David Walsh has an ego, but if the art is this good, I don’t care

‘If they should accidentally fall’ by Patrick Hall

Dark Mofo 2019

It defies the imagination. The live birth of human-sized latex piglets. DJ Kim Jung Un masterfully remixing in a sea of laser beams. A video installation of someone lighting themselves on fire. Dark Mofo is an art festival like no other; it’s an odyssey into the twisted mind of billionaire and art mogul David Walsh. Ever since I visited MONA in February 2018, Dark Mofo had topped my bucket list. Walsh’s subterranean museum – which is built into the sandstone banks of the Derwent River – is not only the most awe-inspiring museum I have ever visited, but the most irreverent. MONA somehow pokes fun of high art and dominates the highest echelon of the Australian art scene. Walsh, for example, has dispensed with academic wall text, providing his own ‘art wank’ instead. So when a friend suggested we attend Dark Mofo this year, I couldn’t have jumped on board more quickly. Despite perilously high expectations, Dark Mofo eclipsed my wildest predictions, pushing boundaries I had never imagined. 

We arrived in Hobart as the festival launched into its third and final week. It felt as if the entire city had surrendered to Walsh’s dark fantasy. Every unoccupied space, from Hobart’s Old Blood Bank to abandoned warehouses, had been transformed into a temporary gallery. Satanic crosses furnished cafe windows. Black and red flags flew from every lamppost. The streets pulsed with people. Turtlenecks and hipster beanies distinguished festival revellers from Hobart locals. If locals seemed wearied by the whirlwind of chaos, these wide-eyed pilgrims (fresh from the mainland) hungered for Walsh’s dark and sexy art. And there was plenty to feast on…

Within hours of arriving, we found ourselves queuing for A Forest, an exhibition of twelve installation works hosted in an industrial warehouse. You could be mistaken for thinking we were outside a nightclub, as volunteers handed out earplugs to prepare us for the ear-shattering noise we would confront within (an installation emulating thunder). Of the twelve installations, two made a particular impact on me. The first was a virtual reality work by Paul McCarthy. The artist had viewers don oculus prime headsets and become bystanders in an assault. The VR work tested the viewer’s ability to bear witness to brutality, and questioned if the contemporary gaze has become desensitised to violence. Watching others process the animated scenario was as compelling as the experience itself; some struggled – throwing off their headsets in horror – others appeared detached and unstirred. When my turn arrived, I felt torn between a duty to watch and a yearning to look away; neither response felt adequate. The second artwork lingers in my memory for entirely different reasons. Transgender artist Cassils projected a video of themselves pressing their naked body against an ice sculpture of a Neoclassical male torso. As their body heat melted the ice, centuries of rigid gender norms became as fluid as water. Thematically, these two works could not be more distinct, yet they capture my attention for the same reason. McCarthy and Casslis both play into the political power of art, asking us to reflect on where we have been and to reimagine where we are going. It was so exciting to see art taken so seriously.

This political undercurrent ran through all of Dark Mofo. Julie Gough’s major exhibition Tense Past at the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery narrated the systematic genocide of Tasmania’s indigenous people. And Tony Albert’s retrospective at Contemporary Art Tasmania told a similar story. The festival favoured artists who took an unflinching look at reality, and in so doing, compelled their audiences to do the same. 

My favourite curatorial quirks of the festival was the air of mystery around each exhibition. None of the promotional material offered explicit descriptions of the art, outlining each exhibition in only the most ambiguous language. As a result, the festival cultivated curiosity and promoted a spirit of discovery – for better or for worse. We bought tickets to music gig called Berlin Atonal. I couldn’t have been more grateful for my earplugs to drown out the sound of screaming industrial noise (apparently some people enjoy it?). We stayed for 2 out of the 5 hour gig, fearful our ears might bleed. Yet, even in the moment, I wasn’t spiteful but grateful to have been yanked entirely from the safety of my comfort zone, into this bizarre parallel world. It was easy to get caught up in current of uninhibited experimentation that was running freely through the city streets.

