27 November 2013

Hobart

Tasmanian Musem & Art Gallery, from Constitution Dock
Last week I enjoyed exploring Tasmania for my first time, starting off like most visitors with a couple of days seeing the sights in the capital Hobart. Flying in from Melbourne I was impressed with the wild scenery of the sparsely-inhabited west coast of Tasmania, where the hills still sported a dusting of spring snow. Hobart itself is situated on a marvellous harbour at the head of the Derwent River, and it was this river that I crossed into town in the airport shuttle, taking the Tasman Bridge and quickly depositing me at my accommodation for the next four nights, the YHA in Argyle Street.

The hostel boasts a superb location, one block from the Town Hall, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the Maritime Museum. While it offered good value as a base to explore the capital, there was hardly any communal space, so whenever I returned to my rather small dorm an elderly American guy was always perched on a slender cane chair tapping away on his laptop - there's no lift and it was on the third floor, so he tended to make only one trip out per day. He must've been from a warm state or perhaps he was a devotee of the Scandinavian art of sauna, because he kept the room's heater blasting at top setting whenever possible too. In addition, during my first night at the YHA I learned that the Hobart city fathers are quite proud of the clock on the General Post Office - also one block from the hostel - because it tolled every hour throughout the night.

After arriving on Saturday night I sprung into sightseeing mode on Sunday morning. After taking some supplies to the waterfront to eat in a deserted Mawson Place next to the Constitution Dock, where the Sydney to Hobart yacht race finishes each year, I set off on a self-guided walking tour to get my bearings. This took in the splendid government buildings built with plenty of convict slave labour from local stone, and the slowly awakening Hobart waterfront, which is dominated by the grand edifice of stone stores and factories built by the IXL Jam founder Henry Jones, which now house tourist shops and accommodation and part of the University of Tasmania. Passing through the grounds of the Tasmanian Parliament, I then headed up the hill to affluent Battery Point, which overlooks the downtown area. Taking a left turn into the kempt enclave of Arthur Circus, an oasis of genteel cottages set around a circular village green, it was then time to descend to the famous Salamanca Place, a sweep of Georgian stone shops that boasts a bustling market on Saturdays that's popular with locals and tourists alike.

Former IXL jam factory, Hunter St
Husky in the Bernacchi Tribute statue, Franklin Wharf
Salamanca Place
Following a quick bite to eat, I set out to visit the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), which is centred on the old Hobart bond store. The impressive architecture housed some interesting exhibits. I enjoyed the glimpse of a stuffed echidna from the Victorian era, which had seen better days, and the gleaming imagery of a Tasmanian hydro-electric power advertisement in which the pylon wires vibrated with a booming, capital-letters 'PROSPERITY', in case the message wasn't rammed home. I also enjoyed the story of Hobart local Maggie Aird growing up in the 1950s, who used to run with her brother to meet the river ferry at 6.05pm every work day, to meet their father: "It wasn't until I was much older that I realised that Dad wasn't on that ferry. He caught the Zinc Works punt and bus to the Clarence Pub every night and had a drink or two until the ferry came in"'. I also liked the official Royal Australian Navy enlistment form from 1920, which inducted young Miss Nancy Bentley into the King's service:

CERTIFICATE of the service of MISS NANCY BENTLEY 
in the ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY

Usual place of residence: Port Arthur, Tasmania
Trade brought up to: Nil
Religious denomination: Church of England
Can swim: Not tried
Date of actually volunteering: 15 November 1920
Period engaged for: Until fed up
Stature: 3 feet, 2 inches
Hair: Light brown
Eyes: Blue
Complexion: Fresh
Marks: Scar, right wrist

It is not recorded how long it took Seagirl Bentley to become fed up.

Brougham coach, TMAG
Carrying on the nautical theme, my next stop was the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, a smallish private museum overlooking the waterfront at the bottom of Argyle Street. It covered the maritime history of the island fairly well, with the expected features on Abel Tasman, colonial shipping and shipwrecks, and harbour ferries. I was also interested to learn about the barque Otago, which was once owned by the adventuring author Joseph Conrad, and which ended its days in Hobart and gave its name to a bay on the Derwent. Hopefully suitable material for a future blog post.

