Nudity, Art, Sex and Death – Tasmania Awaits You | Travel | Smithsonian
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Bottoms up: Wineglass Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula. (Joe Wigdahl / Network Agency)

Nudity, Art, Sex and Death – Tasmania Awaits You

With one big bet, an art-loving professional gambler has made the Australian island into the world’s most surprising new cultural destination

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Even by Australian standards, Tasmania feels strange and remote. Lost at the continent’s southeastern tip—quite literally, down under—the island is a hauntingly beautiful expanse of gnarled forests and rugged mountains, where exotic flora and fauna have thrived in windswept isolation. Its colonial history verges on the gothic. As if the Australian penal colonies weren’t harsh enough, the British settled Tasmania in 1803 as a holding pen for its worst criminals—a gulag within the Antipodean gulag, whose convict work camps were renowned for their cruelty. By the 1820s, settlers were embarking on a brutal frontier war with the Tasmanian Aborigines, whose last members were rounded up and removed to a smaller island, Flinders, where they died of disease and despair in one of the most shameful chapters in British history. Since then, Tasmania has stubbornly remained the least developed and least populated state in Australia, enduring unkind jokes among mainlanders, who often regard it as a refuge of hillbillies and yokels on a par with the stereo typed Appalachian here. Its main attraction for visitors has been its savage natural beauty, luring adventure travelers to raft its wild rivers and hike the succulent expanses of temperate rainforest in its national parks.

In recent years, however, Tasmania has begun to enter a surprising new era, as the former backwater has developed a fiercely independent cultural scene. Author Richard Flanagan, from the city of Hobart, has hit the New York Times best-seller list with novels such as Gould’s Book of Fish and Wanting. Postmodern architecture has flourished, with a string of award-winning eco-lodges poised in wilderness areas. Travelers can now spend two days hiking along a deserted coastline to the Bay of Fires Lodge, a sleek designer retreat perched on a remote headland and surrounded by wild bush. Another spectacular lodge, called Saffire, opened two years ago by the Freycinet Peninsula; its main building is designed in a flowing form that evokes the pattern of the waves, with enormous picture windows facing a string of raw mountains called the Hazards. The island’s pristine environment has attracted armies of gourmet food producers, and it now exports everything from organic wagyu beef to abalone, wild duck, brie, oysters, goat cheese, truffles and saffron. The Tamar Valley in the north is producing some of Australia’s most prized wines. And there is a general obsession with all things healthful. In fact, Tasmania can sometimes verge on Portlandia, where every body product seems to be made from an elaborate homegrown concoction such as lemon eucalyptus with wild bush passion fruit.

Still, none of these fashionable upgrades quite prepared mainland Australians for MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, a radically innovative institution that opened on the banks of the Derwent River in January 2011. One of the largest private museums in the Southern Hemisphere—and without doubt the most provocative—MONA has suddenly vaulted Tasmania onto the international cultural map. Its $100 million private collection focuses heavily on themes of sex and death, and is presented in a uniquely creative setting, a purpose-built $75 million edifice that challenges our notions of what an art museum should be. There are none of the traditional “white cube” gallery spaces. Instead, laby-rinthine passageways and Escher-like stairways connect three underground levels. There aren’t even labels on the artworks. Visitors are each given an iPod touch called the “O” that permits random exploration; the device tracks your location and provides written commentaries, including poems and personal meditations. No audio commentary is provided; instead, the “O” plays appropriate music.

Some artworks with religious and sexual content have caused controversy elsewhere, which has helped make MONA hugely successful. In its first year it received 389,000 visitors, far outstripping staff predictions and making it Tasmania’s biggest tourist attraction. The museum has been a boon for the fragile local economy—officials talk of the “MONA Effect” the same way Spaniards do of the “Bilbao Effect”—and has been embraced by Tasmanians, who refer to it as “our MONA.” Its success has caught the eye of cognoscenti from New York, Tokyo and London, and stolen the thunder from Sydney’s and Melbourne’s more established art scenes, forcing even the most skeptical outsiders to accept that the island has more to offer than scenery and convict ruins.

Garnering at least as much attention as MONA itself is the man behind it, David Walsh—a mysterious multi- millionaire who was largely unknown to the Australian public 18 months ago. Walsh, 50, hardly fits the mold of a typical art patron: Raised in the working-class suburbs of Hobart, he is a mathematical savant who dropped out of college to make his fortune as a professional gambler (his empire is still funded by computerized betting, mostly on horse racing) before indulging his real passion, art. Since then, he has fascinated Aussies with his irreverent pronouncements—he delights in taunting the art establishment, describing his museum as “a subversive adult Disneyland”—and his eccentric behavior. In the Australian press, he is invariably referred to as “reclusive,” “enigmatic,” a “hermit millionaire” in the style of Howard Hughes, and is notorious for his aversion to interviews, randomly backing out at the last minute.

In fact, it was this possibility I was dreading after flying straight from New York to Hobart to meet with Walsh. He is reported to suffer from Asperger’s-like symptoms—telling a German art magazine that as a child he was “internal to the point of autism”—and is apparently difficult to lure into conversation, often staring into space or simply walking away from journalists he doesn’t like. By the time I arrived, I felt like I was on a journey to meet an Australian Kurtz who lurked somewhere up the Derwent River.

When I first visited Tasmania’s tiny capital in the 1980s, it was like a ghost town; nothing seemed to have changed since the Depression era, when local boy Errol Flynn abandoned it for Hollywood and London. Now I hardly recognized the place. From the Henry Jones Art Hotel—a former Georgian warehouse that has been renovated into luxury accommodations with exhibits of local artists in every corridor and room—I strolled via endless galleries to the Princes Wharf, which has long defied any form of progress. It was now taken over by MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art), sponsored by Walsh and organized by the celebrated Brian Ritchie, former bass player for the Violent Femmes who moved to Tasmania in 2008. The whole city seemed to be in ferment. Restaurants were packed; crowds thronged the sidewalks; the live music lineup included PJ Harvey and the Dresden Dolls.

Had Hobart actually become...cool?

“MONA has changed the culture here,” said Christine Scott, curator at the Henry Jones Art Hotel. “A decade ago, Tasmania had no pulse, but now young people are staying.” Walsh also subsidizes theater, art scholarships and public installations, leading to wry jokes that Hobart should change its name to Mobart. “He’s a remarkable man,” says Peter Timms, one of Australia’s top art critics, who lives in Hobart. “He has almost single-handedly transformed the cultural life of the state. Not many people can say that.”

Because Walsh seemed to exist beneath the radar for so long, rumors about his shadowy life as a gambler and his sexually charged art collection still shroud him in mythology. Friends in the Australian media told me he had been paid $250 million by Asian casinos to stay away. (Untrue; he prefers computerized gambling.) Another said that Walsh has a private apartment within MONA with one-way mirrors on the floor, so he can wander about naked and secretly observe visitors. (Also untrue; he does have an office inside, but part of its floor is regular glass.) Walsh now qualifies as Tasmania’s top celebrity. “I love his philosophy,” said Scott. “I love his arrogance.” When I said that I planned to meet him, everyone from taxi drivers to high-ranking tourism officials wanted to know the details—probably wondering, in reality, whether Walsh would turn up.

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