Unlike Dark Mofo, MONA is outside Hobart, ten kilometres down the Derwent River. Walsh’s private boats charter visitors from Hobart’s main wharf on the hour. (The boats themselves are a sight to behold, patterned not only with camouflage, but the silhouettes of buxom babes with sharp stilettos). We boarded our boat at 9am, and – having paid for tickets in the ‘posh pit’ as opposed to ‘cattle class’ – were greeted with bottomless champagne, canopies and a personal barister, who sported aviators and a boiler suit, much like Tom Cruise in Top Gun. We were, unquestionable, rather giddy before we even arrived at MONA.

The most salacious part of our day was asking the staff at MONA about their encounters with Walsh and, by all accounts, he lives up to the image of the brilliant and cussing mad genius (the word fuck came up every time we was quoted). Reading Walsh’s interviews, he couples candour with a devil-may-care blasé. He says exactly what he means, steadfast in the face of political incorrectness. During Dark Mofo 2018, Walsh came under fire for installing twenty-metre-tall inverted crosses along Hobart’s waterfront. When Christian groups accused Walsh of satanic worship, he retorted that he could think of at least fifty reasons why the crosses ought to be inverted. St Peter, for one, was crucified upside down. ‘Why?’ he smirked, luxuriated in his own wit, ‘Because [St Peter] didn’t want to be like Jesus. So maybe all the churches that have up-the-right-way crosses are blasphemous’. His concern for blasphemy thinly veils an appetite for subversion and controversy. ‘It’s reasonable to contend’ he added, ‘that we are at the other side of the Earth from Jerusalem, so if you map them we are actually the same way up’. It’s all clever repartee, but rings insincere. This year, the crosses are back and the right way up. Lit from within, they glow blood red. Reflected in the harbour by night, they become inverted on the water’s surface once more. David, I’m sure, delights in the last laugh. 

Walsh’s burning effagy

I doubt Walsh would shy from comparisons to the anti-Christ; he gets a kick out of the Machiavellian. Indeed, he fashions himself like a Bond villain. Walsh allegedly lives in secret quarters within MONA and in 2013, he bought at laser beam (designed by Ryoji Ikeda), which shoots light fifteen kilometres into space. Dark Mofo has achieve cult status and the festival pulsates with pagan energy.  The waterfront is fringed with flaming torches and, outside Winter Feast (the festival’s lavish banquet hall) 10-metre-tall flame throwers spit fire balls into the air. This year Dark Mofo culminate in the burning of an effigy on the Parliamentary Lawns, a symbolic purging of a month of hedonism. Orchestrated by a pyrotechnic artist, a huge wooden bird (fashioned after an endangered parrot) erupted in a furore of firecrackers and flames. Volunteers held placards declaring: ‘This will be loud’. The theatrics, as usual, were saturated in a wry humour, a smug excess. 

Walsh takes his role as provocateur seriously. He deliberately flirts with our ethical and political boundaries. Liberated from public duty by private money, he is not beholden to any agenda but his own. I find his creative choices thrilling. Bashful he is not. Yes, Walsh’s ego inflects this world of his creation, but if the art is this good, I don’t care. Favouring the macabre and the avant-garde, the art Walsh supports is diverse and exciting. It spans mediums, from sound art to performance, installation to photography. He celebrates the historically under-represented, like female, queer, Eastern and indigenous artists. He draws together communities and starts heated debate. And for that, I am a huge admirer.

MONA has created a boom in Tasmanian tourism. Some have called Walsh a philanthropist; he shrugs off the title. These benefit to the community, he admits, were incidental (‘a desirable side effect’). He does hope, nonetheless, that ‘other, richer more avaricious’ billionaires will follow his lead. Let’s build ‘these fucking things’ all over the world, he challenges the mega rich. And to that I say a big fat yes please, who’s next? I want more!

post script: I ate the most delicious sausage roll of my entire life at MONA and I still think about it often.

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