Tempest is probably the biggest single exhibition that TMAG (the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery) has ever staged. Far from being confined to the usual temporary exhibition galleries on the ground floor, the show has taken over almost every space within the institution and staff from pretty much every corner and discipline – from decorative arts to zoology – have made contributions to Guest Curator Juliana Engberg’s grand vision.
Its themes are rich and dense. It is at once very Tasmanian, but also global, with references to both colonies and the colonised as well as the great maritime powers whose power and influence extended around the world, carried in the apparently fragile timber ships that are shown being dashed upon distant rocky shores in many of the more historic paintings on show.
Shakespeare and his final play are a constant presence, with the bard himself depicted in portraits and his work present in images from artists as diverse as nineteenth century engraver Edward William Stoddart and contemporary Tasmanian photographer Pat Brassington. In addition to the maritime tempests involving seas and shipwrecks, storms and Tasmania’s more extreme weather are present in colonial superstar William Charles Piguenet’s monochromatic depictions of the island’s mountaintops.
A contemporary tempest forms half of a fascinating new work commissioned for the show by Valerie Sparks, who spent several weeks travelling around Tasmania documenting coastlines and weather conditions as well as birds from TMAG’s zoological collections to create ‘Prospero’s Island’. Occupying two walls of an entire gallery, the work depicts a coastline that is at once familiar (especially to anyone who has been around the Tasman Peninsula in a boat) and also mysterious and other-worldly. While it might appear to be a mural, Sparks’ installation actually comprises eight rolls of bespoke wallpaper. Her work (I later found out, thanks to a fascinating Friends of TMAG talk by art curators Jane Stewart and Mary Knights) is inspired by eighteenth century French wallpapers that depicted tales drawn from the journals of explorers like Captain Cook.
The ‘exotic’ is another theme, allied to those of colonies and exploration. Colourful parrots and other birds, both real and sculpted, are present in large numbers.
Victorian era museums and collections bring to mind the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ popular among the educated classes of the era, who stuffed their homes and country estates with artefacts collected on their Grand Tours of the Continent and beyond. The Central Gallery of the Museum has been turned into possibly the greatest of all such cabinets, Prospero’s Library. Piles of books teeter all around, while cabinets overflow with fossils, seashells, globes, maps and all sorts of other treasures.
My photographs of the exhibition are a modest testimony to the skill and effort of TMAG’s staff in presenting this massive show with such elegance. Particular mention should be made of Mark Colegrave’s exquisite lighting.
Tempest, which opened during Dark Mofo in June, continues at TMAG until 20 November, 2016.
TMAG is located between Macquarie and Davey Streets (entry off Dunn Place), on Hobart’s waterfront.
If you’d like a much more learned critique of Tempest, you might like to read this review of the show by my good friend Sean Kelly, published in Artlink.