Turning away
Anohni at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Vivid Sydney, 27 May 2016

Photo by Clare Hawley for Vivid Sydney.

Anohni’s presentation of her recent album, Hopelessness – it’s not quite correct to describe it as a concert – began in her absence. For ten minutes or more the attention of the audience at the Joan Sutherland Theatre was directed towards a large screen, upon which played footage of the supermodel Naomi Campbell, dancing. Campbell is the star of Anohni’s ‘Drone Bomb Me’, a video I have previously questioned for its representation of distress as a picturesque state. In this footage, which appeared to be from the same shoot, Campbell didn’t convey distress but rather self-satisfaction, delighting in her play for the camera. She is very beautiful.

But this observation didn’t carry me far, and so it was that as the footage ran on I turned to contemplating why a wealthy model, who was once subpoenaed to give evidence at the Hague trial of war criminal Charles Taylor – it was alleged that she had received blood diamonds from him, and she described her appearance before the court as a “big inconvenience” – should be a stand-in, in Anohni’s video, for the victims of extrajudicial killings. Then again, who among us has not turned away from some injustice or another because to address it would have been an inconvenience? Maybe our collective guilt was the point. As Campbell danced on screen, low washes of sound filled the room.

Anohni appeared eventually, dressed in dark, hooded layers, with a veil obscuring her face, like a mendicant nun. Two men – one of them her Hopelessness collaborator Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never – stood on either side of the stage, facing each other, laptops at the ready. Their movements were minimal, as were their responsibilities beyond occasional tweaking of the sound levels. There was little attempt to recreate the synthesised instrumentation of Hopelessness for live performance, and most of the music was sequenced. The album’s two strongest songs, ‘4 Degrees’ (global warming as death wish) and ‘Watch Me’ (surveillance as seduction) came early, and it became clear that many of Anohni’s vocals, too, were prerecorded.

With the evening’s ostensible performer half-hidden from sight and effectively playing sing-along to her own record, the show’s heavy emotions had to be carried by the images onscreen. Each song was accompanied by a minor variation on the ‘Drone Bomb Me’ video: a woman, filmed mostly in close-up, would lip-synch to the lyrics and gradually break down in tears. No doubt the current state of the world is worth crying over, but the repeated demonstrations of despair felt both manipulative and empty of meaning. Why women, and mostly women of colour? Why always in tears? It was as if Anohni had outsourced all of the songs’ vulnerabilities and self-accusations (“How did I become a virus?”), to these women, who lacked real agency or even voice. (They were lip-syncing her words, after all.) And so their outsized faces became like landscapes, at once sublime and degraded.

It was perhaps inevitable that the show’s most effective moment occurred when the distance between screen and stage narrowed, and Anohni appeared onscreen to accompany herself. She performed ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’, the most directly personal song on Hopelessness, and the live part of her vocals sounded more committed, more urgent, than anything else in the show. It could have been a turning point, but the presentation quickly returned to the pattern. The album attempts to address our general indifference to the crises of global conflict and climate change, but Hopelessness as a live presentation produced only indifference. The show ended with an onscreen statement from Martu artist Ngalangka Nola Taylor, who spoke of a world gone “upside down”. It was the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, and, outside, the sails of the Opera House were decorated with images of Indigenous songlines. But these convergences felt merely coincidental.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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