The Best of Australian Arts 2012
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Composer Brett Dean. © Pawel Kopczynski
Even leaving aside the riches of visitors from foreign lands, it has been a strong 12 months for concert music in Australia.
The Sydney Symphony brought to completion its two-year Mahler cycle last November with the Second Symphony, a work with which it has a special relationship. When they gave the first Australian performance in 1950, the conductor was Otto Klemperer, who had learnt the work as Mahler’s assistant.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra has been working its way through all the Beethoven symphonies, using gut strings and period wind instruments. Its final instalment, a performance of the Ninth Symphony in August with a visiting choir from Clare College, Cambridge, was meticulous and thrilling, although the period brass instruments were unreliable in the important horn solos that articulate key structural moments in the third movement. Their performance of the Sixth Symphony last November was equally fresh and a highlight of the cycle.
For its enduring contribution to our national concert music, however, the work of the year must be the first Australian performance of Brett Dean’s violin concerto, The Lost Art of Letter Writing, by the Sydney Symphony under Jonathan Nott, with violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman. The four letters that form the basis for its musical rumination are by Johannes Brahms, Vincent van Gogh, Hugo Wolf and Ned Kelly. The Kelly letter from Jerilderie seems, initially, outside the prevailing theme of artists’ inner narratives, but serves well the progression of mood and musical tone from idealised tenderness, to isolation, delicate fantasy and disquieting menace.
The Pigram Brothers. © Helen Jedwab
In a more just universe, ‘Nothing Really Matters’, a sun-kissed paean to Australian indolence by the Pigram Brothers and Alex Lloyd, would have been a global hit to rival Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, and the seven Pigram brothers would all have bought beachfront mansions in Broome by now. But life rarely works that way, so instead you’ll have to seek it out on the soundtrack album to Brendan Fletcher’s Kimberley blackfella drama Mad Bastards.
The song opens with a strummed ukulele, an instrument I always thought should be banned under the Geneva Convention, and it’s co-written by Alex Lloyd, whose power ballad ‘Amazing’ never fails to make me feel homicidal. But putting Lloyd together with the Pigrams in Broome’s Pearl Shell Studios turns out to have been a stroke of genius: when Lloyd’s gift for pop melody meets the brothers’ languorous subtropical rumba, resistance is futile.
The Pigrams rarely leave the Kimberley, and thus have managed to invent a genre all their own, weaving country, reggae and islander music into a breezy hybrid that’s the flip side of the dark social-realist school of indigenous songwriting. They didn’t change their tune for the Mad Bastards soundtrack, which sounds like it was recorded on their back porch, and exalts the joys of fishing, the play of moonlight on the ocean and the scent of frangipani.
‘Nothing Really Matters’ is about a guy on the run from the cops, but he’s chilling by a billabong, crashed out “on a cyclone bed … in the season of the lullin’”. Stephen Pigram sings it in his husky, careworn croak over uke, mandolin and a bassline that rolls along like the swell hitting the sand. Then Lloyd’s high voice rides in on the chorus, for a sweet moment of black–white harmony. Being a fugitive never sounded so good.
Of Mice and Men, Opera Australia, 2011. © Branco Gaica
Conventional wisdom says that to survive these straitened times opera companies must offer a populist diet: Puccini, Mozart, the occasional Verdi, plus Carmen. This past year, however, opera lovers have enjoyed a feast of new or rare music, from small amateur productions up.
From IOpera’s intelligent production of The Emperor of Atlantis, Viktor Ullman’s opera written in a concentration camp – performed to only a couple of dozen at a time for a short season at Monash University’s arts faculty gallery – to Victorian Opera’s double bill of Manuel de Falla and Elliott Carter and its 2012 commission, Gordon Kerry’s Midnight Son, the common factors were ambition and flair.
Brisbane enjoyed Opera Australia’s ethereal production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Baz Luhrmann, and the State Opera of South Australia offered a bold staging of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Opera Australia’s production of Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) won the critics, and required an orchestra too numerous to fit in the pit of Sydney Opera House’s theatre. The musicians had to be housed in the neighbouring studio, with the sound piped in via 97 speakers.
But the clear stand-out, across new and established works, was the powerful and engrossing Opera Australia production of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, taken from the bleak John Steinbeck novella about Depression-era drifters.
All the parts were excellent, making a superb whole, showing meticulous attention to detail. Director Bruce Beresford employed all his cinematic craft, enhanced by John Stoddart’s gritty sets and Nigel Levings’ evocative lighting. They created an atmospheric and compelling production, depicting with full force the pathos of desperate men clinging to their dreams in the face of reality, present and future.
