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Why Tassie art is special.

The Unconformity- We are Explorers

Wild terrain, anti-ordinary people and complex history inspire the kind of creativity and cultural events found only in Tasmania.

Tasmanians are forever standing at one crossroad or another and turning hardship into possibility. There’s always something to overcome: a flood, a bush fire, a resources boom turning to bust. The island state’s spectacular, difficult, mysterious terrain and its people are as intrinsically connected today as they were pre-colonisation, when the first Tasmanians – the palawa people – were cut off from the continent by rising seas.

Technology has eased the geographic isolation yet the lingering sense of separation yields relentless, in-your-face creativity. Almost anywhere you go on the island, there’s a surprising cultural force that will find you, wrap you up and take your breath away.

Beauty, elegance, splendour, strangeness and fun are on show alongside the many tragic chapters in Tasmania’s history, which are not only acknowledged but deeply explored in the state’s widely revered art galleries and cultural events.

While Mona highlighted Tassie’s art scene and spread the word to the rest of the world, Tasmania has long celebrated people and place, keeping one foot firmly rooted in its history while simultaneously stretching out the other to land upon the new and different.

Necessity, perhaps, has seen a continuous practice of traditional skills and crafts here that have fallen away in other places. Launceston has emerged as a design hub, centred around the Design Tasmania Centre, including its permanent collection of contemporary woodwork, the only one of its type in Australia and regarded as among the world’s best.

facade of Design Tasmania Centre in Launceston, TasmaniaChris Crerar

Explore striking pieces made from wood by local designers at Design Tasmania in Launceston

The timber designs are all from local designers and Tasmanian timbers, a reminder of the vast areas of wilderness lost to lightning-strike bushfires in January 2019. The Huon Valley region was particularly hard hit. From those literal ashes, cutting-edge public art is lending an inspired hand to bolster recovery for the community.

Project X, born of Mona’s edgy think tank DarkLab, began in 2019’s Dark Mofo festival and now continues to seed throughout the Huon Valley. The first project, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin, a sound work featuring 2000 ravens, is installed in the forest canopy in the World Heritage-listed Hastings Cave State Reserve, 90 minutes south of Hobart in cooperation with Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service.

More Project X initiatives will roll out in the Huon region, including a major artwork to open in 2020. Aftermath Dislocation Principle (ADP), a shipping container housing a tiny model village posed in the aftermath of a riot.

people looking inside a shipping container as part of Project X in TasmaniaRémi Chauvin

It’s a riot! To find out more, you’ll need to check out what’s inside this shipping container in the Huon Valley

ADP was a hit in Hobart at Dark Mofo, and is now popping up in six townships around Huon Valley. Local schools, youth groups and writers will be central to the travelling ADP, which will explore the distinct history of the region. In a coup for Tasmania, it’s the first time this British art project has shown outside an urban area. Huon area guides, some who found themselves out of work after the bushfires, are discovering new opportunities with Project X, too. From apocalyptic art, there comes redemption.

More unconventional creativity is on show at the Detached Artist Archive Hobart (DAAH), housed across four storeys inside the grand Art Deco building that was once home to Tasmania’s Mercury newspaper. Since she bought the building in 2008, Tasmanian cultural philanthropist Penny Clive has been commissioning and collecting all manner of artworks, local and international, preserving certain projects within its walls, including those deemed ‘difficult’. (After all, the local acronym for the old Mercury building is TOMB.)

Curiosity is fostered here, and at certain times of the year private guided tours of the archive are available for groups of eight. There’s tantalisingly scant detail of what you may see in the DAAH. You will have to find out for yourself.

Over on the west coast, a biennial cultural festival is courageously ‘mining new cultural experiences at the edge of the world’. This unique addition to the Tasmanian arts scene was born in 2010 as the Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival. Its aim was to help attract tourists to the struggling town, where the mine is no longer operating as a productive copper mine.

Queenstown-born Travis Tiddy, the festival’s director, says for the 2016 event they renamed it The Unconformity. “It references the town’s most important geological asset (Queenstown sits on a rare geological fault known as an ‘unconformity’) and the spirit of a people and a place as well.”

A large rock is placed in the centre of Queenstown, TasmaniaWe are Explorers

The rumble was deafening as a large rock formation was placed in the centre of Queenstown to open The Unconformity

The October long weekend every two years is your only chance to catch the festival – and everything you see will be brand new. “We commission and create a whole set of new works, which means that every festival is distinct and unique,” says Tiddy. “It’s not  iterating upon a model, and it’s not curating other work touring around the country … there’s that intensity of creating it from scratch.”

From a standing start a decade ago, festival directors from Europe now travel to Queenstown to see The Unconformity, which will again take over the town in October 2020. Aside from the recently restored art deco Paragon Theatre, there are few arts venues, so the festival plays out wherever it can: down the main street, in shop windows, a blacksmith’s forge or the middle of a river.

the facade of The Paragon Theatre at night in Queenstown, Tasmania as part of The Unconformity event.We are Explorers

The art deco Paragon Theatre was the festival hub for The Unconformity

“I never want a moment where there’s nothing to do,” says Tiddy. “There’s continually a choice to go and see something somewhere in the valley, so you’re immersed and rubbing shoulders with 2000 locals. Queenstown requires you to get out of your normal environment and drop any veneer – conventional ways of seeing things and doing things don’t apply here.”

Which is just how we like it in Tasmania.

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