It was my second time in Los Angeles. The first was after a flight failure and an accidental sojourn in Fiji, and before my first trip to Vegas. Vegas stripped me of my self-esteem and the little money I could muster, but the UNLV library gave me the ammunition I needed to attack horse racing. That first time I didn’t see much of Los Angeles, but the dingy little downtown shithole I stayed in, and the dingy big shithole that downtown was, bled out the entrails of my faith in the U.S. as the centre of the world. I had to avoid stepping in shit on the sidewalk (not the footpath). Human shit. In 1983.

So, my second time. Now I had some money, and I had Max, who believed in me. We stayed at a fancy hotel in Belair, ripped around in an open top car, bar-crawled on Sunset Strip, and shopped on Rodeo Drive. Los Angeles was still a shithole. In 1992.

I went to Rodeo Drive to buy a metate, an ornate corn grinder from Costa Rica, and from before the time of Columbus. By 1992 I had some old stuff from Africa, but a documentary, Man on the Rim, had turned me on to the Americas. I went to buy stone, but I left with shiny metal. I bought coins. Coins of Egypt, coins of Italy, coins of Afghanistan. Coins made by Greeks, who dominated the ancient Mediterranean. Twenty-five years later I sold those coins, and a few paintings, to finance the construction of a new building at my museum, Mona.

Pharos with Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

I bought, and years later sold, coins of Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy was a general of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death he ruled Egypt as satrap and pharaoh. He also built the world’s first lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, a Wonder of the World and a model for all lighthouses thereafter. Our new wing of Mona is a lighthouse too, but not one designed to warn ships of the risk of foundering on rocks. Our lighthouse is a testimonial to the power of light as art—not just as a medium for artworks, but as an object.

Event Horizon, 2017, James Turrell
Event Horizon, 2017, James Turrell

So after my second time in Los Angeles, I became a coin collector, and a fan of the sister-shagging, Greek-speaking Ptolemies. Because they wouldn’t speak Egyptian, the Rosetta Stone is in Greek as well as Egyptian, so some scholars can speak Egyptian now. And because they shagged their sisters and brothers, Cleopatra, Ptolemy Soter’s great-great-great-great granddaughter, became Pharaoh and the icon she is today.

It was my second time in New York City. My first had been after my first time in Los Angeles—whereas I found L.A. stultifying and forlorn, I found NYC exhilarating and uplifting. This second time I also found James Turrell, through the aegis of his Skyspace at PS1. I wanted a Skyspace as part of Mona, but James Turrell did not return my calls. In 1992.

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell
Photo: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

A few years later James did return my call, and we got a Skyspace. He returned my call because he discovered I was in Hobart. Most Americans know nothing of Hobart but James knew one important thing. He knew that Friends, the world’s largest Quaker school, was here. James is a Quaker. Quakers believe in the power of light, and they believe in the power of education. So James came to Hobart, and while we built the Skyspace we schemed about six other works. Four of them are in Pharos. Two aren’t, as yet, anywhere.

Beside Myself, 2017, James Turrell
Photo: Rebecca Fitzgibbon

I am far from the first person to see the power of light, and to recognise the worth of Turrell’s work. Forty years ago the Dia Art Foundation contributed to a number of artists who were seeking to break the shackles of the gallery—they went West and sculpted the earth. James Turrell has been remodelling Roden Crater, a dormant volcano in Arizona, for over thirty years. Charles Ross has been working on Star Axis for even longer. Both are nearing completion, but even unfinished, both are comprehensively marvellous, and both touch the core of the human experience. For Pharos, Charles Ross is building us a room full of rainbows (unlike the rest of Pharos, it’s not quite finished—end of January is our target).

Spectrum Chamber (in progress), 2018, Charles Ross

While planning and populating Pharos, I saw it as many, often contradictory, things. It is a counterpoint to Mona, a changeless thing, a legacy and a totem. It is a temple to light, to the history of ideas, a processional (think walking round the stations of the cross, or the Kaaba), and a journey through the birth canal. It is a paean to the theories of Huygens and Newton, and an architectural pastiche of the never-built memorial to Isaac Newton proposed by the phenomenal Étienne-Louis Boullée. Now, on the fifth morning of 2018, it is a congenial trap for the contemporary art sceptic, and a refresher course in being a child. Whereas Mona is intended to be an antidote to closed-mindedness, Pharos is open-heart surgery.

