In the basement of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, you enter a house with Georgian facade. Initially it evokes a vanished, suburban England, the type skewered by Larkin and Orwell. There’s the fusty lace curtains, the brocade wallpaper and uncomfortable furniture, the post box and striped lollipops, the two-bar fire and the porcelain knick-knacks on the mantle.
Then it gets strange. Going further into the house, you see a darker England – then an ominous, wider world filled with almost 1,000 pieces of art from almost 200 artists, collected from outside the mainstream.
They are artists who made work in institutions. Artists who never called themselves artists; artists with disabilities. Artists who were Japanese sous chefs then began creating work in a fog of grief. There are artists who are retired dental assistants and artists who created in obscurity, to be championed only after their deaths.
The work has been collected by the Museum of Everything, which was founded by Englishman James Brett in 2009 and bills itself as the world’s first wandering museum. Starting as a temporary exhibition in a former recording studio in London, it has since enjoyed a successful stint at the Venice Biennale. With no fixed abode, it travels around the world, including shows in Russia and the Netherlands, and has been seen by more than a million people.
But for the next 10 months, it has a home at Mona.
The early rooms are filled with art that recreates late 19th and early 20th century spiritualism. It’s a world of channelling and tarot; seances and mediums.
“It evokes all the women who’d lost boyfriends and brothers in the first world war, trying to get back in touch with their loved ones by any means,” says Mona senior curator Jane Clark.
Some of the work was donated by the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, including paintings by Georgiana Houghton: a 19th century English spiritualist said to be the first modern abstract artist. Another highlight is a piece by Perth handyman and electrician Stan Hopewell: a giant, 3D neon monument to the Last Supper, made as a living memorial to his wife.
Brett, who is in Hobart for the opening, says, “Each room begets the next.
“We start with time and the notion of time, then the fourth and fifth dimension, and that’s when we get in the spirit world and seances … then we get into faith and belief – particularly in African American folk art. Then you go to this whole room of religious material …
“Everything weaves into the next work – but not in a didactic way.”
Brett is a collector of what some term “outsider art” (he prefers to describe it as “non-academic art”). He met Mona founder David Walsh at a party in London, and recognised that his collection would be a good fit with the sometimes playful, sometimes archaistic character of the Hobart museum.
But Walsh had to be talked around to it. “He [Walsh] said, ‘I don’t want to see this outsider art rubbish.’ Then I watched as Mona grew and we did more shows, and I thought, we have more in common than I thought,” Brett says. “We have quite a shared philosophy: What is art? How is it made? Who has the right to say what is art? What is it that binds us?”
The artists in the show, he says, are “people who make art not for us, but for themselves. It is the private life of art and it is rarely shown in museums and galleries.”