Bringing international artists together with local talent, this year’s Brisbane Festival addresses the existential crisis of our time. By Yen-Rong Wong.

Brisbane Festival

Two nightswimmers resting by the water
A scene from Salamander.
Credit: Atmosphere Photograph

The Brisbane Festival kicked off on a crisp Friday night at the Festival Garden in South Bank, overlooking the Brisbane River. Yuggera and Turrbal man Shannon Ruska led a welcome to Country on Jarrah (Mother Earth), which included a brilliant display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander song and dance.

Against the backdrop of a sinking Brisbane sun, the welcome was centred on a fire, a symbol of warmth, growth and life. Ruska acknowledged the histories and ancient bonds forged with the First Peoples of Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and Aotearoa New Zealand, before welcoming representatives from these nations onto the land with a smoking ceremony. The exchange of language, customs and gifts was extended to the assembled audience through a vibrant medley of dance.

Art never exists in a vacuum. This ceremony felt especially pertinent, given the looming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. It was a reminder to us all of the depth and breadth and custodianship of living cultural knowledge on this land.

Ruska and his group, Tribal Experiences, were also responsible for the breathtaking Nieergoo: Spirit of the Whale. With assistance from Skyshows, Nieergoo featured 400 drones moving in concert, illuminating Wararr/Brisbane River as Ruska narrated the Yuggera and Turrbal creation story of the Moreton Bay Islands.

Accompanied by Guy Webster’s carefully crafted score, which ebbed and flowed with the story, the drones created dappling images of whales and birds in the sky. The images morphed effortlessly into one another, captivating the audience below: a testament to the skill of Skyshows’ chief remote pilot and head of flight operations, Sue Osborn, as well as Ruska’s eye for engaging storytelling. This quiet celebration of the river – especially compared with the raucousness of Riverfire’s aerial show and fireworks – is an innovative and truly 21st-century approach to a story told by the oldest surviving culture on Earth.

The use of light to tell stories carries through to Lightscape, an installation that spans the length of Brisbane’s City Botanic Gardens. This beautifully lit walk features the work of a variety of artist collectives, including Jigantics, Culture Creative and Mandylights, and is accompanied by sound, courtesy of Sony Music. The displays range from giant floating lilies to birds to a long archway of twinkling lights, and combine artificial light seamlessly with the gardens’ natural surroundings to draw attention to the role of nature in our lives and its ability to nurture. 

The highlight of Lightscape is the First Nations Walk, a collaboration between Yuggera and Biri artist Jody Rallah and First Nations artists from around Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. It’s a feast for the senses, with projections of each artist’s work, which include imagery of fish, flowers and other native flora and fauna. Coupled with First Nations song and music, this installation is a pulsing expression of the heart and soul of the country we are so fortunate to call home. 

Camerata’s Camerata Cinematheque is for classical music and film buffs alike. This performance brought together Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra and Brisbane filmmaker Anthony Lucas for a prelude to the Halloween season, with Lucas’s films playing alongside classics such as Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho: A Short Suite for String Orchestra. The timbre produced by a string ensemble is well suited to this collaboration, especially when the music dips in and out of jarring harmonies that verge on atonal.

Lucas’s work deftly combines horror with the absurd, eschewing clichés such as jump scares that are commonly associated with the genre. His films play with perspective, most prominently through that of a fly in Housefly as it tries to reach its cupcake-laden destination while avoiding capture by a 1950s housewife. Performing the accompanying piece, Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in Re, Camerata’s skill is on show here, the music matching the film’s pace until it reaches its darkly humorous ending.

Salamander, a promenade dance–theatre work, is set in a warehouse along the Brisbane River. Simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic, it’s inspired by J. G. Ballard’s 1962 apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Drowned World, imagery of the Last Supper and the satirical film Don’t Look Up.  

It’s directed and choreographed by Punchdrunk’s Maxine Doyle, with a labyrinthine set by British stage designer Es Devlin that’s brought to life by the Australasian Dance Collective. Salamander pushes the consequences of rising sea levels into the foreground – making it real and present, rather than a hypothetical future. Before the performance begins, the warehouse is cloaked in near darkness, with light refracting off components of the clear-walled maze. When the dancers emerge from the floor, almost-naked and pulsing, they are captivating, the ragged rise and fall of their bodies in an environment where people struggle to breathe.

Movement is supplemented by audio diaries, documenting the environment’s slow demise and the actions taken in an attempt to survive. This need for survival is highlighted when a group of dancers inside the maze take part in raucous celebrations, while those who venture outside undergo a slow metamorphosis to transform into the work’s eponymous salamander. 

Rachael Dease’s sound design and composition and Ben Hughes’s lighting contribute to an atmosphere of threat. The performance asks us to consider our role in the climate crisis, most notably through a depiction of humanity’s propensity for brazen denial even in the face of imminent doom.

The second act opens with a quote from Joy Harjo’s poem Perhaps the World Ends Here: “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” The dancers are now clad in red – contrasting with the greenery we need as a species to survive – and throw themselves around a long, spinning table while water rains from the ceiling.

Salamander forces the audience to be hyper-aware of everything happening on stage, especially when small moments of stillness offset the maelstrom of movement occurring elsewhere. Ethereal – but in a way that straddles the line between dream and nightmare – this work showcases the dancers’ skill, athleticism and stamina, their commitment to their craft eclipsed only by their courage and faith in one another as they hurtle through the air and onto the slippery stage. 

Brisbane artist Rae Haynes’s exhibition, Patterns for Future Living, also addresses the need for climate action. Inspired by modernist artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Haynes’s kaleidoscopic, brightly coloured work belies the important messages and slogans held within. Carefully created with coloured pencil and ink on watercolour paper, the artworks are based on the circle – a nod to the natural cycles that we must now fight to keep alive. Haynes’s ecological activism is infused with wry humour. One installation plays on the phrase “climate targets”, featuring concentric circles interrupted by messages such as “aren’t they lucky koalas don’t vote” and “wake up and smell the climate change” among declarations that “denial is not a policy” and “change the politics not the climate”: an attempt to mitigate the inevitable anxiety that comes with the conviction we are all hurtling to environmental doom. 

Brisbane Festival also provides space for smaller productions to thrive. One example is Personal, a multimedia performance in which Jodee Mundy draws on her life to provide a heartbreaking and humorous account of being a child of Deaf adults (or CODA). Mundy’s one-woman show is accessible for Deaf and hearing people alike. Its staging at Metro Arts creates an intimacy between Mundy and her audience, bridging the gap between “us” and “them”, between people with disability and those without.  

As Mundy narrates her story, photos and videos from her life are projected onto six rectangular blocks. These are cleverly manoeuvred around the stage, and Mundy uses them to initiate conversations with people in her family or younger versions of herself, laying out the good and the pain that comes with being the only hearing person in a family of five. 

The point of art is to explore – to create radical and experimental work that reflects our times. Through artistic director Louise Bezzina’s generously broad programming, Brisbane Festival proves again that it is a space for artists to do exactly that. 

Brisbane Festival ends on September 23.



Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until October 8

EXHIBITION Liam Young: Planetary Redesign

NGV Australia, Naarm/Melbourne, until February 11

LITERATURE National Young Writers’ Festival

Venues throughout Newcastle, Awabakal and Worimi Country, September 28–October 1

VISUAL ART Know My Name: Making It Modern

National Gallery of Australia, Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, until October 8

THEATRE Claire Della and the Moon

State Theatre Centre of WA, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, September 26-30


CLASSICAL Clerici Conducts Mahler

Concert Hall, QPAC, Meanjin/Brisbane, until September 23

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Climate of change".

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