Undoing Systems of Thought

To be aware of the limitations of a society that insists on creating systems is very different to providing an aesthetic frame that demolishes them. David Walsh has achieved this in his Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart that has received 600,000 visitors in its first eighteen months of operation. Underlying the collection is an inherent distrust of thinking that categorises, labels and defines. In this sense, MONA is a post-Enlightenment, post-rational institution.

I spoke with Walsh at Vincent Fantauzzo’s studio in South Melbourne as he sat as a subject forming part of Fantauzzo’s recent 30 Portraits in 30 Days project. Walsh reveals that his childhood was one that situated him as an outsider. Looking back, his slight autism and attacks of asthma were ultimately fortuitous conditions of life that led to him reading everything available; it was a kind of reading that in combination with a remarkable mathematical capacity allowed him, on one hand, to become a highly successful gambler and on the other a philosopher who came to see art as his preferred means of expression. The gambling system facilitated the cash for what is now seen as one of the most remarkable museums of our time. It is perhaps fitting that his first art purchase was a Yoruba palace door from Northern Nigeria, representing an entry into what is designed to be, at first, an unrecognisable world.

Unrecognisable because the museum resists the usual standards of measurement and will not fulfill the criteria usually set for such institutions. In fact Walsh abhors prescription, and rejects the idea that cause and effect have any real relation in our plans and in the outcomes in our lives. “I’m interested in things I don’t understand. I’m sceptical of stories of inspiration and influence – people find motives for doing things retrospectively,” Walsh says.

In a sense this museum is created to subvert all kinds of learning that get in the way of asking questions about life. Learning of course comes in many forms and brings about certain fixed ideas about ourselves and the world in which we pretend to have some measure of control. David Walsh’s selection of art attacks fixity and system, seeing as he does life and our perception of it to be on an infinite track – always in a state of becoming – and never reaching any stable point where a particular paradigm of ‘truth’ is absolute. Knowledge, he argues, is provisional and our experiences tell us that what we think we like or know today are probably errors to be acknowledged in the future.

In the experience of viewing MONA, one is immediately stripped of conventional expectations. The museum is twenty metres underground, subverting the established idea that places of learning should rise up to the Gods in some kind of veneration. Walsh explains, “I was meddling on the edge of something I was not sure of. I liked creating something from nothing – I’d rather think crazy things can evolve to something… not all great ideas evolve into something… they often fall by the wayside from no fault of the idea/vision. There is so much chance involved.

“I knew that I wanted something different from a grand entrance into a museum; I wanted to undermine the grand entrance and usual processes so I decided to go down into the earth. This later generated retrospective motives for why I did it. Things done without purpose have purpose thrust upon them,” he adds, confirming his earlier assertion about motives after the fact. “They became catacombs, for example. But nor did I want MONA to be a museum that gives clues to where one stands in society… I was equally interested in the design of a museum and unusual juxtapositions.”

The Gods are amply reckoned with – see Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary – though less as elements of mythology; questions are posed of the icons associated with institutionalised religion, as MONA’s secular humanism explores the human propensity to pursue Eros and flee from Thanatos; destructive relations between religion and politics are suggested by items such as Gregory Green’s Bible Bomb. Myths of creation are preferred with Sidney Nolan’s Snake (1970-72) – a serpent rainbow of creation consisting of 1620 individual images; this work is the heart of the museum and is juxtaposed alongside a 6.5 metre high work by Anselm Kiefer: Falling Stars/The Breaking of the Vessels – a ‘book-case’ of iron, lead and glass. Old dogmas are viewed with suspicion, not so much to shock but rather to show that ideas are fluid, and it is of paramount interest for viewers to be aware of how we process all myths.

Art is presented as an efficient communicator when it is released from what we fear and what we need to conceal. The artworks sit in paradoxical relation to each other; the design counters rectangular layout and attempts to be an embodied blueprint of philosophical questioning, whether that be directed at accepting the processes of our bodies, the fact that we slaughter cows and eat them (see Jannis Kounellis’ Seven sides of freshly slaughtered beef), or that our bodies perform processes to be viewed as represented in a vast machine that mimics the human digestive system. “At MONA,” says Walsh, “I can do things the artists don’t intend by unusual juxtapositions of art. It turns out though that artists like this, they like to be interpreted… creation of history is personal and fictitious.” He adds with a cautionary tone, “Design and the placement of art should not be too self conscious. Best not to be self-aware.”

Visitors approach this museum by ferry on the Derwent River from the city’s docks. The descent into the underground is one that David Walsh anticipates will lead to learning through guesswork and experiment. The art consists of Antiquities (2210), Modern Australian Art and conceptual Art (654). And yet, in this strange adventure of acquiring new knowledge there is a space for music, a bar for drinking – perhaps necessary accompaniments when viewing art that elicits emotion and sensation whilst challenging the senses. Walsh’s remarkable creation is one that liberates its viewers from the dictates of history; here is a museum designed to make one think and even rejoice in the individual nature of that experience, with its release from systems, dogmas and convention. But to the end he is self-deprecating, or simply deeply honest: “Achievement is more like a fluke happening… all you are is a little bit different and someone notices.”