Acidophilus: Live culture colonised at the TMAG

Ten Days on the Island
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart
18 March – 1 May, 2005

Historical museum collections bore me. Unless overseas, I rarely venture out to see exhibitions compiled from a museum’s permanent collection. For my taste, contemporary art is where it’s at. Artist run spaces, independent galleries and theatres offer the creative verve and challenging subject matter I seek to find in art. Walking the musty halls of a museum gazing at an equally musty collection of conservative artworks quickly reminds me that I may have left the stove on and had better hurry home.

In an attempt to lure people like me in to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) to engage with a selection of the permanent collection, John Vella curated ‘Acidophilus: live culture colonised at the TMAG’ for the biennial arts festival, Ten Days on the Island. With the aid of Contemporary Art Services Tasmania, Vella commissioned six Tasmanian artists to produce contemporary works in response to specific pieces from the TMAG’s collection of twentieth century painting and sculpture.

Stretched over five substantial galleries, the works of Acidophilus were seamlessly slipped in amongst the permanent art on display. One of the most successful new works on show was found in Gallery 5. Performance artist Brigita Ozolins spread a series of large mirrored perspex letters over the polished wooden floorboards. Spelling LOOK ON, Ozolins’s work was a response to the romanticised female figure dreamily gazing into the distance in The Onlooker (1905) by Emmanuel Phillips Fox. Reflecting back the viewer, The Onlooker and the other TMAG works on display, Ozolins’s Look On (2005), provided an innovative and pristinely slick exchange between old and new.

Gallery 1 played welcome host to Roof (2005), a sound sculpture by Kevin Leong. Responding to Charles Blackman’s Theatre Party (1960), a moody portrait of four elegantly dressed figures huddled closely together, Leong hung a square sheet of corrugated iron above his chosen work. The comforting sound of raindrops on a metal roof swam softly around both works and added an extra dimension to Blackman’s Theatre Party by extending its space and opening up new interpretative possibilities.

Anne Mestitz’s sculptural piece Upbeat/Downbeat (2005) zigzagged in furtive spurts directly in front of Negative (1991), a lusciously abstract work by Dick Watkins on display in Gallery 4. Mimicking the painterly loops and lines of Negative, Mestitz applied white car-detailing tape to a sixteen-metre stretch of black aluminium cable to create a ‘dotted’ line. Physically manipulating the cable into an angular composition that remained contained within the boundaries of Negative, Mestitz created a three-dimensional extension of Watkins’s work by rhythmically engaging with his visceral patterning.

Pink sparkly bits made up the majority of Joybelle Frasson’s cataclysmically feminine response to Edith Holmes’s triple self-portrait, Summer (1930-35). In The Enchanted Blossom Bower (2005), Frasson utilised the everyday decorative materials of glitter, pipecleaners, dolly pegs, beads and ribbons to construct a bower encasing Holmes’ portrait. Honing in on the whimsical floral patterns and muted pastels used by Holmes, Frasson perpetuated an element of fantasy by inviting the viewer inside the bower to view Holmes’s Summer. While the meticulous nature of Frasson’s work was impressive, a slightly heavy-handed use of all things girly threatened to drown out the objective message of The Enchanted Blossom Bower.

The most engaging works in Acidophilus were those which extended the chosen TMAG works into a contemporary space and enticed the viewer in with their fresh approach to a tired collection display. The offerings of Ozolins, Leong, Mestitz and Frasson not only enhanced the collection but also stood firmly as important contemporary works on their own. Fiona Lee and Trudi Brinkman created companion pieces to David Aspden’s Castle Hill Summer (1975) and the endearingly simple Figure with Boat Head Holding Two Fish (1994-96) by Jeff Burgess. Ultimately, when separated from the TMAG pieces, Lee’s It’s the Vibe (2005) and Brinkman’s Ready [Wall of Water] (2005) fell short on individual impact when compared to the other inclusions in Acidophilus.

Overall, Acidophilus was one of the better visual arts exhibitions in the 2005 Ten Days on the Island program. Anything that convinces me to look more closely at historical art is surely a rip-roaring success.