Map o’ Tassie*: Part 2

* Australian slang for a woman’s genital area.

The story so far:

Every nation has a place that underwrites the jokes and fears of its citizens. For mainland Australia, this is Tasmania, the triangular-shaped island to the south, last stop before the Antarctic, a place of legendary creatures and 12-fingered men, a watery world of seafarers and whaling ships and convicts, and since January 2011, site of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the $175 million dream of one man, the art collector, David Walsh.

This post is about that man.


Some people hide their insecurity by running away; some people do it by becoming extroverts; others, Walsh says, in the enormous tome that passes for MONA’s catalogue lying with characteristic profligacy in piles next to every chair, build art museums.

And that’s what makes this place so special: that it’s all about the man. Every visitor must feel as I did, that I’d been invited into someone’s home, someone’s psyche, and that we were all welcome.

Mark Fraser, the London-born director of MONA, whom Walsh poached from Sotheby’s, affirms this view:

It would be a mistake to think MONA was anything other than ‘about David – one man and one man’s views … David is involved in the smallest detail, literally the finish of a handrail, the fittings in the bathrooms, the look of a staircase … everything is David … There is not a single work of art that has not been bought without his personal engagement. It’s intensively personal … It’s not a museum to David, but I do think it is a museum of David.’

In another setting such egoism could be stultifying, alienating. Here, it’s joyful; for him and his guests (and guests does seem a better word than visitors).

It’s the absence of cant that does it, the frigging glorious release from piety. Step inside the disco front door, descend into his subterranean kingdom and within minutes one realises what stinks about other museums and galleries the world over. The sanctimony! The approved view!

Instead, here he is this local-boy-made-good, saying, asking,

I’ve somehow gotten rich and I can have what I like. Here it is. Do you like it too?

It’s all in that question. Wanting to be liked. Hoping to be liked. Fearing to be liked. In the catalogue he tells of being a teenage boy with only one wish: to be shagged. That’s what he needed, he says, and yet it didn’t happen. All that longing, all that needing, and it just never happened as he wanted. Now, he says in the catalogue, decades and millions of dollars later, there are 16-year-old girls aplenty. At least metaphorically, you understand.

Yet that earlier, shag-deprived David is still running the show and that’s what makes the whole place delightful. He’s still there in the generosity, in spending his “salary” on courting us.

There’s the catalogue which one trips over at every turn that I’ve mentioned. No $40 pamphlet guarded in the gift shop for Walsh.

Until a few weeks ago, entrance was free too. Now it’s $20, unless

you are Tasmanian, and identify yourself as such (yes, yes, second head, etc. etc.)

In which case, it’s still free.

And, beautiful detail this, there’s the fact one of the artworks features a pinball machine, and hovering nearby is an attendant with a pocket full of 20-cent coins to dispense so everyone can play. Tell me, what other place would supply the coins, would make sure you had the coins to play? For this one detail alone, I love David Walsh.

He’s also still there in the “Like/Hate” button on the iPod with which each visitor issued so they can vote for each artwork. When asked what he plans to do with the data he says,

I’ll take the popular stuff out.

There is a photograph of him in the catalogue. It’s on the very last page of the mammoth book. It’s taken by US artist, Andres Serrano, whose work features in the museum. In it, Walsh is in a chair naked. He sits with his thighs pressed together, penis caught between, body fleshy and nourished, with young sunburn arms. Above it all, his face: shaggy hair, glasses, eager eyes. Serrano has captured him exactly: the 50-year-old teenage boy.

To be continued …


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