All the world is a theatre at MONA
Tasmania’s edgiest museum has a new exhibition
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.