Sound and vision - Issue 163 - Magazine | Monocle

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Now a giant on Australia’s cultural scene, professional gambler Walsh has a reputation for being cerebral and something of a provocateur. Born and raised on the outskirts of Hobart, he made his money betting and initially began collecting art as a way to avoid cash declarations when crossing borders. But art soon became a business. He opened Mona in 2011 and it has since gained an international reputation for its inventive curation. A meandering bunker within a sandstone peninsula, the facility was built to house Australia’s largest private museum of art but has long been known as far more than that.

And so the desk made its way to Mona’s Frying Pan recording studio, designed to allow musicians to make art while surrounded by the museum’s pieces. The space launched at the beginning of the year with the Redd.17 as its centrepiece. “It’s a beautiful addition to the creativity of Mona,” says Chris Townend, perched behind some of the world’s most prized recording equipment. A veteran producer of musical acts such as Portishead, d12 and Silverchair, Townend is now at the helm of the studio.

Mona's Foma's curator, Brian Ritchie
Inside Mona's Pharos wing
James Turrell's installation 'Unseen Seen' in the Pharos wing's tapas bar

When it came to choosing the right equipment for Frying Pan, Townend asked Walsh, “Do you want us to record punk bands, choirs, indie bands or classical music?” The creatively voracious Walsh said that he wanted all of the above – and then handed creative control and a hefty purse to the team. The budget went into buying microphones, amps, instruments, lighting, filming equipment and broadcasting technology. 

“It will pretty much be fully booked seven days a week forever,” says Townend. Acts such as Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Canadian musician Peaches and Australian songwriter Kutcha Edwards have already recorded here and interest is growing. With its calming view of a placid river, the studio aids musicians’ creativity and concentration; through a glass panel, however, museum visitors can glimpse the activity within. Architect Nonda Katsalidis of Fender Katsalidis worked alongside New Zealand-based acoustic consultancy Marshall Day Acoustics to deliver a snug set-up, with parquet floors and Tasmanian oak battens extending up the walls to the ceiling.

A recording studio might seem an unlikely addition to a museum that is famously dedicated to the themes of sex and death but Walsh believes that Mona wouldn’t exist without music. For the whip-smart founder, music is inseparable from art. That’s why he started Mona Foma in 2009, an annual summer festival of art and music now spread across the cities of Hobart and Launceston. The multi-day event was launched before the museum; Walsh had decided to spend au$1m (€635,500) on it rather than allocating the budget to traditional publicity. 

Peeking thorugh viewing panels into Frying Pan recording studio
Oliver Beer's installation 'Mona Confessional'
Tunnel vision

“I didn’t want to spend a million bucks a year on marketing,” he says when we meet on the first weekend of this year’s edition. He is sitting on the floor on the 1990s navy carpet inside Reunión District, a former vocational college that is hosting some of the schedule’s performances (people call it “Old Tafe”, for “technical and further education”). Here, he starts ruminating on the power of different creative disciplines. “Music intrinsically enables the creation of art,” he says. “Then art actually aids our survival.”

Walsh credits Brian Ritchie with Mona’s ability to reach the public through music. The bassist of iconic US punk-rock band Violent Femmes settled in Tasmania in 2008 when his wife received a research grant to study insects here. he and the Salamanca Arts Centre roped him in as the festival’s artistic director, dashing Ritchie’s dreams of a laid-back island life. Over the years, the duo have also worked on live music elements in Mona’s regular museum programming.

A tall man with a tie-dye cross-body bag, Ritchie is easy to spot on the festival grounds as he flits between acts, nodding his head and gently shepherding audiences around. “When they asked me to do the direction, I was, like, ‘Why me? I’m a performer, not a curator,’” he says. Still, because of his unfazed approach, he had no fear of stepping outside the box and exploring uncharted territory. “I had been to a lot of festivals in my life and I found all of them wanting,” he says. “So I decided to try to do something that had everything that I thought was valuable. Much of that consisted of ignoring things such as genre- based programming.”

Parvyn at Mona Foma
All smiles
Things are looking up
David Walsh
Perky punter
Dean Stevenson performs his '4pm' project at Mona's Nolan Gallery
Leaning in
'The Queer Woodchop'

Take the 2015 line-up. Festival-goers waiting to see singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, Australia’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, first had to watch Chinese performance artist Li Binyuan smash 250 hammers with a hammer. “Kelly asked me, ‘When do I get to play?’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s no specific time. It’s when he’s finished smashing the hammers,’” Ritchie tells monocle, with a grin. This approach is central to Mona’s ethos: don’t pussyfoot around the audience, because people can handle far more than some curators and cultural institutions give them credit for. “We’re kind of messing with them but they deserve it,” says Ritchie. “They need to be shaken out of their complacency sometimes.”

In this attitude, Ritchie and Walsh are remarkably alike. Walsh has never had an “If you build it, they will come” mentality when it comes to devising Mona’s activities. Rather, his philosophy is simply to build what he wants to see, regardless of whether people come or not. Prior to opening the museum, he told one journalist, “If no one comes, I’ll turn off the air-con and let the art rot.” Fuelling each other’s fire, the professional gambler and the musician have created a renegade festival that’s all the more popular for its eccentricity.

