Sea

Curated by Romy Wall with David Hansen Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart Tasmania 28 November 1997 - 4 January 1998

Sea is introduced by a long, looping necklace of tiny yet spectacularly iridescent blue-green mariner shells – typical of necklaces made by Tasmanian Aboriginal women – carefully placed within a perspex box. The label is pointedly mysterious: "maker unknown", "collector unknown", "acquisition date unknown", and the date of the piece is simply recorded as "nineteenth century". Museological authority is invoked to specifically inform us of only one thing: the shells used are phasionotrochus irisodontas.

After encountering this subtly beautiful, mysterious, but clearly historically loaded object, the viewer steps around the corner to discover that the piece has a weird twin on the other side of the screen. It is also placed in a perspex case and has its own exotic beauty and pathos. It is a little house made of shells, with a garden out front and a summer house and dog kennel on the side. A crudely-formed man and woman stand proudly in the garden, and puffs of sea-sponge smoke rise from the chimney. Made by Mrs John Lord in c. 1870, its provenance is more easily defined than that of the necklace, although its status as a "serious" artefact is in some ways less so. While this is the sort of kitsch that is still made today and that you laugh at in little shops in tourist seaside towns, it has such an intense sense of an imaginative vision realised – and of its own existence as a unique object – that it defies being easily dismissed.

Juxtaposing the skilful simplicity of the necklace with the comical fussiness of the model house makes for an aesthetically witty and playful opening to the exhibition. Given the gravity with which most institutions now regard Aboriginal artefacts in their keeping, however, we can also assume that the decision to pair these objects was not taken lightly. Accordingly, the grouping also underscores a more serious resonance between the female history of each object, and its unsure status as "art".

These two objects could form a leitmotif for the whole exhibition, which brings together artefacts and images from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery's fine art, zoology, history, decorative arts and indigenous culture departments in often thought-provoking and unexpected groupings that play on the concept of the traditionally eclectic and astonishing Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Wonders. Glowing, precise nineteenth century paintings of the ocean hang next to old, lumpy, rope "pudding bags" made to protect the sides of moored boats from damage, and contemporary works like Kevin Todd's photocopied blow-ups of the surfaces of various sorts of waves. (These take up a whole wall and, despite their austerely "scientific" air, do tend to look a little like self-conscious wallpaper in comparison with more subtle imagery like a nearby page from the sketchbook of Thomas Bock (1790/93-1855), with its sensitive and minimal wave study.)

All these pieces are in the first room of the exhibition, which actually spreads out through three large gallery areas. By the time you reach the second area, the realisation of how many objects and images remain to be looked at encourages skimming rather than the careful, delighted looking (and sense of discovery) that the first room had so successfully fostered, and objects have to work harder for your attention. In this room, careful watercolours of shells and fish by Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895) play off beautifully against preserved examples of the same creatures, and a naively delicate anthropomorphic print by contemporary Tasmanian artist Barbie Kjar.

As in any Wunderkammer, however, it is the freakish that holds your attention when more subtle, better crafted items blur together. A Hobart newspaper article from 1962 about the infamous Tasmanian "blob" is truly transfixing when paired with a preserved section of the actual monster (in reality a piece of whale carcass) taken by a scientist when the creature was washed up onto a remote beach in Northern Tasmania. In the next room, a stuffed albatross chick is arranged in a fearful, crouching pose that almost sadistically highlights its intense vulnerability. Nearby, a crudely made ship's figurehead from the 1860s is equally abject and equally fascinating; the female creature's ridiculously short arms dangle pathetically, and what appears to be blood streams across her pallid face and staring eyes. These kind of objects create darker undercurrents within the exhibition and hint at an understanding of the Wunderkammer as a theatre of cruelty for jaded palates, not just an edifying collection of the unusual and rare.

Sea was primarily put together by guest curator and postgraduate intern Romy Wall, who writes with verve about the lure of the ocean. She was supervised in her project by David Hansen, senior curator of arts and humanities at the Museum, and originator of the exhibition concept. (An interesting website, which includes images, has been created in lieu of a published document. See .) He notes the appropriateness of a "sea" theme for an island state with a strong (and ongoing) maritime history, and for an exhibition that neatly coincides with Hobart's summertime boating frenzy which traditionally peaks with the Sydney to Hobart yacht race over the Christmas and New Year period.

While Hansen demonstrates a candid and laudable awareness of the need to get punters through the door, he makes it clear that his primary concern is that the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery should utilise its unusually broad collection in an interdisciplinary way, one that delights viewers with strange juxtapositions but which also potentially leads them to question systems of classification and the museumification of artefacts and images. His particular interest in recontextualising contemporary art gives Sea an intriguing edge: as a strategy it echoes the art world's continuing fascination with installing and giving a narrative thrust to found objects. The extent to which the majority of visitors – unattuned to recent debates about institutional collection and display of artefacts in a postcolonial era – do actually mull over these issues is debatable and probably a moot point: Sea is eclectic and rich enough to satisfy a multitude of viewing experiences.

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