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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

I had no idea whether this marked the end of our meeting, but after the concert, Walsh suggested we head to a restaurant. He kept talking as he strode through traffic—topics included an esoteric account of how a scientific principle about electromagnetism called the Faraday Effect pertains to modern advertising—and kept up the intense pace after we took a table, continuing without pause for the next two hours. (I later learned that press portrayals of Walsh as a “recluse” receive snorts of derision from those who know him well. As one friend told me: “A dude who hangs out in bars every night of the week and will talk to anyone who approaches him is not reclusive.”)

With MONA’s high-tech gadgetry, whimsical flourishes and relentless hipster irony, the museum seems to challenge visitors not to take it seriously. But Walsh explained that before he commissioned its design, he toured Europe and the United States to refine his ideas. “The great repositories of Western civilization, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, are amazing, but you basically get what you expect,” he said. “There’s nothing that has the capacity to change you or who you are. MONA gives you no appropriate cues about what to expect, so there’s no mind-set we’re driving you into. I’m trying to give you the capacity to explore and engage individually.”

Walsh argues that his eclectic, personal approach harks back to the era of the Wunderkammer, or Cabinets of Wonders, which would be kept in the private houses of aristocrats from the Renaissance onward to reflect their own tastes. Fine artworks were displayed alongside religious relics, mythological marvels and natural history treasures such as gems, shells or fossils. “In the Wunderkammer, they wanted the mystery to be maintained,” he says. “Their unicorn horns didn’t have labels. They were just objects of wonder.” The cabinets fell out of favor after the popular revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and were replaced by grand national museums like the Louvre, which lay their exhibits out in orderly fashion. (Survivors of the cabinet spirit include Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. But there has also been a recent revival of interest in the approach, including the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris, “Le Cabinet de Curiosités” exhibit curated by Thierry Despont in New York last November and recent exhibits at the Venice Biennale. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is another, although with an ironic, self-referential twist.)

“There is a sense where I’m trying to build an anti-museum,” Walsh summed up, “because I’m anti-certainty. I’m anti-the definitive history of the West. MONA is experiential. It’s not a product. It’s not a showcase. It’s a fairground.”

Such pronouncements make established curators’ skin crawl. One prominent New York expert refused to even be quoted in case it “validated” MONA’s approach, arguing that the unqualified combining of different period pieces is little more than an expression of a collector’s rampant ego. But other critics suggest that any shakeup of the museum world is not entirely a bad thing. “Much of contemporary art is not serious,” says Hobart-based critic Timms, “but most museums haven’t cottoned onto that yet. The art is given a reverence that isn’t really justified. It’s put up on a pedestal, and people object to that—they feel they are being conned. At MONA, art is entertainment, it’s cabaret, it’s theater. MONA is the world’s first no-bull art museum that says to people, ‘Don’t worry, have fun.’ I’m not sure that’s a good thing, or the sign of a healthy culture, but it’s honest!” He adds: “Of course, a concern is that the more serious artworks there could be trivialized.”

As for his collection, the emphasis on sex and death is natural, Walsh says, since “all art is motivated by the desire for one or the avoidance of the other. If you went to the Louvre, and explored the works that depicted sex or death, the percentage wouldn’t be any higher than at MONA. If you went into a church, the percentage that depicts death is vastly higher. Sex and death are not my theme. They’re the motives for artists, yes.”

Still, Walsh admits that he was surprised by the positive response to MONA: “I did expect a fundamentalist backlash.” Walsh’s friends say that the museum’s popularity has obliged him to revise his contrarian attitude. “David really built MONA so he could enjoy it himself,” says Brian Ritchie. “He didn’t think it would be embraced. In fact, he thought he would be reviled for it. I think he was even a little disappointed when he wasn’t! Now he’s moving into a different way of looking at it. He’s enjoying its success.”

Walsh could have built his museum anywhere, but he stayed in Tasmania, he says, partly because his two daughters from two marriages live there. But he also sees the island’s remoteness as an advantage: “When you travel to something, you’re invested in it more. If I’d built MONA in New York, I would have gotten a lot more visitors. But there’s too much background noise. The glib little jokes that MONA makes would have been lost in the clamor.” When pressed, he admits he wasn’t unaware that there might be a “MONA Effect” for Tasmania. Although statistics have yet to be gathered, he estimates that his museum added 120,000 visitor nights to Hobart in its first year, pumping $120 million into the beleaguered economy. (Walsh himself is losing $10 million a year, but he says he expects MONA to break even within five years.)

The most significant effect may be psychological. “I think it is changing how Tasmanians see themselves and their world,” says novelist Richard Flanagan. “It is liberating.” According to Peter Timms, “Tasmanians had a self-image problem. They had assumed, right from the beginning of their history, that important things happened elsewhere. But MONA makes people realize that what they do matters, and is admired by others.” The museum crops up in almost every conversation in Tasmania, and has become a prime topic in debates on how the island should manage its future. While the state government still subsidizes the mining and forestry industries, the traditional staples of the economy, conservation forces have been gaining strength ever since the world’s first political Green Party was founded in Tasmania in 1972. According to Hobart-based environmentalist (and Ritchie’s wife) Varuni Kulasekera, MONA proves that there are more viable and creative ways forward: “David is employing 200-plus people, and bringing thousands of tourists to Tasmania, who then fill hotels and restaurants, creating even more jobs,” she says. “There’s not a lot of spinoff activity from a wood-chipping plant.”

On my last night in Hobart, I went to another Walsh-commissioned theater production, a modern opera entitled The Barbarians that was performed almost entirely in Greek. I sat cross-legged on the floor in a packed theater, which was filled with smoke and pierced by lasers. A naked male dancer emerged from a water-filled trough and began gyrating feverishly to a shrill chorus, as synthesized music echoed through the air.

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