When I graduated from art school, there was a lot to be part of in Sydney’s art community — a packed itinerary of new ARI shows opening on weeknights and art events on Friday and Saturday nights. Things feel radically different five years on. Gutted by funding attrition, gentrification and the hardships associated with managing Sydney’s ever-climbing living costs, the city’s art community lacks just that: structures for a community, like a hub and a reliable itinerary of events. In this picture of decimation, PACT Salon is an important addition: it promises an after-dark art party that’s more experimental, more inclusive and more grassroots than the Museum of Contemporary Art’s ARTBAR. The Big Bounce, the first night of the quarterly series in January, made good on that promise; its curator, Matt Cornell, a dancer, created a loose night of happy, shared energies — a dance class, compelling conceptual performances, cheap drinks — combining smart art-thinking with party vibes.

Skeletons and Self-Portraits was a more earnest affair. Though the promotional material spoke of a somewhat scattered constellation of subjects — all women artists, feminism, mental health, identity defined against others’ perceptions, a masquerade costume theme — the real, albeit undeclared, point of unity was an exploration of the identities of artists with different physical and invisible disabilities. Curated by writer, actor and motivational speaker Emily Dash, this was a night of monologues (Cheryn Frost’s Confessional), performance (Georgia Cranko’s On Grip and Grief), solo dance theatre (Kay Armstrong’s The Last Half), spoken word and pop performances (Jessica Wiel’s song “Innocence; Addicted; Feelings,” among several others by the artist) that focused on what it feels like to be a person with a disability in a careless society.

Confessional, Cheryn Frost, Skeletons & Self-Portraits, PACT, photo Tiyan Baker

Skeletons and Self-Portraits made me think of Stella Young, the deceased activist and writer, who insisted with sharp, nimble humour that her body was not disabled — that this notion was constructed by a callous, neoliberal society without the services or inclination to include all its members. In focusing on how big-picture injustice structures individual prejudice, Young opened up a cultural conversation about what a society that prioritised support needs might look like. Skeletons and Self-Portraits also made me think of a likeminded figure in the art world, the UK’s Claire Cunningham (read RealTime review), who became a dance artist after realising that the field needed new aesthetic perspectives that moved away from the able-bodied consensus: that she could take her crutches and use them to find a fresh physical vocabulary for the stage.

These attitudes were not evident in Skeletons and Self-Portraits; perhaps its aim was more about merely giving curatorial control to those who are often invisible in the art world. I was a little perplexed by the fact that the most ‘contemporary art’ aspect of the program, zin’s interactive Glitterbox (a huge glowing cube in which audiences choose their favourite song to dance to in a storm of glitter), was malfunctioning after adaptations were made following its first outing at Sydney Festival, and seemed thematically distant from the night’s other works. And I was ethically troubled by a work by Louise Kate Anderson. Billed as an installation to confront mental health stigma with audience members able to ask the artist anything about herself, it detoured from personally-framed conversations toward something of a DIY therapy event in which declarations about deeply complex issues were made and diagnoses offered with seeming authority and without professional expertise. It worried me that giving over a part of the event without clear curatorial guidelines resulted in misinformed (though well-intentioned) discussions that provided mental health advice from the artist and audience members without considering the experiences and safety of those present.

Glitterbox, zin, Skeletons & Self-Portraits, PACT, photo Tiyan Baker

As a community art event premised on self-expression and self-representation, Skeletons and Self-Portraits worked best as a platform for those who still often don’t have one. The night’s most interesting flashes of insight, though incidental, spoke to the possibilities of an art world that foregrounds access and inclusivity. First, the event’s Auslan translator, Sean Sweeney, struck me as the strongest performer: he was focused, present, connected, emphatic when called for and subtle at other moments. And second, Emily Dash’s videos of her own spoken word poems, I Am Not a Work of Art and The Cards I’m Dealt, featured closed-captions with functional descriptions like “music continues.” This made me wonder about the prospect of video artworks that leave behind sound altogether and describe fictitious audio elements, for viewers of all abilities — and on a level playing field — to imagine themselves. In these two moments, Skeletons and Self-Portraits inadvertently opened up two unexplored rivers of communication and thinking for disability arts in Australia. The usual audience of artists and followers seemed largely absent, suggesting that the artistic conversation didn’t reach as widely and effectively as it might have, but despite the program’s shortcomings PACT managed to open up its doors to a clearly underserved sector of the art-going community.

PACT Salon #2, Skeletons and Self-Portraits, curator Emily Dash, PACT, Sydney, 29 July

Top image credit: Georgia Cranko, On Grip & Grief, Skeletons & Self-Portraits, PACT, photo Tiyan Baker

Thai-Australian playwright Disapol Savetsila’s Australian Graffiti has its moments: flashes of crisp, acerbic dialogue, grim physical comedy, occasional deft character delineation, vivid arguments and some emotionally sensitive exchanges. It’s otherwise underdone — character development is limited, critical motivation unexamined and the tonal shifts in language and mood between the scenes with and without a ghost character are minimal in the play’s easy-going naturalism, despite a press release claim for its “magical realism.” For real magic you need to turn to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, in which ghosts can slip in and out of the world with unnerving effect.

Faults aside, Australian Graffiti warrants attention since Savetsila is another in a number of new culturally diverse voices coming to Australian stages and performance spaces and needs to be heard, not least for the essentially dark vision entailed in his story of Thai-Australian business failure compounded by Australian racism and traditional Thai attitudes to filial duty. For all of its leavening comic moments, the play offers at its end only a sliver of hope for cross-cultural conciliation.

Mason Phoumirath, Airlie Dodds, Australian Graffiti, Sydney Theatre Company, photo Lisa Tomasetti

Amiable chef Loong (Srisacd Sacdpraseuth) has died — his body heartlessly lugged about by the play’s other characters in bouts of black comedy — but visits as a ghost, encouraging those who listen that there is life beyond a failing Thai restaurant in a regional Australian town. The elegantly dictatorial Baa (Gabrielle Chan) continues to run the business with a ruthless work ethic, regardless of the absence of customers. Illegal immigrants — boisterous, despairing Boi (Kenneth Moraleda) and the more hopeful but ill Nam (Monica Sayers) — have become Loong’s replacements, but are not good cooks (they desperately experiment with Vegemite dumplings). Moving the business from town to town has forced home education and separation from his peers on Baa’s lonely, intelligent adolescent son and waiter Ben (Mason Phoumirath). However, a chance meeting by a creek introduces Ben to Gabby (Airlie Dodds), a caustic, tough-minded white Australian of his own age who introduces him to yabbying. This is where the play opens with youthful banter and marked sexual attraction, although Gabby drolly mocks the idea of a relationship tainted “with the stigma of sweatshop labour.”

There’s a bitter edge to joking in Australian Graffiti. Gabby’s father (Peter Kowitz), a nasty character of the bullying Australian “can’t you take a joke” variety grows angry when humour is directed at him: “You speak good English,” he says to Ben, who retorts, “So do you.”

Ben and Gabby’s meeting at the play’s end will be a test whether or not Ben can continue the relationship with the only friend he has ever made (if barely so) and if Gabby can separate herself from the racism of her policeman father and the townspeople. After their first meeting, she’s been resolutely hostile, feeling — because of Thai graffiti appearing on a church altar wall — that Ben and family have turned her private paradise into a hell. It’s not much of a town, but it’s hers, she declares with passionate conviction in one of the play’s stronger moments. But there’s little to indicate in the course of the play that she’s capable of the insights that come at its end. Ben, more convincingly, is determined to develop the friendship and break free from the restaurant and his mother’s insistence on gratitude for her sacrifices (“I’m building an empire for you!”). A girl and a ghost draw him out of a smothering cocoon which he knows has never been ‘home,’ although the options for him to remain in the town seem profoundly limited as his mother moves on.

Australian Graffiti, Sydney Theatre Company, photo Lisa Tomasetti

The executor of the graffiti is finally revealed and the symbols translated, but the meaning is enigmatic and the motivation behind it left infuriatingly unexplained — an opportunity lost to deepen both a character and the possibility for shared understanding between cultures in conflict. Why might someone be driven to commit such an act? It also prompts the question, why Australian Grafitti? Is it ironic? The graffiti in the play is Thai, it spoils and desecrates, but the disproportionate response (Ben accused, the violence, banishment in effect) and unleashed racism could be seen as graffiti writ large on the immigrant body.

One of the strongest images in the play is of a small girl who is sighted recurrently peering into the restaurant until, with her black eyes, she becomes a frightening apparition for the nervy Boi, racism incarnate. A crowd forms, rocks are hurled, windows broken and we learn later Gabby was one of the perpetrators. Other moments linger: Loong’s enticing Ben to relish the freedom inherent in eating fresh mango and his wise discourse on entrapment with the metaphor of dogs happily fattened up to be eaten: “suicide by food,” he quips. His admission, “All I have is hindsight,” is one the play’s best from Srisacd Sacdpraseuth’s engagingly realised ghost character, who grumpily complains to Nam that when he was dying, her over-vigorous CPR broke a rib. His funeral, after days of lying about and ritually held in the restaurant building for fear of alerting authorities to the presence of illegal immigrants, becomes an aptly incendiary affair for a sower of doubt.

Monica Sayers, Srisacd  Sacdpraseuth, Australian Graffiti, Sydney Theatre Company, photo Lisa Tomasetti

Australian Graffiti’s limitations were underlined by a large, high-walled greyish, fluoro-lit set (representing a room adjoining the unseen restaurant) that, although amplifying Ben’s sense of homelessness, reduced the sense of intimacy and entrapment felt in the writing and produced, at times, over-projection from some of the performers (a late reference to the room as a former ballet studio didn’t compensate).

Despite its occasional strengths and strong performances, Australian Graffiti’s appearance on an STC stage was clearly premature. It’s not without promise, but Disapol Savetsila deserves dramaturgy that will address the gaps in the work and opportunities to follow through on the complexities he conjures.

Sydney Theatre Company, Australian Graffiti, writer Disapol Savetsila, director Paige Rattray, performers Gabrielle Chan, Airlie Dodds, Peter Kowitz, Kenneth Moraleda, Mason Phoumirath, Srisacd Sacdpraseuth, Monica Sayers, designer David Fleischer, lighting designer Sian James-Holland, composer Max Lyandvert, sound designer Michael Toisuta; Wharf 2, Sydney, 7 July-12 Aug

Top image credit: Australian Graffiti, Sydney Theatre Company, photo Lisa Tomasetti

Something in politics shifted the day after my visit to Moving Nations, a new group show of works by young artists personally reflecting on displacement and nationhood, brought together by curator Grace Partridge under the banner of Antidote. A decades-long stalemate in the imprisonment and abuse of asylum seekers finally ruptured, with the country’s largest ever human rights case resulting in the Federal Government and contractors committing to direct $70million in compensation to over 1,900 former Manus Island detainees.

