Tempest at TMAG

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.

One of the centrepieces of the show, Tacita Dean's huge unfixed chalk work 'When I first raised the tempest' No 17599, 2016
One of the centrepieces of the show, Tacita Dean’s huge unfixed chalk work ‘When I first raised the tempest’ No 17599, 2016

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.

An entire gallery is given over to historic paintings of ships and shipwrecks as well as an impressive display of ships in bottles and other maritime models

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.

Valerie Sparks ‘Prospero’s Island’ (2016)

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.

Singapore birds, by J Garner, London (naturalist), presented 1880
Detail of Paul Wood ‘Storm in a Teacup’ (2016)
Taxidermied birds from the TMAG collections, above and below
Men in tights: Frank William Bourdillon ‘On Bideford Sands’ (1889)
TMAG’s much loved Colonial Gallery fits right in to the themes of Tempest, with the addition of a family telescope by Ricky Swallow (below)

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.

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but there seemed to be an air of the Harry Potters about Prospero’s Library in the Central Gallery

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.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. RuthsArc says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Andrew. We must go see this exhibition.

    1. Cheers Ruth, it’s definitely worth a look

  2. Excellent story. This was an unusual exhibition in that you could discover its tentacles incrementally. I liked that aspect. I liked the variety of images and media used to create the pieces – some art and some natural or social history artefacts. Truly this is an exhibition which will contain something that will interest any and everyone.

    1. Excellent points well put. I do like the reference to tentacles- about the only thing missing from the show is the kraken.

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