COLLABORATING WITH MONA ON THEATRE OF THE WORLD
Jane Stewart, Principal Curator, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
Paper first given at Museums Australia Conference May 2014, QVMAG Tramsheds Auditorium, Inveresk, Tasmania
Theatre of the World (TOTW) was initiated and funded by David Walsh, and curated by renowned French curator, director or auteur, Jean-Hubert Martin. It was an extraordinary, all- encompassing, wunderkammer of an exhibition created largely from the combined collections of the MONA and TMAG. The exhibition opened at MONA in June 2012 where it continued for about 10 months. It was here, in its first iteration, that the full creative force of both Martin and Walsh was realised. The exhibition design – or set – was rumored to require materials compatible with 4 large houses and the enormous ground floor at MONA was transformed into 16 bespoke rooms, some round, cupboard-sized, square, palatial.
Each room was imbued with a ‘phenomenon’ or ‘state’ common throughout time and place, their names including ‘genesis’, ‘scope’, ‘majesty’, ‘duet’, ‘phantasm’. Objects connected in various ways to these ideas were choreographed within their room in a form of visual poetry, or ‘theatre’.
In October 2013 a slightly reduced, 12-room remix of TOTW opened for 3 months at La Maison Rouge, Paris, which is incidentally also a contemporary art space owned and run by a private collector. Here, the exhibition attracted widespread reviews, arguably bringing a degree of attention to Tasmania that was unprecedented in Europe.
While considering what the collaboration with MONA has meant to TMAG, I’ve weighed up the fundamental differences between the two institutions:
As you will know, MONA is owned by one individual and it appears to be astonishingly well funded. From an outsider’s perspective, anything seems possible – and this is part of the allure. The collection traverses the globe, includes old (ancient) and new art, and is loosely centred on the themes of sex and death. The gallery has been open for only 3 years and in this time David Walsh has never wished to play it safe and MONA has continued to successfully champion the more ‘challenging’ in art.
On the other hand, TMAG is run by a Board of Trustees who are the custodians of the State Collection and manage it on behalf of Tasmania. Unfortunately we don’t have the budget of MONA and we have learnt to live within our means. The collection is built largely from donations and is focused on Tasmania (although there are many anomalies) and, for the most part it spans 210 years of art and history and eons of science. TMAG is by nature a traditional establishment, founded by the Royal Society over 160 years ago. As we are largely funded by the taxpayer, our exhibits are deliberately pitched to a broad demographic.
In the catalogue essay to TOTW, Martin makes his own comparison of the private and public museum. He is excited by the subjectivity of private collections and the way in which they are guided by intuitive choices, driven by passionate responses to objects and images. He refers to such collections as ‘Museums of Enchantments’ and writes:
Alongside the orderly world of museums is the disorderly world of collectors. Though disconcerting and uncomfortable for the dogmatic art historian, it often generates revelatory connections.
Martin regrets the rationalising effect of the Enlightenment and the subsequent sorting of public collections into disciplinary groupings or geographical or chronological order. He dubs these institutions ‘docile museums’.
Martin’s inspiration in the very earliest private museums brings the focus back to the object rather than its narrative or metadata: creating space for metaphor, idiosyncrasy, pleasure, and emotion. Such arguably unquantifiable responses are no longer included in the mission statements, policies and strategies of public museums and galleries. Partly because of TOTW’s appeal to the senses rather than education, and partly because of the worldly ambit and ambitious budget required to realise the other-worldly mise-en-scene, TOTW was not an exhibition TMAG would have participated in if we hadn’t been invited to do so. For this reason, it was enthralling to see what Martin’s independence and imagination wielded and the powerful transformation of Tasmania’s public collection into something almost unrecognizable.
The pairing of MONA and TMAG might seem incongruous at first (although we are united by geography, and the eclecticism of the collection was perfect for Martin). But you don’t need to dig too deeply to understand why Walsh extended the invitation. In the preface to the catalogue he describes weekly Sunday visits to TMAG as a teenager – fooling his mother who believed he was at mass. This was in the late 1970s when permanent displays were the norm – and before a frequent program of temporary exhibitions transformed public perception and expectations of museums. He writes:
TMAG inculcated in me a respect for history, and inoculated me against trivial perspectives. Most displays changed rarely. Many are changing for the first time since I saw them, now – thirty five years later – after an injection of public funds. But it didn’t matter, it meant that I learned them like one learns a song, through repeated exposure, and as I sang them to myself my interest grew deeper. …. TMAG seemed to have everything, bits of everywhere, but mostly it seemed to be a repository for Tasmanian things, weird personal things.
In an extraordinary feat, while constructing his own substantial museum, Walsh was able to return to – and borrow extensively from – the public collection that had so influenced him as a child. As the above quote suggests, the emphasis of the visual potency of the object in TOTW is no coincidence, representing the like- minds of Martin and Walsh and harking back to the collector’s initial experiences at TMAG, in an earlier museum-age.
Walsh sought out Martin after seeing Artempo: where time becomes art at the Venice Bienale in 2007, where the Palazzo Fortuny was magnificently and richly transformed with everything between archeological materials to contemporary installations. But Artempo was no exception to Martin’s intuitive and non-hierarchical approach which was borne in reaction to the dominance of European and American art in Europe and America. In 1989 he had curated Magiciens de la terre in direct response to the controversial exhibition Primitivism in C20th Art – affinity of the tribal and the modern, 1984, at MOMA, New York – where work by artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani was backed up by their ‘primitive influences’ – represented as support material rather than works of art in their own right.
Magiciens directly addressed Martin’s long-term issue with Parisian exhibitions, particularly the biennial, where, he said, ‘100% of exhibitions ignored 80% of the earth”. He purposefully selected 50 artists from Europe and America and 50 artists from the ‘fringes’ and Magiciens was the first exhibition of note presented in the contemporary context that set out to dismiss the arrogance of colonialism in art.
