David Walsh is not a man to do things by halves.
Most people already know this, of course; read anything written about the gambler-cum-art collector and you’ll find no shortage of excess. But staring with the gallery owner at one of his latest acquisitions – a lifesize fibreglass sculpture of a blue-haired anime boy, who wears nothing but a triumphant expression as he grasps his penis, TA-DA!, with a spiralling torrent of semen frozen in the air around him – the point is really driven home.
Walsh brought me into the room to admire this piece: My Lonesome Cowboy by Takashi Murakami (1998). The artwork is worth $20m, making it the most valuable object in the newest exhibition at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art – the largest privately funded museum in the country.
Is this your favourite piece, I ask? “Only because it’s worth $20m,” Walsh answers. “Collectors can pretend they collected it because of ‘the infinite irony of Murakami’, but they didn’t. They collected it because he’s got a big dick.”
Walsh – scruffy haired and brightly shod – is a fan of declarative statements, particularly ones that undercut the entire industry he bought into. He delivers these statements slowly, after long pauses that could signify thoughtfulness, or boredom, or both.
Opened in 2011, Mona – also known as “the museum of sex and death” – was bankrolled by the fortune Walsh made from a gambling system he developed. Now the beneficiary of generous funding from the Tasmanian government for its associated festivals, Dark Mofo and Mona Foma, the museum has been credited with reinventing the cultural landscape of Hobart and injecting millions into its tourism industry.
Walsh received an Order of Australia this year for his service to the visual arts, allowing him to sign his name, finally, with “AO”. (“If my life were a movie I’d like to think that it would be rated Adults Only,” he wrote at the time.) His gallery has been almost unanimously praised for reanimating the global conversation about what art is and why we make it.
But don’t call him a hero.
“If I said, ‘I did this for the good of mankind,’ or, ‘I really wanted to help the local community’ – I think I can feel, because I’m concentrating on it, I can feel my blood flow change saying that,” he says, of his motives. “This community has probably benefited somewhat as a side-effect, and people keep saying, ‘It’s so great that you did this in the place where you were born’ – but I couldn’t give a fuck about where I was born.”
He bought the property, he says, because he saw the vineyard from his house across the river (“where the rich fuckers live”), fancied the pinot (he now also owns the winery), and needed a new place to put his art.
“And there I am, in the editorials in the Mercury, having been a great contributor to the community that I hadn’t revisited since I was able to leave when I was 18.”
Mona’s latest exhibition is the gallery’s most ambitious yet, and it deals specifically with a question Walsh has long sought to answer: why do humans make art? On the Origin of Art – which opened at the weekend with a Gatsby-ish private party even more lavish than the museum’s official launch – is the culmination of five years of planning and decades of fascination for Walsh and his team. And tens of millions of dollars, too.
The show works from Walsh’s thesis that art is not purely a cultural project but one that has its basis in biology. “It’s part of the real world that almost everyone ignores,” he says. “There are tens of thousands of art exhibitions at any given time around the world and all of them are inadvertently based on the premise that art is a cultural phenomenon. And that’s both unquestioned and likely to be wrong.”
The exhibition begins in a foyer space on the underground floor known as “the void”, with four identical doors leading to four very different spaces. Four experts in science, psychology and language – four men who, in line with Mona’s philosophy of rethinking how we understand art, are outsiders to the art world – have curated their own exhibitions to present their theories of where art comes from.
The exhibition comprises 234 objects from 35 countries spanning millennia; some are drawn from the gallery’s collection, others are loans, acquisitions and original commissions. Taken as a jumbled collection of art to spend an afternoon in – featuring such names as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Brett Whiteley, Cindy Sherman, Bill Henson, Fiona Hall – it is extravagant enough: in literary professor Brian Boyd’s exhibition, for instance, you’ll find a retrospective of Art Spiegelman’s comics, a dazzling melting rug from Azerbaijan’s Faig Ahmed, ancient patterned pottery from central America, and a bright yellow polka dotted mirror room by Yayoi Kusama, commissioned for this exhibition.
But through their curation, and in the accompanying audio tours and essays, it becomes so much more. Each expert asks and answers a different question about art, science and evolution – some more successfully than others, and some in direct opposition to others – for an overall experience that’s as fun to think about as it is to look at. Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author, makes perhaps the most compelling argument. He believes artistic drive has not evolved as a trait but arrived as a byproduct, piggy-backing on other adaptive aesthetics – our appreciation of “good” bodies (for reproduction), high status (for security) and pretty landscapes (for safety).