The landmark out-of-court agreement marked a rare moment of progress in a domestic political situation often blighted by voter cynicism and bipartisan incompetence. After all, the refugee issue has come to define Australia’s very status as a fearful, anxious country, and a stranger to its own history of migration, from convict settlement to waves of newcomers prompted by gold rushes and wars, to the more recent internal shifts in the cities as housing prices and gentrification bear down. Moving Nations is like a small collection of migratory portraits, contemplating the lives of asylum seekers directly in Penny Ryan’s Open Hearts (2016), a participatory installation that invites audience members, in a simple gesture of solidarity, to unwrap a sculpture of a terracotta human heart, one for each aspiring Australian in offshore detention.

Moving Nations goes beyond the specifics of mandatory detention, toward a broader sense of splintering displacement. This idea is neatly realised in Justine Youssef’s An Other’s wurud (2017), an installation documenting a performance in which the artist makes traditional Arab rosewater in the gallery. On the floor lies a scattered carpet of drying rose stems alongside a portable stove, saucepans, lids, a steel colander of damp petals and three large glass bottles of the precious liquid. Though Youssef has faithfully followed her grandmother’s recipe, she has used the locally available English David Austin rose in place of the traditional Damask rose. It’s a lovely metaphor for the contradiction between the place where you’ve pragmatically found yourself and the heritage that shaped your arrival. The work strikes the right balance between conceptual sophistication and sensory impact, as the delicate, floral aroma of roses hovers in space. Though much installation art can feel cold and alienating — indifferent to being understood by and affecting the audience member — Youssef appeals directly to the sense of smell, making the work come alive even for those like me who missed the performed element.

New Australians (Yellow Peril, 1980/2015), 2015, Eugenia Lim photo courtesy the artist and Antidote

Eugenia Lim’s Yellow Peril, excerpted from a series (2015; read the RealTime review), also finds ways to deftly express large-scale metaphors using simple materials. Appropriating the visual language of portraiture, Lim has printed two huge photographs in greyscale on gold, unfolded mylar emergency blankets. On the left is Lim herself in a photo styled as if salvaged from the era of the Victorian Gold Rush that brought many Chinese people to Australia. Seated and placid, she holds a large gold nugget. On the right are her parents on their arrival in Melbourne in the 1980s. Despite their big-picture dazzle, the two images evoke a genuine melancholy, the work a captivating and original contemporary take on 19th and 20th century portraiture conventions, connecting Lim’s family’s relatively recent migration within the longer continuum of Chinese people in Australia.

Abdul Abdullah’s the lies we tell to help us sleep (2015) and Olga Cironis’ together we were rich, we had shoes (2013), continue the theme of reclaimed portraiture that reflects the experience of diaspora. Abdullah’s digital photograph is visually arresting in its composition and lighting, but requires a little more context to help the viewer unlock the obviously rich symbolism contained within. Cironis takes an archival family photograph, digitises it and blows it up alongside a second panel of deep shiny black, suggesting a violent and total erasure.

James Nguyen’s Adidas/Converse (2017), in which those words are overlayed in neon signage, neatly points to the ways that the Vietnamese economy relies hugely on sneaker production, and beyond that, the dependent relationship between the developed and developing worlds and the resulting pathways through which migration is triggered. Less lateral, but counterpointing the show’s other viewpoints with an Indigenous perspective, is a video work, Right Land’s (2015) by Dean Cross, documenting the artist walking along the perimeter of his family property: a delineation of arbitrary boundaries imposed on Aboriginal land.

Spotlighting complementary cultural experiences, Moving Nations considers Australia’s unfolding migratory history with curatorial clarity. The show sets aside a singular notion of Australian nationhood for something messier and closer to home. As a small ARI show, it also marks an interesting grassroots counterpoint to the new biennial initiative presented by the MCA, AGNSW and Carriageworks, called The National. The vision presented in Moving Nations is far more refracted than the one encapsulated in the loaded word ‘national’ and the grand, implied association of a single Australian identity that goes with it. Perhaps the more useful uniting concept simmering beneath these works is a simple desire to belong to and understand our history.

Moving Nations, curated by Antidote, Artistic Director Grace Partridge, artists Abdul Abdullah, Olga Cironis, Dean Cross, Peter Drew, Eugenia Lim, Penny Ryan, Justine Youssef; Collab Gallery, Chippendale, Sydney, 7-17 June

Top image credit: An Other’s wurud, 2017, Justine Youssef, Moving Nations, photo courtesy the artist and Antidote

Nakkiah Lui has appropriated — or been appropriated by — the bourgeois comedy of manners. Tellingly, she doesn’t satirise the form, though now and then tips it into riotous farce, but uniquely centres Black is the New White on a well-to-do Aboriginal middle class family who come to acknowledge that, like their white peers, they can be oppressors of fellow Indigenous Australians and, when it comes to arguing over the black/white divide, they are sometimes their own and each other’s worst enemies. On the surface, Black is the New White is wickedly funny, infused with Aboriginal humour — blunt, droll, barbed — and, for a middle class family, not at all genteel. Its subjects are anxieties about self, love, community, gender and politics, joked about but indicative of a deeper unifying concern about race. That’s not surprising, even for a family like this at a remove from the grimmer aspects of Aboriginal life in Australia. Their insistent joking is more than communal fun; it’s a political weapon and a collective defence mechanism.

For a white Australian audience, Black is the New White offers potential insights into a class of people rarely portrayed on stage or screen, though increasingly in evidence in the professional characters in Redfern Now (2012-13) and scattered roles in a number of Aboriginal plays and television productions. Ray (Tony Briggs), the father in this family and a community leader, fancies himself as an Aboriginal Martin Luther King, wastes time debating the qualities of lettuce types on Twitter, plays golf, objects to his daughter’s relationship with an unemployed white experimental cellist and, when frustrated, hides in a virtual reality helmet (not turned on). And he’s doggedly racist. It’s beyond him to shake the hand of or offer a drink to the inadvertently naked, feckless Francis (James Bell), the boyfriend of his daughter Charlotte (Shari Sebbens). Ray growls, “How dare you be nude and white in my house.”

Cast of Black is the New White, Sydney Theatre Company, photo © Prudence Upton

The restless gravitational centre of Black is the New White is Charlotte’s challenge to her father: that he acknowledge his isolation from his community, that his wealth is disproportionate and that he let through a clause in a Land Rights case that severely disadvantaged his people. This manifests as a furious outburst in the second act but we witness its gradual escalation in the first. Though successful in cases against mining companies in court, Charlotte nonetheless feels out of her depth and is determined to do an advanced degree in New York, to learn how to change the law, not merely exercise it. Ray thinks that Charlotte should take up his activist legacy, doggedly insisting that she not go to New York, but instead accept a TV offer and become “a black female Waleed Aly.”

In Shari Sebbens’ finely nuanced performance we watch the affectionate Charlotte grow increasingly frustrated, attempting to maintain a smile and lay claim to love, honesty and her own place in the world as her father and sister Rose bluntly lay out their opposition to her relationship with Francis. A successful LA-based designer, Rose (Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn]) is hostile to the diluting of black blood with white — it’s genocide, she claims, citing a 74% Indigenous marriage rate with whites.

Tony Briggs, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Black is the New White, Sydney Theatre Company, photo © Prudence Upton

Eruptions of confrontation aside, Lui wraps her play like a Christmas present with perpetual joking, amusing political jibes, Francis’ gaffes, communal hilarity (including song and dance), the playful sexuality of the black couples, and the presence of a “Spirit of Christmas” narrator (Luke Carroll) who, novelist-like, fills in back stories while remaining unseen by his subjects. (It’s a limited, thinly integrated role, though played with verve it aptly compounds a sense of the play as fable.)

Black is the New White could conceivably have been built entirely around a black family and a lone white guest, but Lui ramps up the tension and the fun with the eventual arrival of Francis’ parents. Dennison Smith (Geoff Morrell) is a former 1990s right wing conservative parliamentarian and Ray’s political enemy. Lui briskly reveals a man who cannot express love for the son he is determined to push into work by cutting off his allowance, or for his seemingly dotty wife, Marie (Vanessa Downing), whose loneliness and sexual starvation have propelled her into erotic discovery. The revelation is sadly funny in Marie’s telling and Morrell conveys its impact with palpable anguish and physical collapse.

Lui’s sense of humour and the performers’ engagement with it never obscure depth of feeling, although at the end of the play the sheer scale of change, resolution and conciliation, as so often in classic comedy, can only be sketched. Thwarted lovers Charlotte and Francis are reunited by their now bonded fathers (“Yes, a treaty!”). There is forgiveness, faults are admitted, humility attained and, above all, as Joan (whose considerable role in his successful career is admitted by Ray) argues, the preoccupation with difference between black and white must not be obsessed over. (That theme hits home most palpably with regard to the identity of Rose’s husband, Sonny [Anthony Taufa], ex-champion Aboriginal footballer, role model and banker, when he has a DNA test for an appearance on Celebrity Who Do You Think You Are?)

Cast of Black is the New White, Sydney Theatre Company, photo © Prudence Upton

Nakkiah Lui’s considerable achievement is to have created a propulsive comedy rich in jokes, pointed ironies and serious commentary that simultaneously spring from the lives of the play’s characters, each of whom is deftly portrayed in word and performance, their souls bared and pain felt. Director Paige Rattray and an admirable cast do great justice to Lui’s play.

The production’s brisk pace allows a stream of politically incorrect utterances (from both sides of the fence) and painfully incisive remarks to fly by, many likely forgotten if cumulatively conjuring a nervy cultural and political context. Perhaps the sheer number of themes lightens the play’s focus, leaving behind a warm ‘she’ll be right’ aura, the kind of coziness often associated with bourgeois comedy. But as Lui has expressly stated, she didn’t want this to be another play about death and depredation, and her play introduces a new world to its white audiences and doubtless Aboriginal ones too. Will Lui, an experimenter to date, be “appropriated” by the comedy of manners after her play’s great success and write more in the same vein, or is she honing her craft and enlarging its range and potential?

It’ll be fascinating to learn what Aboriginal audiences make of Black is the New White if the play gains a wider reach, let alone the likes of Andrew Bolt and the much put-upon David Leyonhjelm — would it be a simple-minded, “Black racism; I told you so”? A favourite line in the play asserts that blacks are not passive-aggressive, it’s a white thing; that got a confirming laugh.

Sydney Theatre Company: Black is the New White, writer Nakkiah Lui, director Paige Rattray, performers James Bell, Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn], Tony Briggs, Luke Carroll, Vanessa Downing, Geoff Morrell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Shari Sebbens, Anthony Taufa, designer Renée Mulder, lighting designer Ben Hughes, composer, sound designer Steve Toulmin; Wharf 1, Sydney, 5 May-17 June

Top image credit: James Bell, Shari Sebbens, Black is the New White, Sydney Theatre Company, photo © Prudence Upton

Although tales are sparely told in Hilary Bell’s poems-cum-lyrics, Ensemble Offspring’s Seven Stories is not a venture into literal storytelling. Each layer of this multimedia concert — instrumental, vocal, poetic and projected — is impressionistic and synched, to varying degrees (or not), with the others. Bell’s fairytales are tautly imagistic, the video metaphorical rather than narratively illustrative, the singing frequently wordless and the scoring, for all of its occasional brilliance, has on first hearing a certain minimalist sameness and aetherial waft.

