David Walsh: Inverse Archaeology

Jun 20, 2012
  • Article by David Neustein
  • Designer

This is an extended version of the interview that first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #125: Architecture and the Arts.

DAVID NEUSTEIN: One of the most interesting and controversial things about MONA is that it creates a pre-history. By going underground, you’ve gone back before European civilisation in a way.

DAVID WALSH: I think the idea of going underground preceded any of the philosophical accoutrements. I had this space out there, and it was really beautiful, and I was thinking, ‘well, I can’t stuff up the Roy Grounds building’. But I really wanted that to be the entrance, because I was already aware of the idea of not giving you cues about what to think inside of our democratising experience, so I said, ‘if that’s going to be the entrance, I can’t build any higher than that’. I was talking to [MONA architect] Nonda Katsalidis, and I was sort of saying, ‘the only way to build it is to go down’.

We started talking to a structural engineer and because I was thinking more about catacombs by that time, my intention was to have a tunnel that came out to what eventually became the rock wall. Then Nonda said, ‘We could do inverse archaeology. Why don’t we just go straight up to the building and then hollow it out?’

You’ve just reminded me of the Barangaroo development in Sydney. Have you followed what’s happened there?

I’ve actually been asked to be on their consulting committee. I think I’ll do it because of the art space they’re planning.

Yeah, they’re building a natural headland and want to put a cultural centre underground, but I’ve no idea why. Maybe they went to MONA and thought, ‘we could just do that again’.

That is exactly why they chose to do it. Actually, this is one of the few government bodies that I’ve ever met (and these days I meet a lot of them) where the people are really smart and really nice. I think there’s some hope for that, because they’re right on the ball. They said, ‘We’ll build the space and then find someone to occupy it’, although I had to keep emphasising that the space should be designed about what’s in it, otherwise you end up with Federation Square in Melbourne.

I don’t think the NGV really wanted a gallery with no real walls, ceilings that change heights and huge amounts of natural light coming in, but they had to put up with it. The experience is not particularly great although they’ve got some great art, but in terms of the cost of space compared to the amount of art you can put up, and do it properly, it’s got to be one of the least efficient galleries in the world.

‘Inverse archaeology’: MONA cuts deep.

With Barangaroo, what I find particularly interesting, and a bit worrying and strange, is that with MONA, at least, if you’re creating a pre-history you’re doing it in existing headland. But they’re building a pre-European headland with sandstone ledges and then building inside that.

But it’s not as stupid as you think because they’ve got maps from 1818 and they’re taking the coast back to where those maps were, so it’s not so much creating a pre-history as creating a re-history. I actually like it. When I realised why they were doing it, I thought, ‘This is so arbitrary’ and then they pulled out the old map and said, ‘Look – it’s the same.’ So I really like it because they’re going to lose like four hectares of land when they go back there because so much had been reclaimed. There are developers that are actually giving up space and I reckon that’s pretty cool.

I want to ask you about Alain de Botton. He compares the contemporary art museum to a gothic or renaissance church, and essentially argues that the museum experience is impoverished compared with seeing art in a cathedral. So he’s trying to establish places of contemplation or museums based around universal themes that bring people together. He’s basically saying the museum has become an ‘airport’ experience.

That’s extremely problematic because not seeing art in a cathedral doesn’t significantly undermine the experience of being in a cathedral. Cathedrals have what they have whether or not there’s art in them. Cathedrals can make really great galleries, but they can also make really great performance spaces. The acoustics in Cologne Cathedral are better than the Sydney Opera House, so does that mean we design opera houses poorly? No. It means we didn’t rape entire economies for 300 years to build then rebuild them until they’re exactly right.

It’s just not a real ethical opinion because it doesn’t deal with the difference between a democracy and an autocracy. If you gave me $800 million to build an art gallery I’d blow everyone’s mind, but I’m not the only one. A lot of people would, including him, probably. It doesn’t prove a fucking thing.

Which works or artists do you wish you could exhibit at MONA?

Someone asked Charles Saatchi a similar question and he said, ‘Van Gogh, Velázquez or Vermeer, just to deal with the Vs.’ I’d love to have a real state collection, to show that art history is a carnival. This is where de Botton is absolutely wrong. You can take these things out of context
because the recontextualisation creates a new work, but contemporary museology has the ‘white cube’ thing where you have to put an artwork in as neutral a matrix as possible.

MONA: Dark, yet life-enhancing.

Are you against the ‘white cube’?

Not necessarily – it can be perfectly appropriate. I don’t see why there should be only way of presenting art, though. I’ll look at art in a cathedral, and I’ll look at a sculpture park. The Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles is excellent, and just down the road there’s the Huntingdon, a garden with libraries and stuff, completely different but still excellent. Why should there be only one portal into reality?

