Jónsi Hrafntinna (Obsidian), and Jean-Luc Moulène and Teams

Contemporary art museums are often compared to churches with their starchitecture, vast internal spaces, and immersive installations, all designed to attract smartphone-wielding cultural pilgrims. At the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) this summer, Jónsi’s transformative artwork feels like its secular heart.

Jónsi’s Hrafntinna (Obsidian) and Jean-Luc Moulène and Teams are two of Mona’s three showcase temporary exhibitions. While Jónsi’s installation arouses an emotional and even transcendental response in his evocation of Iceland’s natural environment, Jean-Luc Moulène’s exhibition is more subtle, with the French artist employing three-dimensional modelling and local technicians to shape elemental materials like wood, sandstone, wax, and zinc.

A recent Mona acquisition, Jónsi’s installation is inspired by the 2021 eruption of the volcano Fagradalsfjall in the artist’s native Iceland. At the time, Jónsi was stranded in America and missing home. Hrafntinna (Obsidian) draws on Jónsi’s musical talents to produce an experience that is deeply moving, evoking the melancholy and beauty of the Icelandic landscape—a landscape that has striking similarities to some of Tasmania’s bleak alpine plateaus.

The looped soundscape has no clear beginning, end, or narrative, and so the visitor’s experience is shaped by the point in which they enter. It may be the haunting chorus, or the hiss, pop, crackle of fire, or the deep rumble of a volcano erupting. The sickly smell of fossilised amber is ever present, earthy, and a little suffocating. Darkness is occasionally broken by warning flashes from the central skylight. The space is ringed by almost 200 speakers, and the central seating area vibrates with the deep rumbles of volcanic movement, resulting in a rich multi-sensory experience that almost makes you forget you’re sharing a space with half a dozen other visitors. The choral sections are particularly moving, with spine-tingling harmonies and sustained notes akin to a liturgical song. From the hypnotic song and heady scent to the central circular dais, Jónsi uses the sensory language and aesthetics of religion to evoke an imagined place: the inside of the Fagradalsfjall volcano on eruption.

Hrafntinna (Obsidian) is not an experience that can be rushed. Fellow visitors would get up to leave, only to hesitate as the soundscape altered, curiosity drawing them back to the central dais.

While Jónsi’s work is easily appreciated without the assistance of the O (Mona’s digital interpretation platform), the exhibition catalogue and O texts are vital for understanding the process-oriented art in Jean-Luc Moulène and Teams. The exhibition title shares the credit between the artist and the “teams” of curators, administrators, technicians, and industrial robots. While it isn’t unusual for contemporary artists to delegate the fabrication of their work to others, the sharing of credit in an exhibition title is rare, even if the masses of museum workers and technicians are grouped under the anonymous “and teams.” The accompanying catalogue includes uncaptioned images of the teams at work, consulting, casting, hosing, and polishing, akin to a manufacturing company’s prospectus.

The exhibition comprises a mix of new and existing works, including four new sculptures produced locally in Australia under Moulène’s instruction. There are clear links between the materials and place. The bulbous brain-like sculpture, Fixed Zinc, 2021, nods to the striking industrial complex of the Nyrstar zinc smelter, which is passed by visitors on the ferry from central Hobart to Mona. Mona’s impressive internal sandstone wall, carved out of the bedrock, is also echoed in Sandstone Abstract, 2021. The deliciously smooth Wax Larva, 2021, is “gallery wall” white, its plinth painted to look like the museum’s grey concrete floors.

The fourth locally produced sculpture is the timber Hydrowood Knot, 2021, which, like the sandstone work, is carved by a specialist robot into a shape predetermined by the artist. The resulting form is indifferent or at times in opposition to the material’s natural grain, prompting cracks to appear. It’s a method that not only removes all trace of the artist’s hand, but the human hand completely.

Industry is celebrated in the naming of Hydrowood Knot, which is made from the much sought after Tasmanian myrtle. With the logging of Tasmania’s old growth forests increasingly restricted, a new industry has emerged, salvaging specialty timbers from the now dammed Pieman River in Western Tasmania. The business venture Hydrowood waxes lyrical about rediscovering “an ancient rainforest lost to the deep dark waters” on their website.

For a sculpture that is largely made of a single natural material, the manufacturing associated with Hydrowood Knot is quite extraordinary. From the original construction of the hydroelectric dams that drowned the tree, to the aquatic cranes that extract the precious timber, to the gluing of the timber layers, and the eventual robotic sculpting of the object in Brisbane, this is a material that has been brutalised many times over, eventually transformed into a form in conflict with its natural grain on the instructions of a remote artist. In fact, the production process is arguably more impressive than the final object—its unsympathetic sharp edges at odds with the softness associated with myrtle.

While there’s a clear link between the new works in the exhibition, the links between the older works are not obvious, particularly the video, Les Trois Graces (The Three Graces), 2012. The catalogue offers little help, with essayist Mark Bechtel noting that it’s impossible “to understand the show as materially or thematically complete,” and co-curator Trudi Brinkman describing the artist’s work as “repellent of taxonomy.” Les Trois Graces depicts three naked women in an overgrown field, shifting awkwardly, never meeting the viewer’s gaze. The three goddesses of beauty in Greek mythology have inspired artworks of the same name over the centuries, from Classical sculptures to the sensual paintings by Rubens. In contrast to the long grass, Moulène’s Graces are depicted like the classical ideal, their lack of body hair giving them a marble-like smoothness. Projected life size, the video seems somewhat dated and oddly conservative in the context of Mona’s greater collection (in the adjacent room, viewers could pose for a Santa photo alongside a dominatrix wearing a strap-on and a crucified Jesus impersonator).

But then, Mona has always excelled in teasing links between artworks and artifacts of different eras, cultures, and subjects. While aesthetically very different to the locally-produced new sculptures, explorations of industrial production and process can be seen in another of Moulène’s older works, the rainbow installation of drink cans called Errata, 2002-2013. Pallets are elevated to the role of gallery plinths, and the ubiquitous softdrink can, usually produced for short-term consumption and disposal, is stripped of its labelling, and celebrated as an art object. Remarkably fragile when unfilled, the individual cans bear dents and scratches—a record of the work’s journey from a Mexican factory to exhibitions around the world.

In hosting vastly different summer exhibitions, Mona owner David Walsh aims to “explore the vast range of the creative impulse that our biology compels. In each domain of endeavour there is that which we can learn about the motives of the artists, and that which we can learn about ourselves.” Ultimately, it’s this contrast between the exhibitions that makes them all the more compelling.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 66 

Jónsi Hrafntinna (Obsidian)
Jean-Luc Moulène and Teams
30 September 2023 – 1 April 2024
Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), Hobart

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