Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Franklin Projections in Hobart

The statue of Sir John Franklin in Hobart, Tasmania, has doubtless seen its share of strange things, but those who visit in the next few weeks will see something stranger still. As part of a series projecting art all over Hobart, the pedestal of Sir John's statue, as well as several of the surrounding trees, have become the canvas for an art installation inspired by the story of Mathinna, the young Tasmanian girl adopted for a time by Lady Jane Franklin, and then left behind at an orphanage on her departure.

According to a recent article by Carol Raabus which appeared on the ABC Hobart news site, these installations, by Craig Walsh, are but the first of many planned for the "Ten Days on the Island" festival, which opens officially on March 25th. Those at Franklin square are the first, and bound to be among the most compelling, as they transform an area which -- by day at least -- has a staid and solid feeling into one which evokes a story that has crept out from between the bloodied floorboards of the "standard" histories, and which many feel redounds poorly on Sir John and Lady Franklin's character.

Mathinna's story has been told several times in recent years -- most powerfully in a radio play by Carmen Bird, "In Her Father's House," which was broadcast on ABC Australia in 2003, and again by Richard Flanagan in his 2009 novel, Wanting. Lady Franklin apparently thought she could "improve" the child, and by so doing demonstrate the capability of the Aboriginal population of being educated. She was given a place at Government House, and educated at Lady Franklin's expense -- and yet, when she experienced difficulties, there was always the threat, implicit or explicit, of her being turned out. When Sir John was recalled to England, Lady Jane sent Mathinna back to the orphanage whence she had plucked her; not surprisingly the young girl did poorly after this, being found dead in the street some years later, apparently of acute alcohol intoxication. Perhaps most poignantly, there survives a lovely portrait of Mathinna, made in 1842 by the painter Thomas Bock, whose pathos depends on our awareness of a fateful truth unknown to the artist.

As conceived here by Craig Walsh, Lady Jane has become a tree, overlooking with strange, sad passivity both the statue of her late husband, and the ghostly image of Mathinna projected upon its pedestal. It's a haunting image to see online, and must surely be more so when seen in person.

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