Interview by Duckpond
‘No Plan’ is a glimpse into the life and motivations of David Walsh, a philanthropic gambler who has transformed the cultural landscape of the island to the south of Australia with his monolithic private museum, Mona.
Gifted with a prodigious memory and some mathematically-minded friends, Mr Walsh has dodged the bullets in a life of chance that might have taken him along the path to tax accountancy, crop dusting or table tennis coaching. In a rambling conversation with his occasional nemesis, Mr D. Pond, we discover the secrets of subverting museum aesthetics, together with priceless insights into the agency of chance and the belief that luck underpins the structure of the universe. Walsh believes Mona is ethereal, artificial and manipulative, and that creativity is biological, not environmental. A ‘collapsed Catholic’ with a structured disbelief, he writes every day while scheming for the institution he hopes will survive him after he departs. Identifying the skills which he never wanted to learn, and the pursuits at which he previously failed, has allowed Walsh to survive in the game of chance, and create something precariously unique for the island of Tasmania. You should go there for a visit. Walshy might even buy you a drink.
So, it’s a conversation about…
Crop duster piloting, I assume. Because that’s the major activity that I partake in. You might’ve been looking for the other David Walsh, the one that runs the museum.
Oh, you’re the crop duster pilot?
I’m the crop duster pilot. And I’ve got to say it’s about time someone talked to me because I’m bloody good at it. I’ve dusted a few crops in my time, let me tell you.
Okay, so we’re looking into a little bit of insight into…
Crop duster piloting and tap dancing, that’s what you’re looking for, I get it.
Exactly. First question: what’s your favourite caravan park?
When I was a kid… this is such a loaded question because I’m familiar with only one caravan park, and a very special caravan park it was. It was called Treasure Island… or it may not have been called Treasure Island; that name might have come later. I lived in Glenorchy when I was a kid, and we didn’t have a car. Mom had split up with my Dad because my Dad was an arsehole, and we went on holiday. The holiday consisted of walking maybe six kilometres–four miles in those days–in each direction to stay at Treasure Island, which was in no way special. It was on the banks of the Derwent [River], right next to a wastewater treatment plant. And on the other side of that now is Mona, so [Treasure Island] has become special in my memory. We went there for four or five days, and it was fantastic. I don’t know what I did; I probably tried to go in the water but was told I couldn’t because it was laced with mercury. But maybe I was allowed to go in and consume all the mercury I wanted, I’m not sure. Either way, it was pretty special.
What were you like during your school years?
I was the sort of person they’d call a nerd now, but they called a freak then, and I didn’t go to much school because I had asthma. I went to a Catholic school, which wasn’t so much about providing an education as frisking the better-looking boys. I turned out not to be one of them, fortunately. But, yeah, I was a weird kid but no one persecuted me; I had a pretty easy life. I lived in a fairly poor suburb, but I was fine, even though I didn’t fit in very well.
You spent a bit of time in Sydney in the 1980s.
I did. My background is in gambling. And in the 1980s there were these sort of grey label casinos getting by on the premise that blackjack was a game of skill. And blackjack is a game of skill, but of course the last thing they wanted were people who had those skills. A lot of the clubs then were associated with brothels because they were looking to cash in in any way. I played blackjack in casinos where I could hear extremely audible moans from the next room. One time, when a place in the Cross [Kings Cross] recognised that I was winning, I was turfed out by a very large bouncer and protector of prostitutes, who picked me up by the hair with one hand. That was a nice one. It hurt, but not as much as you might think. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as when he dropped me from the top of the stairs. That hurt. There was another club that was associated with a brothel in… is it Kellert Street? Anyway, this club wasn’t particularly good and they didn’t allow particularly big bets, but I really liked it because they had free jelly beans. They lost thousands of dollars to me, and the only reason I was there was because I would munch on a handful of jelly beans. The jelly beans kept you in. While I stole their cash. Chinatown was great because you’d pop in and play the semi-legal clubs there, and you could get a nice bowl of noodles while you played blackjack. There were stains on the cards which aided their identification from the back. If an ace gets a bit of soy sauce on it, you go, ‘Ah, that’s the ace that has the soy on it.’ They weren’t the most professional outfits, it’s fair to say.