The notion propounded by Christopher Brooker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) that there are only seven story types is contestable, and certainly inadequate for dealing with many creation myths, especially non-Western ones. Good to see, then, Caitlin Yeo’s “Quest” commence with golden egg shakers in the prelude to a musical journey from restlessness to resolution, soprano Jane Sheldon soaring wordlessly. She speaks Bell’s quest story, which is completed in “Transformation,” the last work in the program. On a large screen suspended above the performers, a young (uncredited) woman, robed, almost on all fours, rises in Sarah-Jane Woulahan’s video to dance before a huge Sun and Moon, her body swirling and multiplying. She spins before a roiling rainbow-tinted ocean and a massive eclipse before returning to the ground, earthed, I guess. Woulahan’s video has a life of its own, suggesting inner turmoil and aspiration envisaged on a cosmological scale.

Jodi Phillis’s “Overcoming The Darkness” opens jauntily, colour-saturated flowers bursting open on the screen and Sheldon vocalising joy until a vast green forest is spookily rendered in negative, the music grim and a close-up revealing the girl’s feet pushing forward, we imagine with purpose. The music sweetens, there is new green, the screen fills with spores in flight and mushrooms sprouting fulsomely. Bell’s relatively long poem slips in and out of aural and melodic grasp. Her words are not surtitled and the high soprano singing sometimes elides consonants. I follow the poem in the dark of the auditorium and find that, at its end, music, video and text share a corresponding sense of release.

Claire Edwardes, Ensemble Offspring, photo Heidrun Löhr

The visual imagery for Amanda Brown’s “Rags To Riches” is built around the cold inevitability of time passing: there are clocks antique and elderly digital, the woman swaying in snow. The mood darkens via marimba and glockenspiel and accelerates into an aggressive Reichian dance, ocean waves tumbling, bass clarinet roaring until soprano notes float over a soft, faltering piano, incidentally apt for the poem’s ending in which riches come at another’s expense: “As for the woman hiding beneath them /Her black hair matted, her white teeth worn down /She would be cast back into the sea.” The lines recall those of “Quest” — “Each year would rob her/ Of her black hair /White teeth /Power.”

Sally Whitwell’s “Fatal Flaw” is focused, she writes in her program note, on “the inexorable,” and it is fully felt. In the poem, a mother’s pride enrages a childless goddess who locks the woman in a case, tosses her into the sea and murders her children. We see a vast red landscape, a snowbound forest, a heaving ocean viewed through a ship’s window, a cyclone, a collapsing bridge and a distant NASA view of the Earth. The clarinet is shrill, violin forceful, drumming emphatic, but out of a sense of overbearing danger emerges a fully formed, plangent song — from the cello —before a return to anxiety. A seismograph shudders, an iceberg breaks up, the lone young woman lost amid images, Jason Noble on his feet, his bass clarinet at its most powerful. Sheldon vocalises, lava pours. It’s visual overkill, but sounds wonderful, the melody memorable, the score deeply textured.

In a sudden departure from the norm, we leave Woulahan’s video world for Bree Van Reyk’s “Comedy Of Errors.” There is no young woman, no buffeting cosmos. Sheldon turns conductor for a work, its parts detailed on the screen: “Repetiton, Interruption, Overstatement” etc. Page-turning becomes hyper-emphatic, the whole ensemble whistles with the clarinettist who then, refusing to obey the conductor, hangs onto a breathtakingly long note. The second section evokes slapstick, the ensemble awash with honking horns and an inconclusive knock-knock joke. The third section is a brilliantly persuasive Miniature Double Concerto for Woodblocks executed by Claire Edwardes with Sheldon in reserve for the odd knock-on. “Comedy Of Errors” functions as a kind of entr’acte, a relief from the gloom and high drama of the initial pieces. But the absence of the video subject is unsettling; no restorative release for her of the kind comedy offers.

Seven Stories, Ensemble Offspring, photo Heidrun Löhr

Kyls Burtland’s propulsive “Journey” is paired with Bell’s sketch of a woman warrior who helps a pauper, leaving herself without money, so she and her horse set off to trick a giant out of his gold. On the screen, the Sun looms, railway tracks course by, the ensemble rumbles with dense minimalist intensity, lightning branches across the sky. The girl merges with the cosmos.

For her own piece, “Transformation,” Jane Sheldon writes that she “tried to achieve a sense of ecstatic suspension.” The woman in Bell’s poem having found the lover lost in “Quest,” “his hands bound in seaweed,” cannot embrace him and turns into a golden-scaled fish. The oceanic “expansive, seemingly uniform space quivering with quiet activity and possibility” that Sheldon generates laterally corresponds with the screen image in which rare close-ups of the young woman, suspended horizontally, reveal hands gently shaking, then feet and head as dazzling balls of light hover over and move through her, or as the poem has it: “her entire body gleamed with golden scales /catching the light every time she flicked her tail.” Refracted light drifts by like swathes of gathered silk and singer and ensemble quiver with shimmering rustlings and enduring vibrations. And again, the young woman achieves transcendence.

For all its many pleasures Seven Stories was not altogether satisfying: too much reliance on wordless singing instead of sufficiently committing to Bell’s poems, a critical absence of surtitles, and video art that was at times hyperbolic and its images and dancing sometimes generic. Sally Whitwell’s “Fatal Flaw” proved to be the most compelling of the works; the others certainly warranted further hearings (I’m looking forward to the ABC radio broadcast). Bree Van Reyk’s “Comedy of Errors,” if disengaged with the video layer of Seven Stories, wickedly broke through its otherwise sombre mood and Ensemble Offspring played with their usual commitment, flair and easy sense of theatricality.

City Recital Hall, Ensemble Offspring & Creative Music Fund, Seven Stories, composers Amanda Brown, Kyls Burtland, Jodi Phillis, Bree van Reyk, Jane Sheldon, Sally Whitwell, Caitlin Yeo, visuals Sarah-Jane Woulahan, text Hilary Bell; Ensemble Offspring: percussion Claire Edwardes, Bree van Reyk, clarinet Jason Noble, piano Sally Whitwell, violin Veronique Serret, soprano Jane Sheldon, cello Freya Schack-Arnott; City Recital Hall, Sydney, 3 June

Top image credit: Jane Sheldon, Seven Stories, photo Heidrun Löhr

It was eerie to be at The Stables and find myself once again in the grip of the poetry, grotesquery and tragedy of Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral (1948). I’d been entranced and haunted by the 1989 Sydney Theatre Company production and a subsequent ABC TV broadcast, which I’d recorded at the time and watched again recently.

If Neil Armfield’s STC account was hyper-Edwardian Gothic (the coifs of the four stiffly suited, male relatives recalling Split Enz), replete with Alan John’s organ score, Kate Gaul’s production for her Siren Theatre Co is contemporary casual (the Two Ladies — one of them cross-dressing — are Mardi Gras leftovers in chunky heels and sneakers), although the costuming for the play’s central figures, the Young Man and Alma Lusty, hints at an earlier period and a certain timelessness. Instead of a windowless basement, Gaul and designer Jasmine Christie have created a nightmarish dream space — a shiny, black floor thrusts forward from a semi-circle of heavy, dimly lit curtains, suggesting unusual depth for the small Stables stage and exploited in the Young Man’s appalling near strangulation of Alma at the play’s climax.

Cast, The Ham Funeral, Siren Theatre Co and Griffin Independent, photo Lucy Parakhina

One of the relatives at Will Lusty’s wake grandly declares that the boarding house, which Will and wife Alma have run from their basement, once filled and strained with the former wrestler’s breathing. Nate Edmondson’s enveloping sound design conjures that creaking and grinding like a haunting, with distant melodies floating by and the sudden presence of a ticking clock. Alma too listens, hearing the damp and the furniture.

There was a widespread belief in the 60s and 70s that White’s Young Man in his role as character-cum-commentator (“It might not be your kind of play. There’ll be no refund.”), the music hall banter of the The Two Ladies and the vicious choral teamwork of the Four Relatives were out of kilter with naturalism. Worse, the apparent alternation between conversational and poetic dialogue was deemed unmanageable. However, postmodernism’s openness to formal complexity and the brilliance of directors and actors who have trust in the cogency of White’s language, as they might Shakespeare’s or Beckett’s, have granted the plays the success they deserve. What’s critical in The Ham Funeral is that the Young Man is indeed a poet and that he is entranced when Alma and Will unconsciously wax lyrical, glimpsing something profound in people he finds otherwise repulsive. Reflecting later on a sudden outburst from Will (Johnny Nasser), the Young Man declares, “I almost loved him.” We are alert to that poetry before the Young Man (Sebastian Robinson) is. With blowsy relish, Liz Logan delivers Mrs Lusty’s sensual recall of coming out of the theatre after rain and delighting in blossoms, or smelling beer and soap on her young husband, or remembering sex on damp grass: “we was burnt up.”

Early on, the Young Man admits to suffering “the poet’s tragedy” — knowing too much and never enough. What he doesn’t know is that he’s walked into a real tragedy, Alma Lusty’s, and is in danger of becoming part of it. Robinson plays the poet’s naivety and disdain with an eloquent smugness. He’s ill-prepared to face two deaths (Will’s heart attack and a foetus found in a rubbish bin by the scavenging Two Ladies) and for falling into the roles of Jack, Alma’s dead child, and Fred, the child’s father and Alma’s one-time lover. Alma transforms the Young Man into these figures at times consciously and at others as if she’s lost in a dream, Logan deftly traversing the transitions, while Robinson captures the escalating attraction-repulsion in the wild game-playing and final embrace with Alma.

Sebastian Robinson, The Ham Funeral, Siren Theatre Co and Griffin Independent, photo Lucy Parakhina

Spending much of his time in bed, The Young Man, until invited downstairs is dangerously like Will in his stillness. And like Mrs Lusty, he conjures another reality, transforming an unseen neighbour, Phyllis Pither (Jenny Wu, aetherial at first, then probing), into a ghostly presence with whom he longs to merge. He has in fact unleashed his suppressed superego, which ultimately cannot be ignored, forcing him to admit to himself his cruelty to Mrs Lusty and to acknowledge her simplicity and innocence. He can then leave the boarding house and the fantasy Phyllis. Mrs Lusty, however, cannot.