Is it important to make distinctions between art and architecture?

Yeah, if you want to make good buildings. Architecture works when there’s tension between the problem and the elegance of the solution. There has to be iteration back to the problem. Constraints make architecture but constraints don’t make art. I don’t think architects can’t be good artists or vice versa, but I do think architecture is at its best when there’s a client.

There’s definitely a strong trend of artists moving into architecture, like Eliasson or Delvoye. So many artists work now at architectural scales.

Eliasson and Delvoye are superb but they happen to be two of the most creative people in the world, so it’s no surprise that they can write a symphony, right? Also, I think these guys got a lot of help, the sort of help that a normal struggling artist doesn’t get. The formal knowledge they lack is available to them through assistance and consultative processes.

Do you think your relationship with Hobart has changed?

Hobart’s relationship with me has changed.

You’ve finally been embraced?

Well, yeah. People now refer to MONA as ‘our’ museum. Every Sunday I used to go to TMAG, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and that is
really Hobart’s museum – ‘our’ museum. Now people stop me on the street and say, ‘I love our museum’ and my immediate reaction is that they’re
referring to TMAG. It’s totally amazing to me that they’ve taken ownership of MONA but I like it. I didn’t expect to give a shit but I’ve enjoyed it much more than I expected.

You’ve had criticism, though.

Yeah, and because I’ve never been in the public eye I didn’t know criticism could hurt, although so far they’ve managed to not criticise the things I’m insecure about. I read a review of the remake of Lolita, which said, ‘Jeremy Irons can act, and often does, but not in this film. Dominique Swain can’t act but she can’t be held responsible. After all, she’s a minor.’ I thought, ‘Fuck, that must’ve hurt them.’ I’m sure Irons didn’t think his performance would be lambasted as a joke, and so it’s changed my way of engaging with others. When people criticise me on the web, if I ever dig at them I tend to conceal it completely so they’re not aware of it.

Tell me about your memoirs.  Why did you choose to do them now?

Money. We’ve sold five and a half thousand and I’m making 60 bucks a copy, so I’ve made nearly 400 grand out of the book in a year, and I’m thinking that’s a lot of fucking revenue, so the question is, why not do it?  Now I need something to replace [the exhibition] MONANISM, so we’ve just finished the catalogue for Theatre of the World, the next exhibition. It’s a really nice book and it’s a really nice show, but the book shop makes money and the reason it makes money is because my name is on the book.  We get people asking every day, because I’ve become a bit of a novelty, a bit of a tourist, so they want a book with my name on it. I thought, “I’m doing a lot of writing and I’ll do a book with my name on it,” so I did.

It must have brought mortality into sharp focus, turning 50 and writing your memoir?

I wrote a letter to myself from my birthday from when I was 80, and I’m saying, “The connection to the future is tenuous. You think you’re making something up but in actual fact this is a real communication and I don’t know what to tell you, and you won’t believe it anyway”, and eventually it concludes with something like, “Here’s my advice to you. Live your life like you don’t know what’s going to happen.”  So yeah, I had a really serious crack at thinking about the significance of that. I thought about it a lot when I turned 50.

David Walsh. Photo courtesy of MONA.

Carlo Scarpa is an Italian architect that has a space in Venice’s Querini Stampalia Museum. It’s an old building and he has these gates. The water comes in and fills up half the gallery, and there are little-raised platforms so that when the water fills up you can still walk around. It got me wondering about why you didn’t invite the river in to fill up MONA.

Well, for me, to build something that would on paper cost 10 grand to build is going to actually cost me half a million because I’ve got so many constraints to satisfy. You know, we’ve got the Egyptian Pausiris mummy in the gallery, with the water around it, and nothing could be simpler than that but people fall in. Someone managed to break their wrist; another broke their ankle. And they sue me!

But that’s also about something that works so powerfully in MONA. Once you decontextualise someone or something, you place them in a space and in the presence of higher authority, and not only do their pre­conceptions fall away but they’ll follow you anywhere or walk anywhere. With those injured people, I bet that up until that moment they’d really enjoyed the experience because they had given themselves over to it.

About one person a day falls in, right – one out of about 1000 daily. The other day, we had two people that fell in within five minutes, and I’m thinking, ‘Fuck.’ Someone walked out wet and the person standing there saw them all wet, and then the next person fell in.

So what do you do with all these people who are soaking wet?

We’ve got a cupboard with towels and stuff.

Perhaps you could add a Willy Wonka corridor that just keeps getting smaller and smaller and ends in nothing, and see how many people walk down until they can’t move anymore.

