Is it the end of the world, or the beginning of it? Last time I was in the antipodes, I was told off for saying the stars were upside-down: ‘They’re the right way up to us.’ On my recent visit to Tasmania, I remarked, in a lecture at the College of Arts in Hobart, on how bizarre the island’s animals were: such marsupial mash-ups as the platypus, which was regarded as some kind of a joke when specimens were sent back to the west; or the bettong, a cat-sized kangaroo; or the echidna, a hedgehog crossed with a rat; or the cartoonish Tasmanian devil, a scavenger so voracious it has been known to consume the entirety of a human corpse save the soles of its victim’s shoes. Once more, I was reprimanded for my occidentalist prejudice. When Miranda, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), exclaims: ‘Oh brave new world / That has such people in’t,’ her father, the magician Prospero, retorts: ‘’Tis new to thee.’
Tasmania is concentrated Australia; it bursts with intense beauty and unresolved history. It is an island within an island, extirpated of its ‘savage crows’, as its early setttlers saw the native inhabitants. As Greg Lehman, Indigenous writer on the representation of Tasmanian Aborigines in colonial art, wrote last year in his essay in the Griffith Review, ‘Tasmanian Gothic: The Art of Australia’s Forgotten War’, his were ‘the most southerly people on the planet’. ‘In Tasmania,’ he writes, ‘an empty wilderness was created, not found — a dark, unknown land where the wind whispers secrets too frightening to hear.’
Hobart’s population is 250,000, barely that of my hometown in the UK, Southampton. It sits at the top of the Derwent River, a waterway which was once so full of whales that they kept people awake at night with their bellowings. It was to this Edenic sound that the first colonizers came, incrementally moving into the island, to the growing apprehension of its inhabitants. Previous callers — explorers, whalers, sealers — had come and gone. But these pale men were staying. Soon they brought the cast-offs of their country, the criminals and criminalized for whom they had no use (among them my own ancestor, James Nind, sent to what was then known as Van Diemen’s Land in 1831 for stealing 19 hens and a cock). The conflicts that were engendered by this clash of cultures — one industrial, already mechanized, and exploitative; the other nomadic and at least 40,000 years old — would soon break out into the so-called Black War from 1828 to 1832, in which, latest estimates suggest, at least 800 Indigenous people were killed. Those who survived were rounded up and sent into exile on Flinders Island and elsewhere, where many died of homesickness: it was as if they simply ceased to exist once removed from their homeland. The tragic irony is that the land itself, shaped by their firestick farming, would also suffer environmentally from the withdrawal of the humans who had hunted and lived off it.
One man offered himself as mediator in this act of ethnic cleansing. George Robinson, self-appointed ‘Protector of Aborigines’ and a failed preacher with no little sense of self-importance, befriended Aboriginal people across the island and coaxed them — for their own good, he reassured himself — into captivity. His explorations into the south-west of Tasmania — an area even now almost entirely uninhabited, and nearly impossible to access — were conducted with a group of ‘friendly’ Aborigines, among them the young Truganini, a woman who had suffered rape and the enslavement and murder of her family.
In what was intended to be the founding image of this new era, the artist Benjamin Duterrau painted a vast group, The Conciliation (1840), claimed, not least by the artist himself, as Australia’s first historical epic painting, depicting ‘Black’ Robinson, Truganini and other members of the entourage. Resplendent in Hobart’s Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), this oddly rendered yet extraordinarily telling epic speaks of the unequal, shifting balance of power and occupation on this island. It is, in itself, an imperial gesture. Lehman thinks that The Conciliation ‘takes the events in Tasmania from being an inconsequential flurry on the edge of civilization and places them among the mainstream of world events […] Duterrau scripted the first chapter of Tasmanian Gothic.’
In Duterrau’s other paintings, hung in the same room, Truganini is portrayed, along with her husband, Wooreddy, and the chief, Manalagana, like Shakespearean figures. They could be Ferdinand, Miranda and Prospero. The painter has Europeanized their characters, if not their images. They symbolize the island on which they and their ancestors had lived for unknown millenia. The ochre and fat used on their bodies and heads seem to appropriate the land itself. Ultimately, Duterrau’s art shades into ineptitude and banality when faced with a narrative of such immensity.