After your childhood in Glenorchy and Chigwell, you’ve ended up coming back to Berriedale Bay. How did that transpire?
When I first got a few bucks–which was sort of late 80s, early 90s–I bought a house in Otago Bay, which happens to be exactly opposite Moorilla. And I used to occasionally drink a bottle of Moorilla pinot on the balcony, and I’d sometimes come here to see the jazz concerts that they staged, you know, see James Morrison. And occasionally non-jazz, like Margaret Urlich. You remember Margaret Urlich?
She was pretty damn good. Anyway, there’s a myth that I started the concerts here, but I attended them long before I acquired the place in ‘95. So, it went into receivership, and I’m reading in the paper that the bank wants tenders because they want to cover the loan that they had outstanding. And, as I say, I like the pinot, so I put in a tender for a way too low number: 2.53 million for the peninsula and the winery they’ve got up north near Launceston. I didn’t have the money, but it didn’t matter because my tender was way too low. But then somehow, through a choice made by an enlightened banker–because I wasn’t the highest tender as far as I know–they chose me. And the reason they chose me was because I intended to keep it together, and everyone else was going to split it up. So, then I had to go and beg off a mate, who had a bit more money than me, to get the capital together to buy it. But as the Americans say, it was a no brainer, because it was obviously worth more than 2.53 million whatever you did with it. To backtrack a little, I’d already bought some art, mainly antiquities, and the house I lived in was three stories tall and very narrow. So, it got very cold and very hot every single day. And that’s no way to treat ancient art.
So, I thought, okay, there’s two houses on that peninsula over there, I’ll stick the art in those houses because Roy Grounds [modernist architect] knows what he’s doing, he knows about climate control. But when I get over here, lo and behold, the houses aren’t much better than the one I had. Although they did have a sort of oil-driven air conditioning from the locomotive days, but it turned out not to work. Also, it filled the air with the pungent aroma of burning oil. So, I had to upgrade what’s now called the Courtyard House, the entrance to Mona, to make it art friendly. And that meant I had to spend another million bucks that I didn’t have. But in doing that, I thought, well, I might as well open it to the public. So, I opened it to the public, and it looked like every other museum on earth. It was white, and I have to say it was reasonably elegant. But the thing I couldn’t work out is why, when I didn’t give a shit about museums or museum design, why I ended up with a museum that looked like every other museum in the world.
And so, I had a bit of a think about that, and I decided the reason was wall labels. Wall labels, as Gutenberg had figured out when he first started publishing books, have to be black text on a white background. So, you end up sticking white cards on the walls, and as soon as you do that you’ve got to paint the walls white. And that’s why museums look the way they do. I thought, ‘Well, if you didn’t have wall labels, you could do whatever you liked.’ I mean, I could have written a book called, Social Disruption in a Museum Environment, or How to Really Do Museums If You Care About Aesthetics. By this time, I had a few more bucks, and I decided to build it to demonstrate that you could design a museum in a different way. The original intention was to redo the museum I had, but it got a little bit out of hand, and Mona resulted. There was certainly no plan, it just happened iteratively. I just kept doing things that were driven by whim and artifice and eventually I got this big bloody edifice that people now think was the product of vision, when it was the product of just meddling at the edges.
So, you didn’t have a plan.
I had no plan, and that’s the key takeaway. That’s what you should call this article: No Plan.
No Plan. And the lack of planning continues to evolve. Do you feel as though you’re designing a cell for yourself? Are you designing your own prison with this project?
Mona was ephemeral, artificial, manipulative–the original Mona, the first building we built–and it was about change, it was–and still is–about the motive of artists rather than the art. My background is in thinking more about science than art. And I’m thinking about why people do things, and in particular why everyone has a go at creation and creativity; I think it’s biological, not cultural. If it was cultural, it wouldn’t be universal. But it is universal. Anyway, the original Mona was about change and, as I said, about artifice. And it was about manipulation.