Conductor Tom Wood drew a superlative performance of the demanding and astringent score from Orchestra Victoria, while the cast acted flawlessly. American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was memorable, utterly inside the role of the simple-minded colossus Lennie Small. Every hand gesture, expression and movement showed what a frightening and uncertain world he inhabited.
Gemini, The Australian Ballet, 2012. © Jeff Busby
Glen Tetley’s Gemini was made for the Australian Ballet nearly 40 years ago. It looked like the future then, and still does. Revived in August to celebrate the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary, Gemini was inspired by the vastness of the Australian continent, astutely represented by Nadine Baylis’ set design. Rows of slender slats in shimmering colours evoked a mirage-like landscape that stretched to vanishing point.
Within this lustrous space two women and two men embarked on a series of solos, duos and quartets to the bracing sounds of Hans Werner Henze’s Third Symphony. Tetley requires fiendishly difficult feats of the dancers, who must appear radiantly unaware of those challenges while exuding a deep sensuality that makes Gemini rather less abstract than it seems at first glance.
Indeed it was hard to keep a cool intellectual distance from a work in which, wearing second-skin garments of the palest gold, dancers wrapped themselves around each other so there was scarcely a cigarette paper between them – as close to protected sex as you’re likely to see on stage. Gemini’s first cast – Lana Jones, Adam Bull, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes – was exemplary. The women in particular were astonishing: Jones with unflagging, steel-willed command and Scott offering luscious creaminess.
Gemini was the centrepiece of a program tagged ‘Icons’, featuring two short narrative ballets that have been important to the Australian Ballet: Robert Helpmann’s The Display and Graeme Murphy’s Beyond Twelve. The Display was more historically interesting than persuasively performed and Beyond Twelve was touching and engaging but is a minor work. Nevertheless, together they asked the audience to see a company in context and in forward motion – a valuable task.
Also worthy of note in the past 12 months was Gideon Obarzanek’s Assembly, which potently combined the forces of a large choir with dancers from Melbourne’s Chunky Move. Independent choreographer Martin del Amo (who should be much more widely known) gave dancer Paul White yet another platform to display his prodigious gifts with the difficult but rewarding Anatomy of an Afternoon.
One of the most entertaining new works seen in an age was Fanatic, made by Larissa McGowan for the Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival. It was witty, smart and danced with kick-arse joy by a trio from Sydney Dance Company.
Finally, a nod to West Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet, both of which have new artistic directors next year. The directors inherit sharp, versatile ensembles who this year looked splendid in, respectively, John Cranko’s Jeu de Cartes and Nils Christe’s Diner Dansant.
Persona, Fraught Outfit, 2012. © Pia Johnson
Like every dynamic cultural form, Australian theatre is cyclic. The mid to late 2000s experienced a massive surge of energy as productions by young independent theatre companies such as the Hayloft Project, The Black Lung Theatre and Sydney-based My Darling Patricia hit the main stages. At the same time, the main stages themselves became more hospitable to alternative ways of making and seeing theatre. In 2012, that impetus has now passed, leaving in its wake a culture of enormous diversity and, at its best, outstanding quality. Although it premiered in 2010, Belvoir St’s The Wild Duck, directed by Hayloft alumnus Simon Stone, was a highlight of the Malthouse Theatre’s season last spring, and recently travelled to Oslo to be performed as part of an Ibsen festival. In its bold, lucid and devastatingly moving attack on the Norwegian playwright’s classic work, The Wild Duck stands as an example of the quality this recent renaissance has produced.
This diversity makes it hard to pick a single work, or even a single instance of theatrical direction. Melbourne director Daniel Schlusser showed one facet with his uncompromising Malthouse/Sydney Theatre Company production of Dutch-born Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s The Histrionic, a self-reflexive satire on the agency of history, which featured a virtuosic Bille Brown in the title role. Another was Declan Greene’s Moth, one of the best new Australian plays of recent years. Given a shattering and impeccably performed production by Arena Theatre Company’s artistic director Chris Kohn at the Malthouse last year, Moth has just finished touring regional Victoria. Premiering at the Darwin Festival, Doku Rai – The Black Lung’s collaboration with the East Timorese companies Galaxy and Liurai Fo’er – gave us rock ’n’ roll theatre with an anarchic political edge. But maybe the work that stuck with me most was an adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film, Persona, directed by Adena Jacobs for her independent company, Fraught Outfit.
Persona had a short sold-out season at Theatre Works in May, but will re-emerge in 2013 at Belvoir. Much more than simply adapting a film for the stage, Jacobs recreates Persona from the ground up, taking Bergman’s text and turning it into an autonomous work of theatre. A startlingly original work performed with extraordinary precision and passion, it’s stylishly austere, confronting and deeply intelligent. As theatre, wholly riveting. Watch out for its return.