Unseen Seen, 2017, James Turrell
Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cenotaph for Newton
Unseen Seen, 2017, James Turrell
Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cenotaph for Newton
Unseen Seen, 2017, James Turrell

Charles Saatchi isn’t very nice to his wives, but he has, inadvertently, been very nice to me. I bought some art from him—Jenny Saville, Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst—and I loved it, and I put it on the walls at Mona and others loved (and hated) it, and then I sold it for a lot more money than I paid for it. Saatchi, plus the coins, contributed a large part of the cost of Pharos. But Charles had another work I loved, Richard Wilson’s 20:50, a beautiful retelling of sump oil. I own it now, although Richard wishes I didn’t. And it’s here.

20:50, 1987, Richard Wilson
Photo: Scott Brewer

There is a spectacular Randy Polumbo chandelier, and I was going to hang it in the new tunnel of Pharos, but it would have hung too low, and the tunnel couldn’t be made any higher, because it has fire services above it. So Randy built us a grotto instead. It has become the selfie capital of Mona, so even those who don’t come to Mona will see it in their friends’ Instagram feeds.

Grotto, 2017, Randy Polumbo
Grotto, 2017, Randy Polumbo

There is other stuff in Pharos, a thrashing machine from Jean Tinguely, and a video portrait of Abraham Lincoln as an incapacitated robot. There’s Spanish food, and a frustratingly incomplete bar (the German company tasked with delivering the bar glass stopped answering the phone...). And there will be more stuff as we finish the tunnels this year. It’ll keep going while I keep going and the cash keeps flowing.

Memorial to the Sacred Wind or The Tomb of a Kamikaze, 1969, Jean Tinguely
Lincoln, 1990, Nam June Paik
Faro Tapas with Unseen Seen, 2017, James Turrell
Faro Tapas
Faro Tapas

In the 1970s Ivan Illich, Catholic priest and provocateur, argued that technology came in two potent forms: the convivial and the manipulative. Manipulative technologies disrupt the ecosystem in which they are employed: cars, for example, require roads and refuelling. Convivial technologies, like phones, Illich argued, bend to the will, but are otherwise invisible (this was in the 70s, remember). He believed that technologies should be designed purposefully to be convivial. I designed Mona to be manipulative—I want it to thrust itself into a visitor’s worldview in the same way that God is at the centre of the experience of a medieval cathedral. Mona isn’t benign, it’s a leech, or a tumour. Pharos is a daydream, or a symphony. Pharos is a pleasant distraction while going for a walk. Pharos may be uplifting, but it won’t change any minds. 

Unseen Seen, 2017, James Turrell
Photo: Rebecca Fitzgibbon
Grotto, 2017, Randy Polumbo

It was my second-last time in Los Angeles. I was there with my not-quite wife, Kirsha, and L.A. is a city she loves. She spent her first few years there, and many years since. I tried, I really did. I went for long walks, and I went to museums, and even back downtown for the first time since my first visit. And it was better, much better, but it still wasn’t good. And then I went to a James Turrell exhibition at LACMA, and in Turrell’s perceptual cell the cacophony of bland was overwhelmed by the light in my mind. I could see the inside of my eyeball, but also the colour of my thoughts. And then the world again intruded—my phone rang. I ignored it, but it kept on ringing. That phone, not so convivial now, told me that back in Australia, a rock had fallen off a building, and struck my eight-year-old daughter on her head. I flew back to Australia, not knowing to what I was returning. And on that flight I could feel every moment, grasp every sensation. Now I know what I want Mona to be. I want it to be that flight, hard but human, desperate but lyrical. And I want Pharos to be the doctor, the one who greeted my frenzied entreaties with, ‘It’s rough, but everything will be okay.’

Tunnel to nowhere

Header image: Beside Myself, 2017, James Turrell
Photography: Mona/Jesse Hunniford


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Show all responses

Rhonda Wainwright | January 12, 2018 at 03:59 pm

Wow oh wow so glad yr girl will be ok

Michael Prior | January 12, 2018 at 04:21 pm

Congratulations David

SALLY SCOTT | January 12, 2018 at 04:53 pm


Eva | January 12, 2018 at 04:54 pm

That is a great article. Beautiful pictures. The new part of Mona looks great as I drive on the Brooker.

nat | January 12, 2018 at 05:30 pm

I love these articles.

