'More than MOFO: A Tour Guide to Tasmania’s Thriving Regional Art Centres', by Ruth Dawkins

ROCKS, 2015. Documentation of a found event. For Lost Rocks (2017–21). A Published Event, Tasmania. Used with permission.

“Who is it for, this art?

Why, it is for you.”
Vivienne Cutbush, A Field Guide to GASP

The wood smoke from the Winter Feast has dispersed, the cruise ship has sailed back down the Derwent, and the ashes of our ogoh-ogoh—which this year resembled a thylacine—have been swept from Hobart’s streets. Even the Siren Song has fallen silent. Whether it’s the cathartic community result of The Purging, or perhaps just the joy of being able to score a park in Salamanca Place again, it feels like the city is breathing a slow sigh of relief.

I moved to Tasmania from the UK four years ago, so I’ve never known it without DARK MOFO. It’s hard to imagine what winter was like before, although friends and colleagues shiver a little when they describe the long, cold months, the businesses that went bust, and the lack of after-work cultural events to break the monotony of darkness.

There’s no doubt that MONA and its festivals—Brian Ritchie’s MOFO in summer and Leigh Carmichael’s DARK MOFO in winter—have changed Tasmania for the better. This year’s DARK MOFO was the biggest yet, with more than 427,000 attendances recorded, up from 297,000 last year, and box office takings of more than $2.44 million. The indirect benefits for the local economy – accommodation, hospitality, transport, retail - will likely be just as impressive.

But has the focus on one museum and its activities—the extensive coverage in national and international press—been at the expense of other artists and art spaces in the state? There’s a general perception that there’s a cultural boom in Tasmania at the moment, but it’s hard to see how regional venues can ever compete with the mighty MONA brand and the deep pockets of David Walsh.

The answer is that they don’t, and nor should they. There are myriad practitioners and exhibitors of art across Tasmania. Each creates, curates, practices and performs at a consistently high level. There’s an unprecedented level of vibrancy and innovation across all genres, and as a result, there are enthusiastic local audiences. The challenge is how to move beyond that.

There are critics and art tourists who only come to Tasmania for one or two weekends each year. By neglecting to look beyond the scheduling page of their MOFO app, they are missing out on so much.

The very best of Tasmanian art is firmly rooted in place. It involves communities, engages with the landscape and spans multiple disciplines. Often, it is celebrated through a festival. (“Do you know that we even have a garlic festival?” someone asked shortly after I moved here. I thought they were teasing me. They weren’t.)

The ones that are worth the journey across the Bass Strait are regionally specific and encompass a variety of art forms.

Devonport Regional Gallery (DRG) has expanded its activities to include an annual festival called Tidal which engages the community in their coastal environment. In 2017, Tasmanian artists were commissioned to paint a tidal-themed work on selected, ‘secret’ walls in the CBD. Members of Tiagarra Aboriginal Centre led a walk around Mersey Bluff to highlight edible native plants and speak about the historical significance of the site. Other events have included pavement art, sand sculptures and children’s workshops using found objects from the beach. Originally held as a way of promoting the Tidal award exhibition, the festival now joins DRG’s Reclaim the Lane youth week event as a highlight of the calendar in the state’s north-west. By utilising highly visible, interactive spaces in the heart of the city, it provides access to the work of emerging and established artists while also establishing a sense of ownership for the local community.

In the remote West Coast mining town of Queenstown, The Unconformity was billed as “an arts festival inspired by a rare geological unconformity and the remarkable cultural paradoxes of Queenstown.”

Patrons experiencing Flux at Unconformity 2016, sitting on custom furniture by Tasmanian designer Guy Paramore, within an abandoned limestone quarry in Queenstown, Tasmania. Photograph by Jack Robert-Tissot. Used with permission.

Where else in 2016 would you have found an opening event called The Rumble – a procession of mining machinery and trucks through the Main Street? Where else would the festival venues include a power station, an old limestone quarry, a steam train, and a mine shaft? Queenstown is a four-hour drive from Hobart, on grim little roads. Attendance at The Unconformity requires an investment of time and energy. But the sharp artistic focus of director Travis Tiddy, the remarkable setting and the chance to immerse yourself in a unique community make it a worthwhile commitment.

On the rare weeks when there isn’t a festival, there are multiple examples of venues and projects that fulfil a valuable community role while also striving to showcase excellence. Many of them are within 20 minutes of Hobart’s CBD.

Moonah Arts Centre (MAC) is in the city of Glenorchy, which is characterised by its high representation of multicultural communities. Many of those residents have migrated there as a result of humanitarian programmes, so MAC felt like a fitting venue for the recent launch of Tania Price’s Breaching Borders, an exhibition of paintings based on images from the global refugee crisis.

