A conversation with God

Nicholas Underhill talks to the famous gambler and mona founder, David Walsh. He’s a bit all over the place — and probably a genius. Illustration by Sally Ann Conwell.

One of the first things I told gambler and self professed “arseholic” David Walsh was that his museum was overpriced. “Fifteen dollars is a bit steep,” I said. Walsh replied moments later with only six words, ignoring the rest of my email: “I lose $20 with every visitor.”

I’m still not sure if Walsh knew I was joking, but his reply was an early warning: money can be a sensitive subject. Not necessarily because there’s something to hide, but because Walsh is sick of talking about it.
But money is central to David Walsh’s story. He gambled his way to a fortune, and perhaps due to guilt or generosity or an existential crisis, he funneled his money and soul into mona, the Museum of Old and New Art.

Despite my initial suggestion, the only thing at mona that’s overpriced is Walsh’s autobiography, A Bone of Fact (RRP$55). Tucked away on the peninsula (Berriedale) of an island (Tasmania), at the very end of the end of the earth (Australia), mona is a special kind of museum. It’s not your white-walled, well-lit, gold-framed, “no speaking please” gallery. Walsh tried that before he built mona, it didn’t really work. Instead it’s more like a temple. A shrine to dying and sex and shit and, I guess, Australia. It’s not condescending. Walsh calls it a “subversive adult Disneyland”, but I think of it more like the Questacon of the art world: accessible, enjoyable and maybe even educational.

Mona’s popularity has taken many by surprise. Last year 314,000 people filtered through the underground labyrinth — 28% of all visitors to the state. Since it opened in 2011, it’s had 1.4 million visitors;a well timed miracle for Hobart’s — and even Tasmania’s — stalling economy. The mona-effect, as it has been called, is rippling through local businesses. Taxi drivers are thrilled. Hobart’s golden age has finally arrived.

With Hobart’s golden age comes David Walsh’s. His story is unlikely — an against-the-odds, X-rated Disney classic. It captures the hearts and minds of Australians who love to root for the underdog. The drinking and gambling just makes him more likeable.

What’s more unlikely than a public housing kid from Glenorchy, one of Tasmania’s poorer, blue-collar regions, outsmarting the house to build a museum? By luck or coincidence or just the will of the gods, however, Walsh met Zeljko Ranogajec, who became his best friend and gambling partner. While it makes for a great intro, Walsh and Zeljko are less “professional gamblers” and more “well-researched and savvy mathematicians”. Is gambling really gambling when you work the odds so that even if you don’t win, you don’t lose?

Like many other interviewers, I fell into the trap of asking about money. These provided the least interesting answers. Walsh isn’t motivated by 1s followed by lots of 0s in his bank account. His main money-related concern is making sure he has enough to keep mona, and the various other projects he’s gestating, going. By most accounts, he has spent much more than he’s ever earned between mona and philanthropic activities.

Only a few years ago Richard Flanagan, in a lengthy profile published in The New Yorker, wrote that Walsh was clear about one thing: mona was not “a rich man gratefully giving back to his community. It’s not an attempt at immortality.” More recently, however, Walsh told me almost the opposite: “I’ll always be assuaging my guilt. I probably wouldn’t feel like that if I did something that contributed in some way. But I steal from the poor.”

These slight inconsistencies characterised my conversations with Walsh. He’s restless and playful, displaying a dexterity with words that made him entertaining to read but difficult to interpret. He swings from serious to sarcastic, earnest to ironic in the space of a sentence. And when you finally think you understand what he’s getting at, you’ll read him saying almost the opposite to someone else. Walsh has verbally greased himself up: nothing sticks. It’s near impossible to make a statement about him with authority. The meaning is always contentious.

Even the name of Walsh’s museum is confusing: is mona (moan-a) a tip of the hat to New York’s famous MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) or a jab at pretentious art and the communities that value it? Apparently neither. Walsh has written that it was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel Cat’s Cradle. In it, Mona Aamons Monzano, an unusually beautiful girl, was adopted (and highly eroticised) by an island dictator. (Spoiler) Mona eventually committed suicide by swallowing a substance called ice-nine after it killed almost all life on earth.