And then I built Pharos, and Pharos is a mausoleum. When I built Mona, I thought it’ll be open for six months and I’ll lose interest, but then the local community started calling it ‘our museum’. And that put a bit of a chip on my shoulders and I started to think I was pretty cool. I thought, ‘Maybe this thing needs to survive me. Maybe it should be open in 100 years.’ So, I started thinking about that, and then I thought, ‘As soon as I die, or even before that–as soon as I make it a charity and I have to get an independent board, they’ll sack me. What can I do to [ensure] there’ll be something of my original conception?’ So, I built Pharos, that’s the bit with the James Turrells and a few other things; the art is very, very big and the doors are very, very small. So, there’s nothing they can do. They can’t take anything out, they’re stuck with it. So, that’s my mausoleum. That’s my edifice, my legacy. And if anyone reads this if anyone actually reads magazines anymore–they might attempt to protect my heritage. So that’s Pharos. And because I see that as an edifice… Where Mona is manipulative, as I said, this is convivial; it’s a fun place to be, it’s a fun place to relax. If it’s around in 100 years I don’t think it’ll be causing anyone too much distress. And just opened now is this thing called Siloam. It’s called Siloam because Siloam in the Middle East was the first tunnel built from both ends. And we built this tunnel from both ends. And the builders managed to line it up with less than a couple of millimetres error, which I thought was quite amazing.
Right, the tunnel thing. There’s an established series of tunnels and you’ve just expanded them. What would an Austrian philosopher of the previous century have to say about that?
Well, he’d say it in German, and he’d probably say… Well, I don’t know about Austrians. Austrians are committed to Protestantism, which is not a particularly decorative religion. But the Catholic religion is very florid, very beautiful. I mean, if you compare a Catholic cathedral to a Protestant cathedral, there’s no comparison. The Catholics just built better cathedrals. They break the backs of the poor for a lot longer, and they milk the money to create the things like Notre Dame that just burnt down. And everybody wants to rebuild it, but no-one [acknowledges] it took 200 years to build and bankrupted ten generations. But, what a lot of mainstream religions identify–and particularly Catholicism–is the power of processionals. So, there’s things like stations of the cross, where you proceed in a particular way, in a particular direction. And you imbibe the nature of the belief. But in fact, the processional has been discovered by a lot of religions, because it isn’t particularly connected with the faith that it evokes, it’s more connected with the fact of doing the same thing as the people next to you. And that’s how you become part of the same in-group, right?
And I thought about this, and I thought, ‘How do you do that when people aren’t there at the same time?’ You make them have the same experience by making them go in the same direction, knowing that others do it. So, I’m trying to create the ritual, without the belief. And that’s an underpinning of all of the stuff I’ve done post the original opening, I think: exploring the nature of the in-group versus the out-group. The people we identify with. And the key difference between the in-group and the outgroup, when we identify it, is we expect the ingroup to be heterogeneous, so when one of our own mates goes crazy and starts shooting people-he went crazy. But when a Muslim goes crazy and starts shooting people, it’s those people. So, the out-group is homogenous, they’re all the same. So, any bad behaviour reflects on the whole bunch. The in-group is heterogeneous. So, essentially because we get a heterogeneous population visiting Mona, I’m trying to impose a ritual on them that makes them, at least for a moment, be part of an ingroup that identifies much more expansively with a population than the one that they normally associate with. It’s a little game, and I don’t actually expect anyone that visits to identify this. And I don’t particularly talk about it within the gallery, but it’s an overarching structure that hopefully gives some integrity to the way we display stuff and the way we think about art and creativity.
Philosophy behind the scenes.
Well, Mona is a museum of philosophy. But, we put pictures on the walls because pictures are pretty. And then we interpret it in a way that probably has nothing to do with art theory–mainly because I don’t understand art theory.
If you were to have the option of selecting a single piece of art for your collection, what would that be?
