Map o’ Tassie*: Part 3

* 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 the man.

***

The delectable of delectables when it comes to MONA is the fact Walsh made his money from gambling on horses and casinos.

He grew up in one of the poor parts of Hobart, and while spending his teenagehood dreaming of shagging, discovered he was good at maths. After dropping out of university, he spent 10 or 20 years building mathematical models in the obligatory garage before hitting the jackpot and starting to accumulate the millions.

His gambling partner, an old school friend, was recently reported to be a billionaire. Walsh himself can’t have been far behind. He says he was “extremely rich”, though now, after building the museum, he’s in debt.

He’s cheerful it will work out. He’ll make profits from the restaurants and stores and winery on the MONA site, and his gambling continues in the background, these days not even requiring his presence. It’s simply now the initiation of certain computer routines fed into international syndicates and the execretion of money at the end, rather like the artwork in the museum by Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye entitled Cloaca Professional, the giant defecation machine that consumes and shits at certain times each day. As one of the local newspapers remarked:

A bit tedious to watch and stinks. ~ The Saturday Age, February 26 2011

On TV every night we’re warned of the dangers of gambling. Wives, faces like graves, sit at bare tables late at night waiting for Him; young boys watch their fathers anxiously. At the same time in this country, politicians win seats, even form governments, according to where they stand on the issue of gambling.

And here is Walsh with his beautiful, joyful testament to the advantages of gambling, and the local politicians and community leaders can’t get enough of him. For the museum is single-handedly turning this small city on this tiny island into another Bilbao.

Only don’t mention Bilbao to Walsh; he can’t stand the Gehry thing.

***

Walsh’s love of words and learning is everywhere. How he must have beamed when the title of the opening exhibition – Monanism, a collection of his own favourite works – came to him. MONA, of course, nods to the museum in New York, though he says he was rather thinking of the character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

He’s building a library in the museum to house his huge book collection. In the meantime, on one of the lower levels of museum there is the installation by Cuban artist, Wilfredo Prieto. Titled The White Room it is a room lined with bookcases containing reading tables and chairs, all of them filled with blank white carapaces. Books without letters, newspapers without words. Borges would have loved it. A library without words.

Then there’s the sly half-dream he has of having donkeys carry visitors from the ferry terminal up the cliff face to the museum entrance. To underline the intention of the architect, and to gesture to the days of ancient Greece in which warriors and seafarers would arrive on land and climb the steps of the nearest temple to give thanks for their safe passage.

***

Outside, after the visit, I’m lolling on the iron ore parapet gazing out across the estuary when the man himself appears from the direction of the car park. He strides past. A back view is all I get: long hair, tallish. A big white cat is doing strange things in the wildflower patch, springing like a lamb. Walsh calls to it, laughs and then disappears into some residential quarter on the cliff face. A Dr No in his island fastness, replete with cat.

Next post: Some favourites from the art

***

Image: Fat Car, 2006 by Erwin Wurm (top)

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