This piece was originally conceived as a review of the 2022 Sydney Festival opening weekend. However, at the time of this writing, over 25 artists or arts organizations have pulled out of the festival in protest against its financial relationship with the Israeli Embassy.
Boycott organizers cited a history of government “artwashing” that distracts from the occupation of Palestinian land. In a press release, the festival pledged to “review its practices regarding funding from foreign governments or related parties”.
The boycott shattered the festival program: some withdrawn works were cancelled; others continue without the support of the festival. Boycott critics accused the organizers of politicizing the art, but during the festival’s opening weekend it was impossible to ignore the politics of each work.
The first was Conor McPherson’s bleak, dreamlike take on 1930s Americana, North Country Girl. Propelled by the music of Bob Dylan, and live from Broadway, it shows the struggle against the weight of everyday life. His characters have little room for change, and characters who speak truth to power – or just their husbands – are punished for it.
It’s performed beautifully by the local ensemble, which includes Lisa McCune, Peter Carroll, Zahra Newman and Grant Piro. The problem is that the songs and lyrics rarely line up with the scenes: they’re symphonic poems and heartbeats, off the hook and meaningless.
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 the characters are so burdened with compromise that they can’t even directly sing their own feelings, occupies a place of uncanny prestige on the festival’s lineup – one that’s replete with a community of artists breaking with promises and structures that no longer serve them.
Installation Icarus, my son, by Dean Cross, understands that promises are seductive and can lead to ruin. Its centerpiece is a shallow pool of gold leaf that serves as an invitation and a warning.
It mixes the Greek myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus with the rural and regional desire, and the anxiety, to leave for the city. The leaf is our leaf – a golden promise that fills our sight but cannot be touched. All we can do is want it.
A carved cricket bat hanging on the wall is placed to suggest both the wing and the anchor. The digital video collage and canvas add a sense of anticipation of movement and ruin in equal measure; we sense the promise and futility of the potential journey.
A sin North Country Girl, there is a sense of nostalgia. However, this work is not so defeated. It encourages reflection but it also presupposes 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 show the exhibition.
A prison door reminds us that racist artifacts tell the story of white supremacy and racial violence. Rusty sheets of corrugated iron and fences support the work and inundate it with a colonial, pastoral and sunny fantasy. Between them are postcards.
These found objects – actual postcards containing racist, cruel and objectifying imagery targeting First Nations Australians – are bigger than us. Dickens took the postcards under his tutelage and care; she covers the eyes of the people photographed, mixes them with contemporary portraits and stamps the lot, according to the title, “return to sender”.
Looking to the opposite wall creates additional tension: weather-worn Australia Post bags sit alongside old letterboxes scrawled with the real names of these postcard recipients: “Karen”, “Mr. Wally White”, number ” 666″.
As we travel through space, we are caught up in the act of transmission: between sender and receiver, cruel and punchline editing, racist thought and racist action. It is a work of testimony and resistance. It is a work of just disturbance.
Black brass, a play with music by creator, writer and performer Mararo Wangai, produced by Performing Lines WA, was also pulled from the festival but is still playing its Belvoir season.
Mahamudo Selimane is a musician and composer, performing songs in Shanghainese, Swahili, Kikuyu, Xhosa and English. This live-action 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 travel and destination. Music is her portal to memory and feelings – and her voice of protest.
The show, informed by personal stories shared with and collected by Wangai, is a touching and often witty exploration of the migrant experience and the political and personal power of art and music.
The night I saw him, Belvoir’s hearth was filled with the smell of incense. Ethiopian coffee was prepared and shared near the bar. The piece goes beyond the stage in an act of community creation, artistic creation and storytelling. At one point, Wangai’s character says, “I’m 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.
The 2022 Sydney Festival runs until January 30.
EXPOSURE Big in China
White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, until May 22
FESTIVAL Mona Foma 2022
Venues across Tasmania, January 21-30
THEATER An American in Paris
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, until February 19
CULTURE summer solstice festival
Venues across Melbourne, January 23 to February 13
EXPOSURE CAPO Exhibition
Canberra Contemporary Art Space, January 22-February 5
CIRCUS 360 Allstars
QPAC, Brisbane, until January 16
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 15, 2022 under the title “Portals to Memory”.
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