Then there’s the coffee table book Monanism, which is a play on the word onanism: “noun formal / 1. to masturbate 2. coitus interruptus.” A classic David Walsh-ism: his beautiful museum, praised the world over, reduced to a one night stand of disappointingly messy, and probably teenage, coitus. Inside mona, the academic information on art is called ‘artwank’. Outside, Walsh’s carpark is reserved for “God”. The space next to it? “God’s Mistress.” You could never argue that Walsh takes mona too seriously because the language he uses to talk about it never does. For Walsh, everything is meaningful and nothing is sacred.

But this fits squarely within the Walsh Philosophy. All conclusions should be “temporary, tentative, and provisional”. Whole chapters of his autobiography are constructed so that he can contradict himself. “Basically I’m trying to expose my uncertainty,” he told author Amanda Lohery in The Monthly.

To cut through some of this wordiness, I asked a few times to meet in person. “A game of tennis perhaps?”, “A double flat white or two?” Walshy rebuffed my suggestion; the first time with an “ahh, we’ll see” and the second with a personalised poem that included the line, “The stalking isn’t ceasing”. So we communicated via email, randomly discussing everything from gambling, vegetarianism, and the ontology of miracles, and sometimes we just talked about decent restaurants.

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Like some other wealthy Australians, there were plenty of opportunities for Walsh to squander his cash on sad robot dinosaur parks or to-scale replicas of the Titanic or on a campaign for office. Instead, he took his biggest gamble to date: a $200 million punt on art.

“If mona hadn’t worked, and it is only luck that it did work, I would feel pretty bloody silly,” he told me. While it mightn’t be paying off financially (yet), mona’s popularity is entrenched. Walsh admitted to being surprised (and a little disappointed) when after the doors opened in 2011 there were no picketers protesting his bad taste. There were crowds — and they haven’t gone away. Despite his loud shirts, Walsh is looking less silly by the day.

There’s a few ways to get to mona; the most picturesque is the ferry. You arrive on the peninsula before a set of wide stone stairs, with the museum looming above. There’s a distinct Greek temple feel to the whole thing. I wondered whom or what Walsh was sacrificing. mona does inspire a sort of religious-like wonder — maybe it’s because the big questions are addressed: death, life, beauty, and whether or not pigs should be tattooed. The stunning building, with its rust red steel and honeycomb concrete slabs, sits somewhat at odds with the breathtaking natural surroundings. The River Derwent glistens below it. On the crisp morning of my visit, the rolling vineyards nearby were still wet with dew. Tasmania’s capital Hobart was off in the distance.

“With Hobart’s golden age comes David Walsh’s. His story is unlikely — an against the odds, X-rated Disney classic.”

Talking to Walsh is not dissimilar to visiting mona: both are complicated and unorthodox. On the grounds there’s the crashed skeleton of a car that was driven into two narrowing concrete slabs (to celebrate the museum’s opening), a winery, luxury villas and outdoor art installations.

To get inside, you queue on a tennis court between velvet ropes before a bulging, mirrored wall that grotesquely disfigures anyone who meets its gaze. Squashed legs, giant torso, stretched face; I resisted a selfie. If there was a black-suited, broad-shouldered bouncer nearby I would have sworn we were entering a dayclub. As an unseasoned art consumer, I caught myself wondering if this was part of the experience. Is a tennis court-cum-queue art? I half expected Walsh himself to turn up in Wimbledon whites, his long silvery mane held back with a sweatband, ready for a game.

Inside the museum it’s cool and dim. Instead of reaching upwards, like a spire to the heavens, Walsh’s church digs down, displacing clay and cutting sandstone. Considering Walsh’s irreverent atheism, a descent into the bowels of the earth is probably apt. After buying a ticket, you descend into the crepuscule via a spiral staircase. At the entrance is a bar. A glass of Aussie wine is encouraged before you strike out into the shadows. It’s not silent down there, but old habits die hard and the space is still muted. Depending on where you are, there’s an echo of falling water (from bit.fall, an installation that uses water droplets to spell out commonly searched words online), sometimes a lone guitarist or just the sounds of feet on steel and stone and muffled chatter or laughter.

