Hobiennale 2017: A confident, bespoke debut

Contemporary art in Australia can seem Sisyphean at times. Dire cuts to arts funding, changes to the structure of key arts organisations, the growing prevalence of on-demand entertainment, and the trending of cultural engagement towards populist binge can contribute to a national cultural malaise. Such a diminished cultural sector takes a particularly hard toll on young, emerging, and rural artists, who are far too often left out of important conversations around the future of their communities, professions and practices. All this in consideration, a new festival of emerging contemporary art might appear to some as pushing the proverbial rock, however, the first iteration of Hobiennale (HB17) was, to me, quite the opposite. HB17 brought 18 ARIs (Artist Run Initiatives) from across Australia and New Zealand to Hobart for ten days of exhibitions, parties, talks, performances, and workshops—I was present for the opening weekend, from 3–5 November. Hardly an uphill battle, Hobiennale was an intimate and vital affair, a glimpse into a sorely-needed, more communal framework for the development of and engagement with contemporary art. HB17 was confident, distinctive, and generous-of-spirit in terms of the art, the spaces, and the community which made such a turn-out.

The festival was boldly curated by Hobart-based artists Grace Herbert and Liam James, and facilitated by Constance ARI. A challenging and satisfying blend of current waves within the Australian and New Zealand contemporary art scenes was relayed through a succession of exhibition openings each night of the opening weekend. Intriguing, more left-field explorations in new media were also present, furthering the festival team’s view that ARIs constitute some of the ‘most interesting, critical, and diverse’ offerings in the current art landscape and community. Entry to all events was free, with cheap drinks supplied at each opening well into the evenings . There was a charming variety of tone and character across the program, as well as common responses throughout: to materiality and dimensionality, performativity, and sovereignty in both Australia and New Zealand. The programming felt open-chested, playful, sincere—any irony or farce was firmly grounded in the human realm, with skin in the game, a crucial point sorely missing in many contemporary practices. A refreshingly off-kilter selection of music and performance accompanied each night over the weekend, which contributed greatly to the high-spirits and warm, communal atmosphere at each event.

A resounding success of the festival was its use of spaces—the program’s offerings occupied a range of existing galleries and more bespoke, unused or vacant sites across Hobart. Established galleries such as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), Contemporary Art Tasmania, and School of Creative Arts were fabulously juxtaposed with spaces like Visual Bulk, a contributing ARI of the festival; Domain House, a glorious old mansion with labyrinthine staircases and hallways, once used as Hobart’s first art school; Cinema One, a disused, underground cinema beneath the CBD; The Commons, soon-to-be-developed apartment space; Princes Park Battery, an old colonial munitions store; and the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park, or GASP, an open-space art park located directly on the River Derwent, surrounded by parkland and wetlands.

Grace Blake, ‘lump’, as part of Surface World, presented by ANCA. Image: Michael stratford Hutch

Each exhibition was like a capsule, interacting with its space in such a way as to elicit a specific, inimitable atmosphere. Evidently, there was engagement of a high standard with all the different practices present at the festival, and such activation of spaces was welcome. It was lovely to see the program treat each space with equal consideration, moving directly away from the tired dichotomy of gallery and ‘other’ space. The more interesting question at play was ‘what is inviting, interesting, permissible?’ The spaces were as much a part of the exhibitions as was the art, with a balancing-of-flavours approach, neither overpowered, rather complimented and sharpened each other. It was quite thrilling, as a native Hobartian, to see spaces of such disuse brought to life again. There was prevalent mood of exploration and excavation, each space a little hiding place of secret energies and delightful round-corners.

While the program (especially over the opening weekend) was jam-packed, things were logistically smooth (at least from a punter’s perspective), and though there were so many exhibitions and events, a number stood out. Hobart-based artist Eloise Kirk’s exhibition NORTHLAND, curated by Radio 33 and The Curated Shelf (both Tasmanian ARIs), was of particular note—a resoundingly sensual and delightful extension of her practice into the sculptural realm, incorporating her signature landscape abstractions and textural painting into new works in metal and wood.

northland
Excerpt from Eloise Kirk’s ‘NORTHLAND’, 2017, presented by Curated Shelf. Image: Michael Stratford Hutch

Sister ARI’s show Greater Union at Cinema One presented a diverse examination of materiality—the fuzzy borderlines between soft/hard and solid/liquid examined through hung and draped sheets and curtains, various casts of bricks displayed next to their originals, photographic prints in the form of advertising banners.

Australian National Capital Artists Inc.’s Surface World was a glimpse into/onto the skin of things, combining a range of multimedia works into a deft whole, integrated superbly with its space in the Commons.

Another solo show of note was Christopher Ulutupu’s The Romantic Picturesque, presented by play_station ARI from NZ—presenting a number of single-channel video works in the old Princes Park Battery, a striking dialogue established between Ulutupu’s staged dramatizations of minorities performing for the majority, and the suggested histories of the eerie, cold and dank colonial munitions store. In one scene, two islander women sang karaoke in the woods, while a young white man slouched in a chair watches them, a young white woman in his orbit.

The greatest strength of Hobiennale was the way it made a contemporary art festival so communal and approachable. There was an understanding that people would turn up, bring their friends, recommend onwards. There was a great turn out at each event, and a sense of a “cohort” going from place to place, event to event. People stayed until the very end of things, carpooled, helped each other to experience and process. I lost count of the conversations between strangers, or new/old friends, discussing with great enthusiasm what they had seen, and planned to see. The festival was small-scale enough for you to feel directly involved, and as far as I could tell, was a welcome reprieve from the clique-y norm of these sorts of gatherings. There was an opening of space (physical, intellectual, emotional) in good faith, and those in attendance replied with engagement and excitement. Furthermore, through its partnerships with various councils and other art spaces, the festival was an interlocutor, a go-between, a nexus of interlocking public and private interests and agendas. Hobart (and indeed, Australia more broadly) has so much to gain from opening itself up (in a way that balances the considerations of development and conservation).

peephole anca
Tom Buckland, ‘Constellation, peepholes with dioramas’, dimensions variable, 2017, presented by ANCA. Image: Michael Stratford Hutch.

As the first festival of its kind, it was a great privilege to experience the exceptional vision and hard work that the HB17 team undertook (completely voluntarily, I should add). It will be interesting to see how this festival format continues into the future—and how it will inspire further efforts across Australia / NZ towards such communal acts of sharing. Creating these much-needed spaces for artists and their communities to fully mesh and interact is work of great benefit for all involved. It certainly restores hope in one that pushing the proverbial rock can, in fact, lead to something quite spectacular.

Michael Stratford Hutch is an emerging artist living and working between Hobart and Sydney, currently studying a combined Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney.

They have been published in Voiceworks, Picton Grange, Island Magazine and PLATFORM; was short-listed twice for the John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize (Highly Commended 2014 in the U18 division, and short-listed 2015 in the 18–24 division); was the inaugural recipient of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre Hot Desk residency in 2016; and was a contributing writer at the Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival in 2017.

In their emerging art practice, Michael’s first exhibition was at Visual Bulk ARI in 2016. 

Their practice extends to the performing arts, including solo project MSH, ensemble Contact Sports, DJing for the likes of Hazey Daze and VICE, and involvement in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus (including TSOC Extreme’s performances at MOFO, the Spiegeltent, and Dark MOFO).

Hobiennale 2017 ran from 3-12 November 2017 in venues across Hobart.

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