I’ve been thinking about this, and it would be Frida Kahlo’s thing where she’s exposed the back brace through her stomach and cut through her breasts. I can’t remember what the work’s called [The Broken Column], but it’s in the Dolores Olmedo collection in Mexico City. She manages to be suffering, feminist, but without being cloying. It’s the biggest statement in a little picture. I’d also be very interested in one of the ready-mades, because it framed the 20th century and framed the century I was born in. But I’m not sure it’s art, and I’m not sure it has any value. I’m very interested in what gives things value, the nature of essentialism. Here’s a Picasso print, and here’s a copy of a Picasso print, they’re identical but they don’t have the same value. We invest because of our ritual process, because rituals are socially binding. Valuing things that touched the paper that touched the hand. That matters to us. So, if I was picking objects, I would pick those that think about essentialism, and the key things that come close to the essential nature of art are the ones that are repurposing an object, calling it art, and then suddenly it has value. Where did that value come from? That’s an interesting question.
What do you do in your leisure time?
I play table tennis, ball sports. I used to play things like chess, but I find them time-eaters. There are things you can do, like playing golf, that you can never do well, however well you do them. And they’re extremely satisfying, but they are the end of the capacity to do anything else. So, I try to avoid the things that I enjoy. That’s my life, I’m a self-hating narcissist. I try to write every day, I write for at least an hour every day. Except today, it was more like four hours. But most days, yeah, it’s an hour. And I don’t get my time off in lieu if I’ve done more. So, I’m trying to perfect the craft. ‘Perfect,’ is dangerous when you’re talking about something that you can get better at but never be good at.
Do you have any recurring dreams, themes or things that come up in your subconscious?
Nobody’s ever asked me that before. But I’m glad you did. I have no idea why this happens, it is not a recurring dream, but it is a recurring setting. My Mum left my Dad when I was about two–two and a half, and he had a house in Herbert Street, Montrose. It wasn’t much of a house. It had a bit of backyard, and a bunch of really nice trees that he immediately set to with a chainsaw and cut down. But, all of my dreams, whatever they are, whether they’re sexual or vast in scope, whether a comet’s about to hit the earth, they’re always set there.
Yeah, yeah. That house, and in particular the bit between the right-hand back fence and the house, which is about a four-metre gap that I almost never went into, they’re all set there. I do have a recurring dream that I’ve bought a house and can’t remember where it is. Which I can interpret I think it’s Catholic guilt about having money. Because I’ve got a couple of residences now that I feel are underutilised. But most of them are set in my Dad’s unprepossessing house, and I’ve thought about it a lot, but I never really talked about it. I mean, I’ve told the odd wife and girlfriend, but I don’t have an explanation for it. But there’s nothing that I’m longing for… I didn’t like visiting [the house on Herbert Street] and I didn’t particularly much, insofar as memory serves, like being there. And my life now seems, at least to me, much more worthy than anything I had any right to expect. In other words, I’ve been lucky. But I feel like the devolution to those moments is like… a recombinant process where I figure out, if you ran my life from then to now, over and over again, you get me dying of cancer, or me drinking metho in a gutter, or me working as a tax accountant, or me as a priest. Or some positive things, like me as an author, or me as the thing that I tried to be, and unfortunately failed, which was a table tennis player. If I’d been five per cent better at that, I’d be teaching snotty-nosed kids for fifty bucks an hour how to play table tennis.
These are bullets that I dodged, but I didn’t dodge them because I saw them coming-I dodged them because the bullets just happened to miss me in the first place. The gun was poorly aimed. So, I believe in the agency of chance. I believe in it in a way that connotes the sort of belief that people have in religion. But, if you think about a priest trying to navigate… Say he’s visiting Rome for the first time, and he wants to go to the Vatican. He doesn’t pray and let the prayer direct his car, he perhaps nudges it into the GPS system. So, he believes in technology. And I believe that luck underpins technological process. It underpins the structure of the universe. Science isn’t another belief system, it is the underpinning of the structure of the universe. And belief systems sit on top of that. They don’t inhabit it. That’s what I believe. And I believe it in the same sense that others might say that they believe it to be a nice time to have a beer. Which it is.