James Newitt – ‘Australian Art Review’


Exhibition review

A Tiger’s Tale

The Tasmanian tiger or ‘Thylacine’ is one of the world’s most fabled animals. Though the last tiger died at Hobart zoo in 1936, sightings of this elusive creature in the Tasmanian wilderness continue to persist to this day. The ongoing fascination with the marsupial is evident over the past year, with a film ‘The Hunter’ released in 2011 centering on a search for the long-lost tiger, and now in Hobart, an exhibition dedicated to the extinct mammal has been staged by contemporary artist James Newitt.

The myth and wonder that the tiger may still exist in the wild is investigated by Newitt through a cave-like installation. Part museological display, part public archive, the artist presents deliberately kitsch, staged dioramas of the tiger in its native habitat, set alongside historic images from the American Museum of Natural History and original video footage of interviews the artist conducted with thylacine specialists and enthusiasts, from scientists and environmentalists to bushmen and trappers, who pose questions about the animal’s possible existence.

Through the darkly compelling installation, Newitt raises questions about documentary versus fiction, fantasy and reality, hope and loss, and looks at the tiger’s place in relation to issue such as conservation and the Tasmanian identity. The artist describes his work as exploring ‘the human compulsion to connect with something which is just out of reach.’

Ironically, the idea for the exhibition first germinated with Newitt in Germany, where he discovered a mounted ‘Tasmanian wolf’ on display in the Berlin natural history museum. Newitt remarks that there was a “sense of melancholy” in seeing the tiger being taken so far out of context. He realised that there was a rich resource of thylacine culture to mine back in his home base of Hobart.

He believes that the tiger is

“Something that every Tasmanian has an ownership of, whether it’s just an opinion or a direct experience from a past family member…”

Stories about the thylacine now seem to take place somewhere between fact and fiction. Newitt in fact invites viewers to the exhibition to fill out a form telling their own stories about the tiger, “so hopefully it forms a conversation that continues.”

In his practice, the artist employs a wide range of media, including video, photography, sound and installation, to engage with social, political and environmental situations, often using documentary-style techniques. Born in 1981, James Newitt is a dynamic young artist who is garnering a whole swell of critical recognition in recent years. Currently Head of Visual Communication at the Tasmanian School of Art, he was recently awarded the annual Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship for 2011 and was also the recipient of the 2010 City of Hobart Art Prize, as well as a participant of both the 2010 Adelaide Biennial and the 2010 ‘Primavera’ exhibition for gifted young artists at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  Unlike the sad demise of the Tasmanian tiger, Newitt’s star appears to be on the rise…

‘To Catch a Tiger…’
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart
November 5, 2011-March 12, 2012

Exhibition review
By arts editor and writer Victoria Hynes