MONA’s David Walsh: A Bone of Fact

What do we already know about David Walsh? That he made his millions through a gambling syndicate, the Bank Roll? That he’s become the patron saint of Hobart, thanks to the tourists his museum MONA pulls in? That his summer and winter festivals, Mofo and Dark Mofo, are lifting the game of arts curators across Australia? That he has a mathematical mind and a horrid humour?

On the back cover of his new 384-page autobiography, A Bone of Fact (hardbacked and gold-leafed, like the Bible), he adds some more labels – smartarse, penis, narcissist, author. But the chapters within do not render the man black and white.

Having applied the concept of “having an edge” to gambling and art alike, Walsh has now done the same with the format of the memoir. Each chapter is a late-night dinner party debate that gets the synapses firing – but the sort of dinner party that guarantees somebody will storm out. Sometimes David Walsh, aged 20, will talk to David Walsh, aged 50 and David Walsh, aged 80. Occasionally he’ll muse over the publishing process of Pan Macmillan in real time. (Apparently there’s an editor there who is refusing to work with him because he is “sexist”.) Then there are the hypnagogic ideas – theories streaking across his train of thought like meteors.

Walsh does dwell upon his impoverished upbringing in Hobart’s Glenorchy, but in a manner that joyfully mixes probability and philosophy – two of his favourite things. The keen Kurt Vonnegut reader and sci-fi nerd wishes he could have written his tome with the same flair, but A Bone of Fact is thoroughly enjoyable and challenging. Sometimes he wonders if he is “flensing” a conceit… but he doesn’t seem too apologetic.

David, you frequently examine ethics and apply statistical knowledge to that – the subjects of eating meat, gambling and abortion all come up, for instance. In fact, you discuss all the things that polite society shies away from talking about. Do you enjoy playing devil’s advocate?
I’m advocating that reality is real, and that our apprehension of it emerges through a sieve of consensus being applied (by scientific method, doubt, or skepticism) to individually held opinions. But of course, prior to my opinion being ‘consensualised’, by my own argument, there isn’t a good reason to believe me. I am a devil’s advocate, but I am in disputation with myself. A couple of chapters (for example, ‘Means Versus Ends’ and ‘Ends Versus Means’) draw contradictory conclusions. As always, the devil is in the detail.

While some chapters are more about philosophy, others are surprisingly personal – when you introduce us to each of your exes, for instance, or detail a screaming row that resulted in spilt lentil soup. I don’t believe the book loses you any of your enigma status, but was that a concern?
When Kirsha [Walsh’s artist wife] read about the lentil soup, she said, “I didn’t spill it, I threw it”. For years, in every story about me that preceded an interview, the introductory text always stated something like, “The reclusive David Walsh, in one of his rare interviews says…”. I did very many rare interviews. Now I’m always an enigma, apparently. But only if an enigma is someone who answers questions as best he can.

It often seems as though you’re trying to pip people to the post of calling you conceited or arrogant. Is that a real or imagined fear?
It a real imagined fear. The bloke that builds the giant catamaran in Hobart, Bob Clifford took one of his ferries for a joyride when he was pissed, and he ran it aground. In the Mercury the next day he said, “It was my fault, I was drunk, I’m stupid, I’m sorry”. Whether consciously or not, he pre-empted criticism, and the affair fizzed out. I may be doing that, to some extent. I think most arrogance is feigned, a desperate cloaking over insecurity. I try to show both sides of the (double-ugly headed) coin.

I’ve heard many artists say they feel like frauds for calling themselves an ‘artist’. What about being an art collector? Is it a daunting mantle to have?
Humans are extremely good at detecting conscious deception. Even the frequencies of light that our eyes are sensitive to are selected to detect skin tone changes. So a successful deception is most often perpetrated on others when one is also deceiving oneself. Art collectors think they collect art because they love art. But there are other deeper, non-cultural motives, like showing off, and concealing inability. It easier to deceive oneself about the motives for collecting than it is for making, because scrutiny is avoidable.