The museum is a warren, a complicated maze — designed so that you explore without a predetermined route. A modified iPod called ‘The O’ (at mona, even an iPod is sexualised) tracks your progress and acts as a digital guide. It’s one of mona’s key innovations, allowing a visitor to delve into the works in a way not possible with a wall plaque. Essays, pictures and (the previously mentioned) ‘artwank’ give context and information for each installation — unlike a normal museum, this content doesn’t necessarily tell you what to think. Sometimes there’s a note from Walsh, arguing with the artist or curator. They were often quite funny. “I want you to be lost, to trust randomness and have faith in technology,” Walsh has said. With a sea of ‘O’s mona becomes disconcertingly familiar: whether you’re waiting for the train or, apparently, wandering through a museum, heads are bowed and washed in the glow of an Apple screen.

“I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough. But not smart enough to not act anyway. If I were wiser I wouldn’t venture so many opinions… Even with such weighty verities bearing down on me, I lack the intelligence to act intelligently.” David Walsh

My brother once told me that he had a ‘system’ for winning at the roulette table. I was dubious, but his wad of crisp, green, slightly metallic smelling $100 bills seemed to outweigh my calls to caution. His highs and not-unsubstantial lows playing the felt tables were educational: at the end of the day, gambling systems don’t work (see the preceding article). And when someone tells you they’ve got one, they’re probably about to lose a lot of money. To these people, Walsh’s message is pretty simple: “Thanks for betting. I need the money.”

And Walsh can say that with confidence. He’s one of the few people with a system that does work. Disappointingly, Ranogajec and Walsh’s gambling strategy doesn’t involve a supernatural ability to align pyramids on the pokies. As always, the truth (as I understand it) is much less glamorous.
Using custom-built software loaded with a whole bunch of disparate data (including publicly available odds), Walsh & co. place scores of bets (sometimes offset by useful rebates) that result, ultimately, in more profit than loss. They still lose more than 95% of the time. “The reason we can bet and win with less than 5% winners (a lot less) is that we get odds on our bets. We can take a million to one if the odds of that combination winning are less than a million to one… It’s spending a dollar to purchase more than one dollar.”

Their success has led to one of the world’s largest gambling syndicates: the Bankroll. “We are a couple of per cent of all the world’s totalisator turnover,” he told me. The Australian reported that the syndicate bet in the vicinity of three billion dollars worldwide last year. Unlike a normal business, the Bankroll actively pursues risk. “Risk is good,” Walsh told me. “The idea is to embrace risk, not reduce it. Risk at winning odds pays off in the long run, but not everyone can afford the money or the mental health issues that the many losses entail. That’s one of the reasons why not everyone does what we do.”

It all started out, however, with $10 chips on the casino floor. Walsh’s only 9–5 employment was at the tax office, but he was a much harder-working gambler. As soon as he clocked off, he’d head straight to Hobart’s only casino and stay there until closing time — 2 or 3am. Over a year those $10 bets turned into $100, and then increased again as the group of fledgling gamblers quickly realised that their winnings grew by pooling resources and betting big when the odds were in their favour. “The advantages of pooling wealth are considerable,” Walsh has written. “Your money is being turned over more often, always with an edge, even when you’re not there. That could be across the world.”

“When you finally think you understand what Walsh is getting at, you’ll read him saying the opposite to someone else. He has verbally greased himself up: nothing sticks.”

Despite gaming the system, Walsh concedes he’s had good luck at key moments, or, “a series of successful but unlikely coin tosses”.
“I know how lucky I am, and have written about it ad nauseam, but I don’t want to have to be confronted with how things might be if my luck were not ‘just so’,” he told me, in conversation about Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead.

For now the museum, financially at least, is in safe hands. “The winning comes long before the event, when the mathematical models are calculated and tested.” A few days after the Melbourne Cup I’d asked how he went. He said he hadn’t bothered to check. “By the time the horses run, it’s too late to do anything. But nature has an uncanny habit of behaving by the rules.”
The morality of gambling, however, is more contentious. Without losers there’d be no winners. Walsh justifies winning by pointing out that, “if I win they [the house] lose. A classic ‘fighting fire with fire’ scenario.” That doesn’t really work with horse racing, though. “The industry gets a fixed percentage of the pool, and thus I contribute to the industry.” It’s complicated on a number of fronts.