Old port buildings, Franklin Wharf
My second day was set aside for a trip upriver to what has become Hobart's leading visitor drawcard - the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), located on a small peninsula about 6km up the Derwent River. In a state known for its conservatism, MONA is a bastion of way-out confrontational modern art - or at least it has a fair sprinkling of confrontational pieces amongst a broad collection with all sorts of material, housed in a remarkable warren of galleries excavated from the Tasmanian sandstone.

The best way to visit is via the MONA ferry, a custom-built (and locally-made) catamaran that plies the route from a pier in downtown Hobart to the gallery. After arriving on the peninsula, visitors climb 99 stairs, enter the facility, and collect their handy iPod-style guide, which is integral to the museum experience. Then they immediately descend back down a spiral staircase (or use the lift, if they're soft) deep into the sandstone bunkers of MONA. The towering smooth stone faces down there make it seem like nothing less than a modern-day pharaoh's tomb. And in a way it is, because MONA is a cabinet of curiosities as much as it is a conventional art gallery.

The electronic guide removes the need for captions on the walls, and as every artwork has an RFID locator, the device can tell the user about all the nearby artworks at a single touch. You can vote on whether you like or dislike an artwork, and then see what other people thought about it. And in another clever idea, if you provide your email address, the device will remember every artwork you looked up, and send you a little interactive map so you can remember your visit. Here's my map below, which omits the first few rooms of the gallery because I was just looking at things at that stage, rather than using the device properly.

MONA personal visit map

Perhaps that was for the best, because the first few rooms contained the Red Queen exhibit, and some of it was generally not my cup of tea. This was the area of MONA marked as 'not for kids', or at least proceed with caution. It was confrontational, certainly - after all, it's not every day you see a 20-foot-large nude portrait of a transsexual in an art gallery, and I could also do without the enormous and explicit portrait of explorers Burke and Wills, although it was clearly meant to be satirical. But still, I'm glad I saw this part of the exhibit, because interspersed with the attention-seeking art were smaller curiosities that proved interesting, like the mummified head of an Egpytian cat from the seventh to the first centuries BC, or the thought-provoking and bleakly humorous cast of the remains of a suicide bomber made of chocolate.

Moving on through the remainder of the galleries I relished the eclectic jumble of modern and ancient, conventional and avant garde:

  • A trampoline adorned with giant Buddhist bells, which sends a serene clangour reverberating through the sandstone halls. 
  • A room populated with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, each of which is full of books with blank white pages covered by a white dustjacket. 
  • A huge human head with perspex windows in the skull to allow observers to view the clockwork strobe-flickering dreams within. 
  • A Porsche Carerra morphed into a 'fat car' with the addition of bulging polystyrene curves.


If you're in Hobart, MONA is definitely a must-see. The gallery asks that visitors don't post pictures of the artworks, but you can view them on its website. Instead, here's a photo of the underground entranceway to give you an idea of the impressive architecture.

MONA entrance hall, 11.11.13.

After taking the ferry back to downtown Hobart, I spent my last evening in town enjoying a film (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) at the State Cinema in North Hobart (375 Elizabeth St). The next day I headed out for a Tasmanian roadtrip, starting of course with the world heritage site at Port Arthur.

Following this trip I did return to Hobart a few days later to return my rental car and fly back to the mainland. Having an hour or two to spare, I took the Hyundai for a spin up to the summit of Mt Wellington, the 1271-metre mountain that looms over Hobart and the Derwent, providing a spectacular vantage point from its summit. I have to say that the drive up the snaking, narrow road to the top sent me into a cold sweat, with sweeping vistas and enormous cliffs looming ever nearer. At the top an icy microclimate offered chilly winds but also the relief of terra firma. Here's the view from the observation platform (click to enlarge):

Mt Wellington panorama, Hobart
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