December 2008 – January 2009

Arts & Letters

Southern discomfort

By Juliana Engberg
Tasmania’s art scene

I’m standing in the midst of crates and stacking shelves. The final scene of Citizen Kane comes to mind: when, at the end of his life, Kane's accumulation of boxed artefacts is surveyed, like a vast metropolis, by the cinematic eye. But this is no noir movie, no ersatz dream. I'm standing in a Tasmanian warehouse that stores one of the most remarkable collections Australia is ever likely to see. Ancient sarcophagi, coins, Egyptian mummies, old and new paintings, sculptures, video art, installations: you name it, the mathematical wunderkind, wine producer, beer brewer and entrepreneur David Walsh has probably collected it.

Much has been made of Walsh's collecting theme of sex and death - a nifty marketing proposition if ever there was one, and a source of impassioned debate. But the Jungians among us know that it's just shorthand for motivation, the drive to live. Walsh epitomises the kind of obsessive and informed individual who finds in art the libidinous outcome of humankind's desire to explore and perpetuate itself. And he loves it!

Handlers bring out a few items for me to consider. The British painter Jenny Saville's mammoth human figure, Matrix (1999): all hot, fleshy paint, foreshortened bulk and provocative transgendered awesomeness. It is a landscape of human as monolith, with crevices and boulders made of the body mass. This is a major work, and one that establishes, without doubt, Walsh's hunger for art that is demonstrative and visceral. Another piece, the Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere's sculpture of a horse hoisted up, its desecrated body cast in an irksome dermatological wax, is similarly concerned with the corporeal. In these works, you sense Walsh's aesthetic tends towards the pitted, abused surface that indicates a life affected. Paintings are impasto and scumbly; sculptures tend away from the clinical smoothness of minimalism to material that carries history and decay. There is a clear collecting logic that links the ancient stone of Egypt to the German artist Anselm Kiefer's modern relics. Walsh understands the power and importance of marks and inscriptions as records of existence. Jenny Holzer's photographs from the Lustmord series (1993-94), with texts etched into vulnerable skin, emphasise the point.

Other pieces are less burdened with decaying animal matter. Last Riot, made a few years ago by the Russian digital masters AES+F group, is a panoramic digital animation that is all the more disturbing because of its fleshlessness as it moves episodically from eroticised tableaux to urban disaster and ecological catastrophe. John Brack's famous oil painting The Bar (1954), which Walsh notoriously captured at auction, snatching it from the hopeful grasp of the National Gallery of Victoria, is equally devoid of skin, but has its quota of gloom. The thrilling thing about a private collection is the taste, ideas and enthusiasms that glue it together. Soon we will see what artistic amalgam that might be.

In Hobart's outer north, on a craggy jut of land on the Derwent River, Walsh and his team are excavating sandstone to create a subterranean experience. Part Dr No lair, part Getty, this remarkable engineering feat will become the Museum of Old and New Art: a three-sub-storeyed structure to display Walsh's growing collection, and rotating exhibitions of contemporary art. There will be approximately 5800 square metres of gallery space for international art, including 1300 square metres for touring shows; a library; and a pavilion devoted to the work of Anselm Kiefer. Not small by any measure.

With a certain amount of cruel delight, the project manager for this architectural archaeology informs me that we're standing on a platform held up by a couple of stilts. The 20-metre drop below the original Roy Grounds house will be an exposed chasm, travelled across by bridge and descended to by a lift that allows visitors to wonder at the sandstone rock face, now trussed and bolted to keep it from fracturing. Walsh relishes the precariousness of this geological exercise and the tempting of fate inherent in the rising river, which is held at bay by a vast concrete and Corten steel honeycomb wall that will eventually create a Garden of Babylon facade for the museum.

Scheduled to open in late 2010, MONA, as it will be known, is not hampered by government schedules and election promises. This is a purely private enterprise, and Walsh is determined that MONA will be as fantastic as his imagination requires - and the odd new tunnel, here and there, might still need to be factored into the design, which spreads organically under his Moorilla Winery. Deadlines are notional. You get the sense that Walsh and his handpicked management will not sweat the small stuff if 2010 becomes 2011. It must be right. It feels luxurious.