On a single day of this year’s Mona Foma in February, Monocle heads across the basin from a morning meditation beneath the ferns and tall pines of Launceston’s Cataract Gorge to catch part of Korean-Australian musician Chloe Kim’s 100-hour drumming project, before jumping into the public pool to hear British electronic producer Leon Vynehall’s sound composition “Floors of Heaven” playing underwater. In the afternoon, it’s back to the Old Tafe building for performance-art duo Pony Express’s community event The Queer Woodchop, then to the main stage for a jolt of joy courtesy of Punjabi-Australian singer-songwriter Parvyn, immediately followed by the screeching Muslim death metal of Hazeen playing in an adjacent brick alley.

Harpist of Turiya Always at the Alice Coltrane tribute
Yirinda at the Old Tafe for Mona Foma

It’s not every festival crowd that will take in Sikh-infused pop, fierce punk, frenetic jazz and dystopian synth compositions over a single weekend. To an outside observer, it speaks of the public’s full belief in what Ritchie and Walsh are trying to do. Punters give themselves over to the school of Mona, where the lesson is that art and music come in all shapes and sounds, and everything is worth a shot at least once. When Monocle puts this theory to Walsh, he is quick to shoot down the idea of the audience’s unconditional trust, saying that he believes our sample size wasn’t big enough to draw such a conclusion.

Mona Foma might feel like a rare cultural utopia but members of the curatorial team are well aware that all places face challenges of one kind or another. At the festival, a group of Launceston-based singers in a “Complaints Choir” perform renditions of citizens’ real grievances as cheery show tunes. “There are definitely, absolutely not enough pedestrian crossings, no, no, no,” they sing. “How come the stairs always smell like piss?”

World on a wire
Safety first
Members of a 'Complaints Choir' airing grievances
Catching sun at Cataract Gorge

Beyond Tasmania’s idyllic landscapes and thriving arts scene, the island state is contending with a range of problems in areas from employment and education to healthcare. Walsh is the first to admit that the so-called “Mona effect” has had unintended consequences, including exacerbating a housing shortage. “There are homeless people in Hobart now: I did that,” he says. But responsibility can’t be attributed to one man. In 2018, Deloitte reported that Mona had contributed more than au$135m (€85.5m) in a single year to the state economy and supported more than 1,200 full-time jobs. Walsh, however, seems reluctant to dwell on what he has done for Tasmania or the fact that he is funding programmes to counteract its crises. “What matters is that when you do stuff locally, you can at least be accountable,” he says.

Out on the main stage, the Turiya Always quintet is performing compositions by jazz musician Alice Coltrane. Despite one young attendee covering his ears, the sounds of the double bass, drums, vibraphone, saxophone and harp are received with tapping toes and nodding heads. Walsh joins the crowd mid-set; people clock his halo of grey hair and send friendly “g’days” his way. Despite what he thinks, he is a star around here: the man who helped to turn Tassie around, encouraging residents to welcome visitors and show off the state’s natural and cultural riches.

Later that evening the crowd in front of the Old Tafe’s stage greets British poet and musician Kae Tempest with a giddy whoop. “I can’t believe Kae is here!” says Sunny, a radiant septuagenarian Launceston resident. When Tempest’s pit stop in Tasmania was announced, fans rushed to pay for tickets. A few weeks later, however, an email landed in residents’ inboxes informing them that Mona was refunding their money and granting them free admittance. This sort of generosity isn’t uncommon for Mona; it frequently hands out subsidies and holds free events. Entry into the museum, which costs au$35 (€22) for most, is free for Tassie residents.

That might help to explain why there have only ever been two months in Mona’s 12-year history when the museum has run at a profit: January 2014 and June 2020, when the federal government refunded staff wages to keep businesses afloat during the pandemic. Asked whether Mona will ever have a third month in profit, Walsh fires back, “Not while I’m alive.” Money or power isn’t what drives Walsh; that’s why he throws his own funds into the business and trusts his staff completely when it comes to Mona’s projects, big and small.

Towards the end of Tempest’s set, members of the audience get emotional, linking their arms around the shoulders of nearby strangers. The singer’s poetic prose falls on a captivated crowd. “Now I don’t have the answers,” sings Tempest. “But there are still things to say.” Walsh, Ritchie, Townend and the Mona team don’t claim to have all the answers for music, art or Tasmania – but they certainly have plenty of things to say. 

Music at Mona
Every day that Mona is open, there’s music on its lawn, performers serenading diners in the on-site Faro restaurant and two musicians in residence. The restaurant’s music programme was a post-coronavirus intervention, a siren song to attract residents with something that they hadn’t yet experienced at the museum. When the restrictions were lifted, the music remained. Audiences can now see a choir walking between their tables as they enjoy their lunch. At 15.00 they’ll lean casually against a gallery wall while musician Ben Salter performs. Then, at 16.00, Dean Stevenson conducts a quartet for a rendition of a piece that he composed earlier that day. When Walsh is not away you’ll likely catch him at both shows and Ritchie will often hop up with the band at Faro. “A place like Mona almost couldn’t exist anywhere else,” says Salter. 

Art at Mona Foma
A common theme at Mona is the daring, unconventional characters with whom Walsh chooses to surround himself: people willing to take risks, put together festivals with idiosyncratic line-ups and address alarming gaps in society. Among them is Emma Pike, the curator behind the artwork at this year’s Mona Foma. Pike wanted to lean into Old Tafe’s college motto, “Fantastic futures”. “I commissioned a lot of socially- or community-engaged artists to create unlikely collaborations throughout the space,” she says. The result included Willoh Weiland’s ode to female volunteering, “Chant”, and Kenneth Tam’s mock-men’s-social-club film, Breakfast in Bed.

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