What do you know about Tasmania other than what the Looney Tunes has grossly led you to believe about their endemic species?
Believe it or not, but this teeny Australian island – adrift in the South Pacific, about 300 miles away from Melbourne – boasts a sprightly and experimental art scene that only a few globe-trotters will ever stretch their sea legs to get a glimpse of.
Since I’m way shy of the frequent fliers miles necessary to travel to the antipodes of Brooklyn and my knowledge of the Tazzie arts is limited to hashtag-happy Instagramers I stumble upon, I sought expert help in order to learn more about Tasmanian art.
Hey Andrew! So let’s get right into it. Where does one go to see art in Tasmania?
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) is pretty essential and is undergoing a major revamping and extension as I write. The museum building has never been large enough to adequately display the entire collection of the museum, and there is much that has never been seen by the public. The extension is hoped to rectify this, and I’m very excited about what will be revealed.
For some reason, I’m stuck on the idea of sledgehammers knocking down museum walls. So what’s so special about TMAG?
The TMAG has held some of the most significant exhibitions of contemporary Australian Art the state has ever seen in the last five years, and presents am overview of the rather macabre history of Tasmania, presenting a slice of colonial history in sharp contrast to the survival of Tasmania’s original inhabitants.
To be honest, the only Tasmanian museum I’d ever heard of, up until now, has been the Museum of Old and New Art.
The obvious contrast to TMAG is MONA, which one should just go to and see. It produces extreme reactions, has detractors and slavish fans, and is sort of like a traditional museum in negative. It’s got some world-class works and is a unique space. It also has a brewery.
Whoa! Go on…
MONA is about David Walsh. It’s his museum; it’s his house and his legacy. That’s how he wants it to be perceived, as sexual and macabre. That’s the publicity, the branding and the blurb. It’s also not quite the whole picture. Despite the branding as sexualize and dark, there’s also a very considerable interest in technological art that is incredibly complex and sophisticated.
Sounds controversial. Do people love to hate the MONA?
As to the criticism from the art world, I would hazard a guess this is also what David is courting. There’s a strong element of the whole museum being constructed to court criticism and even provoke anger from the art establishment. David is a maverick and an outsider and I think that’s how he wants his museum to be seen, as something that exemplifies the very traditional Australian idea of being a larrikin – an anti-establishment figure, brazenly mocking the intellectuals and the upper class.
How do you think David Walsh chooses his art?
He has collected art that thrills him and he wants to share that thrill.
What about in terms of Tasmanian galleries?
The Bett gallery, in North Hobart, is very reliable and will often have excellent contemporary painting, as does Despard down at the waterfront. The Salamanca Arts Centre (SAC) usually has something in one of its five gallery spaces. It has a few neat shops, much of which sells the aforementioned craft, although there’s a fabulous second hand bookshop there that I adore. CAST, (Contemporary Art Services) is the most consistently reliable space that will show new work and has a very good program. I don’t always life what’s in there but it’s funded, rather than commercially driven, and takes risks accordingly.
In two words, how would you describe Tasmanian art?
And it’s biggest misconception?
That there was no contemporary art here until MONA opened. This is intensely wrong; there’s an art school here. That school has produced a decent trickle of good contemporary practitioners since the seventies, with strong showings from printmaking and painting.
Tasmania isn’t exactly a stonethrow from the rest of the world’s art capitals. How are the art institutions or public sector facilitating the discovery of Tasmanian art?
Not as well as they should. Arts funding here keeps getting smaller, even though Tasmanian artists are working hard to get themselves out of the state, which is hard because we are an island, and the arts is sometimes not recognized enough as having economic potential.
Would you say that MONA helping with this?
MONA has done a sterling job since its emergence getting things here and exposing the broader community to contemporary culture, but they cannot and should not do everything. Some of the commercial spaces do an incredible job exposing the artist they work with at events, but they can’t cover the more experimental work, which is beginning to emerge as the local scene changes.
What about at the municipal level
The Hobart City Council recently announced they were cancelling the City of Hobart Art Prize, and are claiming they are going to ‘facilitate the private sector’ to make art happen. I am hopeful but also suspicious, as this tactic is, as I understand it, somewhat like the Big Society policy in the UK, which I believe resulted in cuts to the arts and other community services, and little else despite big promises of ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’. The arts need spaces for studios and exhibitions and rents can be very difficult in Hobart.