The emotional power of The Ham Funeral resides in Alma Lusty, in her frustrated attempts to draw Will out of his silence, the eagerness with which she invites the Young Man to socialise and to become the loved figures she has lost, her shock at Will’s death (alarm, distraction, reflection spilling out in quick succession) and the determination to provide a ham for Will’s wake (neighbours had only faggots or a leg of mutton), with which to impress his relatives. She is endowed with acute self awareness about her appearance, her moral failures, the instability of her fantasy life, and yet she is brutally punished for them. The relatives aggrandise Will’s character and declare her, in effect, his murderer (“the goodness in him turned to pus”). Kate Gaul deploys the accusing guests in a series of grotesque tableaux, hovering around Alma and clustered on and under the table. And as if to prove their point, Logan’s ever sensual Alma finds her way onto the lap of one them.

Foreground: Eliza Logan, Johnny Nasser, The Ham Funeral, Siren Theatre Co and Griffin Independent, photo Lucy Parakhina

Once the delirious Alma has turned her attention to the Young Man, after he has banished the guests and finds himself playing Jack and Fred, he cruelly confronts her with what he sees as inner ugliness, just as Alma thought Will could look through her skin. The Young Man’s sudden strangling of Alma is profoundly shocking in its twisted motivation and in the intense duration of its staging, bringing home all the poet’s inadequacies and inexperience, above all his deep fear of women. Alma survives, but her tragedy is agonisingly felt, “What have I done to be shut up in this body and no-one to let me out?” The utterance wracks Logan’s Alma. She has been condemned for feeling (“You bitch…you can still feel,” yells Will prior to slapping her), for having memories and for her physical sensuality, which is emphatic in Logan’s performance. Just how Alma will go on is uncertain, but with Will, the Young Man and the Relatives gone, she might be just able to let go of her ghosts.

Kate Gaul’s fine direction is tensely paced and the insistent dark humour well-calibrated as tragedy looms. The ensemble playing is strong with Logan, Robinson and Jack Nasser — as the fearsome, stony baritone Will and then a high-pitched insinuating relative — providing the performance’s centre of gravity. This modest, intensely intimate production is another that reveals the enduring power of The Ham Funeral.

Siren Theatre Co & Griffin Independent, The Ham Funeral, writer Patrick White, producer, director Kate Gaul, performers Andy Dexterity, Eliza Logan, Carmen Lysiak, Johnny Nasser, Jane Phegan, Sebastian Robinson, Jenny Wu, designer Jasmine Christie, lighting designer Hartley T A Kemp, composer, sound designer Nate Edmondson; SBW Stables, Sydney, 17 May-10 June

Top image credit: Johnny Nasser, Eliza Logan, The Ham Funeral, Siren Theatre Co and Griffin Independent, photo Lucy Parakhina

I caught only several performances in Liquid Architecture’s Negative Volumes Sydney: Danger Magic at Firstdraft. Two of them were acutely memorable. They felt dangerous and, in different ways, magical.

The first, by Hobart artist and RealTime correspondent Andrew Harper, was a danger to Malcolm Turnbull.

Harper performs curses, this one, titled Babel, is directed at the Prime Minister. From within a circle of variously aged ghetto blasters and like machines, Harper opens a folder of cassette tapes and pops a number of them into the players, looping passages with a central footpedal and delivering to his handheld microphone screams of horror and raw anger as an American voice drones verses — many objectionable — from the King James Bible.

As Harper lumbers about the circle, inserting tapes and stabbing with a foot at the pedal, it’s as if he’s trying to manage something not quite within his control, voices and cries accumulating into an unsettling mass incantation, made all the more disturbing by the immediacy of high quality sound. During a climactic surge, Harper rapidly waves the microphone over his body, as if insulating himself from the dark forces he’s unleashed. He gradually withdraws the tapes and a rattled calm ensues. This curse is done, briskly and chillingly.

In an interview with Liquid Architecture, Harper says, “Babel (Azathoth) is a live working of found and hoarded elements (cassette recordings and outdated technology) which it is hoped will reflect the disquiet and horror of the artist/performer at the temper of the times, and send a sonic ripple back to the makers of this horror: the present government of Australia (such as it is) and the forces further afield.”

Andrew Harper, Danger Magic, Liquid Architecture, 2017, photo courtesy Liquid Architecture

Danger Music 17, composed by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, also feels dangerous — for the health of the performer and for an audience confronted with unnameable anguish.

Cellist and teacher Geoffrey Gartner in white bow tie and tails cuts an elegant figure at the top of First Draft’s narrow stairwell, as if ready to commence a classical recital. We crowd at the base, not at all prepared for what ensues. Gartner screams. It’s forceful, unremitting, body-wracking. And this is just the beginning. Silence. He gathers himself and descends several steps. He screams again, this time his arms flail, hands grabbing at his head as if to contain some pain. Silence and further descent. Even more anguished screams. As he moves towards the bottom of the stairs, he sits, head low, body folding in, the voice hollowing out, emitting new husky resonances, but no less anguished or fierce.

Gartner’s screaming is horrifying, at times deafening, always inescapable, given our proximity to him and the amplification provided by the narrow stairwell. At the same time, the structure of the work is evident as is the performer’s superb vocal control, making the performance almost musical. But, unnervingly, the screaming, flailing body constitutes a floating signifier for whatever literal agonies we watchers might attach to it — unwanted images and recollections haunt the mind. This felt dangerous.

What made the performances by Harper and Gartner particularly potent was their sheer strangeness in an informal, minimally staged setting, and a shared sense of possession, such were the demands of the daunting tasks that propelled us too into ‘magical’ realms. Dark magic.

You can see Geoffrey Gartner perform Dick Higgins’ Danger Music 17 in a classroom setting on YouTube. It’s nowhere as powerful as the Firstdraft performance but is a rare chance to experience the work, which could be performed in any number of ways from Higgins’ instructions.

Liquid Architecture, Negative Volumes Sydney: Danger Magic, Andrew Harper, Geoffrey Gartner; other artists Sarah Byrne, Emma Ramsay, Matthew P Hopkins, Mariam Arcilla, Firstdraft, Sydney, 30-31 May

Top image credit: Geoffrey Gartner, Danger Magic, Liquid Architecture, 2017, photo courtesy Liquid Architecture

Ever committed to adventurous playing and commissioning of new music, Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring has also enlarged the scope of chamber music performance, engaging over the years with experimental film, opera, cutting edge pop and dance and installation. Now the ensemble has teamed with seven composers (Amanda Brown, Kyls Burtland, Jodi Phillis, Bree van Reyk, Jane Sheldon, Sally Whitwell, Caitlin Yeo), video artist Sarah-Jane Woulahan and writer Hilary Bell to venture into the making of a collaborative world governed by seven fundamental stories, but ones told from a distinctly female perspective.

The story types, contentiously delineated by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004), comprise The Quest, Overcoming the Darkness (sometimes a monster), Rags to Riches, Fatal Flaw (or Tragedy), Comedy of Errors, Journey and Transformation (sometimes described as rebirth). I spoke by phone with Claire Edwardes, Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring and director of Seven Stories about the making of an ambitious, highly collaborative multimedia event.

Seven Stories ensemble, photo courtesy City Recital Hall

Where did the idea come from for creating a concert driven by seven fundamental stories?
Ensemble Offspring was approached by Jodi Phillis of The Clouds and Amanda Brown of the Go-Betweens. They’d wanted to collaborate with five of their musical colleagues. And we all took it from there.

Given the nature of the concert, which involves composers, musicians, a writer and a filmmaker, was there a creative development stage?
Many. In musical terms, we went through a lot more creative development than usual. Usually, the writer writes the words and the composers go off and compose and then maybe, if you are lucky, the video comes after that, kind of reacting to the music. But often, the video is made simultaneously and, as you probably know, videos don’t always synch up and are not always completely related to the music.

But in this case, we had several creative developments with the writer Hilary Bell and the video artist Sarah-Jane Woulahan who were always in the room. Hilary especially was constantly reacting to changes we made in the music, adjusting her text and reacting to feedback from the composers and musicians. Likewise, the composers would keep revising their music based on the musicians’ feedback. So it was like a total everyway stream of feedback. I’ve never really been involved in something so open and fluid in terms of the way this project was developed.

And you enjoyed it?
To be honest, it’s a more challenging mode of working for the creatives because we, the performers, are very direct in our feedback. But it’s also hugely rewarding because it became obvious very quickly that it was all in the name of honing the best possible musical outcome and that was self evident in the final works which are simply stunning!

How is the text delivered in the performance?
Sometimes the words appear on the screen with the music or like a silent film still. At other times, they’re spoken or incorporated into the songs. The text is not a narrative that runs through the whole concert—each of the stories is quite separate—but there is the poeticism of Hilary’s words.

Jane Sheldon doesn’t sing a song in every piece; her role is sometimes as narrator and sometimes as singer. For example, in Bree Van Reyk’s piece, Jane’s a conductor/woodblock-player understudy. That’s what Bree has called her. Of the seven story types Bree got Comedy and so she went for slapstick. We have to laugh and do wolf whistles. One of the movements is a woodblock concerto for me, which is hilarious, and she’s got Jane as my understudy.

Tell me about the compositions.
Jodi and Amanda are from two quite famous rock bands in the 80s, The Clouds and The Go-Betweens, so as you can imagine their starting point musically is quite different from the composers with whom we usually work, who are generally classically trained. Many of the Seven Stories team hadn’t previously notated detailed music for live instrumentalists before so the process was a new learning curve for them. But it worked out nicely in terms of musical and aesthetic balance. Then we have Sally Whitwell who is a trained classical musician and writes very accessible songs. Kyls Burtland and Caitlin Yeo write a lot of screen music and for television.

For an Ensemble Offspring concert, the scores are quite tonal. And then Jane Sheldon is writing for the first time. Her piece ends the whole show. It’s called “Transformation” and it’s an exquisite piece working on tone-colour variation, which I think is a really great way to end the concert given we’ve had simple, touching songs and then Jane’s takes you up into the aether, sonically speaking.

The compositions might be simpler ones than you usually play but were there challenges for the ensemble?
Yes. I guess this was the whole point of the creative development. We really wanted to work with these composers to make the instrumental parts so we’re all really using our skills. We’re really multi-tasking to the max. There’s a huge percussion set-up. It’s definitely not simple for us to perform this show. It’s just that tonally it’s very melodic, very beautiful and I guess that often Ensemble Offspring concerts push boundaries. This is pushing boundaries in different ways and we hope that lots of people will like it.

Did Hilary Bell’s text emerge from the creative development to-and-froing as well?
It was very much part of it. She came to the rehearsals, wrote text, sent it to the composers and myself—as the director—and then we’d all feed back and then she’d do another draft. A few months would pass and then she’d send it to us again; we’d reflect, listen to the music and then she’d do another draft. She really changed her text based on everyone’s feedback. She’s been so open to that. It’s been wonderful working with her. No ego there! She’s amazing.

The seven stories, are these micro-stories?
Sort of, but it’s slightly more esoteric than that. There are references to fairy tales without each story being a complete narrative. It’s a more suggestive approach, referencing what people remember from their childhoods and throughout their lives and that we know these kinds of stories. Hilary hasn’t been too obvious, which I think is really nice.