Brian Boyd, by contrast, homes in on patterns – in nature, in Shakespeare, in Indigenous art, in comics – which help humans make sense of, and play with, the information around them.
The US evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi brings us art that resembles the natural world – evocative but also grotesque “uncanny valley” sculptures by Patricia Piccinini, a commissioned installation by Brigita Ozolins exploring the resemblance of alphabet letters to the contours of nature – to show us that art is shaped to fit preferences our brains have already developed.
The rooms Walsh and I are standing in, though, are the gallerist’s favourite. In them, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller aims to show us that art is merely another method of sexual selection: a mechanism for attracting mates that has evolved over millennia.
We turn from Murakami’s semen lasso to find Manet (1991): a large-scale print of Jeff Koons performing cunnilingus on his then wife, porn star and politician Ilona “Cicciolina” Staller. On the walls opposite is a series of erotic art by Torii Kiyonaga (1752) and from the ceiling above us screens Pickelporno, a closely shot erotic film by Pipilotti Rist.
On my first viewing, I spent the smallest amount of time in this room. I left quickly, Walsh says, because it made me uncomfortable. “It’s all porn. Makes you uncomfortable because it’s changing your blood flow,” he tells me.
“It’s unfortunate in a sense, because it looks like that’s [Miller’s] entire argument – but his argument is deeper, it’s about the displays in the art [and their role in sexual selection].”
Indeed, if you don’t read his essays or listen to the audio tour through Mona’s iPod app “The O” – which you absolutely must, particularly for this exhibition – Miller’s curation seems less interested in proving that art is a process of sexual selection and more interested in fleshy genitalia.
But engage with the supporting material, and Miller explains that his theory about art derives from Darwin’s: art emerged before humans did as a means “to attract sexual partners, by showing conspicuous beauty, skill and creativity”.
“It’s a funny theory because it sounds very reductionist, and creepy, and pervy – but for me to say that art evolved because our ancestors were attracted to people who are good at art is actually un-reductionist,” Miller tells me. “We’re saying the smartest animals that ever existed, our ancestors ... are what shaped our ability to do art. And that to me is the most respectful and psychological way to think about the origin or art.
“If you say it’s for survival, or it’s just for play, or it’s a side-effect of other [adaptive] abilities, then that is a reductive explanation,” he continues, condensing the other three curations into refutable bites.
He could have curated his exhibition without any sexual content, he says, but that would have missed the point. “The sexual content is partly just to remind the art critic people that they’ve systematically excluded sexuality from the history of art for centuries … The point is that sexuality is central to human nature.”
It’s no surprise to find that Miller’s understanding and curation of art is the one Walsh most subscribes to. This is, after all, a man so invested in the demystification of bodies and sex that he has in his art collection 150 vulvas, individually sculpted from live models, and a toilet that doubles as a viewing station to watch your own anus as you defecate. Walsh’s aim has always been to “democratise art”, using science, philosophy and agitprop to disrupt the art world.
It’s a world Walsh is particularly scathing about: “The most honest statement of what the art community believes, particularly the academic art community, is, ‘We’ve never thought about it and God willing, inshallah, we never will. Don’t make us think about things that actually require the acquisition of expertise. We want to spend five minutes getting our degree and then essentially do nothing, make a good income, and get laid for the rest of our lives because of it.’”
For Walsh, this exhibition represents the next stage in his “voyage of discovery”. “I own an art gallery and I know almost nothing about art,” he says. It was one of Walsh’s main reasons for opening Mona in the first place: to start and learn from a conversation about what art is.
The other motive behind opening Mona? Well, that should be obvious by now.
“Let me ask you, if there’s someone who owns a gallery of this scale, compared with someone that doesn’t, which do you think is more likely to get laid?”
I answer the question with a pointed finger.
“Well, see, there’s the biological advantage,” he says.
• Mona’s new exhibition, On the Origin of Art, is open until 17 April. The Guardian travelled to Hobart as a guest of Mona.
• This story was amended on 9 November to correct an error by the writer; David Walsh and Mona do not own Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy