All the world is a the­atre at MONA

Tas­ma­nia’s edgi­est mu­seum has a new ex­hi­bi­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

THE Mu­seum of Old and New Art (MONA) has changed the tourism scene in Tas­ma­nia, par­tic­u­larly Ho­bart.

There are fewer fleecy jack­ets and hik­ing boots to be spied, more black cloth­ing and some very im­prac­ti­cal heels — which won’t get you far on the Over­land Track but are just the ticket for MONA.

Opened 18 months ago by phi­lan­thropist and pro­fes­sional gam­bler David Walsh, it is al­ready the sec­ond-most-pop­u­lar at­trac­tion in the state af­ter Sala­manca Mar­ket.

In June, the gallery un­veiled a new ex­hi­bi­tion, The­atre of the World, cu­rated by a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou, Jean-Hu­bert Martin, fea­tur­ing works and arte­facts from MONA and the Tas­ma­nian Mu­seum and Art Gallery (TMAG).

The MONA-isa­tion of Ho­bart (and lo­cals are very proud of this ex­tra­or­di­nary de­vel­op­ment, what­ever Walsh’s tax co­nun­drum) starts at the Brooke Street Pier where the mu­seum has its own ferry ter­mi­nal (on board you can warm the cock­les with wine, cof­fee or cake).

Af­ter a short but pic­turesque voy­age, art lovers are de­posited at the base of Walsh’s rusted-iron and sand­stone mu­seum, ris­ing like a fortress above the steel­grey wa­ters of the Der­went River.

There fol­lows a steep climb up a very long flight of steps to the gallery’s fore­court, only to de­scend again deep un­der­ground into a dark­ened world of fan­tas­ti­cal art and not a lit­tle magic. An avid col­lec­tor since boy­hood — of stamps, coins and books, ‘‘but not friends’’, he notes — Walsh spent most week­ends skip­ping Sun­day school to hang out at TMAG, so this clever col­lab­o­ra­tion seems fit­ting.

Span­ning 16 gal­leries, al­most 500 works and about 4000 years of hu­man cre­ativ­ity, the new ex­hi­bi­tion con­trasts the con­tem­po­rary with the an­cient and fea­tures ev­ery­thing from stuffed birds and World War I trench art to canopic jars, mummy cases and a se­ries of charm­ing, early 19th-cen­tury wa­ter­colour por­traits of English work­ers.

The whole thing feels like an ex­tra­or­di­nary cab­i­net of cu­riosi­ties — you can imag­ine Martin rootling through the TMAGbase­ment like a dap­per In­di­ana Jones.

He calls the ex­hi­bi­tion a dio­rama or ‘‘panorama of the world’’ and says he took an artist’s or col­lec­tor’s ap­proach to his task. (Martin is well known for chal­leng­ing ac­cepted no­tions of chronol­ogy or tech­nique when as­sem­bling works.)

Thus Pi­casso’s Weep­ing Woman ( on loan from the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria) hangs be­side a West African beaded bag dec­o­rated with cry­ing faces, and a mummy case (600-525BC) eyes off Al­berto Gi­a­cometti’s rail-thin, 1947 Grand fig­ure (Femme Leoni).

The ex­hi­bi­tion show­stop­per is a room Martin dubs Majesty, a soar­ing space dec­o­rated with dozens of tapa or bark cloths col­lected by mis­sion­ar­ies and stashed away by TMAG since 1850.

Each of the rooms has a loose theme and Martin talks of work­ing with emo­tions and sen­sa­tions while at the same time ap­peal­ing to a younger au­di­ence. So art and arte­facts are dis­played in in­ven­tive ways: on beds, in draw­ers, be­hind swing­ing cur­tains of fab­ric rather than glass, or, as in the case of a 17th­cen­tury wax head, on a ro­botic plinth that fol­lows vis­i­tors around the room.

Lighting is cen­tral to the the­atri­cal­ity of this ex­hi­bi­tion. De­signer and Martin’s col­lab­o­ra­tor Mat­tijs Visser sees it as stag­ing an opera. In a dark­ened room, var­i­ous tribal masks are high­lighted one by one like ac­tors on a stage.

One of my favourite ex­hibits is a jewel-like as­sort­ment of flower chafer bee­tles col­lected by Tas­ma­nian-based en­to­mol­o­gist Ge­orge Borne­mis­sza.

Ja­son Shul­man’s Can­dle De­scrib­ing a Sphere, a soli­tary can­dle in a black­ened room, also proves un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing. Chris­tine McCabe was a guest of MONA and Tourism Tas­ma­nia.

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