These strange paintings — both pale and dark, cultured and naive — contrast with the work of John Glover, a rather better painter, and a contemporary and rival of J.M.W. Turner. He emigrated to Tasmania in late middle age in 1831, and found new inspiration in its landscapes — for all that the Black War was then in progress in those woods and on those plains. Glover’s Tasmania is framed by serpentine eucalypt branches, under which the Indigenous inhabitants have been reduced to mere animations, dancing their corroborees by firelight, or diving in the Derwent River in the foreground, whilst Hobart’s new town rises on the far shore, a beacon of civilizing influence spreading up the lower slopes of Mount Wellington. I asked Warwick Oakman, the Tasmanian art historian, about his hero. ‘He was like so many bright Regency sparks to slide under the tomb of high Victorian religious fervour,’ Oakman said, ‘the apotheosis of an addict of the sublime.’
Attached to TMAG’s main quarters is the Bond Store, a dimly lit warehouse with exposed brick walls. It has been converted to another redolent exhibition space, which retains the patina of its mid-19th-century workaday origins in the form of graffitti’d sums and memoranda on plaster walls. Sitting on the floor, next to an installation by Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Julie Gough, The Consequence of Chance (2011) — a colonial canvas tent onto which were projected silhouettes of Indigenous people and settlers in conflict — a group of politely behaved school children was watching a twin film installation by independent production company, Roar Film.
On both sides of the wall were projected similar images of the bush and staged reconstructions of incidents from the Black War; the narration on each side, however, was different. To our left, we heard the settlers’ story; saw them speared by natives; felt the threat of the wild and the alien. To the right, we heard the Indigenous side; felt the threat of the wild and alien. ‘Parrawa! Parrawa! Go away you white buggers, what business have you here?’ The children listened carefully and took notes.
On the way north from Hobart to Tasmania’s second city, Launceston, we drove through fertile midlands which so resembled the British countryside that the original settlers commented approvingly that you could drive a coach and four through them. Georgian towns such as Oatlands and Ross boast grandiose stone bridges, villas, churches and, ironically, jails, built with the benefit of cheap convict labour. They wouldn’t seem out of place in a costume drama; indeed, it is sometimes difficult to know whether we have wandered onto a film set, so elaborate and even oddly two-dimensional do these structures seem.
It is a dramatic tone reflected in a pair of cibachrome photographs by Melbourne artist Jacqui Stockdale from her 2005 ‘Familja’ series, on display in tmag’s ‘Critical Operations’ show last year. Lady Rabbit depicts a woman in a muslin Georgian dress and a rabbit mask, with her breasts exposed; while Colonial Boy shows a young man in a bicorne hat, shirtless under his soldier’s frock coat; both are set against backdrops painted by Stockdale as ‘quotes’ from John Glover’s work. Stockdale comments: ‘The idea that Australia was deemed null and void upon settlement of the Europeans astounds me, so these portraits, in a sense, mimic an era when art was used as a vehicle to portrait most arrogantly “who was boss”.’
The way these ordered landscapes were seen, perhaps optimistically, by the settlers was also sharply counterpointed by the anarchic reality of Georgian Tasmania and its wild outback, where escaped convicts- turned-bushrangers, such as Michael Howe, lived. Self-appointed ‘lieutenant governor of the woods’, Howe exerted his own alternative political power in this time of flux, and among his gang numbered at least two men who had been imprisoned for ‘unnatural crimes’, along with ‘two black native girls armed as well as the men’.
Howe and his tooled-up queers and Indigenous women delighted in raiding gentlemen’s estates, turning their fragile order upside down with a faux ‘fool’s court’, by appointing the landowner’s own convict-servants in judgement against them. As with the fool wearing the king’s crown, Howe and his gang had inverted possession in this inverted island; colour and sex, too. The renegades sat at the head of the elegant dining tables and, at one point in a letter to the ‘real’ lieutenant governor, ‘Mad’ Tom Davey, Howe declared that he would set fire to the entire island from coast to coast.