Of course, colonialism has also played a monumental part in Australian museums and galleries – nowhere more so than in Tasmania – albeit from a different perspective than in Europe. In 2013, three of the twelve Redevelopment exhibitions that opened at TMAG addressed Tasmania’s fraught colonial legacy head-on through a narrative structure that incorporated multiple perspectives and used film to tell the story where objects weren’t available. It is interesting to compare this more linear method to Martin’s visual approach. For reasons that I hope are obvious, the TMAG Redevelopment exhibitions engaged with the history of the collection and Tasmania in order to tell a story from a contemporary and honest perspective. In contrast, TOTW, which was developed concurrently and curated from the outlook of a European aesthete, was free of colonial baggage – (or was it?) – even though it used many objects with strong connections to our colonial past.
TMAG’s 12 Redevelopment exhibitions were all narrative-led. Our tag line ‘Stories that move you’ boldly reinforces this approach – and the judges of the 2013 Museums and Galleries National Award for Best Permanent Exhibition claimed that “the new TMAG exhibitions have reached a level of integrated ‘story telling’ for Tasmanians and other visitors that is unsurpassed in the institution’s long history”. The measured success of TMAG’s divergent Redevelopment project and TOTW creates a uniquely strong position from where we can explore and appraise each exhibition as we look to the future.
Coming back to TOTW, there were many other more tangible plusses that came to TMAG with the collaboration:
Reverberating from MONA’s media campaign were some really positive reviews of TOTW on the ABC, in the SMH, and in The Australian, that launched Hobart, MONA and TMAG into the national arena only 9 months before our own $30 million Redevelopment launch, signifying, I suspect, a level of open-ness, a risqué-ness that might not have been associated with TMAG beforehand. Whether or not it was consciously acknowledged, our part in the ‘junking of the chronological corset’ (to quote the title of one of the essays in the TOTW catalogue) must have given the impression that TMAG was open to ‘stepping out’.
New eyes always bring new discoveries. Martin spent weeks with curators in the TMAG stores and galleries, viewing thousands of objects and images as he compiled the object list. A bible with a bullet hole, a colonial 4 poster bed, early images by Tasmanian contemporary photographer Ruth Frost, Adelaide Ironside’s colonial Dream painting, and John Dempsey’s 1820s portraits of the English poor were among the many items that hadn’t been exhibited for years, if at all. We had spent 10 years waiting to undertake the research for the Dempsey’s before exhibiting them as a group, supported, we had hoped, by a catalogue. TOTW didn’t require this level of scholarship and so thankfully these works are now in the public sphere.
A similar scenario played out with TMAG’s Tapa cloths. Martin had scouted out hundreds of objects from the Pacific region, bringing about their re-awareness, documentation, conservation, display, and now, their preservation. Without him, the 70 or so cloths that formed, arguably, the heart of TOTW would still be stacked against each other in storage. Although Kirsten Brett was able to undertake some research on the tapas in relation to TOTW, we don’t currently have the resources to curate these Pacific objects to a high museological standard and Martin challenged this perceived barrier.
As mentioned earlier, the international reach of Martin and Walsh ensured that TOTW toured to Paris. With the exception of the Colonial International Exhibitions, this is the first time TMAG’s collection has toured en masse internationally and the confidence and opportunity this has brought continues to unravel.
We were generously funded through the Australia International Culture Council for our then Director and several curators to travel to France. This enabled us to participate in the opening events and to present a seminar at La Maison Rouge that provided our thoughts and research on the TMAG objects, and Tasmania in general. A full hour of questions followed, where a number of people expressed surprise that Tasmanian Aboriginal culture was still very much alive. We also met the Bernard Smith, who had recently written his PhD about the French expeditions to Tasmania in 1793 and 1802 – prior to British colonisation. This conversation continues, and it’s invaluable to have a Frenchman with this degree of knowledge about the exchange between the French and the Tasmanian Aboriginal people – and the whereabouts of little-known journey- drawings.
The early French expeditions to Tasmania were also the reason for our visit to the Museum of Natural History at Le Havre, where the collection of original watercolours by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit are housed. Petit’s portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and Lesueur’s intricate drawings of Aboriginal canoes, baskets and burial mounds exist today as a vital record of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture living freely in the year before British colonisation. The collection of works by Lesueur also record the Tasmanian landscape and unique fauna. These works have not been seen in Tasmania since they were first painted and we are now in discussion with Le Havre and the Australian Embassy in France regarding a touring exhibition in 2017.
TOTW reinforced the global interest in, and the global nature of, the TMAG collection. Naturally, the majority of exhibitions curated in-house are about Tasmania – our colonial history, unique geography, zoology, botany, and contemporary culture – but Martin’s autonomous and international perspective created something completely ‘other’ from the same group of objects. Whether or not TMAG chooses to pursue this heterogeneous approach into the future, we have witnessed what enormous creative potential the collection holds, and what new eyes can bring.
2013 was a big year for TMAG. The Redevelopment was launched hot on the heels of Theatre of the world, which then toured to Paris six months later. These are easily the two largest and most expensive projects undertaken by TMAG in at least 50 years.
I like to think that 2014 began in the wake of the perfect storm. With eyes open, following the trip to Europe, TMAG can only build from the opportunities that flowed from the collaboration. And so we will:
- nurture the new contact made with European historians, curators, and collectors
- run-with the world’s response to Tasmania and it’s public collection
- reach out to the influx of cultural tourists to – and media interest in – Tasmania that MONA has inspired
- remain open to a visual and museological debate about the role of public museums in today’s busy and ever-connected ‘theatre’ of a world.
Jane Stewart, Principal Curator, Art, May 2014