Marilyn Camp | January 12, 2018 at 05:48 pm

Blimey, I so hope your daughter was ok? One day I would love to hear your story on just how you created this amazing place called MONA. I am just an ordinary female, maybe quite dumb, most likely not maybe, but I am astounded and bewildered about just how you could have built such a structure, in the water, and made it as it is today. Mind you I still cant comprehend how jets get in the sky, so sorry to sound so obscure. Things like your MONA, complete leave me in awe. Some humans, and you are one, have such vision, and that is something I lack, but I applaud you for what you have created, and are still creating. BRAVO!!!!

Peter Liston | January 12, 2018 at 06:01 pm

You reinforce my view that Cosmologists and Professional Gamblers are the smartest people on the planet

Ben Hawkins | January 12, 2018 at 07:34 pm

Ooh Yaah! Like it.

Neil Haddon | January 12, 2018 at 09:31 pm

I’m up on the NW Coast at the moment; a little place called Squeaking Point on the Rubicon estuary where the evening light is framed by red gums as you look up river (the gloaming indeed). I’ll head back tomorrow via a stop over in Launnie for miniMoFo. We’ll take the Cressy/Poatina road, the light by the lakes is clear and bright this time of year. I will be intrigued to swop the natural still light for Turrell’s electric before the drag of daily routine kicks in again. Thanks for the blog post David. It’s a great invitation.

Deb Boak | January 12, 2018 at 11:32 pm

I almost cry whenever I visit Mona, which is at least once a month from the 'beginning', it's like a homecoming for my soul, thank you so very much xx

Justy Phillips | January 13, 2018 at 09:01 am

Dear David, I think maybe I didn't get it. The whole thing I mean. Until last week. At the invitation of two of our dearest friends I entered Pharos. We ate at Faro and the food was just divine. We sat at a table that hung right over the Derwent. All the leeches and the tumours safely locked up for the night on the hill. Dark water lapping under my skirt. Under my skin. It was nice, convivial, generous, cavernous. I didn't want to know anything about the Turrell works before I signed the waiver and climbed into that giant white ball. I too had sat beneath that skyspace at PS1 and the work turned my world upside down and I liked it. I guess what I'm saying is that I wasn't prepared. AT ALL. For what was about to take place inside that exquisitely sculpted ball. Inside this body. All that light, like nothing I have ever seen – but sight was just the preamble to the temporal dislocation of the body. I have this pinpoint hearing which is sometimes very useful but mostly overwhelming, it brings into fray other people's distant conversations you probably don't want to hear (or keep in your head long after). It's a great title 'Unseen Seen' – I should have read that first of course. Not one thing in my entire life has led me to imagine how it might feel to be that cerature-ling sloshing around in my mother's womb. But for 13 minutes alone in that white ball I travelled to a life that was so utterly familiar but devastatingly new. It was the sound that took me over the line – the knives and forks and mouths of Faro that made me experience a life from the inside out. A life before all this. And it was bloody fantastic. Back at the table the water had blackened and I'd missed the croquettes completely. At Weight of Darkness, I felt so far underground I wondered if you'd lock the door as some kind of lyrical prank and bury me alive, down there on the surface of the water yet so so far below it. Where even the leeches dare not go.

Helen Gory | January 13, 2018 at 10:44 am

I hope your daughter is safe and well and doing fine. Wonderful blog.

Jeanette Radley | January 13, 2018 at 11:00 am

Thank you David for living a life of authenticity and sharing your courage and dreams with all of us. Hobartians are very lucky indeed!!!

Pamela Pemberton | January 13, 2018 at 01:38 pm

Wonderful post, and an enthralling journey ahead for me to Pharos, sadly solo. My husband and I saw the James Turrell exhibition at the National Gallery, Canberra a couple of years ago and we were intrigued and smitten. He was an electrical engineer and was intrigued by the beauty and the science; I was captivated by the beauty and the light. Sadly, Chris died on Christmas morning (pancreatic cancer), so I'll visit Pharos for both of us. Thank you, David Walsh, for sharing your vision.