Sounds pretty shaky.
I could go on for ages there.
What local artists should we be on the look out for?
Rob O’Connor. Rob paints like a man possessed. It’s surreal, rugged work that delves across the history of painting and mixes it with anything. Scot Cotterrell is a wild man with a steady hand who investigates glitches and the tropes of contemporary culture. His practice is a collage of technique and idea, with a lot of wry dark comedy. Tricky Walsh, who is sort of self-taught and sort of obsessive compulsive. Tricky paints, sculpts tiny fantasy environments and goes too far with the detail. She’s mad I think. Amanda Davies is another painter who does the dark stuff. Amanda confronts and challenges with dark work that eats souls. It’s wounds and walls smeared with blood and feces.
How has Tasmania’s natural environment shaped its artistic movement?
One of the most eternal tropes in Tasmanian Art is work about Place. Hobart itself is a small harbor town dominated by a very beautiful mountain that eternally reminds everyone here that they are transient and tiny in the face of geographic time. Weather here is vast, confronting and very variable; you can have ‘four seasons in one day’ meaning it can be sunny then raining then windy all with a short period of time. Nature is vast here and the town is not. Dense bush land is near at all times. So is the place’s history; as I’ve alluded before, Hobart and Tasmania has a dark history stemming from transportation and colonialism and environmental politics. Tasmania had one of the world’s first Green parties and was the second ever place to elect someone on an environmental platform.
And how have these conditions contributed to the characteristics of Tasmanian art?
All these things have created a number of tropes that have affected much Tasmanian Art in positive and negative ways. There are clichés, such as an overload or Wilderness Photography and uninteresting landscape work, as well as a discernable Tasmanian Gothic, a kind of morbidity that seeks to engage with the history and the savage landscape. I don’t want to be too down on these ideas though as some of the state’s finest artist have been inspired by these things as well. There’s also the opposition, the people who have assaulted the clichés head on and questioned the apparent traditions. Making art that exposes the grotesque nature of Tasmania, and then there are the people who just ignore trends and make their own work.
Words made of water constantly falling, animated sculpture, lights that reproduce the heartbeat, sound installations and sophisticated light sculptures – these are the things that stretch the idea of what art is and what it can be a lot more than the advertised titillation.
Any genres of art emerging at the moment?
There’s more performance emerging, more archly conceptual work than I can ever recall. The biggest growth has been in sound art as the weirdo noise types that exist in Hobart and have for years have moved from under populated gigs on weeknights to gallery spaces. An excellent sound focused exhibition just finished at CAST and it was one the best things this year. I love sound in galleries personally.
If I had one day in Tasmania, what would you recommend as the most encompassing daytrip for an disoriented tourist like myself?
Okay. Go to MONA early. Give yourself four hours and have lunch there. Get the ferry back to Hobart and you are on the waterfront, which is a nice place to stroll and allows Hobart to reveal it’s genuine beauty. The TMAG, the Art School, the Salamanca Arts Centre and Despard Gallery are all within walking distance of the ferry terminal. There are lots of places to eat and drink around the waterfront and over in the Salamanca Place area. I’d go to the TMAG and then make a dinner decision over a drink somewhere like T42 which is right on the docks and you can sit outside. If it’s summer this is one of the nicest things to do in Hobart.
What if I’m in Hobart and I get hungry?
Food culture is going nuts in Hobart right now and if you want to spend a lot and eat incredibly prepared and presented local produce, go to Garagiste in the city. You can’t book but if you want fresh local oysters in cider vinegar this place rocks the house. Failing that, try Ethos or get a pub meal at the New Sydney. If you want to drink more you have choices: you want craft beers, go to the New Sydney or the Pumphouse, or go over to the almighty Brisbane Hotel which is grunge central. You might see a local band or play pool with a bunch of environmental protestors.
What are the advantages of Tasmania being a small art scene?
The best thing about it is that it’s so small that the divisions between the emerging artists and the more established people are quite narrow. You go to some openings and there are cynical arts students drinking the free booze right along with the gentry who buy things and the older people who have built the scene out of nothing.