On the run, threatened by Aborigines and holed up in a remote hut, Howe wrote down his dreams in kangaroo blood, in a kangaroo- skin journal, ‘which shew strongly the distressed state of his mind, and some tincture of superstition’, as a sensational contemporary biography of him claimed. By this time, Howe himself was wearing ‘a dress made of kangaroo skins, had an extraordinary long beard, and presented altogether a terrific appearance’. In October 1818, Howe was hunted down and clubbed to death, and his decapitated head was taken to Hobart. In the process, he became one of Tasmania’s first folk heroes, or devils — a status Ned Kelly would inherit at the end of the century, as depicted by Sidney Nolan’s memorable paintings, in which Kelly is reduced to a square blunt head with a letter-box-shaped slit, as if to reflect the impending emptiness of the nuclear age during which Nolan was painting in the 1940s, as much as the insurrection of the outlaw himself.
Like Kelly in his bush-made armour, Howe in his kangaroo-skin dress expressed a new kind of culture on this island. In his history Van Diemen’s Land (2010), James Boyce notes that, in those early years of settlement, a different sort of life seemed possible; that in Howe’s reign, the bushrangers and ‘shepherd-hunters’ had already begun to develop their own dialect, living off the land ‘and in diet, clothing and accommodation pursued a way of life that remained largely unchanged until […] the 1950s’.
As a corollary to this evocation of sexual and racial anarchy, it is worth noting that Tasmania was the last place in the British Empire to hang a man for sodomy — in 1867 — and that a major impetus for the ending of transportation was the widely held assumption that convict gangs were having sex in the bush, encouraged by the mild climate. In 1997, Tasmania was also the last Australian state to decriminalize homosexuality. It has since prided itself on being at the forefront of gay rights, although that may well change under its new conservative administration. Although the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) only opened in 2011, Hobartians now speak of a pre- and post-MONA era — as if contemporary art were an economic force beyond its reach. This ignores, perhaps, the work of other art patrons such as Penny Clive, whose not-for-profit foundation, Detached, has moved into a massive downtown space once occupied by the Mercury newspaper, and has equally ambitious plans for the future. Nearby, is the city’s upscale Henry Jones Art Hotel and galleries such as Art Mob, showing work by Indigenous artists, both of which abutt the premises of the university’s excellent College of Art — which reports a similar post-mona upswing in student numbers.
MONA itself has transcended the notion of a gallery, to the extent that it has become a de rigueur stop on the itineraries of visiting cruise liners. To reach this sensational cynosure, set far up the Derwent River in Hobart’s unfashionable northern suburbs, one may drive or even cycle through the gritty working-class area of Glenorchy from which David Walsh, the founder and sole funder of the gallery, himself came. But the preferred option is to take the MONA ROMA, a dazzle ship/camouflage-painted ferry that departs from the city’s quayside, on which all the staff are dressed in black, the deck is covered in Astroturf, there are moulded plastic sheep to sit on and a Brit Pop soundtrack blares from the loudspeakers.
From the outside, Walsh’s edifice, designed by architects Fender Katsalidis, is oddly unassertive, signified by vast metal plates fixed to the sandstone cliffs, which look more like bulwarks to keep the land at bay. In the grounds are two works by Wim Delvoye from his Gothic period — the rusting Cement Mixer (2008) and his Chapel (2010–11) picked out in tracery, with X-ray stained-glass windows. mona’s true scale is apparent only as you take the glass-lined lift down into a gigantic cavernous space that has been gouged out of the rock.
Admission to MONA is free to Tasmanians who identify themselves as such (‘yes, yes, second head, etc. etc.’, as the museum leaflet jokes, in a reference to long-standing notions of islander in-breeding). The works of art are unlabelled; instead, visitors are given iPods on which they can listen to ‘art wank’ essays on the selected exhibits (the museum’s catalogue is entitled Monaism). Walsh — self-diagnosed as autistic and obsessed with sex and death (not a little like his stylistic mentor, Damien Hirst), and who made his fortune by inventing a system for gambling on horse racing — refers to his palace of sensation as a theme park. Surveys appear to show that he is actually enticing visitors who would would never normally set foot in a gallery. But the whole place might as well have been built in the teenaged Walsh’s bedroom. It works because it hasn’t been designed by committee. Its eclectic aesthetic seems entirely in keeping with the eldritch air of this uncanny island, with Walsh as a punk Prospero. These are synoptic spaces, incorporating items from Walsh’s collection: a Wassily Kandinsky, an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, a David Bowie gold disc.
