The House Walsh Built

David Walsh is a gambler. He has a savant-like ability to count cards. For a while, that gift enabled Walsh to amass a fortune. Some of that money he’s spent on living large. The rest he’s plowed into buying art, a lot of art, so much art that Walsh had to build a special purpose gallery to house it all. When even that space proved to be too limited, Walsh embarked on a project. He would build a museum in his native Tasmania. He would call it the Museum of Old and New Art or MONA.

Walsh frogs
Dendrobates Pumilio mating by Renate Rabus (1989). Photo credit: Karen Kao

Initially, the art world shrugged its fashionable shoulders. Walsh was a gambler, after all, and a autodidact collector. He has a teenager’s weakness for sex (fornicating frogs) and an obsession with the dead and dying (he hopes one day to install a fully functioning abattoir). His collection has been variously described as a museum of sex and death or the art world’s version of Disneyland. Who would fly all the way around the world to see that?

Well, my husband and I did. Admittedly, we were already traveling the world. Tasmania was on our list of stops because I am interested in its convict past. When a Tassie friend tells us she drags her non-art-loving father to visit MONA every year, I decide we have to go, too.

Walsh at large

The Museum of Old and New Art lies just across the Derwent River from Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. Once we arrive in Hobart, we find a copy of The Making of MONA in our AirBNB. Our host tells us that we might run into Walsh at the bakery down the hill, sipping an espresso in the warm Tasmanian sun. Walsh is a favorite son, local legend and a cottage industry that extends well beyond the grounds of MONA itself.

MONA ferry
Ferry sheep on the way to MONA. Photo credit: Karen Kao

His related businesses encompass vineyards, restaurants, music festivals, a brewery and a camouflage-liveried ferry service. Also planned is a (Covid-delayed) hotel, and an on-site boutique casino for Asia-Pacific high rollers.

Peter Hill, “Tasmanian devilry” in The Financial Times, 30/31 Jan 2021

We board the ferry to get ourselves from Hobart to MONA. On the back deck, we lounge on the sheep and take selfies with the plexiglass cows. We admire the view of the Hobart harbor but it’s our first glimpse of MONA that we wait for. Sadly, there’s not much to see. Just a collection of low-slung buildings clad in corten steel.

Walsh horse
P XIII, 2008 (2008) by Berlinde De Bruyckere. Photo credit: Karen Kao

If you arrive by jetty you come up those stairs thinking you’ll get somewhere momentous, but then you get to the top and turn around and there’s just this small house.

James Pearce, Director of Architecture at Fender Katsalidis, in conversation with Elizabeth Pearce, Mona Senior Writer and Research Curator, on Architecture.

That’s because MONA is built into rock face, three floors deep. To enter MONA is to spelunk into a cave, ready for adventure. In the same gallery you may encounter Etruscan busts or a wax horse.

The O

On the MONA grounds, you can find numerous site-specific installations like the one built by James Turrell to view the Tasmanian sunset. There’s also the tennis court you have to cross in order to get into the front door.

A lot of people try to figure out if it’s a work of art. Well I don’t know, if you’ve got a good backhand it’s a work of art. But it’s a tennis court: that’s all it is, and all it will ever be.

David Walsh as interviewed by Vicky Frost, Mona’s David Walsh: ‘Now I’m the arbiter of good taste. The thing I abhor’ in The Guardian, 14 Jan 2014

Walsh is idiosyncratic and so is his museum. He hangs no labels next to his art collection. That would be ugly. Instead, he offers an app called The O. This is what it can do:

The O is here to help you explore the deep recesses of David’s lounge room. It can tell you about the artworks on display, if you so wish, but will also perform other delightful services, such as: suggesting what to eat during your visit, showing you where the toilets are, helping raise your child and so forth.

There’s more. O Minor, Art Wank and Gonzo offer increasingly nerdy levels of commentary on the artwork, its maker, the larger art world or a random piece of music. It’s awesome. For example, listen to this back story on bit.fall, an indoor waterfall designed to form words based on search terms on Google Australia.

For a moment, you can see one word hang in the air, as if all the world has paused just for you. It’s almost as if we can read the mind of the world.

Andrew Harper, bit.fall, O Minor, The O

The Precautionary Principle

We spend all of 21 February 2020 enraptured by works like Tim, a live subject who shows us his back as inked by artist Wim Delvoye. Or the delightfully squishy Grotto, a room of crystals, lamps and silver cushions — MONA’s current selfie capital.

Walsh grotto
Grotto by Randy Polumbo (2017). Photo credit: Karen Kao

Less than a month after our visit, Walsh closes MONA due to the pandemic. At the time, it was uncertain whether Covid-19 was an airborne pathogen, transmittable by asymptomatic carriers or capable of mutation or permanent damage. It seemed unlikely then that MONA could contribute to its spread. Why not take the chance?

In a situation where some outcomes, however improbable, cause catastrophic damage to the system and are thus completely untenable, the Precautionary Principle requires me to identify those outcomes and respond to them, rather than to the more probable outcomes that are tolerable. Good chess players play like that: they don’t plan for mistakes from an opponent; instead, they prepare for the best move that the opponent can make.

David Walsh, “Virus takes MONA, check” on the MONA blog, 17 March 2020

Walsh closed MONA until 26 December 2020. He was able to reopen in time to celebrate MONA’s 10th anniversary. There are, of course, changes. Entry is timed and staggered. Bring your own device to use the O. Tim live-streams his performance from Germany.

All in all, it seems like Walsh made a good gamble.

Walsh tunnel
Siloam Tunnel. Photo credit: Karen Kao