The Making of Mona

Occasionally John Watts stumbles over a book he finds absorbing/interesting/outrageous/and fascinating. Browsing in the “The Common” coffee shop in Gloucester he found this – The Making of Mona

By Adrian Franklin

Published by Viking 2014

Q. Where is it that people flock to see and absorb such things as a phallus being carried by six small men, or an art-work titled “The Arse End of the World”, or a wall display of vaginas, or a “black Madonna covered in pieces of cut-out pornographic body parts…”, or to watch naked dancers perform a “…Dionysian orgy-like contemporary dance work”, or to down a beer that’s “Not suitable for Bogans”?

A. In an exciting, often bizarre, underground anti-museum called MONA sited beside the river Derwent in a lower socio-economic suburb of Hobart. That’s where!


Q. Where do you find the following quotes?

“Who’s put that fucking tennis court on top of my museum?”

“We are all so complicated and then we die. We are a subject one day, with our vanities, our loves, our worries, and then one day, abruptly, we become nothing but an object, an absolutely disgusting pile of shit.”

“MONA’s subversiveness lies not with the art, but with the fact that it gives the finger to pretentions upon which the contemporary art world is built.”

“Defecation, urine, the anus, and buttocks all therefore became symbols and gestures of defiance.”

A. In a book by Adrian Franklin titled, The Making of MONA, that takes you on a journey which tries to help get your head around how and why the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) was conceived, and then brought into being by a wealthy, autistic, professional gambler by the name of David Walsh and which has become a smashing hit with locals and visitors from around the world.

But don’t be misled-this book is not some lightweight book devoted to mindless smut. It is a well-researched and serious work explaining the origins, and the creation of a world class artistic institution devoted to the communicating of mind challenging ideas and concepts to its guests and where, as the reader might gather from the above quotes, little is off-limits.

Franklin trained as an anthropologist in the UK and has held professional positions at the University of Bristol and the University of Oslo and was Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania. He has worked extensively in radio and television and is presently Professor: Creative Industries and Cultural Policy at the University of South Australia.

Franklin tells us that these are the issues that “sat uneasily” in the mind of David Walsh when he contemplated the creation of MONA:

+ What happens when you alter the purpose of a museum?

+What happens when the Dionysian partygoer encounters ritually suggestive objects?

+What happens when you remove wall texts and labels?

+What happens when you change the order of a museum, arranging it for resonance and experience instead of taxonomy?

+What happens when you highlight an object’s individuality rather than its class?

+What happens when museums prepare different, playful and ritually changed ways to encounter museum objects?

We are then informed that “MONA’s Brand Values are: reason, radicalism, egalitarianism, pedagogy and pleasure. We will be: Iconoclastic, Radical, Controversial, Fun, Brave. We will not be: Conventional, Didactic, Highbrow, Dumb, Serious, Dictated to.”

MONA’s creator, David Walsh, is quoted in the book as saying:

“But, somehow MONA is imbued with the hubris of a man who was inadvertently taught by his community not to respect boundaries and the humility of a little boy who often walked past the peninsula on which he now resides, but who never ventured in, because he didn’t understand that it was OK to look.”

This beautifully presented and easy to read book, takes the reader on a step-by-step journey beginning, appropriately enough, with the story of the eccentric genius behind MONA.

Walsh grew up the area where the museum is located and began collecting pennies and stamps from a young age, although his ability to collect was limited by the fact that his family were “relatively poor.” His ability to collect more expensive and exotic things expanded significantly after he made a packet of money from gambling.

“Midway through a university degree in mathematics, he was diverted into making money playing blackjack.”

Unlike some who boast about making a pile of money, Walsh “didn’t view making money as much of an achievement.” We are told that:

“When making money no longer offered an interesting challenge, Walsh stumbled on art, which proved to be something he believes will challenge him for a lifetime.”

Walsh’s interest in collecting was apparently reignited in his 30’s and MONA is certainly not a traditional museum, but more a display of the objects he has collected over the years.

Walsh’s idea was to:

“…subvert the very idea of a museum. He wasn’t looking for reform, but for a way to oppose and reverse the practice of the conventional museum. But he had barely a notion of how it might be achieved.”

It is clear from the book that one of Walsh’s real talents is to be able to surround himself with, and to take advice from, talented people to help him bring his, sometimes nebulous, ideas to a practical conclusion.

One chapter explains the way that the museum was designed and constructed underground, and the creative thinking involved. Attention to detail was everything, which is well illustrated by the design of the entrance, which is quite small but contains a distorting mirror. Franklin explains:

“David Walsh likened modern museums to temples and churches, and mentioned that they have ‘giant porticos’ designed ‘to inculcate a sense of inferiority, to prepare you for the instilling of faith.’

Walsh’s door, however, is tiny, only just wide enough, and overshadowed by the mirror, which highlights the visitors rather than the building or those who command it. It seems to be saying. ‘This is all about you’”

This book is no substitute for a visit to MONA, but it might just help anyone intending to visit, or who has already visited, to better understand their experience. I do recommend the book, but I more strongly recommend a visit to MONA for a mind expanding “transformative experience”.

John Watts

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