A brilliantly curated Rising festival exhibition sets 15 illuminating works by First Nations artists amid the crumbling grandeur of Flinders Street Station’s hidden spaces. By Claire G. Coleman.
On Flinders Street in Naarm is a green door in an old ornamental doorframe. I have passed it countless times and never seen it open – I scarcely noticed it was there. Through that door is a dark hallway with an elevator and stairs. Take the elevator up to level three of the early 20th-century Flinders Street Station building and you enter a place that was so seldom seen by the public its existence became a legend.
Dark hallways, subtly lit with blue lights, lead to light-filled rooms, each holding a projection or video installation, each developed by an Indigenous artist or group of artists, each telling a story of spirits or ghosts, of the spirit of the land and people. This is Shadow Spirit, an exhibition featuring 15 major commissions from 30 First Nations artists and collectives that is curated by Kimberley Moulton (Yorta Yorta) as part of Rising.
At the opening I hear someone say, “It’s not really about the building.” I disagree: it’s definitely about the building. The curatorial decision to use the dilapidated disused top floor of the station is an important component of the art. How the works are displayed – light and projection contrasting with the darkness of the spaces, the hallways dark but the rooms filled with light – is important to the power of the exhibition. The artworks – mostly video and projections – are modern but with deep roots in timeless, classical Indigenous culture. They contrast with the building: falling into disrepair, an unused, almost apocalyptic place, an exemplar of crumbling grandeur.
We might be tempted to think of European culture, represented by the building, as something that overwhelmed the older culture of the First Peoples. But here, in this decaying section of one of the most iconic and busiest buildings in the city, it’s the art that’s new. The building represents the colony – its taking of the land for the city, the destruction of what came before – and now it’s falling into disrepair before our eyes. The art reasserts the presence of Indigenous people in a way that says, “We were here before you and we will be here when you are gone.”
From another point of view, the glowing artworks haunt the space, their soundtracks sneaking through the walls and down the halls, stealing into rooms to visit the other art. You can hear many of the works before you see them. When you see their light filling the space, it borders on overwhelming. It’s a haunted house of Blak art and culture. You leave with a bit more understanding of the importance of these stories of spirit, of shadow, of ghosts and non-human relatives.
In my opinion the best curators are themselves artists who use artists and their art as their medium, and Shadow Spirit supports this theory. Moulton has used powerful stories and beautiful art to create an experience, an overarching work, that says more than each individual work. This is the best kind of exhibition: here every curatorial decision tells a story.
There’s a suggested direction of travel from the elevator, left down a hallway before returning and going the other way. The rooms to the left are more connected. For the most part, doors connect the rooms and you can walk most of the exhibition without returning to the hallway. This has more of the feel of a traditional exhibition; the edges between works are somewhat blurred, but not completely, allowing the experiences to speak to each other. A standout of this area is Zugubal: The Winds and Tides set the Pace by Brian Robinson (Kala Lagaw Ya and Wuthathi), a room-filling projection that immerses the audience in a Torres Strait Islander story. Another is Deeply Rooted – sculptures of found objects and upturned tree roots by Karla Dickens (Wiradjuri) that speak of the loss of our trees, our land, our culture and our non-human ancestors. This is the darkest work, as it’s one of the few not focused on projection, and in the darkness it takes time to see all the details.
At the end of the corridor, installations by John Prince Siddon (Walmajarri) and Judy Watson (Waanyi) presage what is to come. Siddon’s installation employs his recurring theme of the damage to Country caused by climate change – using neon, skulls and painted kangaroo skins. In the next room is Watson’s Water Shadow – an installation of projections on diaphanous screens, braille punched into red rubber, twisted metal and sound that speaks of the erasure of ancient waterways and the deaths of Blak children in custody.
In the other half of the exhibition, each artwork occupies an entire room, allowing the artists to stretch out and their work to tell gargantuan stories. The only exception to this is Way of the Ngangkari by Warwick Thornton (Kaytej), a series of moving video portraits that hang in the hallway and demonstrate that Aboriginal cultures already have Jedi in our midst.
Hayley Millar Baker’s (Gunditjmara) noir film The Umbra is an impressionist masterwork speaking of Aboriginal spiritual lives, a black-and-white film that occupies the entire long wall of a darkened room. The film is quiet, almost silent but for the sound of rain and thunder, visceral sounds that take you on a journey. Next door is Invoke | Inverse by Julie Gough (trawlwoolway), a kinetic sculpture and video work in which a party of Aboriginal warriors, made of cut-out paper, cast their shadows on a projection of their Country, representing the last party of free palawa people marching to Hobart Town. Soon after, they were to be taken to Flinders Island, away from their ancient homes. In a perhaps unintended juxtaposition, occasional peals of thunder leaking through from The Umbra next door lend the work an ominous feeling.
Rock n Roll by Tiger Yaltangki (Yankunytjatjara) and Jeremy Whiskey (Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara) seems like just a bit of fun. It’s certainly the brightest and most joyful of the rooms, but there’s a depth that cannot really be described. Yaltangki speaks with his art, showing his deep love for AC/DC with paintings of the spirit beings he’s known for on posters and record covers. These works have been photographed and animated into an almost overwhelming film accompanied by a soundtrack by legendary guitar-shredder Whiskey, who reminds us of music’s power to take us on a journey.
The Maningrida Arts and Culture collaborative work Kubumi is a room-filling installation in one of the larger spaces, using painted wooden poles, woven yawkyawk and crocodiles, projection and sound to take you to a sacred billabong. This breathtaking work takes the visitor not only to the place Kubumi, but also into the world of the spirit and story there.
At the end of the space, in the legendary ballroom itself, is Rarrirarri, a Yolŋu collaborative work from the Mulka Project at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre in Yirrkala and artist and songwoman Mulkun Wirrpanda (1942-2021). A large fibreglass termite mound is populated with projections of insects and plants from Yolŋu Country, symbolically bringing that country to Naarm and giving us an opportunity to visit Wirrpanda’s sacred home. We are reminded that all Aboriginal Country and all that lives on it is sacred and storied. I have always wanted to visit north-east Arnhem Land – this work takes us there and made me more desperate to go.
The exhibition’s website recommends 75 minutes for the experience but I advise more, or even to visit twice. There is so much to see and so many powerful works of storytelling to take in, you will want to spend significant time with them all. These 15 installations are a triumph, and show what can be done by a clever and thoughtful curator such as Moulton.
I couldn’t cover the power and range of this show in a review. You are just going to have to see it yourself.
Shadow Spirit is showing at Flinders Street Station, Melbourne, until July 30.
State Theatre, Melbourne, June 29–July 8
FESTIVAL Illuminate Adelaide
Venues throughout Adelaide, June 28–July 30
VISUAL ART I Am the People
White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, June 30–November 12
DANCE Common Dissonance
Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane, until July 1
MUSIC Festival of Voices
Venues throughout Hobart, June 30–July 9
VISUAL ART Yoshimoto Nara: Reach Out to the Moon, Even If We Can’t
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until June 25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Shadows and depth".
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