art, symphony orchestras, and bars where punters can contemplate their mortality over a chardonnay. ‘I need a great art collection, a supportive government, a bunch of free land, and a city of five million that gets at least eight million tourists,’ he says. It could be Sydney. Or it could be, as he has said, ‘a corrupt country applying for readmission to the human race’.

Walsh, it is often written, has bizarre manners that can verge on rudeness (it is suspected that he has undiagnosed Asperger’s). On this Sunday, however, dressed in red scuffed trainers with a blue velvet jacket, his grey hair cropped short, he is on fine form. He laughs, confides, philosophises, and takes the piss.

He is at once utterly committed to his own ideas and schemes whilst simultaneously derisive of any mandate that they might give him. Museums serve ‘the same purpose as an altar,’ mediates Walsh. ‘You walk into the British museum, you walk upstairs through those giant columns and you look through the giant portals. Essentially what they are saying to you is: Step through our portals and be enlightened. Here wisdom resides.’ In MONA, however, Walsh has created a gothic church dedicated not to certainty but to doubt, dispute, and debate. Visitors enter through a tennis court (he’s a keen player) and a small unprepossessing door. Nothing is designed to induce prior beliefs. Meanwhile, the O, the museum’s hand-held touch-screen device, playfully tampers with the pomposity of the art world, a self-important clique that ‘leaves a sour taste in my mouth’ scorns Walsh. One title in the O is ‘Art Wank’.

‘We are not even claiming that the art is interesting, we are trying to start an argument,’ he explains. ‘I think we have inadvertently freed up people to have opinions and not be scared of the art.’

Walsh has no presumptions that his pieces will last the next 1,000, let alone 50, years: art to him is a game that creates its own arbitrary value systems. MONA, he maintains, was born out of desire to learn: ‘When you want to know about astronomy you look through a telescope. When I wanted to know about art and I happened to be doing alright, having a few bucks in my pocket, I picked a museum instead.’

‘A few bucks’ is typical self-deprecating Walsh. Gifted mathematically, he made his fortune gambling. Today he wins some $8 million a year as a member of the world’s largest gambling syndicate Bank Roll, most of which goes back into MONA (in 2012 he also settled a multi-million dollar tax dispute). Does gambling bore him? ‘It’s still the most beautiful thing I do,’ he asserts with boyish vigour. ‘I’m not building housing, I’m not resolving, all I’m doing is redistributing wealth. That’s ugly. But it’s mathematically pure – all the equations are balanced.’

Walsh spent his childhood in Hobart’s deprived suburb of Glenorchy. His father, a barman, waiter, and asylum orderly, separated from his Roman Catholic mother when Walsh was just two. Wealth was unfathomable. He recalls being fascinated by the homes featured in his mother’s Women’s Weekly. ‘The two door refrigerators,’ he says, shaking his head, ‘I couldn’t conceive of it.’

Shy, awkward, and reclusive, Walsh’s faith evaporated when he discovered reading. As a teenager he lied to his mother, spending Sundays at the city library when he should have been at mass. Of MONA, which neither parent lived to see, he chuckles: ‘Mum would have hated it, Dad would have loved it. Mum was a devoted Catholic, Dad a devoted cynic. He would have loved the tongue in cheek.’

MONA is unabashed about sex. ‘C****… And Other Conversations’ displays over 140 porcelain vulvas cast from real women (soap vaginas are available in the gift shop). He writes crudely about his own sex life in his memoir A Bone of Fact and in his 2011 catalogue Monanisms stated: ‘It ain’t so great getting rich… What to do? Better build a museum; make myself famous. That will get the chicks.’

Is that why he built MONA? ‘If you ask me what my motives are, and they are self-serving like I want to get in your pants, then I won’t know,’ he says, pointing out, not unreasonably, that the best way to lie is to deceive yourself. ‘So the last person in the world to ask is me.’

Despite his protestations and occasional cockiness, Walsh is refreshingly upfront. Society shies away from animalistic sex, pain, birth and death. When I put to Walsh that he seems overly engrossed with the end he answers, incredulous and slightly surprised, ‘I’m not fascinated with death! I mean, I did say it – but for one thing it’s what people want to hear.’

‘Go to any European museum and look at any acknowledged great artist and you’ll see a lot of dealing with death. In the history of art why do people do things? Access to sex and fear of death.’

And then there is creating a legacy. MONA today is a family affair. Walsh lives above the museum. Six glass floor panels stare from his living room into the Sidney Nolan ‘Snake’ gallery and a hidden door leads from the ‘Death Room’, where a Roman sarcophagus containing a mummy is surrounded by black swirling water, to his home. Walsh’s 24-year-old daughter Jamie, who he met for the first time when she was 15, lives with her son Lockie on site. Ten-year-old Grace, his child from another mother, often stays with him, using MONA as a personal playground. His sister runs the bookshop. And now his new 37-year-old wife, the American artist Kirsha Kaechele, is pregnant; at his wedding the bridesmaids carried fertility symbols.

His father, who died aged 93 of influenza, is encased in an ornate black egg-like urn in a corridor wedged between a bar and gallery. There is a second urn, containing the ashes of Walsh’s 12-year-old nephew who hung himself on a swing. It is unclear whether this was suicide or a game gone terribly wrong. ‘The whole thing is completely absurd,’ sighs Walsh.

Bad taste? Not to Walsh, who sees something spiritual in his secular temple, sheer transcendence in his underground vault, and a comfort in the masses of people who bustle past. ‘I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is working – nothing will heal this wound,’ he ponders. ‘But I know that his Mum comes out here occasionally when a band is playing in the void, and tries to see it as a communing experience where death is essentially celebrated.’

Soon, Walsh hopes, such commemorations will go beyond family. For $75,000, MONA is offering the option to be cremated with your ashes also put on display. ‘I tried to market it this way: most galleries have a life membership, well we have an eternity membership,’ he quips. Has anyone signed up? One person, says Walsh, is interested. He tries not to sound disappointed: ‘I just don’t think people die quickly enough.’

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