Like the stairs at the Berlin holocaust memorial that go nowhere.

What do you think of that building?

I think it’s very satisfactory if you’re an architectural historian.

The exhibition spaces don’t work at all.

You could probably say that about Nonda, too – that he doesn’t engage with architectural reality very directly.

MONA is so good, even though most of Nonda’s buildings are so fussy and overworked. Once you’ve seen MONA, it’s really hard to look at the rest of his stuff.

He’s definitely not a minimalist but I think he deals with materials better than anyone.

Nonda is over the top by nature, and sculptural and fussy by nature, but with MONA that all gets pushed under the surface where there’s this amazing tension at work.

I actually like his fussiness although I think he’s built some terrible buildings, particularly the Little Hero apartments in Melbourne. That’s a disgrace. The Melbourne Terrace apartments I don’t like much either – I think they go in too many directions. I love the way he uses materials but a problem for him is that with most of the buildings, he’s got a readymade client base because all of his buildings have made money so they just invest in the next one.

He’s almost never had the tension of a client telling him, ‘Don’t do that because it costs too much money’, or ‘Don’t do that because it makes the entrance ridiculous.’ He likes contradiction but his contradictions don’t necessarily have tension because he’s got no client. His Argus Centre is a fussy building, but it’s magnificent because he had to build it for someone. I really like it.

Architects don’t actually provoke Australian society at all, really. We’re in a void.

I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else but here I see all these masturbatory, self-congratulatory little circles being drawn. I watched the process of consultation for the boardwalk (p96) and it didn’t matter what the community said, it could only be couched in terms the architects and landscapers wanted to hear, educating the community rather than listening to them.

One of the most profound things Nonda ever said to me was, ‘I built MONA’s carpark accidentally. It’s a disaster, all that geometry.’ One of his guys came back with a nicer geometry, and I thought, ‘That’s much better, but I can’t do it because I’ve already done this and I’m not spending any more money.’ It would have cost 100 grand or something. And while I was bitching about it, Nonda said, ‘Architects don’t design things. They try to find some order in chaos, and it might actually turn out good that you’ll fuck this up.’ Perhaps he was just being nice, but effectively he was saying it would make us think a bit more.

Sidney Nolan, ‘Snake’, 1970-2, mixed media on paper, 1620 sheets (560 x 4428cm)

Is MONA a provocation in Australian architecture?

Yes, because it’s provocative in Australian society, in that somebody is doing something for their own enjoyment, but that others can experience. You either go off privately and do your thing and don’t bother anybody else, or it becomes public and everyone has a say. We were needling the community but were we doing that with architecture? It’s not conservative architecture and the exterior has some brutalist elements but so what? I mean, even if it was a disaster it wouldn’t have been Hobart’s worst building in the past five years.

When I reviewed MONA in 2011 (AR 120), I saw it before it had even opened, with the construction lights still on, and wrote that it’s ‘about as menacing as a public space can be’. Now, after it’s opened, you’ve got people falling into a pool every day. That’s the edge of architecture, really.

It’s absolutely true that it’s ‘dark’, but it’s also life enhancing. It’s not just about negativity, but a re-engagement with how we see the world. I’m not simply saying the world is dark and menacing. I’ve been to many galleries and while I think there’s so much that’s had a profound effect on me, most of it is fairy floss. I can enjoy any gallery in the world for 10 minutes but forget about them equally as quickly.

For me, the MONA experience is like the cinema when the lights come down and the surround sound cranks up. It’s a bit of a thrill, and a bit challenging – it’s gone dark and you’re about to be bombarded by noise and light.

That’s very close to what I’m trying to do – to switch off the perceptual reality that you normally engage with and to engage in a different reality that’s just as real. But you’ve got to be decontextualised before you can be recontextualised, and that’s partly why we put the bar in there. I think it’s quite important for people to have a glass of wine and to take a break, to think about what’s happening to them. I’m prepared to give you your training wheels but then I’m going to push you over the cliff.

In saying that, though, I’m not ‘anti-public’. I keep saying that I’d love to be allowed to design or rearrange a public gallery without subverting the structural metaphors that are implicit in it being a public gallery. I wouldn’t mind re-engaging with a brief because I’ve never had a brief. I don’t know what it’s like to have a brief. It would be a big bet for someone to give me a billion bucks just because I got it right once, but maybe in the future someone will make that bet. Maybe there are people that stupid out there. Who knows?

Speaking of betting, are you still an enthusiastic gambler?

Yes. That’s what I do. I spend more of my time on that than on art.

Photos of David Walsh courtesy MONA.
Photos of MONA by Leigh Carmichael.


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