Archer takes the devil out of Tasmania



'Archer takes the devil out of Tasmania' Art Monthly #139, pp.4-7 (2001)

There was forum on Iceland at the new Antarctic Adventure Centre in Hobart. The centre is part of the Salamanca Square development, which heralds an open-air lifestyle new to a city often braced by winds straight off the South Pole. The square seems an integral part of the new ‘festivalised’ state—a panorama of coffee tables, pavement, strollers, shops and plants. Its sociable atmosphere in early April testified to the success of Robyn Archer’s 10 Days on an Island in exorcising the stigma of Port Arthur and reversing the sad tale of economic decline.

A larger than expected audience turned out to hear talk about Iceland. Small venues meant that most performances were booked out and here was a free opportunity to imbibe some of the ideas stimulated by the festival. Professor Terry Dwyer of the Menzies Centre for Population Health Research engaged two Icelanders, Sophia Gustafsdoth and Gudrun Arnalds, to speak about their country of origin. Iceland and Tasmania are symmetrically positioned as islands in the nether regions of their respective continents. What might they say to each other?

Professor Dwyer was particularly interested in the economic success of Iceland, which demonstrated that Tasmania’s isolation and small population were not essential barriers to commercial growth. The keys to success kept the conversation ticking over—including proximity to financial centres, education, character, national genetic registry—but cultural comparisons were avoided. At one point, Professor Dwyer started asking Gudrun ‘And having seen a bit of Tasmania, what do you think are the differences between here and Iceland…’ but before she had a chance to answer, he steered the question back to the bottom line, ‘…I mean, what makes the Icelanders so successful at IT?’ There seemed a hint of anxiety in the diversion, as though it avoided a potentially critical judgment about local culture. Criticism was for the grim past, whereas this discussion was an opportunity to re-cast Tasmania more positively as one of an informal global federation of islands, with the renewed confidence that this might bring.

The creative sanctuary offered by an isolated island culture was demonstrated powerfully in the festival’s art program. Powerhouse curator Grace Cochrane returned to her old home town with a considered exhibition at Salamanca’s Long Gallery. Response to the Island showed a range of individual attempts to develop a sense of place, principally through local materials. Naturally, wood was a dominant material—Kevin Perkins huon pine Cape Barren Goose cabinet honoured a hunted bird, Linda Fredheim’s cabinets for John Wolseley’s Gondwanaland drawings used the layers of history contained in native timber and Peter Adams created a conversation between huon pine and beach stones.

While wood was testimony to nature, shell provided a link to Palawa culture. Ruth Hadlow drew on Cape Barren Island culture to combine embroidery samplers and Palawa shelling traditions, Cape Barren islander Lola Greeno constructed necklaces from various shells, and Julie Gough threaded together iridescent maireeners made of local shell. In most works there was an air of gentle reverence towards their subject matter.

An exception was Greg Leong’s Weldborough Joss, which used traditional textile techniques to present sewn excerpts from letters to the editor about Chinese in the late 19th century. This victimary art seemed to touch on some important unfinished sorry business in Tasmanian history.

The word ‘community’ was invoked frequently during the course of the festival. Its creative potential  was demonstrated strongly in the One Tree Project at the Bond Store of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Coordinated by Talen Atkins, the project invited artists to make works from ‘one mill rejected blue leafed stringy bark eucalyptus obliqua’. Valued at $100, the works are auctioned online (at to raise money for the purchase of forest for sustainable management.

A high point of conviviality was Poets & Painters at Bett Gallery, where artists and writers were invited to collaborate on the island theme. Ray Arnold’s gravestone rubbing of Rodney Cromes’ sodomy epitaph The same sex, the same land, the same fate was particularly compelling. However, the exhibition could have been more tightly curated with shorter literary contributions and clearer labelling.

Following Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, a number of works were placed on sites along the Tasman peninsular, including Roaring Beach and Port Arthur. This provided a high profile event, with some publicity-attracting controversy about the pong of Josh Meyer’s catch of the day, made from rotting anchovies coated in latex. Anna Philips’ monumental Doily II, knitted from white plastic bags, was a startling imposition. The picturesque coastline offered one of the best galleries in the festival.