Arts and Culture co-ordinator Eleanor Downes says that MAC “means a lot of different things to different groups in the community, whether it’s a venue for a professional exhibition or performance, a workshop space for a local craft group, or just a space to come and spend time being surrounded by art. Our aim is to provide accessible, affordable arts and cultural experiences to the local community.”

It’s where the Back Burner exhibition took place, allowing Hobart’s commercial graphic designers to showcase the projects they have to save for weekends; it hosted the Hidden Stories events that gave space to Tasmanian indigenous stories; and launched just last week was the Poets and Painters exhibition, a collaboration between Bett Gallery and Tasmanian Land Conservancy.

This co-operative, multidisciplinary approach to the arts is distinctively Tasmanian, and while it’s borne out of necessity it’s also an exciting driver of innovation. In such a small community, it makes sense to share resources—exhibition space or marketing materials—rather than working in isolation. The unintended result is the creation of cultural spaces where ideas and creative energy can also be shared: opening night at MAC becomes not just a time to celebrate the current exhibition, but an opportunity to start planning the next one.

Ten minutes down the road from MAC at Elwick Bay is Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park (GASP), a centre for contemporary, site-specific outdoor arts. Set on nine hectares of public land, it comprises waterfront pavilions, an elevated walkway, and an exciting program of permanent and temporary exhibits. It has even generated its own social enterprise street food van: the GASP Mobile.

GASP is currently home to Justy Phillips and Margaret Woodward’s Fall of the Derwent. Working as A Published Event the artists undertook a year-long process of research and creation before launching their experiment in hydrographic publishing. By visiting the website or scanning an on-site QR code visitors can download a unique score which reflects the current Energy in Storage Levels of the River Derwent. At the time of writing, the levels in the river stood at 36.8%.

Their next project is Lost Rocks. Launched in 2017, it is an ambitious, slow-publishing art work: a library of forty books, published four at a time, twice a year from now until 2021. The conceptual heart of the project is a discarded rock board found at the Glenorchy tip shop. Forty of its fifty-six Tasmanian rock specimens are missing. Throughout the project, forty commissioned artists will each select an absence from the incomplete board and re-compose it, not with a geological specimen, but with a ‘fictiōnella’ – a new kind of novella drawn from lived experience.

Lost Rocks Library (2017–21). Printed fictiōnellas #1–4, Schtictite, Huon Pine. A Published Event, Tasmania. Used with permission.

Lost Rocks is a wholly appropriate project to be undertaken in a state where debate over the finite nature of resources is never far away. We love our tip-shop finds so much in Tasmania that we have an annual exhibition—Art from Trash—dedicated to the beautiful things that can be made from them.

Phillips and Woodward say, “Tasmania offers a unique co-composing of the more-than-human – a complex sphere of social, political and geological forces that at once both ground and unsettle us. In this sense we are always moving. Here, everything is political. People. Literacy. Poverty. Business. Wilderness. Rocks. We bring language to each of these events as they make themselves felt. To us.”

Innovative, collaborative projects like theirs abound in Tasmania. Arts in Parks was a recent state-run project that celebrated the 20-year partnership between Arts Tasmania and the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service that offers artists the opportunity to undertake a residency in a wilderness location around the state. Young Writers in the City is an ongoing program run by the Tasmanian Writers Centre that pairs young writers with residency opportunities in their cities: not just in museums and galleries, but in municipal swimming pools, popular cafes, local radio stations and community organisations like the Migrant Resource Centre. Story Island Project is a new not-for-profit that uses creative storytelling to engage and connect individuals and communities. Most recently they have been working with groups along the Brooker Highway to create a collaborative project re-telling the story of the highway and celebrating the diversity of those who live alongside it.

Celebrated Tasmanian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer, who was recently shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, sits on the Board of the Story Island Project and is a passionate advocate for the recognition of Tasmania’s unique strengths in Australia’s cultural landscape.

“I think the artistic and psychological merits of this cultural community lie in its being (oxymoronically) both isolated and sociable,” he says. “The isolation provokes an art-making that's less informed by external influences and so nicely imbued with one's own voice. And the social cohesion makes a celebration of this, artists (and more importantly the wider community) braving crisp evenings to sit in audiences and champion collective or peripheral successes.” He adds that, “Climactically, chilly winters fuel good writerly rigour. Aesthetically, nature's grand influence both provokes and humbles (equally important tools for an artist I reckon). Pace-wise, ideas can ferment. Technologically, ideas can travel.”

With a loud and constant background hum of arts activity in the state, and a high level of cultural literacy in the community, it’s no surprise that when MOFO and DARK MOFO do roll around, the pieces that are received best by locals are the ones that take advantage of their Tasmanian context. Artworks that create an exciting atmosphere for tourists while also helping us see our home anew are always winners.