How seriously did the collaborators take themes like “the quest” and “overcoming darkness?”
Very seriously. They spent a lot of time reflecting on them. The interesting thing about Hilary is that she responded to the composers and their interpretation of the story rather than the other way around.

The video trailer for Seven Stories is very dramatic: roiling waves, turbulent clouds and a young woman foregrounded before them. Tell me about the video.
I gave Sarah-Jane a brief that it would never be obvious who this protagonist is or what her story was. She’s more like a person returning in each of the stories. A number of them are linked to the sea and natural elements. There are mermaids with silver tails and so on in stories and all of that is very much picked up in the video.

Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, which drew on the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, has been very influential, but it has been roundly criticised for being a masculine theory. Is Seven Stories an antidote in some ways?
Yes, we realized there was this guy who was maybe not the most supportive of women [LAUGHS]. So we’ve remade them and taken them in a more feminine direction. It’s absolutely not a feminist work; more like a female take if you will on these ‘universal’ stories.

Watch a preview of Seven Stories below:

VIVID Sydney: City Recital Hall, Ensemble Offspring and Creative Music Fund, Seven Stories, composers Amanda Brown, Kyls Burtland, Jodi Phillis, Bree van Reyk, Jane Sheldon, Sally Whitwell, Caitlin Yeo, visuals Sarah-Jane Woulahan, text Hilary Bell; City Recital Hall, Sydney, 3 June

Top image credit: Seven Stories, Bree Van Reyck, Ensemble Offspring, photo courtesy City Recital Hall

‘Appel à tous. Ceci est notre dernier cri avant notre silence éternel.” The English translation, not quite as poetic as the French, reads, “Calling all, this is our final cry before our eternal silence.” This was the last ever transmission of Morse Code, by the French Navy on 31 January 1997 (so recent!). The dead language and its dying call have risen again, the distress signal now fodder for artist Angelica Mesiti, long interested in capturing on video the songs and sounds of different cultures.

If communication beyond words is the theme of Mesiti’s career, in Relay League she takes the idea of translation and makes it lateral: the French Morse Code is translated into English, then into a sculpture of giant dots and dashes hanging like a mobile, then into percussion, then into dance, then taught by touch to a vision-impaired dancer.

Though the “final cry” might summon a picture of dark waves like shifting mountains, Mesiti has chosen an urban setting for her three-channel video work. On the first screen we encounter a drummer. Mesiti asked musician-composer Uriel Barthélémi to create a percussion score from the last SOS. It’s a fluid creation with a free beat: cymbals are struck on a bass drum, feathered brushes evoke the dashes, flashes of silence create their own dots, and at moments, a more distinct phrase rises out of tiny abstract pulses. Mesiti captures all of this with close shots at first, gradually moving toward a wide shot of Barthélémi on a Parisian rooftop.

Relay League, 2017, Angelica Mesiti, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, photo Zan Wimberley

The second screen, approached around semi-transparent, curvilinear white paper walls, also starts with close-ups: hands, grasping. Two people sit beside one another, captured in a shallow depth of field that accentuates the tactile nature of what they’re doing: a woman is teaching a sight-impaired man a dance routine by way of touch, guiding him through the movements and tracing her fingertips across his wrists. They have an intimate spoken shorthand, too, with occasional murmurs in some undetermined language. They’re watching something, and though we can’t see what that something is, we can hear Barthélémi’s score in the background, simmering and pulsing away.

It’s the final screen that brings everything together. We realise the couple is in a light-filled studio watching and learning from a dancer, Felipe Lourenço, who has animated Barthélémi’s percussion with his own stuttering choreography of loose gestures—punches, straightened arms, splayed fingers, swinging torso and pattering steps—that made me think of dance as a kind of annotation. Like the first two screens, this one is dominated by a soft blue colour palette, the dancer’s skin providing a warm counterpoint.

With its huge crew (a producer, cinematographer, sound designer, post-production coordinators, camera operators, sound recordists), Relay League is fascinating for what it says about the present state of video art and how it’s changing in the digital era. The discipline began with incredibly lo-fi analogue creations displayed on TV monitors in the 1960s; now works like those of Mesiti, Lynette Wallworth and Hossein Valamanesh are created at a kind of high-definition super-video junction between the art and film industries. The art sector is so industrialised and professionalised that video artists are more akin to creators of short films, with production companies (which often also produce feature films, eg Sydney’s Felix Media, a frequent Mesiti collaborator) in some ways acting as co-creators. Andy Warhol’s Factory is everywhere. While artists like Soda_Jerk will, you suspect, forever lurk in the low-tech world of sampled videos and darkened bedroom edit suites, Angelica Mesiti seems increasingly to be at the forefront of this wave of glossy, highly-produced video work.

This is not a criticism. Aided by the support of half a dozen organisations, the new work retains Mesiti’s artistic DNA. And while Shaun Gladwell, perhaps the most commercially successful video artist in this country, has been the subject of much of his own work, I find it more interesting that Mesiti casts her eye over the identities and cultures of others. A new quality evident in Relay League, compared with her past works, is that it induces a kind of synesthesia: aural and visual components begin to bleed together, gridded apartment windows become dashes of Morse Code, chimneys become the dots, your eyes become your ears. Like her 2012 work Citizen’s Band, the videos are embedded in a thoughtful installation: in Relay League, you can hear the three channels’ audio echoing each other throughout Artspace—they are arranged as three links in a chain.

I like the idea that through video, Mesiti is finding new ways to encompass other disciplines, like dance and music, while retaining what’s unique about video art. From the death knell of Morse Code, Angelica Mesiti has found a new point of departure for collaborative artmaking, for different forms brought together as one.

Relay League, writer, director, editor Angelica Mesiti, performers Uriel Barthélémi, Sindri Runudde, Emilia Wibron Vesterlund, Felipe Lourenço, producer Anne Becker/PLATÔ, cinematographer Pierre Jouvion, sound design, mix Liam Egan, curators Alexie Glass-Kantor, Michelle Newton; an Artspace commission; Artspace, Sydney, 4 May-9 July; touring nationally.

Top image credit: Relay League, 2017, Angelica Mesiti, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, photo Zan Wimberley

Nola Farman is a quirky doyenne of Australian interdisciplinary art, whose practice spans from the 1960s to the present. Her work ranges from large-scale environmental installation and media art through to smaller installations, paintings, drawings and artist books, such as those on display in Flight at Gallery East in Sydney’s Clovelly.

A Clovelly resident, Farman has been stealthily upping the neo-Fluxus quotient in the seaside suburb with this exhibition and also her regular experimental poetry and prose readings, Off Track, held at a local restaurant. There’s a sense that Farman, now in her late 70s, is bringing her career as an artist home to roost, and Flight presents itself as an assemblage of various aesthetic curios, accompanied by a series of wall texts that engage the viewer in all manner of absurdist banter while simultaneously giving a conversational coherence to the show.

While wall texts are usually austere and minimal, Flight’s paratexts put language on a level with the art objects, and in his curatorial statement the mysterious Permangelo E Regularis stresses that the key to Farman’s work, “whether she be engaged with electronic installations, digital (media works), painting, drawing, artist books or sculpture from the tiny to the monumental—can be found in her use of language.”

Inertia, Flight, Nola Farman, photo Greg Weight

A banner hanging in the gallery window reads “The Ministry for the Future of Art”—the organisation that ostensibly represents a stable of Permangelo’s artists including Farman. There’s a hint that some of these artists, such as Nora Fleming and Noel Farina who share her initials and also provide the commentary on the works, may be Farman’s alter-egos. Alongside the first oil painting, Inertia (of a rather psychedelic garden snail, not unlike the kind of naïve artwork you may find in the corner of an op shop), Noel Farina free-associates about snails: “the first one now will later be last”—and another commentator, Tiny Bubbles, replies “Nola is a ‘master chef’ who has in my mind re-instated the big, fleshy escargot as simple and marvellous.” With the work’s touches of gold leaf and inflated price of $12,250 it’s clear that this exhibition is playfully tongue-in-cheek.

A conceptual centrepiece of the exhibition is an incomplete canvas, Unfinished and Untitled, a beguiling self-portrait of the artist in sunglasses surrounded by various everyday objects. An elaborate contract titled “A Whiff of the Oily Rag” has been drawn up to allow the work to be either bought outright or borrowed for periods of up to three months. Alternatively, in what seems like an analogue to and possible spoof of crowdfunding, but also perhaps a reference back to the snail and slow art, donations can be made to motivate the artist to finish the work within two years.

On a table at the front of the gallery are Farman’s artist books. Being a poet myself, these are my favourite things in the exhibition and include Kulinaria: Recipes for Disaster with food stains from various meals the artist has eaten—hence a page with balsamic vinegar or one with now rancid whole grain mustard—alongside the tongue-twisting “Parking Places I Could Have Had If I Had Needed a Parking Place in Paris.”

Flight invites us to consider the strange currents and currencies of contemporary art: from framing ripped cardboard in a work titled Artwork Not Made By An Elephant to a gaudy mirror with a small attached plate engraved with the word “Entitled.”

Narcissus, Flight, Nola Farman, photo Greg Weight

Nola Farman, Flight, Gallery East, Sydney, 4-14 May

Top image credit: Ein Ei Fur An Eye, Flight, Nola Farman, photo Greg Weight

The wearing of the veil, in its various manifestations in Muslim communities in Western countries, continues to be the subject of rancorous debate. New York-based, Israeli-born and internationally exhibited photographer Lili Almog offers a fresh perspective in a series of images for Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival that constitute a preview of a major exhibition to be mounted in Israel later this year. I met the artist and discussed the show and its other dimensions with her.

Almog’s concern is with the veiling of women in any number of cultures and religions. In a recent visit to Israel she encountered heavily veiled women whom she assumed to be Muslim. They were in fact conservative Israelis who are imposing the same dress code on their daughters. The difference between the women of two quite different cultures was, in effect, erased. Without identity, Almog said, the women “divided the landscape, cutting the horizon in two.” The distance between herself and a veiled woman seems profound: “What is she thinking? What am I thinking?” Hence the title of the show, The Space Within. This particular impact will be captured in the exhibition in Israel when Almog adds a series of landscape images, one of which was on show.

Almog’s focus in this exhibition for the Head On Photo Festival is on veiled bodies in a deep, almost metallic grey life drawing studio in which a mostly totally covered woman (often in black, sometimes in bright prints, eyes showing only once, finger nails painted yellow in one image and a naked leg exposed in another) poses amid sparely spaced easels, sketches, paintings and, strikingly, the stark white statue of the Venus de Milo and, in one image, her male counterpart.

