A city arts festival is the chimera of cultural events: a strange and sometimes incompatible mixture of differing imperatives. On the one hand, it is nominally about art, a human activity that is notoriously resistant to economic measures of value. On the other, almost every Australian arts festival is spruiked as a means of stimulating the local economy.
The Sydney Festival, for instance, was started in the 1970s “to attract Sydneysiders into the city centre during the holiday month of January”. The 20th-century utopian ideal that drove the foundation of the Edinburgh International Festival – “to ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’ by bringing people and artists together from around the world” – has vanished into the subtext, a question of branding rather than substance.
This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of art being folded into the “creative industries” – the conflation of neoliberal economics and cultural policy that currently dominates the structures of Australian arts. The increasing popularity of the winter light festival is perhaps a perfect expression of this idea.
Sydney’s Vivid Festival, founded in 2009, has been followed by a plethora of others, including the Parrtjima Festival in Light in Alice Springs and Melbourne’s White Night, which is now melded with the former Melbourne International Arts Festival and rebranded as Rising. Featuring spectacular light shows and myriad associated events designed to draw crowds into the city centre, its aim is to drive a spike in commerce and tourism during a traditionally flat time.
The danger is that such festivals become a kind of artsy fireworks display. Not that there’s anything wrong with fireworks – or, to be more specific, the clever digital projections onto city buildings that are now the cliché of the light festival. A more promising possibility is that the outpouring of business and government sponsorship might permit some genuinely interesting work to be smuggled in.
The latest addition to the calendar is in the Festival City itself. Launched last year by co-directors Rachael Azzopardi and Lee Cumberlidge, Illuminate Adelaide runs the length of July. It certainly ticks the box in terms of attracting people to the city centre – crowds thronged North Terrace to see the free displays and you could hardly move at the Adelaide Zoo’s Light Creatures, which featured huge illuminated models of various exotic animals, even if there was nary an actual animal in sight.
What’s interesting about Illuminate is that it seems to have found a balance. It’s at once populist and niche, with its spectacular headline tickets – concerts by Gorillaz and The Avalanches, the Light Cycles display at Adelaide Botanic Garden, the mandatory ice-skating rink – interleaved with small independent events and experimental art, including the return of the excellent music festival Unsound, once part of the Adelaide Festival. In fact, the whole feels like a smartly programmed challenge to an increasingly staid main festival.
Light Cycles, an immersive two-kilometre walk through the botanic garden from Montreal company Moment Factory, is perhaps the best example of this kind of work I’ve seen. Often these installations can feel a little naff, a kind of superficial costuming in the name of spectacle. Light Cycles – a mixture of light and laser displays and sound from Montreal indie-folk band The Barr Brothers – feels like an initiation into a strange and beautiful parallel world. It begins, as all such journeys must, with a magic portal – a vine-covered tunnel transformed by thick curtains of dry ice and shifting lights, into which wanderers vanish to emerge at the other end ready for wonder. As with its opening, each different chapter of the walk – “Forest Frequency”, a percussive light display of treeish rhythms, or “Crystal Grove”, huge flowerbeds of pulsing lights, or the highlight, “Reflection Lake”, an extraordinary laser display over water – is conceptually simple but impeccably executed.
At the other end of the scale is a free exhibition at the State Library of South Australia. We Will Slam You With Our Wings consists of seven video screens by Joanna Dudley, an Adelaide-born artist who has collaborated with William Kentridge over the past seven years. We Will Slam You With Our Wings draws on the critiques of grand opera pioneered by French philosopher Catherine Clément in her 1979 book Opera, or the Undoing of Women, which explores how grand opera draws its emotional power from the spectacle of female suffering and death.
Dudley’s approach is multifaceted: the showing I saw incorporated a live performance with about a dozen girls aged eight to 16, chanting, laughing, running and lounging around the colonial spaces of the library with a subversive energy that recalls Adena Jacobs’ powerful theatrical work with girls in The Bacchae (2015) or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (2013). Each video screen draws on a colonial portrait featuring a famous white man, but Dudley has replaced each man with a girl. Over 20 minutes, they perform death scenes from various classic operas, at once satirising and undermining them. It’s beautiful work that rewards attention, quietly exhilarating and deeply moving.
KLASSIK underground is a concert series at the Dom Polski Centre curated by Tahlia Petrosian that reframes the performance of classical music through collaborations with lighting and video designers, featuring works ranging from Bach to Schoenberg and Steve Reich. I saw Revolutionary Rhythms, a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartets No. 7, Op. 108 and No. 11, Op. 122, Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 2 and Icon by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. The collaborator was Robin Fox, who is perhaps best known for his work in dance.
The keynote here was intimacy. Sophie Rowell (violin), Matthew Tomkins (violin), Tahlia Petrosian (viola) and Simon Cobcroft (cello) performed in the round on a small stage, so no one was far from the musicians. Fox’s lighting was almost austere, with a strictly limited palette of lasers – mainly red and blue – playing above eye level, transforming the shabby ceiling into an ever-shifting field of electric geometries. Sometimes the laser rhythms accorded with the notes, sometimes they played in counterpoint, sometimes they let the music play by itself. The effect was an extra dimension that enhanced, rather than distracted from, the music.
I spent an absorbed couple of hours at Wild Dog, an immersive exhibition at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute curated by Narangga/Kaurna artist Jacob Boehme that explores the cultural and ecological significance of the dingo. Originally presented as a development last year at Tarnanthi, this exhibition demonstrates the richness that emerges from cultural consultation. It’s a work of preservation that brings together stories from different Aboriginal communities across Australia, and also restores the dingo to its rightful place as an important part of Australia’s ecology.
The various works here are the result of years of consultation across many communities, and include artworks, installations and Boehme’s remarkable dance video Wild Dog Dreaming, which enacts one of the origin myths. In an unexpected touch of nostalgia – I loved this book as a child – the 1979 film Giant Devil Dingo, adapted from the classic 1973 children’s book by Lardil artist Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey, is running on an old-style cabinet television. You can sit down on the comfy lounge chairs to watch it. Which is exactly what I did.
Istanbul-based Ouchhh Studio’s Wisdom of AI Light, presented in a giant purpose-built shed, inhabits an opposite edge of experience. Accompanied by music from Ludovico Einaudi, viewers stand around in the space as digital images derived from various sets of data pulse around them.
I found this one kind of terrifying. Millions of data points, from Leonardo da Vinci’s brushstrokes to astronomical observations to Paleolithic paintings, are fed into a computer and vomited forth again via algorithms. The whole is like falling into a bottomless uncanny canyon. It reminded me of some scenes in M. John Harrison’s brilliant science fiction Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, in which human beings are possessed and consumed by a nightmarish white paste of nanomachines. Wisdom of AI Light is a vision of human culture, disembodied, atomised and agonisingly refigured. It’s certainly spectacular, but I’m not at all certain it has anything to do with wisdom.
Illuminate Adelaide runs until July 31.
VISUAL ARTS Twenty Years: The War in Afghanistan
The Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Centre, NSW, August 2–September 3
FESTIVAL Darwin Festival
Venues throughout Darwin, August 4-21
EXHIBITION Things That Will Not Sit Still
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until November 20
THEATRE The Comedy of Errors
State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Perth, August 3-7
THEATRE Jane Eyre
Theatre Royal, Hobart, August 4-6
CLASSICAL Australian Brandenberg Orchestra: The Bachs
Melbourne Recital Centre, until July 31
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "The light fantastic".
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