MONA’s installations are monumental in scale, enabled by or created for these subterranean chambers. Works such as Julius Popp’s bit.fall (2006–07) — a cascading curtain of artificial rain onto which are projected high-frequency internet search terms, such as ‘police’, ‘Obama’ and ‘gun’ — and Brigita Ozolins’s Kryptos (2011), a labyrinth whose twisting corridors, numbered with binary codes, conduct you into a set-piece from a 1970s sci-fi movie. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Thomas Jerome Newton —Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) — in the innermost chamber, with his orange and blonde slicked-back hair reflected in the mirrored ceiling overhead.
But, for me, such white-knuckle rides yield to the vitrines containing Tessa Farmer’s microcosmic worlds — part Richard Dadd, part Pitt Rivers Museum — through which her depraved fairies have invaded the antipodes. Farmer spent a month in Tasmania collecting the items in these installation pieces, which may be seen to reflect Walsh’s avowed fascination with evolutionary biology. Farmer’s scenarios swarm with beetles, flies and wasps; crabs crawl baroquely over a hedgehog’s back and, in The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (2013), butterflies and crickets cluster madly around the marsupial’s skull.
The day after my subterranean visit to MONA’s caves, I find myself sitting next to Fin Stronach, a pilot young enough to be my grandson, as we take off over Hobart in his small Cessna. From here, you can see the splendid setting of the city, and its sprawling suburbs. Stronach addresses me through the headphones mic, pointing out a vessel below: the Bob Barker, Sea Shepherd’s Australian flagship, ‘back from saving our whales’ as Stronach says. It, too, is painted in dazzleship patterns of blue, black and grey; it might as well be one of mona’s installations — only with added bared teeth. (A week later, the International Court of Justice would declare Japan’s whaling operations to be illegal.)
We fly over the fragmented southern coast of the island, into the wilds of the Southern Ocean. Far to the west of here, the Australian air force are searching for the wreckage of flight mh370. The sense of utter wilderness takes over. The coast is broken by rocky headlands and intricate peninsulas, and sweeping, entirely deserted beaches washed by turquoise waves that have rolled here, unimpeded, from South America. Below are the forests which have become a new battleground, as the Abbott Government has declared its aim of reversing the unesco World Heritage status of areas of forest, thereby opening it up to logging.
Later, I would look down on a Japanese timber mill, busy turning trees into veneer. The factory is the site of vehement forestry protests by activists, a modern tribal battle for the identity of the island, commemorated in another film installation by James Newitt in ‘Critical Operations’. If They Fall (2010) is a visceral exposition, filmed mostly in the dark or twilight, of Edenic innocence versus commercial imperative. Mechanized tree-strippers pass giant trunks between themselves from claw to claw like huge sticks of asparagus, tenderly ravishing paradise in their deadly exchange. The process is facilitated by helmeted forest workers and opposed by dreadlocked protestors/ eco-terrorists; at one point, a group marches across the screen, carrying a banner emblazoned with three words: ‘YOU – US ‒ THEM’.
Flying over trees yet to fall, we dip down through the mountains, as Stronach’s digital dashboard flashes up a red alert: terrain ahead. The plane screeches to a halt on the white quartzite scree of a narrow airstrip. The whiteness exacerbates the isolation; we might have overshot our site and landed in Antarctica. We are in the middle of nowhere. There are no roads here, no houses, nothing. Just the land itself. This was the last resort of the Indigenous Tasmanians, before they were deceived into exile by Robinson’s lies or marched away at gunpoint. We take a boat down a river whose trees turn the lucid water the colour of tea with their tannin; and, from a white beach, in the shadow of unclimbed mountains, I swim in this tributary of the Southern Ocean.
Once the yelp of the thylacine — Tasmania’s talismanic tiger-kangaroo-wild-dog mash-up, a beast more chimera than marsupial — was heard here, in these badlands. Sadly, the last thylacine died of cold in a Hobart zoo in 1936, although there have been repeated reports of its persistence somewhere in these wild forests. But, as I emerge from the sky-still sea, under those swaying trees, there is only silence.