Shuvus | January 13, 2018 at 02:30 pm

I like the curatorial link of sculpture as light. I wonder whether you are familiar with Paula Dawson. One of her many accomplishments was that she produced the largest hologram not as a scientific exercise but an artistic one. 

Lyndall Francis | January 13, 2018 at 02:39 pm

So looking forward to experiencing Mona and in particular, Pharos. Big fan of the power of light, and education. Have met a very special person who went to Friends, for which I am grateful.

Helena Gill | January 13, 2018 at 03:28 pm

I love what you do Mr Walsh for those who appreciate your Art. I'm one who believes in what you do & the fact that you share your dreams, I say Thank you. There have been a couple of times when I read something on FB & someone doesn't appreciate your work, I am quick to respond. Guess what, the unappreciative ones do not respond because I give it straight back to them or they may ignore it but I don't care. Who does what you have done for little Hobart? Again Thank you for what you do. Who would have thought that Friends is a school for Quakers? Now that is bizarre lol

Helena Gill | January 13, 2018 at 03:29 pm

Love it love it love it

Evan Carydakis | January 13, 2018 at 07:52 pm

Fantastic monologue. The Ptolemaic dynasty is in my heart for what it gave the diaspora of Greeks in the middle east and those of us from the Great city of Alexandria. Only if the library survived.... His failures surpassed our successes...The God King.

daniel ryan | January 13, 2018 at 09:26 pm

sublime and a little surreal repetitive yes but shithole is topical

daniel ryan | January 13, 2018 at 09:27 pm

sublime and a little surreal repetitive yes but shithole is topical

Lorraine Anderson | January 13, 2018 at 09:54 pm

You said of Pharos " it wont change your life" is sensory, immersive, cathedrals come in many forms , this without the flying buttresses. It supports from within. Thank you David on many levels.
Lorraine Anderson

Janice Macpherson | January 14, 2018 at 09:09 am

Another reason to go back to MONA, often.

richard | January 14, 2018 at 01:04 pm

My words are not worthy of these comments for i am not articulate enough see ya friday Walshie woo hoo ric 61

Siren Deluxe | January 15, 2018 at 06:30 am

I watch the development of MONA with awe and appetite. I enjoy observing your reverence and irreverence, and read everything you write. As a museum professional I find you challenging, elevating and so so funny. I am so relieved there is a David Walsh and a MONA museum.

Helen Jackson | January 15, 2018 at 07:37 am

I feel privileged...

Valeri | January 15, 2018 at 10:20 am

I am looking forward to exploring PHAROS, thank you for making such fabulous experiences available, MONA never disappoints. I love that it never entirely pleases nor displeases.

Jennifer Dewis | January 15, 2018 at 11:36 am

I am in awe !!!

Danae Harwood/Konidaris | January 16, 2018 at 09:31 am

Hi David. On 4th Jan. '18, between 4.05pm and 4.40pm, Pharos did prove to be a distraction, a daydream, but on the contrary a bit mind-bending for my husband and me in a way that you might not be aware of. I emailed Mona on 5th Jan. at 3.22pm about the following unusual incident that we had experienced the day before in Faro Tapas Bar. We were sitting at a table by the bar. My full glass of sparkling wine began moving by itself. It travelled slowly from left to right in front of me along a grey stretch of marble and stopped at a side plate. When I returned the glass to its original position it began moving again. I alerted my husband. We watched the glass travel steadily for about 45cm. I picked it up within it reaching about 10cm from the edge of the table in case it kept going and fell off. As I was returning the glass to its original position I said "video it" to my husband. When I placed the glass down, it didn't move. I asked the waitress whether this occurrence had been a Mona "trick". She replied no. She wiped the bottom of the glass and the table with her hand and confirmed that neither were wet. The three of us were puzzled. My husband was adamant that the movement of the glass had somehow been caused by the resin sealer on the marble surface. Our construction tradespeople relatives have since advised that this is an implausible explanation, even if the table was tilted slightly. Also in my email to Mona on 5th Jan., I suggested that the camera surveillance footage be checked and that any explanations would be welcomed. Emma replied that our unusual observation would definitely be passed on to the appropriate teams for follow up and to bear in mind that a response might take a little time because it's peak season. I'm looking forward to any feedback that Mona might have. As today is the twelfth day since the occurrence, I'm hoping that the surveillance video isn't in danger of being wiped and that Mona has had a chance to check it out. Thanks, David. Just wanted to let you know. We really enjoyed our visit!

