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Even by Australian standards, Tasmania feels strange and remote. Its colonial history verges on the gothic. By the s, settlers were embarking on a brutal frontier war with the Tasmanian Aborigines, whose last members were rounded up and removed to a smaller island, Flinders, where they died of disease and despair in one of the most shameful chapters in British history. Since then, Tasmania has stubbornly remained the least developed and least populated state in Australia, enduring unkind jokes among mainlanders, who often regard it as a refuge of hillbillies and yokels on a par with the stereo typed Appalachian here.
Its main attraction for visitors has been its savage natural beauty, luring adventure travelers to raft its wild rivers and hike the succulent expanses of temperate rainforest in its national parks. In recent years, however, Tasmania has begun to enter a surprising new era, as the former backwater has developed a fiercely independent cultural scene.
Postmodern architecture has flourished, with a string of award-winning eco-lodges poised in wilderness areas. Travelers can now spend two days hiking along a deserted coastline to the Bay of Fires Lodge, a sleek deer retreat perched on a remote headland and surrounded by wild bush. Another spectacular lodge, called Saffire, opened two years ago by the Freycinet Peninsula; its main building is deed in a flowing form that evokes the pattern of the waves, with enormous picture windows facing a string of raw mountains called the Hazards.
And there is a general obsession with all things healthful. In fact, Tasmania can sometimes verge on Portlandia, where every body product seems to be made from an elaborate homegrown concoction such as lemon eucalyptus with wild bush passion fruit. One of the largest private museums in the Southern Hemisphere—and without doubt the most provocative—MONA has suddenly vaulted Tasmania onto the international cultural map. Instead, laby-rinthine passageways and Escher-like stairways connect three underground levels.
Some artworks with religious and sexual content have caused controversy elsewhere, which has helped make MONA hugely successful. Garnering at least as much attention as MONA itself is the man behind it, David Walsh—a mysterious multi- millionaire who was largely unknown to the Australian public 18 months ago.
Walsh, 50, hardly fits the mold of a typical art patron: Raised in the working-class suburbs of Hobart, he is a mathematical savant who dropped out of college to make his fortune as a professional gambler his empire is still funded by computerized betting, mostly on horse racing before indulging his real passion, art. In fact, it was this possibility I was dreading after flying straight from New York to Hobart to meet with Walsh. Now I hardly recognized the place.
From the Henry Jones Art Hotel—a former Georgian warehouse that has been renovated into luxury accommodations with exhibits of local artists in every corridor and room—I strolled via endless galleries to the Princes Wharf, which has long defied any form of progress. The whole city seemed to be in ferment. Restaurants were packed; crowds thronged the sidewalks; the live music lineup included PJ Harvey and the Dresden Dolls. Not many people can say that. Because Walsh seemed to exist beneath the radar for so long, rumors about his shadowy life as a gambler and his sexually charged art collection still shroud him in mythology.
Untrue; he prefers computerized gambling. Another said that Walsh has a private apartment within MONA with one-way mirrors on the floor, so he can wander about naked and secretly observe visitors. Also untrue; he does have an office inside, but part of its floor is regular glass. But before I could meet the man himself, I needed to get a sense of his bizarre brainchild, so I decided to make a preliminary visit to MONA, incognito. Apparently, participants would be escorted through the subterranean exhibitions while in the state that nature intended.
The guide would also be naked, of course. Even the guards would be naked. On the assumption that getting a place was all but impossible, I agreed—giving a false name, just in case I decided to back out entirely. Of course, when I passed by a couple of hours later, the attendant waved me over. MONA was turning out to be more adventurous than my wildest predictions.
I was still delirious from jet lag, and had just taken a catamaran nine miles up the Derwent, which was disorienting enough. Blinded by the sparkling water, I felt the mundane world slipping away for a more vivid dimension. Suddenly, MONA had appeared on a headland like a ziggurat of concrete and rusted iron. From the jetty, I had climbed a steep stairway deed Walsh has written to evoke Mediterranean sea journeys, when ancient travelers would ascend to a temple to give thanks for a safe voyage. Walsh also owns the surrounding eight-acre peninsula, so visitors are also invited to wander off and explore his vineyard, tapas bar, wine-tasting room, boutique brewery and high-end restaurant, or stay overnight in one of eight gleaming, art-filled guesthouses.
Now I was about to get way out of my comfort zone. Followed by two naked staff members, we awkwardly reconvened beneath an indoor cliff of golden sandstone. I noted that the group was evenly split between men and women, thankfully representing all ages, shapes and sizes. There is no overt order or link between the artworks. In fact, one of the most original elements of the collection is its eclectic range: Placed among the contemporary pieces are ancient artifacts, creating juxtapositions that leap across millennia.
