“A bullshit book”
Museum of Old and New Art’s MONANISMS catalogue

One of the first known uses of the word ‘katalogos’ is in Homer’s Iliad, where it refers to a register of ships. Stepping off the ferry into Mona, or opening the cover of the catalogue MONANISMS, is like stepping into a (fantastically rich) individual’s epic art odyssey, a manic quest through mythology, mortality and sex. Whatever the book’s shortcomings, most Australian public gallery catalogues are gutless cliches by comparison.

David Walsh by Geoffrey Dyer, oil on canvas 2011

The individual in question, David Walsh, is a very successful gambler. The gambling industry efficiently amplifies capitalism’s divestment of the working class, unless of course you’re a working class maths whiz with a system that turns the tables. Being that good at second-guessing probabilities might explain the book’s incessant self-abasement and disingenuous modesty.

Walsh has reviewed MONANISMS in his introduction, dismissing it as “a bullshit book”, and so we could have just left it at that. Later he tells us to visit a real gallery. But these remarks, like the rest of the writing that seem to pre-empt criticism and knee-cap art-world prejudice, are entertaining diversions. Walsh is a compulsively self-harming tall poppy, doing someone else’s dirty work. The catalogue’s title, for example, is an amalgam of the gallery’s name and onanism. (Art as consumer porn is therefore another unavoidable theory.) If any doubt remained that this is an overtly subjective, casual trashing of authority’s pretence, the postscript image is a naked portrait of Walsh by Andres Serrano.

So Walsh presents not as the usual uptight art-world archetype, but as its equally self-conscious binary: the irreverent Aussie outsider. For all the dismissive, self-effacing conversation though, are we supposed to believe anyone this smart is going to spend this much money on stuff they don’t believe in? It is funny, but the irony and facetiousness start to drag.

Things do fire up when religion is tackled. Walsh says he sees Mona as “a substitute for worship, a secular temple”. When discussing ex Australian Prime Minister Howard and Rudd’s Christianity he writes: “How can we trust parliamentary process if our esteemed leaders can invoke faith to justify otherwise irrational decisions? I hope this book (and this museum) throws a very rational (Schrodinger’s) cat amongst some appropriately panicked pigeons.” The contradiction of claiming the museum is a “soapbox” or a “megaphone”, yet also denying conscious motivations and curatorial agendas is another attempt to avoid being pinned down. Is Walsh actually contributing in the cultural realm to the discourse about the failure of faith already well underway in other fields? Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert, philosophers like Paul Kurtz and Antony Flew, and journalists like Christopher Hitchens are bothering religion as best they can. Freud (who would have loved to get his hands on Walsh) wrote that there have been three grievous narcissistic wounds on Western culture. The first by Copernicus, displacing our planet as the centre of everything, then Darwin’s revelation that we evolved from apes, and finally Freud’s own discovery that the consciousness rests on the unconscious. These are the themes that saturate MONANISMS, but it is too early to tell if the project can rub any salt in these wounds. My sense is that Mona is going to have to breach its sandstone ramparts and invent more direct and less conventional ways of engagement to achieve its desired impact.

MONANISMS, like most gallery catalogues, does lots of things at once. At their best, catalogues are another way into the work: an engagement with the content and spirit of a show. But catalogues are also banal equivalents of their commercial retail cousins (though shopping catalogues get read more). They are souvenirs and mementos; they are merchandise.

Art catalogues invert Walter Benjamin’s notion of the work’s aura withered by mechanical reproduction. They might shatter the original’s relationship to history but it’s the end of history anyway, right? They cheer anyone with spare change to covet priceless commodities. Indeed, for the privileged very few they ARE simply shopping catalogues. Stylistically, MONANISMS isn’t unrelated to elite contemporary retail concepts with their expensive literature promoting luxury products. International graphic design star, Stefan Sagmeister, recently produced a book for BMW called Culture that can be driven along the ground by remote control.

In spite of Mona’s pose of wilful indifference, the design of the catalogue by Leigh Carmichael reveals the team’s sincere estimation of their enterprise. Heavy, handsome, hard-cased, black on black, there is a real possibility it is a parody of art-wank style. Alternatively, it could be a serious expression of the sex and death content. Most likely though, as with so much Mona, they want it both ways.