Drawing Room #5, Lili Almog, Martin Browne Contemporary, photo courtesy the artist and Arthere

While the juxtaposition of covered and naked is at once amusing and disturbing, there are subtler ironies at work for the alert observer in terms of posture, the deployment of clothing and references to the history of portraiture. The texture of the photography likewise works from apparent binaries of light and dark with many shades between, yielding a satisfying painterliness which the veiled figure disrupts, like a ghost in black. Lili Almog very effectively lifts the veil on a complex gender and cultural tradition.

With a palpable sense of excitement, Almog revealed other aspects of the exhibition for Israel that she’s working on. They include a video, bumper stickers (revealing the diversity of cultural veiling) and heat sensitive ceramic statuettes—covered on one side, naked on the other as they turn—that utter telling statements as viewers draw near. With an aesthetic at once deadly serious and cheekily provocative, clearly Almog feels that the ideas embodied in her art have to reach beyond the photographic frame.

Lili Almog, The Space Within, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, 27 April-21 May

The Space Within has been brought to Sydney by Arthere for Head On Photo Festival.

Top image credit: Drawing Room #5, Lili Almog, Martin Browne Contemporary, photo courtesy the artist and Arthere

Digital media screen works by Japan’s teamLab were a highlight of Adelaide’s 2016 OzAsia Festival. Now four new works are featured at Sydney’s Martin Browne Contemporary.

In Gold Waves, a four-channel continuous loop that simulates a traditional room screen, roiling, curling and crashing waves suggest a Hokusai print come to life. Comprising hundreds of thousands of tiny ‘water’ particles which coalesce into lines of movement, the waves pound hypnotically, and as in a real ocean, unpredictably.

The water in Black Waves, a rivetting single channel loop, appears more blue than black and more suggestively akin to woodblock print colouring.

The exquisite single channel Enso (5 minutes), described by the makers as an exercise in Spatial Calligraphy, mimics the single Zen brushstroke that makes a circle but here adding a remarkable depth of field, shifting perspective and inky detail (fans of the film The Arrival will feel an immediate affinity).

Impermanent Life is a relative of the glorious, perpetually evolving Ever Blossoming Life which appeared in the OzAsia Festival. Across a four channel cluster of what appear to be gnarled tree roots, a mass of tiny blossoms drift and fall as a large circle forms and fades in another of teamLab’s celebrations of the life cycle.

These are engrossing screen works which invite reverie and contemplation, and are best seen on their big screens in a quiet gallery,

For our reviews of teamLab at the 2016 OzAsia Festival, go here and here.

teamLab, Impermanent Life, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, 27 April-21 May

In Pippa Ellams’ The Carousel, an intense portrayal of agonising sibling co-dependency, two sisters work through a kind of madness towards release without abandoning their love for each other. It’s a torturous, illogical process underlined by scene-switching between pre-adolescence and early adulthood and amplified by the years that separate the older Christa (Tasha O’Brien) and younger Jamie (Alex Francis).

Reasons for their co-dependency are not literally delineated. Most patently it’s the absence of parents in their lives—they’re just angry noises off. There’s no-one to counter the misinformation about changes in the female body which preoccupy them early on or, later, to thwart Christa’s cruel mishandling of her well-intentioned efforts to draw the regressive Jamie out into the world, which the youngster fears “is full of sadness.” Christa is isolated too—her affair with a married man is sexual, not social; she explains, “There are no dates” and she’s heard that “sex is the best kind of self-harm.” Ellams’ pared-back reality renders the girls’ naivety frantically comic when they’re not helplessly combative and their behaviour dangerously surreal when there’s a failure of care, the toxicity of the relationship embodied in a pet spider that is as symbolic as it is apparently dangerous when it does bite.

The volatility of the relationship, inherent in Ellams’ pulsing dialogue and taut scene-making, is a powerful driver of the production, with O’Brien and Francis (and director Hannah Goodwin) excelling in realising the characters’ oscillations between stultified stillness and outbursts of teenage exuberance and hurtful anger. Just when we think they’re doomed, we’re reassured by the palpability of their discrete personalities, eruptions of humour and the energy dedicated to perpetually changing clothes or Jamie’s out of the blue song and dance number for her sister, a sign of incipient release.

Alex Francis, Tasha O’Brien, The Carousel, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

Other moments are anxiety-inducing: Jamie’s nigh psychotic killing of the spider or Christa’s protracted, nervy account of stopping traffic to rescue a turtle stranded on a road, but then abandoning it—driving home the ambivalence at the root of her imposed duty of care for her sister.

The play’s drive towards resolution is painfully suspenseful, but keeping track of the narrative is not always easy: a couple of scenes are confusingly repeated with variations, suggesting short-term alternative outcomes—but in whose head in a play that doesn’t otherwise give one consciousness greater sway than the other? Then there’s the melodramatic stringing out of a convoluted plotline built around the spider bite, utilising device rather than psychology. What’s stayed with me is the sheer immediacy of the writing, acting and direction, the physical and emotional palpability of diminished young lives struggling to achieve some kind of wholeness, each sister fundamentally alone, however bound by ties and a love they don’t understand, until they reach the point where the younger can say, “We have to take care of ourselves now.” This modestly staged but imaginatively large work is the creation of recent University of Wollongong performing arts graduates, guided by Shopfront and revealing their substantial potential.

Another UOW graduate, Kirby Medway, created the first work in the Treats program, Unit, in which the audience, wearing headphones, settle back into their seats or on cushions on the stage floor and listen to an unfolding tale of emotional complications and indifference overtaking an anti-development protest in a Sydney suburb. Again the focus is on young people, with Medway at his best when, and too rarely, sardonic about youthful self-interest; one of the protagonists, not keen on attending the protest, makes excuses (he’ll lower his carbon footprint) but worries that he’ll miss a “life changing” event in which he might play a key role. Another point of view is introduced: the developer who has a penchant for standing naked atop his latest, completed project. Wind sweeps away his clothes but he’s eventually rescued by one of the protesters he’d glimpsed weeping and a kind of bonding ensues.

Listening to Unit, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

A sense of pathos pervades Unit and although these voices reside as if inside our heads, so does a feeling of distance, of dominantly third person narration or even where more personal, of a writerly neatness that represses immediacy and formalises vocal delivery. The writing is able, the performances focused and the sound—wisely eschewing overly literal effects—well designed, save for two passages when it disappears from the headphones and is heard through the theatre speakers, presumably to suggest the outdoor space of the protest, but leaving the un-directed listener confused, sound muffled and the narrative flow interrupted. Unit is an interesting experiment, one of a number of recent works that prioritise sound in the theatre, but Medway needs to now reflect more precisely on the potential dynamics of the sound/stage nexus.

Shopfront Arts Co-op, Treats: Unit, by Kirby Medway, mentor Miles Merill, sound design mentor James Brown, performers Matt Abotomey, Steve Wilson-Alexander, Sarah Meachan, Dave Molloy, Mara Davis; The Carousel, writer Pippa Ellams, director, designer Hannah Goodwin, performers Tasha O’Brien, Alex Francis, sound design Christine Woodhouse, mentor Anne-Louise Sarks; Belvoir Downstairs, Sydney, 21-30 April

Top image credit: Tasha O’Brien, The Carousel, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

I love films, and I especially love seeing them on a big screen in a dark cinema. I love seeing all sorts of different films: silent films, old films, new films, films from different national cinemas. And while I can find plenty to see, both at the Sydney Film Festival, and the seemingly never-ending stream of national and themed film festivals that crowd the calendar, what I’ve always yearned for is a cinémathèque to provide for Sydney something like the wonderful Melbourne Cinémathèque at ACMI has been doing: a year-round program, a challenging and diverse selection of classic and contemporary films, both retrospectives and thematic series, using archival and new prints sourced from all around the world. I’ve been aware, and jealous of, their program for years; I used to go to Melbourne quite often, and tried to catch a session or two whenever there.

Lost causes

Somehow, however, despite several significant attempts and much talk over the years, Sydney could never achieve anything similar. While it’s often been argued in debates on film culture that not only would audiences profit from such regular screenings of films from other national cinemas, curated seasons of the work of particular directors, screenings of specific genres and of rarely seen gems, but that our own filmmakers and film students could benefit from being exposed to such a rich diversity of filmmaking practice, such ideas have not been enough to make it happen. Suddenly, however, there’s a little ray of hope!

MCA briefly fills gap

Last year I discovered that the Museum of Contemporary Art was having free, curated screenings on Saturday afternoons. I’d already missed some, but I found out in time to see four films by one of my favourite filmmakers, Korean director Hong Sang-Soo, two of which I’d seen but was very happy to see again, and two that I hadn’t—and was delighted with. The next month promised four new Portuguese films curated by film writer and scholar Adrian Martin; the first to screen was Others Will Love the Things I Loved (2014), Manuel Mozos’ loving cinematic essay and tribute to the late João Bénard da Costa, who was apparently a cinephile extraordinaire and one of the most important figures in the history of the Portuguese Cinémathèque (there’s that word again!). I loved this film, even though I knew nothing about either the subject or the filmmaker.

Next in the program were four films by the wonderful Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But the MCA did make things difficult—screenings were sometimes changed from the Saturday to the Sunday, or to the next week, sometimes cancelled altogether or perhaps played later (without telling you when). And at the end of the year, they finished; the MCA is now using the screening space for video and electronic artworks, connected to its exhibitions.

A previous try

Ironically, it was the MCA that had spent 10 years from the early 90s trying to achieve a vision of an additional building which would house a cinémathèque, encompassing a national gallery, screening venue and study centre for film, video and computer-based media. But despite many high-powered supporters from the film and performing arts sectora, and many meetings, workshops and architectural competitions, the seemingly interminable negotiations between the many interested parties eventually crashed to a halt. When the additional building finally eventuated, it had only one screening room.

Cinematheque Francaise, building designed by Frank Gehry

A new approach

I had met James Vaughan, the film enthusiast who had been organising the MCA screenings and who was determined to find an alternate venue and some assistance to continue, and when he asked me to join the Sydney Cinémathèque, the volunteer-run film initiative that has now developed a proposal to put to the Sydney City Council for support, I enthusiastically agreed. James had also been inspired by the Melbourne Cinémathèque. As he says, “I lived in Melbourne from 2012 to 2014 and was a regular [there]. There is no debate regarding Melbourne Cinémathèque’s pre-eminence in Australia for the regular screening of rare, experimental and culturally significant cinema.”

Back in Sydney, talking to film friends and colleagues about the lack of any comparable institution here, Vaughan found many lamenting how long Sydney has been bereft of something comparable, and so, working at the MCA, he worked out a way to utilise its theatre space. That experience has led to the current proposal, a weekly guest-curated contemporary cinema program that would build on the success of the MCA initiative.

As Vaughan explains, the regular screenings would provide the Sydney community with access to rare and culturally significant cinema from around the globe. It would also aim to open a dialogue between acclaimed film practitioners, scholars, curators, and the audience. Guest-curated each month by different Australian and international institutions, filmmakers, critics and festival programmers, it should bring some of the most exciting contemporary cinema from around the world to Sydney audiences.