Michelle Warren | January 16, 2018 at 09:02 pm

Extremely interesting unraveling of the motivations of your vision for MONA. How lucky to live here and have access to this marvellous world class facility. Thank you David.

Michelle Warren | January 16, 2018 at 09:02 pm

Extremely interesting unraveling of the motivations of your vision for MONA. How lucky to live here and have access to this marvellous world class facility. Thank you David.

Mike Jury | January 17, 2018 at 09:02 am

"Rockon" David Walsh!

Ruth | January 17, 2018 at 06:40 pm

Did you ever know Roelof Smidt .. probably not as his professional gambling was confined to Sydney ( Glebe ) .. anyway quite beside and not related .. would rather a joint den than a bar at the bottom of Mona but the current Tas Premier said last year ( regarding the huge cost of demonising “it” and that others have suggesting it could be cheaper to legalise it .. ) “not on my watch” [ and no i dont down here ]. .. amazing what you do mate best of luck to all x

Danae Harwood/Konidaris | January 25, 2018 at 12:09 pm

Hi. Just following up on my blog response to "Journey" dated 16th January '18 about my glass of sparkling wine that moved 45cm by itself in the Faro Tapas Bar between 4.05 and 4.40pm Thursday 4th Jan. '18. Although it's been three weeks since the occurrence and we haven't received any reply from Mona (and my blog response hasn't been posted), we're still hoping that the team is looking into the incident via camera surveillance footage and will get back to us. It'd be really great to get any kind of feedback/reply. BTW - After I responded on 16th, I noticed that the blog contains an image of Faro Tapas Bar called Unseen Seen. We were sitting at the table at the forefront of the photo when the unusual incident occurred. Thanks for your time.

Elderly Sydneysider | January 26, 2018 at 11:01 am

Thanks, David, a very interesting article. Makes my wife and me want to go to MONA again. A question:- How accessible is the new wing in general, and Unseen Seen in particular, for someone using a wheelchair ( who can walk short distances, but not stairs)? Trust your daughter is recovering well. Thanks

John Holland | January 28, 2018 at 01:44 pm

Hugely enjoyable. What caught my eye was Event Horizon. I have a poem of the same name. Enjoy! Event Horizon John Holland Look you! the ancients had it right: God did toss Satan out of heaven. But this happened long before Lemnos bejewelled the Aegean. Cast off into a far corner of the universe He made the most of it, took a gamble On a lone star Grown to implode any eon now. Helped along, Soundlessly it fell in upon itself, Swelled again and burst Spewing light not seen in these parts Since time began. He'd make himself a spiral galaxy Of the whole damned mess. Why not? And here was the gamble: if he could spin One central humming core And set around it fragments of congealing muck With any luck he'd have a place Where in the cooling Chemicals might bond to form some other Heretofore unknown and living shape. Like His But made of matter. Behold! Now here we are: The warm detritus of a fallen star.

Trev Miles | February 18, 2018 at 03:19 pm

Thanks for this and MONA. Initially I thought it was provocative... but it was as you intended ... manipulative.

Greg Orr | February 28, 2018 at 09:45 am

Curator/artist stories about their work would help, descriptions of techniques and processes. The conceptual and formal integrity of the works is without question. I like the online dialogue with art, and shaking things up top to bottom in terms of collection direction and presentation. The term contemporary art sceptic is an oxymoron, really, can you live in the present and be afraid of new visions? What is the point of being alive if there is no discovery. I love the Egyptian slant on things, possibly a math homage, reflection on visions of immortality, many ideas rolled into one. For the doubters out there, I find they are trying to grasp the meaning of things in detail, simple redirection to the type of art/presentation i.e. installation based art etc., seems to help without causing embarrassment, for instance a visitor (PhD Math) read the 'meaning of sump oil' as reflecting the patterns in the MONA ceiling, your blog is instructive and redirects/focus the visitor understanding. (Please set your spell checker to Australian English or turn it off, sorry to be a so pedantic)

Shauna | March 2, 2018 at 10:01 am

oh, how I love thee!!