Life imitates art: David Walsh and Dan Yack
By Nathan Roche
Modern Australia doesn’t have such a good track-record of successful moneymakers and tycoons directing their money to a worthy cultural or even tasteful cause. Frankly, most of the time it’s embarrassing. In one corner you’ve got James Packer investing in sky-high casino utopias and making short-lived talk-shows for Shane Warne. In the other corner, Gina Rinehart trying to ban everything beyond a PG+ rating, and then there’s jolly old Clive Palmer busy building “Jurassic Park” dinosaur amusements next to golf clubs on the sunshine coast. Oh, and lest we forget the preposterous concept of rebuilding the Titanic for another few thousand more modern bourgeoisie sods to drown on. Does anyone else see a trend of Hollywood films here? If so, then why didn’t we learn anything from them? The next blockbuster rip-off by Palmer could be anyone’s guess, so let’s just see what Spielberg or Cameron churn out into the cinemas next and start placing bets. No, what we need is a rich nutter, one that we can be proud of, someone to put us on the world scale and to boost our cultural relevance and give us a little bit of dignity.
An outsider of sorts, but one who isn’t broke.
There was an article in the French press last year, a full-scale, in-depth analysis detailing the cringeworthy state of mind in that of the Australian Bogan, with numbers skyrocketing thanks to the Western Australia mining boom. It was about the regular working Joes and Janes who had fallen into wealth after attaining jobs in the mines – but once coming back home they didn’t know what to damn well do with it all. So, what’s the solution? Hummers of course. Hummers and useless technology that goes out of date every fortnight and must be replaced. Champagne? Ha! Not on your life brother, just another carton of bitter will do me and the boys just fine, thanks. Nunna that fancy shit. Being knee deep in dirt, oil and rust, who could expect anyone to read a Century’s worth of literature, fine art, cinema or endless culinary delights to inspire some ideas? I don’t blame them and last time I checked I don’t think there’s a portable Michelin-certified restaurant next to the mines.
Throughout all this smothering, poorly-spent shame and, just when all hope is lost in the country, the sky breaks open and the messiah arrives to save us all from damnation and bring us to salvation. David Walsh enters the ring of multi-million and billionaires and he’s wearing oddly painted gloves with abstract colours and patterns. Suddenly, overnight in early 2011 he becomes the wondrously mad exception to the rule and a select few persons scream with joy. This gambling, fast-talking visionary hilariously self-described as “a rabid atheist” (there goes the Christ metaphor) who, to avoid imprisonment for tax-evasion, builds a contemporary art fortress which he refers to as a “subversive adult Disneyland” the angels cry out and pluck their distorted, discordant harps in preparation for the experimental MOFO Festival.
Its been said many times since it opened that MONA is a unique establishment not just here, but on the world stage. Hell! Perhaps even in the entire history of art collection and gallery presentation it stands alone. It’s an institution, which walks the tightrope between an off-the-cuff piss-take on a grand scale and being the finest contemporary art gallery in the world. But I assure you, Walsh looks the world dead in the eye with this risky cocktail blend and fails to flinch. MONA maintains a certain “Australian-humour” in its delivery (as seen in the artwork descriptions and audio guide presentations) and it’s the best kind – a dark, dismissive and self-deprecating drawl and often a little bit crude. It’s a unique perspective that would no doubt make Shaun Micallef grin and feel like he’s not alone in the very compact world of OZ absurdism. The whole charade is such an unbelievable tale in the modern age of The Australian Bogan post-mining boom era, but, as you well know by now: it exists and thank goodness it does for people like he are rare (it should be noted Judith Nielsen of White Rabbit Gallery is a extremely worthy mention, and perhaps an article will be written on her as she has attained similar hero-status for her fine taste in Chinese Contemporary Art)
Anyhow, with the MONA explosion seemingly coming out of nowhere, and the eccentric man who conceived it all, I can’t refuse the one literary character that immediately comes to my mind – and that is of Dan Yack. Unfamiliar with the name? Allow me to fill in the gaps. Dan Yack is the fictional alter ego to the novel of the same title (“The Confessions Of Dan Yack” published in 1946) conceived by adventurer, poet, novelist Swiss-French born Blaise Cendrars (pictured). Out of luck with love, our protagonist stumbles drunkenly off the streets of St Petersburg from a sorrowful dirt mound of horse urine and dung then tumbles into a bar wherein he passes out underneath a table. He awakens sometime later, emerges from below to find a Jewish poet, a peasant sculptor and a French musician. Being relatively well known in the area as a wealthy nonconformist, he then subsequently invites them all on a world voyage via the Antarctic on a schooner called Green Star for no real apparent reason. Slowly things start to unravel and fall apart along the way but this is beside the point. The point is this fictional multi-millionaire suddenly sees the opportunity to surround himself with three creative forces for the sake of his own experimentation and we the readers have the pleasure of being highly entertained by it.
What that loon Walsh has created down in Tasmania could perhaps be seen as a similar parallel but under completely different circumstances – yet with the same profound intentions. For starters, Walsh doesn’t go immediately for big name artists, he plucks some from here, there and tosses them all in the same room like a boozy collage. It’s much like Dan Yack finding his passengers in a dank bar in St. Petersburg and throwing them on a ship. It’s taking a risky gamble and for Walsh the crowned king of gamblers it’s one that’s really paid off – and better yet, he’s sharing all the wealth with us, tossing it into the air and off the skyscrapers falling down poetically to the asphalt. I should also mention that oddly enough, in part two of the novel, our mad captain Dan Yack and his crew leave Hobart Town on the 4th of March 1905 and sail down the Derwent with a current dragging them towards Bruni Island. I’m surprised any Swiss/French authors knew Tasmania existed 1946! Some Australians still refuse to accept its existence!
Much like Dan Yack in the novel, David Walsh has taken us on a voyage, not too dissimilar to that of the Green Star. One which is a creatively stimulating and mind-expanding cruise that pairs the most unlikely of artists forced into the vessel to mingle. In fact it doesn’t hurt to make the point that you’ve got to take a fairly obscene looking ferry from Salamanca in Hobart to get to the MONA in the first place. Dan Yack might be the wealthy observer of the scenario in the novel but Walsh has set up the scene and is encouraging you to peer in and take part in the experience as it happens and the story constantly changes. This voyage of Walsh is filled with endlessly diverse creativity and curatorship, it’s a surreal paradise that does feel like the work of fiction and at its heart, it’s a fearless risk of chance in the name of true artistic spirit. A concept so bizarre that no-one would dare invest into it if they saw it on paper. It’s single-handedly changed the face of the country, and the reputation of Tasmania itself, which has suffered the harsh arse-end of bar jokes in fancy capital city bars for far too long.
“Yeah, nice landscape, but everyone down there looks the same.”
Laugh no longer! The joke is on you naysayers.
So, from one Australian to another, a poor man to a wealthy man I raise my glass to you and I’m glad you are our captain Mr. Walsh. You definitely aren’t the same as anyone else as the Tassie jokes once suggested. You are a unique and powerful force, you had the brains, the cons and the skills to make money and put it to good use to benefit us all and rebuild the cultural landscape for the better.
You are a con-artist, a lunatic, you are Tasmania’s Dan Yack. So sail that Derwent River forever.
Words by Nathan Roche.