The Museum of Old and New Art's "Theatre of the World" Stages Radical Encounters of Disparate Artworks

The Museum of Old and New Art's "Theatre of the World" Stages Radical Encounters of Disparate Artworks
"Theatre of the World" will run at MONA through April 8 2013
(Courtesy of MONA)

HOBART, Australia — It might not seem like a radical concept or a major revolution in the field of museology, but the results of the experimental "Theatre of the World" exhibition at Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) certainly feel like a significant departure from the traditional museum exhibition format.

When was the last time you entered a museum exhibition to find that there were no wall plaques to identify and explain each item? When was the last time you explored a museum exhibition that placed a Giacometti sculpture alongside an Egyptian mummy? When was the last time a display case containing a severed head followed you around the exhibition space? Curated by the internationally renowned and visionary French curator Jean-Hubert Martin, "Theatre of the World" asks the viewer to reject the traditional concept of the museum space and experience an eclectic range of objects in an entirely new and refreshing manner. 

Convinced that it is “no longer enough to see art in an art historical context,” Martin makes it his mission to present a unique and radical panorama of the world using seemingly unrelated items in an environment devoid of many of the hallmarks of a conventional museum space. Spanning 4,000 years of fine and decorative arts, the exhibition includes 180 works from the private collection of MONA owner David Walsh, and 300 items selected from the collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), ranging from historical furniture to contemporary art. 

The aim of the exhibition, first conceived four years ago, is to challenge traditions of museum display and interrogate the definition of institutional space. By rejecting the age-old conventions of museum practice, Martin seeks to create an experience that is purely about “seeing.” He cleverly divides the exhibition into themed rooms, each of which features objects which have one or more elements in common. One room is devoted to the eye; a room titled “Majesty” is filled with an amazing display of traditional Melanesian and Polynesian barkcloths; and another room analyzes the relationship between man and beast.

As its title implies, the exhibition incorporates a range of elements reminiscent of stage design that not only challenges the historical conventions of curatorial practice, but also invite viewers to develop entirely new and exciting relations between historic and contemporary objects, fine and decorative arts, natural and artificial materials, and domestic and public spaces. Theatrical lighting, rope curtains partially hiding some of the objects on display, and the lack of restrictive museum cases add further dimensions of interactivity and connectivity. According to Martin, “looking carefully at an artwork is a richer experience than reading many books.” By enacting a curatorial practice that favours “visual efficiency” and inviting the viewer to approach the exhibition as a puzzle, he successfully conjures that experience.

Whether or not you agree that "Theatre of the World" exhibition is as radical as it seems, or its format represents the future of museum practice, there's no denying that the show provokes thought, discussion, and analysis. There is no doubt that the exhibition is also highly indulgent, but in an extremely good way. In fact it's thanks to the indulgent character of the show that its experience is so enchanting and unique. Seeing a Picasso painting juxtaposed with a traditional tribal shield, a Max Ernst sculpture sitting atop an antique Peruvian mortar, and a piece of geometric pyrite alongside a Chinese teapot, are incredibly exhilarating and eye-opening experiences, and they can only be had by experiencing this elaborately staged show. 

All things are one thing and that one thing is, in turn, obvious and exotic and beautiful and plain and elegant and prosaic and deep and shallow and rich with a richness that makes all things grand. - David Walsh, 2012

Theatre of the World is at MONA, Hobart, until April 8 2013.

This article also appears on ARTINFO Australia.