Perhaps it's something in the water or the pinot, but Tasmania, once renowned principally for woodcraft and hobbity eco-business, has got cultural tourism in a big way. Hobart is positioning itself as one of those much-desired cultural-capital places espoused by demographers like Richard Florida. Newer boutique hotels and little distilleries confirm that the city has the smarts to tap into its historical culture, reboot and recreate itself. Perhaps there really is more than one way to save a forest and those over-harvested abalone. Cultural tourism is becoming a new economic platform for the island state, shifting its focus from primary produce and industries to cultivated cultural product.

David Walsh's MONA dream is but one co-ordinate on this emerging map. South of Hobart, in another picturesque spot by the water, at Woodbridge, the enterprising Peppermint Bay group is planning a gallery to house its expanding collection, which includes important works by the Australian artists Patricia Piccinini and Callum Morton. Like Walsh, whose art marries with his wine, brewing, accommodation and restaurant operations, the Peppermint Bay experience combines life's hedonistic indulgences. Food and wine, art and location - particularly a destination reached by water - are irresistible ingredients for those in the short-stay market with a yen for the good life.

However, while we wait for the trip down the Derwent to imbibe Peppermint Bay's offerings (or up it, to ascend MONA's sea-to-sandstone steps), a smaller, but no less ambitious, venture has already opened in downtown Hobart. Detached is a privately funded foundation devoted to contemporary art, artist-in-residence and education programs, and partnerships with existing spaces like the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG). Housed in a deconsecrated, heritage-listed brick church, just a seagull's dropping from Hobart's docks, it adds to the cluster of art offered by the state institution across the road and the nearby art school's Plimsol Gallery.

No shrinking violet, and demonstrating its mission to challenge, Detached's first project is to bring together a major collection of works and a new project by one of Australia's most important and controversial artists, Mike Parr. Actually, challenging might be understating the likely impact of Parr's works on the local burgomasters. Parr's endurance performances and theatres of cruelty, exploring his own and the audience's boundaries for pain and catharsis, are not for the fainthearted. The exhibition, The Tilted Stage, co-hosted on Detached's premises and in the Bond Store building, at TMAG, surveys 37 years of practice with video works, photographs and drawings, and a new performance piece undertaken "for as long as possible" by Parr.

This is a bold move for a new kid on the block. After the furore caused by Parr's works at the Biennale of Sydney, and the jugular-grasping commentary by art critics such as John McDonald, Detached has evidently decided to dive in at the deep end. And, buoyed by such adventurous programming from these local contemporary-art patrons, not to mention the healthy spirit of competition that comes of ambitious schemes, TMAG is also on a new trajectory. The Parr survey feels like a seismic shift for the institution, whose unique mix of flora and fauna, colonial art and cultural artefacts, has had a somewhat tangential relationship to contemporary practice. In forthcoming months, other groundbreaking projects will emerge from the Hobart hiatus. TMAG's fabulous mega fauna, assorted insects and Arctic encounters might need to be mothballed for a while, and all in a good cause.

If TMAG receives the funding it seeks - some $200 million - to redevelop its site into a seven-level facility, then a significant piece of the cultural-tourism puzzle will fall into place. Better entry points, excavation-observation opportunities, new and larger spaces for the historical and contemporary collections, as well as room to mount sizeable temporary exhibitions, will position TMAG as a major Australian institution. It remains to be seen whether the state government will match the generosity, vision and drive of the individuals behind all these exciting projects - which, collectively, are the quintessence of Richard Florida's 4T creative-capital mantra: Talent, Tolerance, Technology and Territorial Assets, of which there is a natural abundance here. Tasmania is on the brink of something big. This is not the time to think small. Go on, Tassie - be a devil.

Juliana Engberg

Juliana Engberg is a curator and writer.

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