Do you have an overarching policy when it comes to staff and structure? I’m thinking of one example: of how Leigh Carmichael went from a freelance graphic designer at your Moorilla Winery to creative director of MONA and Dark Mofo in seemingly one move.
No. I tried a flat structure like the one espoused in Ricardo Semler’s Maverick [about corporate reengineering]. But the staff mutated it. How is Leigh Carmichael creative director of MONA? He is probably only there twice a year. He is good at design, has stunning vision, and likes being bossy. Dark Mofo arose mainly because he pushed for it, so he might as well run it.

It seems as though you sometimes take away choices with MONA – your love of the absurd can have a forceful twist, and I’m not just thinking of the toilet installation I’ve had the misfortune to sit on. Given that your parking space says ‘God’, are you warning visitors that they are handing over some of their control?
The choice I want to take away: The option to deceive yourself. You eat a steak, you should know what animal that steak is and how it lived and died. You fly on a plane (as I am now) you should know that there are dire consequences for the environment. Beyond that, MONA revels in uncertainty. We are my own private democracy.

What’s it like living in a museum?
I like it, there aren’t a lot of people around after closing. The grounds are beautiful, the light is beautiful. And I’m sufficiently privileged that I can leave when I want (like now). I don’t take that for granted. It would be obtuse, indeed, to not see living in one’s own private ‘Idaho’ as an enormous benison.

I was expecting your gambling history to remain shrouded in mystery, yet here you are sharing some of your tactics. Why?
I’m more circumspect than you think. I only reveal published strategies. In saying that, gambling is riven with pain and doubt, in the community at least. I have some insights, accrued inadvertently, and I know journalists will write about it whether I inform them or not.

There’s something quite yin yang in the fact that for someone to win, someone else has to lose (and not the operator). Do you have to admire its beauty? And have you ever considered yourself to be addicted to gambling like the poor sods of the pokies?
Mathematically it is beautiful, pure and tractable. Nobel prizes have been won (Efficient Market Hypothesis) that can be quickly falsified with some track data. Gambling as a human domain exploits propensities that once were adaptive (for example, they improved the quality of our ancestors foraging). These adaptations have been co-opted in an often nefarious way. I try to show that in the book by interlacing chapters on my gambling with stories of compulsion.

I doubt very much I’m a compulsive gambler. An American psychologist, Howard Sartin, once tried to treat compulsive gamblers by teaching them to win.

Your use of mathematics is almost indistinguishable from your philosophies on life. But what do you mean when you say you have a “natural proclivity to see the ghosts of possible pasts having an impact on the present”?
Mathematics informs the way I see the world. I believe that mathematics underpins reality. It is an oft-noted fact that mathematical discoveries, that at the time appear to be mental discursions, later become levers ‘to move the Earth’.

Coldplay invited themselves to Dark Mofo at the last minute this year, but Hobart ‘International’ Airport couldn’t cope with the dimensions of their gear. What was your reasoning for accepting them to play alongside a carefully curated act such as Diamanda Galas?
‘Yellow’. We aren’t elitist. Can you carefully curate an individual act? We wanted Galas because Kirsha saw, in her, the Machiavellian deception of Derwent River (that we are attempting to rehabilitate). Beautiful, but tainted. Coldplay aren’t tainted by much, except popularity. And then there’s ‘Yellow’.

Staying on the theme of music, Brian Ritchie is Mofo’s music curator but what of your taste? I’ve seen you front-row-centre at quite a few Dark Mofo events – and sometimes, such as in the case of Ben Salter, repeatedly. And Paris Wells has described you coming to her shows to procure her for MONA. Do you consider yourself to have a curatorial eye, or is it more fanboy?
I have eclectic taste. I work hard to understand, but understanding often lies just out of reach. I didn’t go to Paris’s show to procure her, I went to a show and liked it. Then I procured her. I’m a fanboy and a curator, but I’m not a fanboy for curators.

If you hadn’t had a father whose bonding time with you was watching the greyhounds, and if you hadn’t met your gambling partner Zeljko Ranogajec in your teens, odds are that you now would be…?
I might be a public servant, or an astronomer, or a gambler, or a patient in a palliative care hospital or… The ghosts of the possible pasts reveal themselves occasionally, but reality is much less constrained when it didn’t happen. Rather than think what I would now be but for events that happened 35 years ago, I think it much more interesting to speculate on what might be (no space? No life? Space-faring nematodes?) if the larger accidents of nature and evolution had not occurred. What if the fine-structure constant was two percent smaller? What if the Earth had not been involved in the planetary collision that engineered the moon? What if bacteria hadn’t poisoned the atmosphere with oxygen?

