Museum of Old and New Art

Sex, death and models of down under, down under: Newly opened Mona already a success

Outspoken collector David Walsh unveils crypt-like private museum

Tasmania has given the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) an enthusiastic welcome. The A$80m ($80m) underground gallery built by the gambler David Walsh near the capital Hobart attracted nearly 21,000 visitors in the first ten days following its opening at the end of January.

What they found in the museum’s crypt-like chambers is an art experience that is both carnivalesque and contemplative. The antiseptic, white-walled display that is the hallmark of collectors’ galleries across Europe and the US is eschewed in favour of darkened rooms and red velvet curtains. And how many other collectors would place the ashes of their father on public display in the atrium?

The museum’s opening exhibition, which is drawn from Walsh’s A$100m collection, ranges from Wim Delvoye’s digestive machine, Cloaca Professional, 2010, to Sidney Nolan’s vast Snake, 1971, consisting of 1,620 panels.

Many works illustrate Walsh’s obsession with sex and death. A favourite with the public was a row of 150 life-size porcelain sculptures of vaginas modelled from the bodies of volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 78. Entitled Cunts and Other Conversations, 2008-09, the installation is by the Melbourne artist Greg Taylor.

Walsh’s comments on such pieces are delivered to visitors through an audio guide on an iPod. There are no wall labels. This is divided into “Artwank”, for straightforward art historical background, “Ideas”, for random musings, and “Gonzo” for Walsh’s own thoughts on the works he has collected.

The most revealing and moving of these writings accompany another work by Greg Taylor: My Beautiful Chair, 2010. This consists of an interactive replica of an assisted suicide machine that offers visitors the option, via a touchscreen, of simulating the act of suicide with a lethal dose of the drug Nembutal.

In his comments on the piece, Walsh describes the degeneration of his brother who had cancer: “His doctor, a staunch Christian, compromised his beliefs by telling us (me and my brother’s girlfriend) that whatever happened he would write on the death certificate that the cause of death was complications relating to cancer…nearer death [she] and I started discussing whether we should off him. We talked about increasing his morphine dose. I wanted to. He died. I don’t know whether she took my advice.” It is an astonishing admission. In Britain such a confession might prompt a police investigation. In Tasmania, amid all the excitement of Mona’s opening, nobody seems to have noticed.

A Delvoye retrospective is due to open in October. Next year, an exhibition organised by the French curator Jean-Hubert Martin is due to tour Europe. Beyond that, nothing is confirmed, but Walsh said: “My emotional weather forecast is some Marina Abramovic stormy weather.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'True confessions in Tasmania'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 222 March 2011