When we first opened the museum we called our general collection ‘Monanism’, which has turned out to be less than a brilliant idea, because people can get a bit confused.
We are stuck with the name, though: not least because we also have a book called Monanisms that outlines David’s raison d'être for building the museum—and we want to keep selling copies of the book.
You can choose from ‘Art wank’—a short and pithy, but otherwise traditional, essay; ‘Gonzo’—ramblings from the man himself and some of his buddies about what the stuff on show means on a more personal level; as well as bite-sized nuggets of info, and interviews with artists.
We believe things like art history and the individual artist’s intention are interesting and important—but only alongside other voices and approaches that remind us that art, after all, is made and consumed by real, complex people—whose motives mostly are obscure, even to themselves.
That, and we want you to have fun. Settle in at the Void Bar. Have a drink.
Monanism (the collection) changes quite a lot.
Early on David had this plan to de-install the most loved artworks (on the O, you can let us know when you ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ something).
That plan fell through, possibly because the most loved are often also the most hated, or possibly because David has become less of a meany-pants.
Instead, we make small changes all the time, and do a substantial ‘re-hang’ a couple of times a year. Unless you’re a Mona groupie and visit weekly you’re likely to get a subtly or palpably different experience each time.
There are several works in our collection that are structural, in the sense that the museum was designed to accommodate them. These works tend to say something important about our core philosophy—even if we wouldn’t necessarily be able to pinpoint why. Gregory Barsamian, one of David’s favourite artists, addresses this in his work: the ability of art to transcend language and other slowpoke forms of cognition, and tap straight into the ‘broader bandwidth’ of consciousness.
Barsamian’s Artifact lives in the Sidney Nolan Gallery: the home of Snake, a 46-metre-long rainbow meditation on the relation between myth and modernity.
A space to accommodate Snake was one of the starting points for the architectural design of the building.
Other important structural elements include the Anselm Kiefer pavilion (great shards of glass protrude from an enormous lead bookcase), and the chamber of Pausiris, a man who lived and died in Egypt some 2000 years ago.
There’s also a temple to the fandom of Madonna (she who is merely ‘like’, as opposed to an actual, virgin) and a big, happy, wonderful waterfall, called bit.fall, that spells out words on the descent.
Everyone loves bit.fall. Funnily enough, this annoys the artist, Julius Popp, who has something serious to express—about technology, human perception and the saturation of our brains with information we cannot properly process, or respond to with integrity—and he feels that if people love his work too much, they will miss the message. Irony, much?
We also, of course, run a busy exhibitions program—usually two major openings per year, in winter and summer; with smaller ones interspersed as well.
We are proud of our exhibition program. Its difference to our core collection is quite distinct: lots of people tend to visit Mona as a kind of 'destination' experience, and that's great, that's what we want them to do. (Eat! Drink! Cough up the cash.)
It is important to David, however, and to the core curatorial team, that we continue to evolve, to keep refining and rethinking what it is we want to say.
This ‘having something to say’ is often front and centre, in a way that makes us a bit different from some other institutions of comparable size and notoriety.
Many galleries, as you probably already know, present themselves as a neutral space in which the goal is to let the art shine with as little distraction and interference as possible. We respect this, not least because it gives us a point of difference, and allows us to be exclusive—in the sense that not all peoples, times and places are represented in our collection, as they are, and should be, in public institutions. (For instance, TMAG, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery; a fine institution in the Hobart city centre. You should visit that, too.) We are not trying to be comprehensive, nor to cover off on any—let alone all—epochs of art history.
(Having said that, we do have a soft spot for contemporary Tasmanian art.)
Mona is one man’s ‘megaphone’ as he put it at the outset: and what he wants to say almost invariably revolves around the place of art and creativity within the definition of humanity. We know that sounds lofty, self-important. But we must be honest with you: our goal is no more, nor less, than to ask what art is, and what makes us look and look at it with ceaseless curiosity. We don’t have the answer yet. Maybe when we do, that will be the end of Mona. Bye bye Mona.
And by the way: don’t say, ‘Art is that which is useless.’ You can do better than that.
In fact, we think art is useful by definition—useful, in a deep biological sense. We think that it has played a part in the perpetuation of the species (and maybe, then, it has a lot to answer for). More on that in our current exhibition, On the Origin of Art.
Crudely speaking, our exhibitions fall into two camps: artist-led, where we focus on the output of one whose work befuddles, engages or amazes us; and ideas-led, where we subsume an assemblage of very different works under the governing intention outlined above.
In each case, it is important to us that the works speak to the space in some way, or interacts with our philosophy. For instance, in 2014, for our Matthew Barney exhibition—a major coup for Tassie—the artist spent a lot of time trawling through our collection of Egyptian antiquities, and incorporated a number of these into the final show.
Sometimes, an artist's outlook merges with our own, in a way that is satisfyingly cohesive. This was the case for our Wim Delvoye exhibition in 2012.
Delvoye is, of course, the author of Cloaca Professional, 2010, aka the ‘shit machine’. We’ve a lot to say about Cloaca. Come to the museum and hear it.