As Vaughan says, “We see this as a rare opportunity to consolidate and expand on what worked so well at the MCA—the creation of a space for the best curators, critics, theorists and practitioners of cinema to be part of an environment where both complementary and contradicting voices are accommodated to affirm, in all its dynamism, the awesome power of cinematic art. If funded we’ll be seeking curatorial partnerships, and we’re also committed to and passionate about everything which would support the screenings—Q&As, panel discussions and live director Skype-ins. We strongly believe that our proposed program which, at its core, is fascinated by the nebulous zone between conventional narrative cinema and long-form video art, has the potential to revitalise screen culture in Sydney.”

Why a cinémathèque?

The name and the model come from the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which has had a chequered history since it was founded in 1936 through the passion of the legendary Henri Langlois, who started collecting and preserving films in the 1930s. Dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and conserving all sorts of cinema, to make it available for public screenings, it is the first and most famous institution of its kind and is now a cultural icon in France.

After Sydney became the second international City of Film in 2010, joining UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, a global network of key cities committed to promoting economic development through their creative industries, filmmaker Gillian Armstrong was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that you have to feel slightly embarrassed about the fact that “we’ve been given this incredible honour: City of Film, and we don’t have a cinémathèque, we don’t have a film centre.” Surely it’s time we did.

Our previous coverage of the campaign for a cinémathèque in Sydney appeared in RealTime 96 in which Tina Kaufman traces the history of Australian screen culture and in RealTime RT105 in which she details the campaign in 2011 for a cinémathèque based at the MCA.

Top image credit: Harold Lloyd, Why Worry? (1923), now screening at ACMI Cinematheque

At its most overt, Wesley Enoch’s 2017 Sydney Festival programming is about sensory engagement, indigeneity and innovative art-making. Alongside works that challenge the senses there’s a cluster of works by and about First Nations peoples and an overlapping one, principally theatrical, from independent Australian and visiting artists. These are complemented by discrete programs of contemporary circus and Canadian performance amid diverse festival fare from around the world, beyond easy summary.

Unlike most festival directors, Wesley Enoch is, expectedly, forthright about matters social, cultural and political. Although his festival might not be themed top to bottom and despite its considerable breadth, it has a core, the man himself. Towards the end of our conversation in the festival office in the Rocks, he asks rhetorically, how it could be otherwise: “How am I so of this place and of this time that I’m responding and reflecting what’s here?” It’s a question he thinks all festival directors should ask of themselves.

He adds, “When I look through the program, I think my politics are there for everyone to see—my way of seeing the world. The big thing I find challenging is going from being someone who makes theatre to someone who curates a festival. I still think like someone who’s got to make it. It’s not a curated experience this one. It’s about me going, this is what I want to happen; can we make it happen? It’ll succeed or fail or spark conversation or people will go ho-hum. This is what a festival is about.”


DIY festival

The large format program features the colourful festival logo breaking up over a lively black and white portrait of a Sydneysider. There are eight of these selected from public submissions and eight program covers to match, depending which one you pick up. As well as inviting the public to make art, Enoch says play with the festival logo is “all about extensions and connections; about it being broken apart and finding its own way back together again. It’s an invitation to the audience to make their own Sydney Festival, literally from bits and pieces, to have confidence in themselves as individuals now that everyone’s a maker—having at their fingertips the means of production to make a film or do whatever.”

Enoch hopes that the curiosity festivals can excite might counter “the fracturing of our body politic. Individuals are now tribal in the way they see the world and we get a lot of [self-reinforcing] feedback through social media or our choice of news media. Things get reflected back to us that an algorithm says we’ll like. I find that fascinating. It builds a confidence that I don’t always like…We really need to say, ‘Be creative in your own thinking, be curious in the way you see the world, engage with otherness, with difference, so that you bring a quality to your life that is outside your lived experience.'”

Enoch’s program, delineating the sensory, Indigenous, Canadian and circus/physical theatre mini-programs, provides festival-goers with clear starting points for entering what at first glance might appear to be a maze. He underlines the importance of clustering, arguing, “If you do one [of a kind of work], it’s saddled with the idea that it has to be representative of a whole practice. Once you do a number of them you have a diversity of approaches.”


The Encounter, Complicite, photo Gianmarco Bresadola

A festival of the senses

A featured festival work is conceptual and olfactory artist Cat Jones’ Scent of Sydney, to be staged at Carriageworks. I mention Indigenous artist Archie Moore’s ‘perfume portrait’ series, Les Eaux d’Amoore, with its robust scents. Enoch recalls, “One of them was stale beer and cigarettes wasn’t it? That was full-on! As we’re living in an increasingly digital, disembodied world in our leisure time, in our work, artists are asking, how do you get back into the corporeal, the body of things? I wonder if we have lost the subtle vocabulary for our senses.”

Cat Jones will tell us about Scent of Sydney in next week’s RealTime. In the meantime, Enoch explains that the scents will be made by the artist in response to the recollections of a small group of participants of the aromas they associate with subjects like democracy, resistance and landscape. Audiences will be able to experience the outcomes and ponder their own associations.

Also on the sensory front, in deafblind artists Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens’ Imagined Touch the audience wear goggles and earphones to share a quiet, dark, complex world. It can be experienced as a performance or a free installation. House of Mirrors in the Festival Village offers another kind of sensory disorientation. In Encounter, the UK’s Complicite, utilising the depth of field and detail generated by the binaural microphone, takes its headphoned audience on a recreated journey up the Amazon.


Champions, FORM Dance Projects, photo Heidrun Löhr

Australia’s bold independents

Parramatta’s FORM Dance Projects is mounting Champions. Focused on women’s football, it’s directed by Sydney choreographer Martin del Amo whose engrossing signature works have often sprung from the act of walking—a short step to field moves. Created in consultation with Western Sydney Wanderers W-league, the work features 11 female performers enacting the drills, tactics and rituals of the game and expressing the joys of playing along with the frustrations of imposed gender limitations. We have an interview with del Amo in next week’s RealTime.

Enoch was keen to premiere Champions at Carriageworks: “It doesn’t have to be that Western Sydney is just a colony of Sydney.” Conversely, Ich Nibber Dibber by those proud Westies, post—featuring the astonishing trio reproducing excepts of conversations from their 10-year performance history—will open at Campelltown Arts Centre.

Prize Fighter, photo Dylan Evans

Prize Fighter from Brisbane’s La Boite plays out as a convincing real time boxing match in its telling of the life of a Congolese child soldier relocated to Brisbane. It was written by Future D Fidel, himself a Congolese refugee. Reviewer Kathryn Kelly wrote that it “showcas[ed] the breadth of African-Australian talent in this country with local performers Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe matched by recent NIDA graduate Thuso Lekwape…The opening night felt genuinely significant, evoking descriptions of the first night of Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s Seven Stages of Grieving at Metro Arts in the 1990s.”

Urban Theatre Projects and Blacktown Arts Centre come together to present Home Country, a work about intra- and cross-cultural tensions—Indigenous, Algerian and Greek—played out in a Blacktown car park from scripts by Andrea James, Peter Polites and Gaele Sobott. Also in Western Sydney is Hakawati from the National Theatre of Parramatta, featuring shared food and song from the Middle East.

Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor, photo Bryony Jackson

Innovative Australian works from across borders include Melbourne’s Patricia Cornelius, with her play Shit (about class and misogyny), Jacob Boehme’s dance theatre work Blood on the Dance Floor from Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre (read the review “To live, dance and love with HIV“), Brisbane’s Circa in Humans, from Tasmania, Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s You and Me and the Space Between and from Cairns, Dancenorth’s Spectra. Enoch says of the strong interstate showing, “I don’t think Sydney sees enough of the work that’s created outside of Sydney. Is that terrible to say?” I’m also interested in what happens when works like Prize Fighter get a rare second outing. There are things that can change, mature. Jacob Boehme’s Blood on the Dance Floor is another example. Aesthetically, it’s a real step on for Indigenous storytelling.”


Trevor Jamieson, The Season, Sydney Festival 2017, photo Simon Pynt

Indigenous culture: continuity, 1967, language

Enoch’s prominent Indigenous program ranges across theatre, play development, dance and visual arts. The Season, by Tasmanian playwright Nathan Maynard, a descendant of the chief of the Trawlwoolway Clan and of the North East Tasmanian Indigenous peoples, made its first appearance in the 2015 Yellamundie First Nations Peoples Playwriting Festival. I ask Enoch the writer’s age. “Oh, if you told me he was mid-30s I’d believe you; if you told me he was early 40s, I’d believe you—wise old man that he is. The writing reminds me of some of the early Jack Davis work where you have family environments in which cultural continuity is being expressed just through lived action. There’s a lightness of touch, of comedy, that belies a heavy burden, especially coming from Tasmania where the dominant myth is that all Aboriginal people were wiped out.” The Season addresses “cultural continuity around mutton-birding which has gone on for hundreds and thousands of years.” Also in the program is Ilbijerri Theatre’s “road trip comedy,” Which Way Home, by writer-performer Katie Beckett, about a daughter’s relationship with her single-parent father.

In Not An Animal Or A Plant, Vernon Ah Kee responds through drawings, paintings, text and projections to the 1967 Referendum which recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as citizens and included them in the census.”He’s bringing together his work as a conversation about that historical event. I don’t think this country’s even cognisant of the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary. It was such a successful referendum, 90.77% of the population voted. I wonder if it happened now, would it get through? What’s changed?”

The referendum will not be forgotten with the mounting of 1967, Music in the Key of Yes, in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, featuring film footage from the period and a stellar line-up of singers: Leah Flannagan, Yirrmal, Dan Sultan, Adalita, Stephen Pigram, Radical Son and Thelma Plum.

Bayala, Let’s Speak Sydney Language, is a very special component of the festival’s Indigenous program, an opportunity to become familiar with—through documents, classes and a “sing-up”—with the once assumed lost languages of the Eora and Darug peoples.


Meeting Canada

Enoch is pleased to be presenting “a big chunk of Canadian work, including Huff by writer-performer Cliff Cardinal from Native Earth Performing Arts [Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company]. There’s been a lot of exchange between Indigenous Australians and Canadians for quite a while now, especially the further north you go in Australia and through the tri-nation agreement between Australia, New Zealand and Canada over at the past decade.

“Huff literally means to sniff, as in solvent sniffing. It’s a multi-generational story where the performer plays all 20 roles. The youngest of three brothers has the gift from the Creator to make people feel good, and by the end, with all the tortuous things that he observes or that happen to him, he’s lost it. Huff marries the spiritual nature of a lot of First Nations storytelling with this story of growing up. It has a lot of black humour. The storytelling is both beautiful and tragic as you’d expect from any First Nations story. That’s where it works best: I’m laughing, but at the same time, I’m feeling like it’s dragging me under.”

