Uncanny objects in Tasmania

Before heading home, I stop by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Newly renovated and reopened mid-March 2013, it's designed to embrace the tension between 'old and new', extending MONA's mission onto the mainland. I anticipate a brief meander, but find myself transfixed for three hours, leaving to avoid missing my flight.

I am first struck by the lightness of the unavoidable stuffed animal room. This is generally a favourite stop of mine at any museum, but the high ceilings, unusually light filled space and eclectic mix of creatures with supporting material make this one particularly delightful. The enamel coated mushrooms and 'how to' model of a bird mid-taxidermy (above) are examples of what I mean by 'supporting material'. The mushrooms in particular are beautifully crafted objects – precious, hyperreal and slightly other-wordly among naturalistic tree branches and stuffed birds. They remind me of installations from the Museumaker project (2009-11), in which museums across England were partnered with makers/craftspeople to "unlock the creative potential of museum collections ... to achieve long-term sustainable change in the way the historical is bout to life by the contemporary." (Council of the Arts website) In particular, Clare Twomey's installation of 3000 black ceramic butterflies, swarming over the walls, ceilings and other surfaces of Brighton's Royal Pavilion. The subtle juxtaposition of old and new is uncanny. It prompts me to look more closely – something's not right, but it's not immediately obvious. In this instance, it's simply the materiality of the mushrooms. The intense hue and soft shine of the enamel is subtly jarring in the glass-boxed world. I love it.

As I move further into the space, more uncanny juxtapositions arrest me. On the top floor, an the open balcony runs around the stairwell. The walls hold large glass cases, 3-4 meters high, each displaying collection of objects: Staffordshire ornaments, makers unknown, 1830-1900; maps of Tasmania (on souvenirs and packaging) 1900s; spears, clubs and arrows from the pacific region, makers unknown 1800s; Chinese artefacts from the Wongs collection, Tang Dynasty 618-907. Walking the circumference, I am transported across space and time. It is a fascinating snapshot of the collection. One case stops me.

The collection makes no sense, in relation to the series of other cases organised by theme. This case contains: combs, makers unknown 1800s, wood and tortoise shell; mannequin hands, maker unknown; Phyllis Boyd, Knutt Bull (1811-89), 1848 oil on vellum; Man in Fur, Michael Zavros (born 1974) 2005 oil on plywood; Armlets, maker unknown (Africa) 1800s bead and fibre. It could be an art work, but the curator of this curious collection is unnamed anywhere I can find, and I hunt around. The mannequin hands are mounted as if reaching through the wall. Logically, you'd put the armlets on the mannequin to show how they were worn, but there are no arms, just hands poking out, no where near the Armlets. There is no thematic link between these things, but aesthetically they make sense. The two small paintings, dated more than 150 years apart, are strangely synonymous. The shape of her bonnet and the shape of his fur. The shape of the mannequin hands and the shape of the combs. Who did this? It's brilliant. I've been stationed here so long that the guard watching me with low-level suspicion has faded back into boredom.

 As I blow through a room of the usual 19th Century portraits and furniture, a flash of red catches my eye. The block of flat colour is gaudy in the muted palette of the room. It's a sketch in acrylic paint of a chair. A chaise. In black paint at the bottom: 'England about 1790'. An actual chaise, placed below the painting, is credited 'Maker unknown, c.1830' and is roughly the same shape as the painted chaise.

 The surprising juxtaposition - the contemporary painting hung without explanation among 19th century portraits and landscapes, the painted chair above a visually similar object - begs analysis. I reflect on the 'circa' and 'about' in the dates attributed to the painting and chair, and in all the objects I've been sketching. I've written circa, or unknown, so many times today it seems a date is too short without them. These phrases point to uncertainty, undermining the authoritarian tone of wall plate/labels. They point to the unknowable in our recording of history. Tasmania has a new version of history than when I was at school. Within a generation, the way the western settlement/occupation of the land is narrated has shifted significantly, including alternate/fairer stories of colonisation that include the voices of the original inhabitants/invaded people. Throughout the TMAG spaces, the mission to present the material from multiple perspectives is clear, particularly in the very new Bond Store galleries. The top floor is dedicated to telling the history of European settlement on the island, with each event told through journal entries, historical records and oral recordings of a settler and an original inhabitant. The word invasion is used frequently.

In the centre of the room, a kangaroo and a sheep face off. A tent, illuminated from the inside, shows a violent murder through shadow play. There are audio visual narratives throughout, moving across the floor and walls. The Bond Store is dark in comparison to the light filled main gallery, and this adds to the experience.

As I leave, aware I have to get to the airport, I pass through one last exhibit. Critical Operations is a collection of contemporary paintings, photographs, sculpture and media art from TMAG that 'reflects our contemporary world through a diversity of perspectives'. Within the room, a set of three perspex boxes hold objects by different artists. Between Tricky Walsh's 'The Quartz Crystal Piezoelectic Generator' (2012) and Rebecca Coates's Funnel (2008) is 'Spirit flask c.1745 maker unknown'. It's a tiny glass man, in a glass jar.
The blurb reads:
the figure depicted inside this jar is John Wesley, outspoken founder of the Methodist Church, who considered the regular consumption of alcohol to be a "diabolical practice". The glass-maker who created this spirit flask clearly had a sense of humour. No comparable flask seems to have survived.
I reflect that makers have been offering us a diversity of perspectives on their contemporary worlds for as long as we have archives of artefacts.  Perhaps the combination of museum and art gallery affords a playful juxtaposition of things – allowing unlikely companions to share wall, shelf and cabinet space. Traditionally museum curation is driven by factual narratives, with playfulness restricted to installations targeted at children. I wonder if I came here first, before MONA, I would be so keenly alert to the subtle play of placing things in contexts they would not usually belong – a contemporary painting in the early 19th century collection, a curio from the 18th century in the contemporary art gallery. My overall experience was heightened, and certainly prolonged, because of it.


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