One to One, Callum Morton, 2011. © John Brash
The fireplace in Australian art is an exhibition-in-waiting. Think of Drysdale and his bushfire paintings, with the fireplace as the last thing standing, or of artworks from the late 1880s National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship, established to send the best young local artists to Europe. The criteria were prescriptive – the paintings had to incorporate a range of pictorial elements, including a still life arranged across a mantelpiece over a fireplace. Figures, here, were central to the pictorial arrangement: the result was an academician’s mix of contemporary social-conscience genre painting and the ‘conversation picture’.
‘In Memoriam’ was Callum Morton’s exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art late last year: it included a fireplace. Heide is best known as the home of John and Sunday Reed, Melbourne’s great advocates of modernism. Their home, now called Heide II, was built in the 1960s of Mount Gambier limestone, glass and timber; it’s geometric, all right angles, no curves. In it is a small, sunken space with a fireplace – an intimate conversation setting where the Reeds relaxed and talked about art, literature, politics and ideas.
Morton’s work usually deals with the archetypes of architectural modernism – minimalist and linear forms – favoured by the generation that preceded his. In the case of One to One (2011), Morton recreated Heide II’s fireplace and built it in the neighbouring gallery, Heide III. Concealed within the work are speakers playing recordings of John and Sunday Reed in conversation, which quietly fill the space. It is an evocative critique and tribute, unpretentiously ambiguous, where Morton seemingly memorialises the history of the site in which he exhibits. This recalls the ideas behind the Reeds’ creation: to think internationally and act locally. Morton takes the idealism in modernist twentieth-century architecture (and on occasions its local, vernacular and miscued efforts) and gives it a disarming twist. He allows us to see and experience our recent history in ways that are personal and idiosyncratic, where he imbues the rigid expression of the modernist canon with an intriguing, often witty, humanist Romanticism.
RMIT Swanston Academic Building, Lyons Architects, 2012. Image supplied.
At the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened in August, it appeared that financial gloom had precipitated a new era of sobriety and conservatism in European and American architecture. The biennale was nostalgic for an earlier period of modernist connoisseurship and adverse to architectural experimentation. For Australian architects on the cusp of the Asian century, when China will provide the biggest story in urbanism since the industrial revolution, this perspective seemed misdirected. The best ways to ensure our built environments have a sustainable future are unlikely to be found by looking backwards.
Australia’s relative prosperity might lead you to expect a healthier culture here, but it is still hard to find in one building that combination of qualities which characterises the very best architecture: deep disciplinary understanding and innovation, while meeting the needs of both the client and the community. The year’s outstanding exception is the new RMIT Swanston Academic Building by Lyons Architects.
The building doesn’t easily allow for conventional comparisons. Its 11 storeys have been wrapped in an undulating crystalline curtain that alternates between triangular windows and sunshades. The unbroken geometric exterior intriguingly shifts between form and recessive surface, frustrating our expectation to see a building as a series of levels and hierarchies.
Large balcony openings that carefully create views for those looking out from the building’s public spaces counterpoint the facade. These openings are projected into the centre of the building, creating super-sized light corridors that bring the exterior world deep into the interior. For hundreds of years, buildings with large footprints have relied on courtyards to provide light and ventilation. Experiments avoiding this convention have almost invariably failed, but here the crisscrossing corridors have created an open and light interior.
This is a building that looks forwards rather than backwards, where a commitment to innovation both extends the discipline and has created a wonderful learning environment in a comprehensively sustainable project.
Plain tobacco packaging, Australian Government, 2012. Image supplied.
Disillusioned with a life of seeking the applause of advertising executives, the designer Ken Garland wrote the First Things First manifesto in 1963. Undersigned by two dozen of his peers, it called for designers to invest their energies in tasks that promote the betterment of society, rather than using their talents to sell cat food, detergent, hair restorer and cigarettes. It’s taken half a century, but now a politician has achieved the design breakthrough Garland demanded.
The draft legislation was ushered into existence in 2011 by health minister Nicola Roxon, who received a special recognition certificate from the World Health Organization that same year. The plain packaging legislation will come into force before the end of this year, making Australia the first country in the world to successfully bring in the law. We’re praising design on two levels: it’s the next episode in Australia’s relatively glowing record in harm minimisation (one engineered well enough to survive an assault in the High Court) as well as a new, brilliant instance of packaging design.
Take the conventional cigarette box. It’s one of the most highly designed objects a smoker is likely to handle in the course of a day: the colours, the embossed lettering, the way it feels to the hands, the angle of the flip-top lid. Unlike many consumer goods, the packaging that accompanies cigarettes is not designed to be thrown out on opening, but continues to accompany the user for the lifespan of the product – to be touched, displayed and fondled. Moreover, the appearance of the package signals the smoker’s identification with a particular demographic. Cigarettes are ‘badge products’, selling a lifestyle as much as they promise nicotine and shortness of breath.