I think mostly MONA didn’t happen. Nor did you and me. But here we are.

You talk of your dad’s fibs and how difficult they made it for you to know where you come from… but I’m not sure how much of A Bone of Fact to believe when you contradict something you’ve said in your hardback Mona catalogue, Monanisms, or admit that you’re remembering things wrongly. Are you a reliable witness? 
I wrote a chapter on the fallibility of my memory, but it didn’t make the cut due to Elizabeth’s (Monanisms co-author) one-word critique. “Boring”. No one is a reliable witness (if you really care, read The Invisible Gorilla). But you asked, so here is the elided text:

‘Brown yellow brown’
Wherein I remember the days of the old schoolyard, and I cry a lot

Recently, while fact-checking one of my stories with one of its characters (Andrew McDermott) the subject of fallibility of memory came up. It always does. Although I tried hard to be honest much of the content herein depends on my recall. And my recall is flawed. Almost everybody has memory problems, photographic memories are a myth. And for the minuscule proportion of the population that do have phenomenal powers of memory it is a prison, not a benison. The moment we call the present can only be resolved from the past because the past has been degraded in our memory. And flawed memories allow us to extract a gestalt from information, to see principle rather than detail. We need to see the forest, not the trees.

When I was young, however, I did have an unusually good memory, and I had exactly the attendant problems I described above, to a limited extent. A few years later I was told that I had Asperger’s syndrome, and without a formal diagnosis I can say that my memory of my younger, awkward, insular, obsessive, weird self seems consistent with that assessment. But that depends on my memory now, not my memory then. So I don’t really know.

While Andrew and I were talking, my clever, soon-to-be three grandson, Lockie came up, because we were at a table with a rug under it, and that rug is covered in writing. I described Lockie’s ability to read letters and someone suggested that I probably could read precociously, also. Not the case. I remember(ed) grade three, most kids reading pretty well, but not me. My mum came into the classroom once and, noticing a reading chart on the wall, asked me to read the first word. “Brown, yellow, brown”, I replied. The word was “pup”, but the letters on the charts were colour coded, and I apparently couldn’t get beyond the colours to notice the shapes. This didn’t translate very well to colourfully random Dr Seuss books.

I also remember a question on an I.Q. test that, I recall (with anxiety) was administered to all schools that year. The question was “Who is the president of the United States?” My answer was, “Richard Nixon, but it’s election day”. That allows me to conduct a memory test: I will do a little research now, to see if Nixon was elected when I was in grade three, and if it was a school day.

I’m back. Tuesday, November 5, 1968. It’s all looking a bit suss. I can say that immediately, because I also remember Apollo 11 being grade three, and I know that was 1969. More research required.

Back again. As I half expected, but am nevertheless despondent about, my memory has failed me dramatically. I wasn’t in grade three in ’68 so nix to Nixon. But I also wasn’t in grade three in ’69, so my much more particular Armstrong memory is rubbish, as well. I was in grade three in 1970. Of course, now I remember where I was for Apollo 13 (“Houston, we have a problem”), which was in 1970, and that was grade three. It must have been, since I changed schools before grade four. But I only remember Apollo 13 after having being confronted with the irrefutable fact that my much-vaunted (mainly by me) memory is crap.

There are more problems. If the Nixon question happened at all, and I remember it so clearly, then arithmetic tells me it happened in grade one. And I could write. So brown, yellow, brown must have happened, if it happened, before that. If I knew about Nixon, and elections days, and could write about them in grade one then perhaps I was a bit of a prodigy.

But I wasn’t. Unfortunately, and totally contradicting my memory of where I was, that question was posed when Nixon was elected the second time, on Tuesday, November 7, 1972, when I was in grade five. I say that because my answer was very specific (if I my memory of the wording is correct), “Richard Nixon, but it’s election day”. If he was already president, it must have been an election for his second term. Otherwise my answer was wrong. If it was the ’68 election, the answer would have been, “Lyndon B. Johnson”.

A Bone of Fact is out now with Pan Macmillan ($55)

TIME OUT 2014: Read full interview here