Esoteric curatorial methodology is diagrammatically mapped: the contents page is rendered as a volvelle, plotting key works on a rotating wheel chart, all finely stamped in silver foil on black paper. It’s a great initial burst of ingenuity that, in the end, cedes to conventional format (introduction, followed by pictures with text, interspersed with essays/interviews, concluding with index and colophon). But like the 12 bar blues, or a good pop song, standard formats can accommodate a universe of invention and imagination. Not so many art catalogues come with their own soundtrack with lyrics scattered throughout (by ex-TISM member Damian Cowell, and his new band DC3). This CD lies in the shallow grave of a die-cut back cover.

The outer back cover has the museum’s addition and multiplication signs stitched with red thread through holes in the board. This detail relieves the cover’s asceticism, and with the gloss black foil title on uncoated black card, evokes artwork spot lit in the endless night of the underground gallery. What all these visual strategies add up to is the book conceived as sculptural object. So MONANISMS is also evidence of a resurgence in the craft of sensual book making as an upshot of waning sales and increased competition from digital formats

One uniquely disorientating feature is the curious mix of work. The dissonance isn’t just chronological but functional. Many ancient objects originally functioned as instruments of magic; they existed for their cult value, as Benjamin put it, and were not created for display. Alongside these ritualistic objects only later reclassified as art, is the modern work created for exhibition, made to be seen. This conflict is as striking in the book as it is in the museum. Behold a 664-332 BCE Egyptian mummy and turn the page to Chris Ofili’s 1996 painting, The Holy Virgin Mary.

The book imagines many objects in the consistent chiaroscuro gloom of the subterranean gallery, again reminding us this is a collection, but also denying the forensic objectivity of conventional visual indexing. Photographed by Peter Whyte, the art has been blatantly art-directed. Hang on, isn’t this how commercial photographers render retail products? Isn’t art beyond all that?

The expressive and transformative potential of graphic design is relatively rarely employed in relation to cultural institutions and art exhibitions. These typically limit their visual communication to market imperatives manifested as modernist formulas. The mantra being that design can’t get in the way of the art. As if there’s already nothing in art’s way. A big beautiful boring vacuum.

But that’s the real bullshit. In the same way that our experience of an exhibition begins when we encounter its public promotion before we even enter the gallery, that experience continues when we take home the catalogue. The exhibition is framed and then mounted in our imaginations through these publications, just as the museum’s architecture defines our reception of its offerings. Try and imagine Walsh’s collection in the white glare of any of the major public art galleries. Now try and imagine it reproduced in any of their polite and predictable catalogues.

The show is staged underground. Beneath the surface is literally where we came from and we all end up. It’s also metaphorically where we aspire to live. The MONANISMS catalogue shows what’s possible: why shouldn’t the published record of the show aspire to its themes and mysteries? Why design a catalogue with no formal relationship to its content?

This is the success of MONANISMS and the failure of typical art institution publications. MONANISMS the catalogue is MONANISMS the exhibition “distilled”, as Walsh claims: a rare ambition. I can visit any major established gallery and pick up a copy of a catalogue for a show about Fluxus and mistake it for a book about Surrealism or Western Desert Art. It’s more or less the same approach with different pictures. Radical content is presented in a reactionary format.

Yet for all the impertinence and effrontery towards the contemporary art scene in Mona and in MONANISMS there’s not a lot of self reflection on the deeper structural issues around the production and consumption of art. Is simply reifying a different category of art going to get us past the usual dead ends and detours?

On the interactive device that tells you what’s what as you wander through the dark in the museum, there are a number of voices: ‘Ideas’ are often suggestive shards of nonsense; ‘Gonzo’ is Walsh’s or Elizabeth Mead’s musings; and ‘Artwank’ is conventional information about the work. The book has all of this minus the ‘Artwank’, and it is true it is unexpected and refreshing and makes for an uncommon catalogue. But what it gains in attitude it loses in purpose. Are you an artwanker if the pages of pictures and banter aren’t enough?

Walsh justifies not including scholarly historical or critical texts by claiming it can all be found online anyway. It is a good point. Is this a new model for art publishing – the fidelity of luscious images on the printed page appended with the hyperlinked convenience of existing online content? Or is it a cop-out? Is there really nothing else to add that Google can’t retrieve or Wikipedia can’t explain?

The Mona project will likely provide the answer before too long. A few more shows and a few more books should out this conceit. What is fresh with MONANISMS will quickly get stale if it doesn’t go deeper with new ways of theorising the museum’s work.

Jason Grant 2011