In other cases, an artist’s occupation of our space creates a contradiction, a kind of double vision: this was the case in the Marina Abramović exhibition in 2015. In Marina's work, what you think about the world is indistinguishable from what the world is.
In contrast, Mona’s ambition (with only modest success, given that most people just want to take pictures of bit.fall) is to understand how narrow, how partial, our view is of the world. To see clearly, we argue, you have to first know the limits of your vision. To quote Socrates: ‘The smartest people know how dumb they are.’ Okay, what he really said was: ‘I know one thing: that I know nothing.’
Nassim Taleb, via Umberto Eco, talks about the notion of the anti-library: For every read book, the unread ones multiply. And it is the unread books that are most useful to us.
We want, too, to draw attention to the way our perspective is clouded by hidden desires. The aim is not to do away with those desires (Heaven forbid!) but to drag them into light.
Looking at art, and thinking deeply about it, can do something amazing: help us see ourselves more clearly.
But sometimes, looking at art is about no more than marvelling at an individual act of creative ingenuity.
Our capacity to create, and to appreciate, is all the more marvellous for its base beginnings.
We don’t need God to induce the numinous. Nope. For that, we’ve got James Turrell.
Back to our exhibitions program.
We do big stuff, like Gilbert & George. (They didn’t want to do the whole ‘interact with the space’ thing. That isn’t how they roll.)
We do smaller stuff, like Mathieu Briand and Hubert Duprat.
Yes, we do like the Frenchies, it’s true. But we do Australian, too.
We’ve had our controversies.
(Although in truth, not as many as we'd like.)
Something people ask a lot is: How involved is David with what happens at the museum? The answer is: usually, he is very involved. He leads a crack curatorial team that includes Directors Nicole Durling and Olivier Varenne, Exhibition Designer Adrian Spinks, Senior Research Curator Jane Clark, Curator Jarrod Rawlins, and Research Curator/Senior Writer Elizabeth Pearce, just to name a few.
Most of what we do at Mona is dear to David's heart, but sometimes he is happy to stand back and see what his team comes up with. Even so, we live in fear of God.
God's mistress—actually his missus, Kirsha Kaechele, an artist and curator from America, but Tassie local since 2010—supplements our core collection with a series of community-based projects that marry an almost vigilante approach to beauty with outrageous glamour, and specific social outcomes.
Kirsha is a colourful counterpoint to her august mate, who is less interested in perpetuating beauty than in taking it apart and understanding how it works.
People always want to know more about David. That’s tough, because this whole enterprise is an expression of his character—or, more accurately, an attempt for him to get to know himself better. ‘There are three things extremely hard,’ said Benjamin Franklin, ‘steel, a diamond, and to know one's self.’
This isn’t a problem in itself; the problem is that we think we know ourselves so well. That’s what Gregory Barsamian is on about, the artist mentioned earlier: the illusion we call consciousness; the ‘I’ that conceals an unknowable morass of impulse and process.
There’s no need to be gloomy. This is not a nihilistic view. There's love, and friends—and food, music and drink to keep us warm.
And the knowledge that in some sense, we are all the same. That, if nothing else, should inspire us to be nicer to each other.
Speaking of music, Mona hosts over 150 events per year, in a dozen venues site-wide: genres as diverse as jazz, improvisation, blues, classical, punk, folk and electronic appear alongside music of Indian, Arabic, African, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Sufi origin. This is courtesy of Mona’s Music Curator Brian Ritchie—yes, he who hails from the Violent Femmes. David found him hanging around Hobart circa 2008, having moved here with his wife Varuni ‘because they liked it’. Guess you could call that fortuitous.
So what exactly is it that you want to know about David? How he made his money? (Gambling, but you knew that already.) Where he grew up? (Glenorchy, down the road from Mona.) Does this information really tell you anything about a person?
‘I’m a mess of little boys fighting in a sack,’ he says.
To pinpoint biography is to fall foul of the ‘narrative fallacy’: the tendency to seek pattern when there is none, and to assume earlier events caused later ones in a way that confirms what we already believed about the world.
Plus, whatever we say about him can only be propaganda. He’s great, he’s good; he’s hunted the most lions in the land.
One thing we will say: he's a long time vegetarian.
And also, he says Mona is his ‘fitness marker’, his chance to show off...
...To show off, specifically, to ‘chicks’.
Still not happy? Okay, fine. Here are some vital stats.
Name: David Walsh
Real name: Glenn Walsh
Name David’s sister, Lindy, says is his real one: Brett Walsh
Nickname: Walshy, Dubsy, Davo, the D-man
Likes: Cats, milkshakes, My Kitchen Rules
Dislikes: Morons, pokies, MasterChef
Daughters: Three (and counting?)
Quotable quote: ‘Artists are just like human beings, only not as smart.’
Special skills: Table tennis, moving like Jagger, and writing stupid little bios about himself, c.f.
David Walsh built a museum despite (or because of) a low level of chopstick proficiency. His high school reference conceded, 'Any employer who can get David to work will be very lucky.' He was once gainfully employed by the tax office, and has been paying for it ever since. It is rumoured that he is to be cast in the lead role of the next Wonder Woman franchise, if he doesn't cut down on tofu.
Header image: Mona front entrance wall, Matthew Harding, 2010