Also from Canada is Company 605 in the dance work Inheritor Album; Tomboy Survival Guide’s words and music investigation into gender identity; Montreal composer Nicole Lizée’s form-bending Sex, Lynch and Video Games; and Anthropologies Imaginaires, Gabriel Dharmoo’s fictional chants and rituals which “examine Western culture and the way we look at others” (program). Also featured is iD by Cirque Eloize, the centrepiece in Parramatta’s Circus City, where all the circus works, associated workshops, forums and films will be presented. “Canada has a rich circus tradition but amazingly, we hear very little of it, except for Cirque du Soleil,” says Enoch.


Wesley Enoch, photo Prudence Upton

Remembering Myuran Sukumaran

Myuran Sukumaran was executed on 29 April, 2015 in Indonesia for drug trafficking. Sydney Festival, in conjunction with Campbelltown Arts Centre, is staging an exhibition of his paintings, curated by friend and mentor, the Australian artist Ben Quilty, and CAC director Michael Dagostino. Programming it makes a strong statement. “It’s important,” says Enoch. “Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Ronald Ryan hanging, the last legal execution in Australia. So there’s a sense of convergence. I think that as a festival we’re here to prod debate and discussion. There’ll be some people who’ll say, ‘How dare you elevate a drug dealer to the ‘hallowed halls’ of art!’ Well, if we believe that you incarcerate people because there’s a possibility of rehabilitation, there is the case to argue for the redemptive power of art. And after 10 years, my opinion is that those two people (Myuran and Andrew Chan) found a way to be rehabilitated. Capital punishment is such a final thing.”

We began our conversation with scents and senses and end with what is so evident about this Sydney Festival, its great sense of occasion—timely celebration of the 1967 Referendum, remembrance of the unnecessary death of Myuran Sukumaran, an embrace of Canadian art, and acknowledgment of the breadth and depth of Aboriginal culture and the innovative Australian art-making of which it is a sharer and driver. For all the breadth of its summer festival fare, Wesley Enoch’s 2017 Sydney Festival is a rarity among its peers for its sense of purpose, its aesthetics inseparable from its politics. It looks to be the festival Enoch sought of himself, “of this place and of this time,” of this city, of Australia in all its cultural complexity.

In a companion article, we offer a personal guide to shows RealTime readers might like to seek out.

Sydney Festival 2017, 7-29 Jan

Top image credit: Cliff Cardinal, Huff, Native Earth Performing Arts, photo Akipari

Sydney College of the Arts is fighting for its future. Dedicated, articulate and formidable students currently occupying the Dean’s Office in the Callan Park campus have faith in their education and in the history and significance of this institution; and they are supported by alumni, artists and communities who recognise the value of both SCA and visual art education to our culture.

It is a much bigger issue than the future of a single art school. This is an important fight, and potentially a turning point for culture in Australia. The protest is a defense of the integrity not only of SCA, but all other Australian art and design institutions, including increasingly beleaguered TAFE college departments.


Undermining culture

The NSW Government’s land grab for Callan Park, the SCA site, and the old Darlinghurst Gaol, home to the National Art School—shifting the classification of both from education to property—and the devaluing of art education are not isolated events, but symptoms of a concerted undermining of art and culture more generally. This insidious push towards privatisation comes at the same time as arts sector funding cuts have devastated small to medium arts organisations and those funds diverted to pork barrelling by Arts Minister Senator Mitch Fifield—arts spending without transparency, consistency or expertise. At the same time we see, more broadly, a profound erosion of civil liberties, including our rights to protest and to privacy.


Slow death by asphyxiation

Thus far, the proposed closure of SCA by merger with UNSW Art and Design has been effectively prevented, but under the University of Sydney’s strategic plan, released last year, SCA is slated to be absorbed into the massive Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, ostensibly to reduce bottom line costs, including devastating cuts to staff numbers.

Moving SCA to the main campus of the University of Sydney could easily result in slow death by asphyxiation: in other words a continuation of the current management strategy that has overseen, rather than countered, falling enrolments at SCA. The numbers of those enrolling in creative tertiary education had slowed markedly 2008-2013 (The Arts Nation: an overview of Australian arts, 2015 Edition Australia Council, p16). This legitimises as much as creates the short-term economic arguments for closing art schools. The University of Sydney has form here, having overseen the dilution of the once vibrant Tin Sheds Art Workshops.

To lose a proposed 60% of SCA staff, whole departments and important equipment and space is an attempt to fit art education into a philosophical and economic model that smacks of the dumbing down and anti-intellectualism that has pervaded commercialised and privatised education internationally for at least a decade, particularly in the US and UK. Forcing art schools into conventional learning environments cannot but reduce the efficacy of teaching and learning. If you lack the resources of space, time and equipment you cannot effectively and expansively engage in the creative process, the limitations of the environment curtailing what you imagine as possible in your practice.

In the last five to 10 years, the UK has implemented a particular kind of austerity politics that has had profound effects: funding cuts, fee deregulation and short-term economic models of governance have placed even the most renowned art schools under duress. The push to sell off grounds and incorporate art schools into other campuses has also been underway for some time. The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University effectively resisted this process until February this year, when the property was sold for £50 million and leased back to the university until the faculty moves to the university in 2017.

Students occupy Sydney College of the Arts – Photo ZebedeeParkes.com, GreenLeft.org.au

UK austerity

Part of this cultural shift has meant that art and design universities in the UK have increased their fees to £9,000 a year (and are looking at deregulating further), directly pricing out students from poorer backgrounds, but also likely deterring women, mature age, CALD and LGBT students, and those with disabilities, for whom the financial burdens seem a significant risk. Enrolments are reduced, in effect reducing the vibrancy and diversity of creative voices, debate and, in the long term, cultural breadth and depth. Education becomes the privilege of those with significant funds. My former students are now graduates with fee debts of around £60,000 and loans. The threat of $100,000 degrees in Australia is already both a cultural and economic reality elsewhere. The real deception here is the notion that knowledge and learning have definable monetary value, and that such value is predictable and tied to current ideas of employability.

Similarly, in UK further education colleges and schools, the availability of art and design study is now up for debate, as new models of assessment and evaluation of learning exclude creative subjects from essential study by prioritising instead so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This year’s art and design enrolments at GCSE level (General Certificate of Secondary Education, year 10) have declined 6%. This is not because young people don’t want to pursue creative subjects, but because access to them is being restricted by political and economic agendas. [See the NAVA letter to Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham. Eds]

Of course this is not the only model of education on offer. If Sydney University had included art and design education expertise in developing a strategy for the future of SCA, we might even have seen a University of the Arts emerge comparable to the University of the Arts, London, which has preserved the rich, independent cultures of its constituent art and design schools while streamlining administrative functions.

Beyond UAL, London has many significant art schools, further testament that no international city should have only one art and design centre of excellence. It is, rather, an essential characteristic of creative education—and an outward-looking international city—that the range of institutions and cultures should be diverse.

Political consequences

Perhaps politicians think artists are an easy target—powerless, politically naïve, unlikely or unable to fight back. Perhaps that’s what University of Sydney Deputy Vice Chancellor Stephen Garton anticipated when he agreed to meet with very determined SCA students on 29 July.

Universities should take note of the possible consequences of the hasty and ill-conceived implementation of their short-term economic agendas. UK Labour leadership has placed arts education at the centre of debate, proposing the reversal of funding cuts to the arts and the reduction of university fees, pledging to introduce a pupil premium for creative education [as established for sport in 2013] as central to its arts policy and political platform. We should learn from this reversal of the current approach to cultural education before we lose the expertise and resources that will prove so hard to replace: we must go straight to championing creative education in Australia.

Keep up to date with the activities of the SCA students and alumni at www.letscastay.com

Top image credit: Save SCA rally, Camperdown campus photo ZebedeeParkes.comGreenLeft.org.au

Like much of the work in the Video oediV exhibition Kawita Vatanajyankur’s rewards careful viewing. The vivid digital colour spectrum alone is a workout for the eyes. Acid yellow, dazzling orange, brilliant pink or bright sky blue remind us of the synthetic colours of plastics—or Thai silk. Against each vivid backdrop we observe the artist’s slender body—dark hair pulled back from her face, a slash of bright red lipstick against pale skin—performing one of a number of challenging, often desultory tasks. All in a day’s work for Vatanajyankur includes the following:

  1. While suspended from a rope, balancing a large circular basket on each arm, catch as many grains as you can of two endless streams of rice pouring from above (The Scale 2, 2015)
  2. Hurl yourself soggy from a variety of angles into a plastic laundry basket (The Basket, 2014)
  3. Hold your mouth open and allow water to be funnelled into it (Poured, 2014)
  4. Allow your head to be repeatedly dipped into a plastic bucket as if your body were a mop (Soaked, 2013)
  5. Become a pole for carrying baskets of bananas (The Carrying Pole, 2015)
  6. Repeat

The Scale 2, 2015 – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

To accomplish each of these tasks, Vatanajyankur’s body blends with the tool it mimics. In the sixth and definitely one of the more disturbing tasks the artist has set herself (The Ice Shaver, 2013), we observe her face-down in a solid brick of ice, using her nose, lips and chin to move it like some cruelly designed mandolin. Watch for a while and you’ll feel your own lips freeze.

On first viewing The Basket, you’ll note the artist’s deft landing but stay a while to watch the subtle grimaces on the face of the older woman in hair curlers who’s holding the receptacle and with her, feel the weight of that body.

The question as to who might be responsible for all the off-stage hurling and the dipping and the pouring remains unanswered. More important is the sense of cumulative audience discomfort generated by the subtle modus operandi of this Thai-Australian artist who graduated from RMIT in 2011 and who has exhibited widely across Australia as well as Asia and Europe. Last year, she was a finalist in the Jaguar Asia Tech Art Prize in Taipei and curated into the prestigious Thailand Eye exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, London. Her focus is on creating “works that examine the psychological, social and cultural ways of viewing and valuing the continuing challenges of women’s everyday labour…. undertaking physical experiments that playfully, often painfully, test her own body’s limits.” (Artist’s website)

As well as the often-observed juxtaposition between its seductively glamorous surfaces and the gruelling experience of this work, is the contradiction inherent in its creation—the contrast between gothically exaggerated domestic tasks and the “meditation postures,” as she calls them, which Vatanajyankur adopts to enact them. These “acts of extreme physical endurance,” the artist says, “offer a way to free herself from her mind: a mechanism to lose her sense of being. This deliberate objectification,” she says, “turns her body into sculpture.”

Kawita Vatanajyankur, The Ice Shaver, 2013, from Tools – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

Kawita Vatanajyankur’s work can also be seen at Stills Gallery, which represents her, in Sydney until 13 February. She has posted other work, The Robes and The Dustpan, in Vimeo.

Campbelltown Arts Centre, Video oediV, curator Megan Monte, 16 Jan-20 March

Top image credit: Kawita Vatanajyankur, Poured, 2014 – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

3 February 2016

Interview with artist Lara Thoms about her participatory performance work The Experts Project, part of Local Position Systems, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, curated by Performance Space.

See RT Studio for full article.