In a flurry of interviews last year Walsh said that gambling is immoral. Early this year, writing in The Monthy, he’s more circumspect. “My opinion? Horseracing is OK. (Just.) Gambling is OK. (Just.)”
“The bottom line: since I can’t demonstrate that my punting is anything more than ethically equivocal, I’d better do something worthwhile with the cash (or stop gambling).”

To explain his position, Walsh tells me about Win Delvoye, the Belgian artist who made Cloaca, the digestive machine at mona. Cloaca is one of mona’s more controversial, and popular, pieces. It’s basically a mechanical stomach suspended from the roof. Food goes in one end every morning, travels through a series of sacks filled with bacteria, and hours later it comes out the other side as a fully fledged poo. When asked why he would create something so useless, so absurd, the artist Delvoye replied: “Imagine a very rich man who plays golf. He spends a massive amount of time and money for just one purpose: to put a little ball into a hole. Isn’t that absurd?”

Delvoye also owns a farm that breeds pigs in China. “These pigs are, three or four times throughout their lives, placed under general anaesthetic and tattooed,” Walsh told me. mona has a series of the pigskins tattooed with icons like Osama bin Laden and Louis Vuitton. “When I, and others, exhibit their carcasses there is uproar. We are accused of unnecessary cruelty for ‘mere’ entertainment.”

“Because they are selectively bred to live fast and die young, the pigs are cardiomyopathic, myopic and diabetic. Even if they weren’t killed, their life expectancies would be fifteen years less than those of their wild ancestors. Wim lets his pigs live out their truncated natural lives before they become art.

“The pigs that are slaughtered are used for food. Wim’s pigs provide entertainment, engage our aesthetic sense, and engender conversations about morality. And, since we certainly don’t need them as a food source, why is cruel food more appropriate than less cruel entertainment?”
Where’s the link to gambling here? Race horses are also selectively bred for our entertainment. After the bets have been placed and the horses have run, the money won and lost, these beautiful thoroughbreds are often left to live out their lives in “Arcadian bliss”. But, as Walsh qualifies, “some fuckers turn horses into meat as soon as the possibility of profit is eliminated, thus further tainting an already tainted industry.

“Racing horses is tattooing pigs. The side effect of occasional dead horses is undesirable, to say the least, but entertainment is valuable.”

Entertainment is valuable. Which is how I justified my somewhat lazy conversation with Walsh. I was entertained. But I was being lazy — and my conversation abruptly ended when I asked a clumsy question about debt. At this point I was, somewhat arrogantly, treating my interview as a casual chat. I had led myself to believe that we were simply equals conversing. Sometimes I forgot that Walsh was a lot smarter than me.

Walsh is relatively open about his money — that he has had to borrow substantial amounts from both the bank and his best friend, that they have had lots of trouble from the tax office, that mona itself loses millions of dollars every year. “Yes, I’m rich,” he told me. “I’d still think I was rich if I was a lot less rich. In terms of cash, though, I have less than zero money because I borrowed around $100 million to get mona built.”

By asking how he could possibly secure $100 million in loans, I hit a nerve. His income stream, and mona’s financial future, seemed completely dependent on winning, something I hadn’t imagined a bank would take to with much enthusiasm. I was wrong, the bank is satisfied he’ll win reliably enough. But that wasn’t the point. The weight of debt has him clamped in a kind of existential vice.

“The Australian Cricketer Keith Miller, who was a World War II fighter pilot, was once sledged about feeling the pressure,” Walsh wrote in our last exchange. “Miller responded, ‘Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse’. Earlier you asked about whether I won on the cup and I hadn’t bothered to find out. That’s because pressure isn’t losing a million or two at the races. Pressure is having the tax authorities up your arse. Or the bank. Or, mostly, your best mate.”

This pressure feeds into the narrative Walsh has written and spun about himself and mona. That they are the battlers, the underdogs, and that while they live well, nothing is ever really safe — whether from a few big losses, the tax office or even Walsh himself.

“I’m trying to manipulate the world to the point where mona is self-sustaining and self-sufficient, and thus doesn’t need me.

“So I can afford to die. Or live.”

This is an article from Sydney-based independent print magazine Future Perfect. We can only make magazines with your support: please purchase a copy online here. (and use the code “perfectmedium” for a 10% discount)