Travels in Tasmania — Part 2 of 3
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), established in 1843, lives in a handsome sandstone building just uphill from the Hobart harbor, which at the moment has in port one of the few research ships that sails regularly to the Antarctic. The large orange Aurora Australis is an icebreaker that many Australian artists have journeyed on to the southern polar regions.
The TMAG, much of which is closed for an extensive expansion funded, nonetheless has up a terrific survey of Tasmanian landscape work titled Regarding Landscape. It starts with an elevated view of The Derwent River and Hobart Town painted in 1831, proceeds through the major 20th-century artists, including Lloyd Rees, Edith Holmes, and Arthur Boyd and into contemporary images. The adjacent gallery holds works specifically about water in Tasmania, which is capped with videos made by David Stephenson and Martin Walch from their 2012 Derwent River project (see previous post).
It’s interesting to look first at the paintings, sit with the videos and then to go back to the paintings. The first run-through of the landscape oils, which start with mostly unpopulated scenery and then become much more strident and symbol-laden over time, is just that: a run-through. You spend the stereotypical 17 seconds in front of each painting and its label before moving on to the next. The videos, as I mentioned in the last post, recalibrate your rate of cognition into a much slower mode.
The second time you visit the paintings, therefore — with your mental pulse now kicked down a gear or two — the scenes appear to be sharper, the colors inhabiting a wider spectrum, the details more numerous. It’s not an effect I could have predicted, but it is exactly the effect that Stephenson and Walch are seeking to create with viewers: to slow them down beyond simply the experience of the moment. And this also makes it a fine time to walk across the street to the Carnegie Gallery upstairs at the Maritime Museum, where the always peripatetic Stephen Eastaugh has a retrospective of his Antarctic paintings titled An Awfully Beautiful Place.
Eastaugh has been to the Antarctic nine times and is one of the few artists to have spent the winter on the continent. He’s more than familiar with the innards of the Aurora Australis, and his work uses materials easily transported, such as small squares of burlap and skeins of yarn. The results can be profound, the knitting of yarn and the sewing of thread throughout his canvases small and large a reminder of the almost quirky presence of humans in the severe strangeness of the Antarctic landscape. Most artists concentrate on portraying the Antarctic as a “white continent” seen during the six-month day. Eastaugh has managed dark views of the Antarctic as a “Big Beautiful Dead Place” (the title of a large, profoundly disturbing panorama of rafting sea ice under a black sky shot through with dark blue yarn).
Art that you see in places such as Tasmania can often remind us that abstraction, high technology, and elaborate systems of symbols can be used by artists to create more than just objects of high value in an international art market; they can also be put into service as links to our place in the world by altering our senses. Speaking of which, Hobart is also home to the world-renowned Museum of New and Old Art, which is devoted to exploring the twin themes of sex and death, and which just opened up its newest exhibition, “Theatre of the World.” Definitely disturbing — see the next post.