Between Phenomena at Plimsoll Gallery

Between Phenomena, curated by Ray Arnold, seemed the most important of the visual arts exhibitions. It included both historical and contemporary examples of the panoramic genre. The key figure was Henry Hellyer, whose panoramic drawings from St. Valentine’s Peak not only demonstrate the clear link between visual representation and colonising practices, but also poignantly allude to the story of his recently recovered homosexuality. Museum curator David Hansen drew these elements together eloquently in an opening speech that included a remarkable series of fire and brimstone images. It was clear from the audience response that there is considerable local enjoyment of the island’s dark secrets. This affection was also evident in inclusion of historical works such as the photographic panoramas produced by Rudolph Harry Major for the Hydro-Electric Commission and documented in Philip Hutch’s catalogue essay.

Between Phenomena touched on an enduring theme in recent Tasmanian art. Bea Maddock’s TERRA SPIRITUS…with a darker shade of pale employed the panoramic imperative to circumnavigate the island’s geographic features with Palawa names. David Stephenson’s Antarctic Series made an important link between the panorama and the disorientation of the South Pole, the natural pivot of any 360-degree view.

More could have been made of panoramic digital technologies. Martin Walch’s stereoscopic videos provided stark contrast to the static panoramas. However, a crisp QuicktimeVR of the Antarctic base did not have the creative twist that artists like Megan Jones have been able to bring to the small screen.

Ray Arnold’s thoughtful curatorial thesis is testimony to a life’s vocation of inscribing the landscape. He argues that the exhibition attempts to reverse the panopticon power of the gaze by featuring an eye that is ‘closer to apprehension than command’. This thesis seemed characteristic of a redemptive discourse that is dominant in Tasmania, even more so than the mainland. However, this humility discounts the continuing relevance of panorama as language for individual artistic consciousness, which is a pleasure invoked by Between Phenomena but disowned in its more sober official story.

Happily, the exhibition encompassed idiosyncrasy. Udo Sellbach’s drawings of fantastic island scenes helped the exhibition breathe with narrative imagination.

Between Phenomena demonstrated what a treasure of history contemporary Tasmanian art has to draw on, and how fortunate it is that the Plimsoll Gallery has been able to weather university reviews and survive to this date (unlike ceramics, which will no longer be taught in Hobart).

But there were significant gaps in the visual arts program. Painting is the dominant medium in Tasmania, yet there was no group exhibition to look at the island on the canvas. There was no focus for the complex argument between the Tasmanian Gothic and the Tasmanian Grotesque, which has so stimulated local thought in recent years. The rich but problematic history of settlement seemed to be skirted over, but it will no doubt be resurrected in a better-prepared program for the next festival.

By chance, I came across an exhibition that unintentionally reflected what was missing in the galleries. In the suburban museum Alpenrail, one man’s model railway hobby has become a public spectacle and visitors can witness a full day simulated in railway system in the Swiss Alps. It is compelling testimony to the haunting powers of the Tasmanian grotesque.

In his 1956 book People for Australia, Augustin Lodewyckx entertained opening up the white Australia policy hoping ‘And if in time to come Swiss chalets or Norwegian herdmen's huts were to enliven the wild slopes of Tasmanian mountains…’ Lodewyckx was a self-elected ambassador for Iceland in Australia. Now Iceland and Tasmania have become acquainted, there is an opportunity to let a few foreign ghosts out of the cupboard—something that the more contemplative medium of visual arts can offer a festival smorgasbord.


Among Hobart’s original founding party was Jorgen Jorgenson, an adventurer who returned to the island in chains after a brief reign as the illegitimate King of Iceland. In his lexicon of Tasmanian Aboriginal, the word for white person is Numeraredia (see for a database of terms for non-indigenous Australians).


Kevin Murray is a writer and curator living in Melbourne, a city that was planned in a Launceston pub.