A sarcophagus and mummy are part of a multimedia installation with an Andres Serrano photograph, for example. Other modern installations include Roman coins and Babylonian cuneiform tablets. Being naked certainly kept me on my toes: Randomly encountering nude people in a shadowy maze is hardly the usual museum experience.
Walsh clearly has a taste for the provocative. There is a huge close-up of a bullet wound, urns filled with human ashes, rooms lined with plaster casts of female pudenda. Giuliani, one imagines, would have a heart attack. Still, other artworks are less confronting than whimsical. A giant indoor waterfall by German artist Julius Popp spells out words that are searched each day on Google.
After an hour of exploring darkened galleries, I finally began to relax about being naked—then we stepped into a brightly lit laboratory-like room. This was where an artwork called Cloaca was maintained. A mass of pipes and glass tubes combined with chemicals, it is able to reproduce the workings of the human digestive system. The room was lit by harsh neon lights, and each wall was lined with mirrors, which reflected our images into infinity.
Suddenly, there was nowhere to hide. We were visible from every angle. After this clinical episode, nobody had any energy left to be self-conscious. When we all ended up in the bar at the end of the tour, we stood around and chatted casually, still nude.
This was promising news. But when I returned to the lobby for my appointment at , Nicholls looked harried. I overheard the conversation. But minutes later, we ran into Walsh charging at full tilt across the museum roof. He was an unmistakable figure, looking like a middle-aged rock star with his wild silver hair streaming down to his shoulders, sport jacket, distressed jeans and sunglasses. It turned out that he had double-booked and needed to travel into Hobart to see an experimental modern opera. I started the engine and tried to ease into the conversation.
So I began by asking about his classical Greek collection. Soon enough, on the highway to Hobart, we were swapping ancient coin stories. It was a fertile starting point. Walsh explained that his interest in numismatics—indeed, his philosophy of museums—began to develop at age He had decided he was an atheist, so every Sunday morning, after telling his Catholic mother that he was going to church, he went instead to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which combines art, history and natural science, and became intimate with oddities such as the bones of a wombat-like dinosaur the size of a rhino, Byzantine coins, and relics from prehistoric Antarctic forests.
At the time, his mother was raising him single-handedly in one of the poorest parts of Hobart. They had limited success, Walsh explained, but in the process they figured out how to make steady sums from computerized horse racing. Walsh began collecting art by accident. Inspired by his older sister, a Hobart artist, Walsh soon began expanding his collection in a contemporary direction as his gambling fortune grew.
In , he purchased the riverside winery where MONA now stands and four years later opened a small museum of antiquities. I wondered: Why did I end up building the same museum as everybody else? So he decided on a radical renovation. The interview had to wait as I parked the car, and we dashed into an old church that had been turned into an avant-garde performance space. Inside, a bohemian crowd was sitting on the darkened floor among dangerous-looking metal sculptures. We were then treated to an ambitious musical piece that featured discordant operatic singing accompanied by piano, cello and Brian Ritchie on the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute.
I had no idea whether this marked the end of our meeting, but after the concert, Walsh suggested we head to a restaurant. He kept talking as he strode through traffic—topics included an esoteric of how a scientific principle about electromagnetism called the Faraday Effect pertains to modern advertising—and kept up the intense pace after we took a table, continuing without pause for the next two hours. But Walsh explained that before he commissioned its de, he toured Europe and the United States to refine his ideas. Walsh argues that his eclectic, personal approach harks back to the era of the Wunderkammer , or Cabinets of Wonders, which would be kept in the private houses of aristocrats from the Renaissance onward to reflect their own tastes.
Fine artworks were displayed alongside religious relics, mythological marvels and natural history treasures such as gems, shells or fossils. They were just objects of wonder. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is another, although with an ironic, self-referential twist. MONA is experiential. But other critics suggest that any shakeup of the museum world is not entirely a bad thing. If you went into a church, the percentage that depicts death is vastly higher.
Sex and death are not my theme. In fact, he thought he would be reviled for it. Walsh could have built his museum anywhere, but he stayed in Tasmania, he says, partly because his two daughters from two marriages live there.
The glib little jokes that MONA makes would have been lost in the clamor. The most ificant effect may be psychological. They had assumed, right from the beginning of their history, that important things happened elsewhere. But MONA makes people realize that what they do matters, and is admired by others. On my last night in Hobart, I went to another Walsh-commissioned theater production, a modern opera entitled The Barbarians that was performed almost entirely in Greek. I sat cross-legged on the floor in a packed theater, which was filled with smoke and pierced by lasers. A naked male dancer emerged from a water-filled trough and began gyrating feverishly to a shrill chorus, as synthesized music echoed through the air.
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I bonded with strangers over a mass nude swim