Exhibition

The Sydney Festival opens with work that pushes against structures of promise and oppression. By Cassie Tongue.

2022 Sydney Festival

Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll in Girl from the North Country.
Credit: Daniel Boud / Sydney Festival

This piece was originally conceived as a review of the 2022 Sydney Festival opening weekend. However, at time of writing, more than 25 artists or arts organisations have withdrawn from the festival in protest at its financial relationship with the Israeli Embassy.

Organisers of the boycott have cited a history of government “artwashing” that distracts from the occupation of Palestinian lands. In a statement, the festival has pledged to “review its practices in relation to funding from foreign governments or related parties”.

The boycott has broken apart the festival program: some withdrawn works have been cancelled; others continue without the festival’s support. Critics of the boycott have accused organisers of politicising art, but over the course of the festival’s opening weekend it was impossible to ignore the politics in each work.

First was Conor McPherson’s dreary, dreamlike take on 1930s Americana, Girl from the North Country. Powered by the music of Bob Dylan, and direct from Broadway, it shows the struggle against the weight of everyday life. His characters have little opportunity for change and the characters who do speak truth to power – or just their husbands – are punished for it.

It is gorgeously performed by the local ensemble, which includes Lisa McCune, Peter Carroll, Zahra Newman and Grant Piro. The problem is that the songs and lyrics rarely align with the scenes: they are tone poems and heartbeats, defanged and divorced from meaning.

This lack of concrete storytelling and reluctance to explore resolution ultimately reinforces harmful ideologies: two disabled characters are presented as vaguely mentally unstable, indiscriminately violent and inherently dangerous.

The show, in which characters are so burdened by compromise they can’t even directly sing their own feelings, sits in an odd place of prestige on the festival’s line-up – one that is bursting with a community of artists breaking with the promises and structures that no longer serve them.

The installation Icarus, my Son, by Dean Cross, understands that promises are seductive and may lead to ruin. Its centrepiece is a shallow pool of gold foil that serves as invitation and warning.

It blends the Greek myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus with the rural and regional urge, and anxiety, of leaving for the city. The foil is our foil – a promise of gold that fills our field of vision but can’t be touched. All we can do is long for it.

A carved cricket bat hanging on the wall is placed to suggest both wing and anchor. Digital video collage and canvas add a sense of anticipating motion and ruin in equal measure; we feel the promise and futility of the potential journey.

As in Girl from the North Country, there is a sense of yearning. However, this work is not as defeated. It encourages reflection but it also assumes action.

Also on view at Carriageworks is Return to Sender by Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens. Dickens withdrew the work from the festival in protest, but Carriageworks maintained its commitment to showing the exhibition.

A prison door reminds us that racist artefacts tell the story of white supremacy and racial violence. Rusted sheets of corrugated iron and fences hold up the work and drench it in a sun-beaten, pastoral, colonial fantasy. Between them are postcards.

These found objects – real postcards featuring racist, cruel and objectifying images targeting First Nations Australians – stand taller than we do. Dickens has taken the postcards under her guardianship and care; she covers the eyes of those photographed, mixes them with contemporary portraiture, and stamps the lot, per the title, “return to sender”.

Turning to the opposite wall provides additional tension: weather-worn Australia Post bags hang alongside old letterboxes scrawled over with the true name of these postcard recipients – “Karen”, “Mr. Wally White”, number “666”.

As we walk the space, we are caught in the act of transmission: between sender and receiver, cruel set-up and punchline, racist thought and racist action. It is a work of witness and resistance. It is a work of righteous disruption.

Black Brass, a play with music by creator, writer and performer Mararo Wangai, produced by Performing Lines WA, is still playing its Belvoir season but without finacial support from the festival.

Mahamudo Selimane is musician and composer, playing songs in Shangana, Swahili, Kikuyu, Xhosa and English. This live soundtrack follows Wangai’s character as he works his shift cleaning a recording studio after dark. In that space between days, in the hours before an immigration interview, he is caught between journey and destination. Music is his portal to memory and feeling – and his voice of protest.

The show, informed by personal stories shared with and collected by Wangai, is an affecting and often witty exploration of the migrant experience and the political and personal power of art and music.

The evening I saw it, the Belvoir foyer was rich with the smell of incense. Ethiopian coffee was brewed and shared near the bar. The play reaches beyond the stage in an act of community-making, art-making and storytelling. At one point Wangai’s character says, “I am not political.” It’s a line designed to make us laugh. Of course he is. Of course his music, this work, all work, is political. 

Sydney Festival 2022 runs until January 30.

This piece was updated on January 17, 2021, to reflect that Belvoir has not withdrawn work from the festival but has decided not to receive funding. 

 

ARTS DIARY

EXHIBITION Big in China

White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, until May 22

FESTIVAL Mona Foma 2022

Venues throughout Tasmania, January 21–30

THEATRE An American in Paris

Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide, until February 19

CULTURE Midsumma Festival

Venues throughout Melbourne, January 23–February 13

EXHIBITION CAPO Exhibition

Canberra Contemporary Art Space, January 22–February 5

Last Chance

CIRCUS 360 Allstars

QPAC, Brisbane, until January 16

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "Por tals to memory".

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Cassie Tongue is a theatre critic and writer living on unceded Gadigal land.