This year’s big success was Siren Song, a sound work that could be heard across the city at sunrise and sunset each day. In 2016 it was the House of Mirrors. The structure allowed people to enjoy getting ‘lost’ in a disorienting installation, but its open-roofed configuration enabled you to look up and see just enough of Tasmania’s familiar clear skies to feel safe. In previous years the exhibits that proved most popular with locals included Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive installation Articulated Intersect that lit up the skies above Hobart each night, and Yin Xiuzhen’s Washing River 2014, which required passers-by to use mops and scrub an enormous block of ice, symbolically cleaning the polluted water as it dripped back into the Derwent.

For people like me who are still relative newcomers to the state, a degree of humility is necessary when you engage with Tasmanian art. There is usually space to engage on your own terms, but it helps if you’re prepared to listen and learn what a piece might mean to the community in which it is situated.

I have never felt more like an outsider than I did while walking round Mike Parr’s DARK MOFO performance Asylum [entry by mirror only] at Willow Court in 2016. Parr spent 72 hours without respite in the decommissioned asylum, drawing constantly and remembering his deceased brother Tim. Visitors were invited to observe Parr and to explore his photographic, video, poetry and audio works that were installed around the rest of the site. The cost of admission was ‘a mirror, of any kind’ which had to be left somewhere in the building or grounds before you could leave yourself.

Literally and metaphorically, the piece left me cold. But afterwards, standing by a bonfire with a mug of mulled cider, I listened to someone whose sister had spent time in Willow Court as both a patient and later as a staff member. When I got home that night, my son’s babysitter told me that as a teenager she used to break into Willow Court with friends as a dare, and that while the dark corridors and the smell of possum shit hadn’t troubled her then, she thought they probably would now. Neither story deepened my enjoyment of the experience, but they both deepened my understanding of the piece.

After ten years living in Edinburgh, several of those spent as a reviewer during the Fringe, I came to Tasmania with high expectations. It hasn’t disappointed: I already have shoeboxes full of ticket stubs and a head full of great memories.

A highlight was Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s inventive, funny kids show Little Red Racing Hood, which used slot cars and clever camera angles to reimagine the classic fairy tale as a miniature motor race. When I’m in the car myself, driving north from Hobart, it’s fun to keep an eye out for new Shadows of the Past sculptures: figures ranging from thylacines to landscape surveyors to convicts on horseback, each rendered in the form of a metal silhouette beside the Heritage Highway. Without even leaving the comfort of my own sofa I can get lost in the fiction of Heather Rose or Danielle Wood, or turn on NITV to let my young son watch the work of Indigenous Tasmanian animator Tony Thorne in Little J and Big Cuz.

But after four years here, I feel like I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface of the Tasmanian arts scene. For every enriching experience, I have a corresponding regret about something I missed. By all accounts, those in the audience at the Hobart performances of Nathan Maynard’s The Season felt like they were seeing the first run of a new Australian classic. I’ve heard equally good things about artistic work across almost every other genre: Vicki Madden’s award-winning television drama The Kettering Incident; the temporary annual exhibitions at Birch’s Bay Sculpture Trail; and the thoughtful, contemporary curation at QVMAG in Launceston. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet experienced any of them, but what a pleasure and a privilege to live in a state where there are so many opportunities to explore.

It’s clear there’s a level of creativity, innovation and cultural appreciation in Tasmania that is going almost unnoticed beyond our own shores. That needs to change. Tassie can no more be reduced to MONA than Australia can be reduced to the Sydney Opera House, so the days of journalists flying down and brandishing a lanyard and a wheeled suitcase for the weekend before returning to Sydney should be long gone.

Certainly, if you are planning a trip here, set a day aside for the ferry trip up the Derwent to MONA. You will not be disappointed. But leave some time for other art adventures too.

In a place where there’s not the diversity of publications or the same number of trained arts journalists as you might find elsewhere, word-of-mouth is everything. There is a democracy of opinion in Tasmania that allows everyone to have a say on the arts scene: an excellent play or a terrible exhibition becomes, quite literally, the talk of the town.

I invite you to join me here out of season, and experience Tasmania’s vibrant cultural scene for yourself. Start your weekend with a drink and a dance at Rektango, and take it from there. If you come with your mind and your ears open, there’s no telling what artistic excellence you might stumble upon.

Ruth Dawkins is a writer from a tiny island in the north of Scotland. In 2013 she moved to Tasmania, where the cold winters, beautiful sunsets and generous measures of whisky make her feel very much at home. Visit her website at ruthdawkins.net.

Check out yesterday’s article, '150.Action: Gentrifying Space with the Revolutionary Potential of Fresh Blood and Sinew', a reflection on Hermann Nitsch’s stomach-churning 150.Action at DARK MOFO.