“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” Shakespeare famously wrote in The Tempest. While the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition of the same name does not retell Shakespeare’s play, it has all the theatricality one would expect from a staged production. Conceived and developed by curator Juliana Engberg, Tempest draws upon the play’s core themes of magic, discovery and tragedy, bringing together a selection of contemporary and historical works that spin a waking dream of adventure and romance.

Like a time-travelling collector assembling a treasure trove of curios from a wild trip into stormy and fantastical realms, Engberg has unearthed rare museum pieces from the storage facilities of state museums. Handcrafted ships in bottles mingle with 17th-century Dutch maps, landscapes by William Charles Piguenit and an island of taxidermy parrots. “The beautifully handcrafted ship models haven’t been displayed for a very long time, and neither have the maritime paintings and works on paper,” says the TMAG’s principal curator of art, Jane Stewart.

The wide expanse of the TMAG’s Central Gallery sets the tone for Tempest as viewers are drawn into Prospero’s Library, a huge room swirling with flying books, natural history specimens and artefacts.

Unlike a traditional exhibition that follows a strict linear path, the organic positioning of the work in Tempest is more akin to dot points on a map. Several pieces are staged as ‘interventions’ within the TMAG’s permanent exhibitions, while others are nestled in stairwells and foyers. This adds to the feeling of being swept up like an intrepid explorer whose journey of discovery slowly unfolds.

Alongside the historical pieces from state collections are contemporary works by 14 international and Australian artists including William Kentridge, Mariele Neudecker, Rosemary Laing and Pat Brassington. In the Colonial Gallery, Ricky Swallow’s The stars don’t shine upon us, we’re in the way of their light (family telescope), 2000, and Hernan Bas’s Fragile Moments, 2003, are displayed among gilt-framed landscape paintings and portraits. Swallow’s pristine white telescope and Bas’s stark video work offer a modern reading of exploration and settlement and epitomise the juxtaposition of old and new, an experience that lies at the heart of Tempest.

1200 Pat Brassington - Untitled
Pat Brassington, Untitled, 1989, Silver gelatin print, 150 x 390 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Three contemporary artists have been commissioned to create works specifically for Tempest and this lends further opportunity to engage with the TMAG’s art, science and history collections. Bringing a new perspective to past depictions of the landscape, Valerie Sparks has created Prospero’s Island, 2016, a specially designed art wallpaper based on photographs of the Tasmanian coast and objects from the TMAG’s zoology collection.

“The experience of immersing myself in the Tasmanian environment has been a key part of the development of this work,” says Sparks. Struck by the natural beauty and brutal colonial history of places like the west coast’s isolated Sarah Island, Sparks has carefully arranged elements of multiple locations to create a hybrid landscape reminiscent of highly detailed French scenic wallpapers of the 1800s. “Sometimes the idea of a wallpaper can be misleading as people think of it as a repetitious backdrop,” Sparks says. “This has been a fantastic process for me as there has been the opportunity to experience a location in a way I had not before, whilst moving between thinking about the histories that are embedded in the landscape and the narrative of The Tempest.”

1200Paul Wood - Storm in a teacup
Paul Wood, Storm in a teacup, 2016, refired ceramic and glass, 90 x 135 x 120 cm. Commissioned by TMAG for Tempest. Courtesy of Paul Wood and This is no Fantasy, Melbourne.

Tacita Dean’s monumental blackboard drawing of clouds illustrates the moody atmosphere of Tempest while Paul Wood’s sculpture, Storm in a Teapot, 2016, recalls souvenirs and maritime kitsch. Wood has slumped together several pieces sourced from op shops and Chinese variety stores to create his interpretation of the exhibition’s themes, aptly described by Jane Stewart as an “enchanting ceramic croquembouche.” “Rather than recreate a particular scene from The Tempest, my idea was to present a tableaux that evokes the over- the-top drama of the sea and the high-key and romantic nature of the play,” says Wood. “By jam-packing the tableaux with all these thematic objects, I wanted the pure excess to have an unrelenting feel that reflects the nature of the Shakespearian work.”

Fitting comfortably into the line up of Dark Mofo 2016, Tempest opened during MONA’s mid-winter festival in June and is presented in association with Detached Cultural Organisation (the same team that brought Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey to Hobart in 2015). Rounding out a strong public program of associated events and making the most of the TMAG’s iconic Bond Store, a cavernous room once used as a British holding facility for provisions in the 1820s, Blue Cow Theatre is staging a performance of The Tempest. Reinvigorating the dialogue between historical and contemporary works, Tempest is a visually adventurous dream worth revisiting.

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
10 June – 20 November

Feature Words by Briony Downes