Visual Art

The winter exhibitions at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art feature epic works that contemplate the urgencies of our time. By Claire G. Coleman.

Winter at MONA

Exodust: Crying Country (2022) at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.
Exodust: Crying Country (2022) at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.
Credit: MONA / Jesse Hunniford

We arrived at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Berriedale, Tasmania, an hour prior to opening to see the three winter season exhibitions before the crowds – swelled by Dark Mofo visitors – arrived and rendered it significantly more difficult to move through the space. The works are on the bottom floor, three levels underground. It’s recommended that visitors start at the bottom and spiral upwards through the gallery.

Not many privately owned galleries could pull off the three exhibitions that opened at MONA last month. Each is large enough to be a feature exhibition at a biennial. Fiona Hall and AJ King’s installation, for example, is every bit as epic as Fiona Hall’s Wrong Way Time – originally installed in the Australia Pavilion as part of the 2015 Venice Biennale – if perhaps less intricate.

Brisbane-based artist Robert Andrew’s Within an utterance doesn’t speak about the importance of Country to language and language to Country – it shouts. Works in charcoal and ochre on paper are in the process of being drawn in real time by a machine of strings and pulleys that extend through the entire vast room. Country itself – burnt sticks, pieces of ochre and rocks – is integrated into the machine, acting as weights, making marks.

The input for the machine is Palawa kani, the reconstructed revival language for the local Palawa people. It’s specific to the place where it was assembled – to the very room – and made of the stuff of Country. A machine to write Country back to itself. Language, the site of assembly and Country itself make the marks.

Aboriginal languages belong on, and to, Country and to the landscapes that spawned them. Country is best described using the language that grew there with the people of the land. We need a word or a phrase for works that can only be done on Country: “site-specific” doesn’t cover it. The nearest I can think of is “On Country”, a phrase that has been used to describe work that needs to be made on the Country it depicts.

In the next large gallery we are confronted with Phase Shifting Index, by Berlin-based artist Jeremy Shaw, which consists of six huge back-projected screens. On each screen a group of people performs ritualistic movements. Each group appears to be from a slightly different subculture or culture, perhaps from different decades in the 20th century. The experience of watching the videos was, for me, driven by my cultural background: I was reminded of raves and dance music culture and of the physical movement practices in collaborative arts.

The movement slowly ascends to a crescendo, an ecstatic moment, as the videos develop unison. The light and movement abruptly reminded me of Faithless video clips (in a good way). Dance brings events to a frenzied conclusion after about 20 minutes, before the world falls apart in a data-moshing apocalypse. We are left to imagine for ourselves if the ending was destructive or transcendent.

From that ecstatic ending we move on to the visceral shock of the next gallery, from noise and light to darkness and near silence.

An apocalyptic landscape, Exodust: Crying Country by Hobart artist Fiona Hall and AJ King – a Bigambul/Wakka Wakka cultural practitioner – is one of the physically darkest spaces I have seen in a gallery. On the other side of the apocalypse stands a burnt-out cottage. The path there leads through a burnt forest, dead blackened stumps of trees, ash on the ground, the air filled with the smell of the days after a bushfire. Every Australian will recognise that smell; for me it provoked a feeling of doom and fear. I remember fires encroaching on our backyard when I was a child, and my dad, a firefighter, taking off to fight another bushfire, perhaps never to return.

The cottage or shack is constructed of charred wood and burnt books, speaking of loss and destruction, of the end of civilisation. The name of the artwork, Exodust, is marked on the back wall of the cottage in backlit coloured plastic bottles in a frame of clear bottles, which creates an effect reminiscent of a stained-glass window. The entire space is a chapel, in which a burnt coffin supports a burnt crib, from which a rope ladder ascends to heaven.

The work at the entrance puts blame firmly where it belongs. It’s a remounting of Hall’s Hack (2015), a camera-like box that sits Rupert Murdoch firmly in the centre of all the trouble in our world.

An hour after we arrived, just before we finished with Exodust, the gallery opened to the public. It took the crowd a while to get to us, with the famously slow elevator or the intentionally “endless” spiral stairs, so we finished our tour with the room empty and then fought our way through the crowds to the bar – for coffees, not cocktails.

If there is a complaint to make about MONA, it’s the crowds. It quickly becomes claustrophobic when full and the entry line is ridiculously long. When we went back to see the exhibitions again, the crowds were too thick to see the works well enough for my liking. Get there early.

These three exhibitions are well worth the visit, perhaps worth a flight to Hobart. Both Andrew and the collaboration between Hall and King made art about Country, about place, about what defines Australia and about the danger we are in. Interestingly, both these installations focused on burnt wood – Andrew as a pigment or for mark-making, Hall and King using it as a sculptural element. Shaw was less concerned with Country, although the concept of using dance and ritualised movement to escape an apocalypse resonates with Indigenous culture.

Thinking over them now, it occurs to me that the three exhibitions, in the order we visited them, tell a story. Andrew leads us in, talking about language loss and revival, about how important language is to saving Country. Shaw’s work speaks to us of the end of the world, of the Anthropocene and the failed attempts to save us all. Hall and King speak of the world ending, in a local sense at least, and the loss of Country and culture if we fail to act.

We consider freedom, culture and escape, we think about what is coming and what we can do, we imagine the world we have and the world we might leave behind. This season of exhibitions at MONA is a spur to action. 

MONA’s winter exhibitions are on show until October 17.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Calls to action".

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Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar author. Her books include Lies Damned Lies: A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation and Enclave.

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