The new plain packaging, however, is not so much an ‘undesign’ as a radical redesign. With its drab olive-coloured box, its subtly mis-sized sans serif typography and garish health warnings, it almost forces furtive consumption. It’s very hard to make a drug ‘bad’ without making it ‘sexy’. The carefully ungainly design of the new box achieves this perfectly.
Hail, Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2011. Image supplied.
A survey of the last year’s films seems to reinforce the notion that our filmmakers stick to – or are inexorably confined by – well-trodden genres. There were cutesy comedies – Kath & Kimderella, PJ Hogan’s Mental and Working Dog’s insufferable Any Questions for Ben? – and dramas that played like made-for-television movies with visual affectations thrown in, such as Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here. Also present were braver films taking on weighty social and historical issues – Cate Shortland’s Lore and Tony Krawitz’s Dead Europe – but whose directors’ ambitions weren’t matched by their command of the form.
We can, however, look to the no-budget digital filmmaking scene for the latest surge of innovation within Australian cinema. Bill Mousoulis’ Wild and Precious, filmed across several countries, has an immediacy and insight that far better resourced directors must envy. But the year’s stand-out is a comet that seemed to shoot in from nowhere: Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail.
There is an unsung tradition in Australian culture – in the plays of Daniel Keene, for example, or the films of Alkinos Tsilimidos – of gazing into the lives of ‘battlers’, but not being content to find there merely the proof of some sociological thesis concerning deprivation or alienation. Against the setting of desperate lives, then, are played the most elemental passions – love, loyalty, revenge, honour.
Hail takes such a perception to a visionary level. Daniel P Jones and Leanne Letch – playing characters based on themselves – are dogged by the usual raft of ‘underprivileged’ problems: unemployment, addiction, a criminal record, shady contacts. But their love for each other is fierce and absolute, and Courtin-Wilson renders this emotion in a mode that mixes the seeming spontaneity of John Cassavetes’ movies with the kinetic, abstract texture of the French audio-visual artist Philippe Grandrieux.
Plot-wise, only one major thing happens in Hail – and I won’t give it away. Suffice to say, Courtin-Wilson aims to get right inside Jones’s troubled psyche, and to convey, in richly cinematic terms, his inner turmoil. No previous Australian feature has gone this far into a disturbed sensory world – beyond both mundane realism and the comfortable middle-class distance of ‘social concern’.
Patrick White at Cambridge in the early 1930s. National Library of Australia
Let’s prick the bubble of contemporaneity for once. Two lost books by a centenarian author were published in 2012. Happy Valley is the first reissue of Patrick White’s 1939 debut, a novel that was later so effectively quashed by its creator that many of White’s partisans have rejected the work on his say-so alone.
We were wrong. Happy Valley is not a great novel but something more interesting: an apprentice work by a novelist who will go on to become great. Yes, it can be ungainly; White admitted to writing it while drunk on the technique of the modernists he was reading: Gertrude Stein, DH Lawrence and, most of all, James Joyce. However, there is a pleasure to be had in watching as White gropes his way towards a voice that belongs to him alone.
His many-stranded story of a New South Wales country town and its torpid captives may be refreshingly straightforward in narrative outline, but the tortured psychologising for which White would later be known is already present. The mud and bleached yellow grass of the Monaro high country are the dominant tones of the work. White’s biographer David Marr notes the colour. The young author’s mentor, the determinedly synaesthetic painter Roy de Maistre, assigned it the musical key of G minor: the most suitable key for tragedy and sadness, according to Mozart.
The Hanging Garden is a late, unfinished novel, set aside by White in the early 1980s and latterly rediscovered by David Marr. He and White’s executor, literary agent Barbara Mobbs, have done us all a service by seeing it into print. This is not a masterpiece either, in the sense that Riders in the Chariot or The Tree of Man are masterpieces. Rather, it is a surprisingly gentle, compassionate novella: the kind of second-order effort that shows up the intermittently alienating fierceness of White’s major works.
Its account of two young wartime evacuees boarding in an old house overlooking Sydney Harbour during World War II is not without swipes at Australia’s bourgeoisie and their ludicrous old-country fealties. Nonetheless there is a stillness and beauty at its heart, arising from the innocent, quasi-mystical love that its child protagonists share. Critics have tended to concentrate on the long fragment’s aesthetic weaknesses. They shouldn’t. Anything that revives interest in one of the twentieth century’s supreme makers of fiction is worth attending to. The two titles, with all their flaws, only lead us back to White’s inexhaustible oeuvre.