October 2013

Arts & Letters

The best of Australian arts 2013

By The Monthly
Critics give their picks for the year’s top ten


Since 2008, global architecture has been hit by a wave of closures, mergers and mass redundancies. Late last year, Brisbane-based Donovan Hill, Australia’s most innovative architectural practice, merged with BVN Architecture, one of the nation’s largest. The creation of BVN Donovan Hill has ensured the survival of the firm responsible for some of our most important contemporary buildings, but it also marks the end of an era. While Brian Donovan has joined the new entity, co-founder Timothy Hill is on a prolonged “sabbatical”, and director Paul Jones has departed for the Hong Kong office of multinational practice OMA.

As news of the merger spread, Donovan Hill’s latest (and perhaps greatest) public building reached completion. A deconstructed corporate edifice of clay brick, concrete and mirror glass, the Translational Research Institute (TRI) dramatically enhances Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital campus. TRI was designed in association with Wilson Architects, an established Brisbane practice, but from the building’s permeable facade to its multi-layered interior, from the grand “outdoor room” to its eccentric timber joinery, every detail bears the Donovan Hill imprint.

Like the remarkable Queensland State Library, designed by Donovan Hill in association with Peddle Thorp Architects, TRI is a rich, eclectic building, providing gradients of enclosure, access, transparency and intimacy. Consolidating four institutions under one roof, TRI is primarily a laboratory building. Its architectural language, however, sidesteps obvious technological references, blending Moorish, Oriental, brutalist and Scandinavian motifs. The large central atrium, carved out of the building’s northern face, exposes glass-walled, densely occupied levels to public view.

In 20 years of practice, Donovan Hill has developed an architectural approach that celebrates ambiguity, seeking a climate-appropriate intermingling of indoor and outdoor, public and private space. This approach was first employed in individual houses but is embodied most effectively, and most politically, in the firm’s large-scale public projects. BVN is perhaps the best of the big offices, committed to rigorous, high-quality work. Far from being a cynical takeover, BVN’s opportunistic incorporation of Donovan Hill signals a desire to enrich and extend its output. But the loss of an independent Donovan Hill depletes our collective architectural ecosystem, a fact that tempers enjoyment of the year’s best public building.

David Neustein


This year’s gong goes not to a particular production, but to a program: the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon Festival of Independent Theatre. Under associate producer Martina Murray, MTC chose five of Melbourne’s most exciting independent companies and told them that, within the limits of budget and space, they could do what they liked. And so they did.

Over the ten weeks of the festival, Melbourne was treated to revelatory theatre. The shows varied from the outrageous high camp of the Sisters Grimm’s The Sovereign Wife, a three-hour melodrama set on the Ballarat goldfields, to Fraught Outfit’s exquisite On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, a mostly silent, poetic meditation on a story by Frank Wedekind. The Hayloft Project reimagined the story of Oedipus in a stripped-down, transparently theatrical two-man show, By Their Own Hands. The Daniel Schlusser Ensemble gave us a multifaceted portrait of the life and work of Tennessee Williams in Menagerie, and feminist collective The Rabble created a darkly disturbing, and disturbingly hilarious, version of Pauline Réage’s pornographic bestseller in Story of O.

Brett Sheehy’s first year as artistic director was always going to be interesting: MTC broke the mould in appointing an AD who was not a director himself. Neon, the most important initiative in Melbourne theatre since 2005’s rebranding of the Playbox as the Malthouse, demonstrates the virtues of a wider vision. It shows how exemplary production in a major organisation not only enables brilliant theatre, but can spark vital energies in a city’s culture. The festival was a sell-out success, attracting passionate responses and audiences who had never before crossed MTC’s threshold. There were even reports of people crying in the foyer because they missed out on tickets. One thing is certain: the companies in next year’s Neon Festival have some hard acts to follow.

Alison Croggon


It is a truism that period films say more about the era in which they were made than the one they represent. So when Colin McDowell, the veteran fashion writer, attacked Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for being “as vacuous as the pages of most fashion magazines”, he might have been missing the point. Ever since Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn said goodbye to Coco Chanel in the 1930s, filmmakers have understood that good fashion can make bad films, and on this count The Great Gatsby does not disappoint. From the moment Nick Carraway walks into the Buchanan mansion on a breezy summer afternoon, Daisy and Jordan floating like white sails on a foamy sea, we know that fashion will try to take over. If it doesn’t always succeed, it’s only because Luhrmann’s camera never really slows down long enough for us to drink it all in.

As the party scenes build to a frenzied spectacle, the dazzling costumes compete with their characters to bring us F Scott Fitzgerald’s world of frivolous, cut-glass people. The high-profile “brand partnerships” with Prada, Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co. might have stolen all the publicity, but many of the film’s 2000-odd costumes came out of Australian ateliers. Likewise, the stars of this “catwalk” are homegrown. Although much of the credit must go to designer Catherine Martin and her team, deserving of special mention are Elizabeth Debicki, who breathed life into Jordan Baker’s “hard, jaunty” fashion-plate body, and Joel Edgerton, whose tightly wound portrayal of Tom Buchanan gave the sort of energy to clothes that can only be appreciated when the music has stopped and the camera is still.

Karen de Perthuis

Contemporary art

Abstraction and non-representational art do not loom large in Australia. Although some memorable projects are now part of art history – such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968–69, which was met with bewilderment, bemusement and acclaim in equal measure – the national taste tends towards the figurative or easy, quasi-symbolic heroic subjects.

Aegis is an ambitious exhibition by one of Australia’s finest, but lesser known, artists, Geoff Kleem. Installed in Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary in February, Aegis is not as it first appears. It is imposing: a large white geometric form, taking up nearly all of the gallery, is poised above 24-carat-gold-plated scaffold supports.

Kleem’s sculptures recall minimalism, a movement that strips objects of animation and symbolic reference. But while minimalism might be one of Kleem’s sources, there are deliberately confounding elements in his work. Beautiful, perfectly crafted and pristine forms appear to hold utilitarian function, as geometric modernist furniture might. The sculptures are so considered and oddly familiar as to suggest a purpose, then we realise they have no function whatsoever. While the suggestion of use might linger, we eventually catch on to Kleem’s wry cheek. We see that everything is out of kilter, or denied a function, and intention itself becomes ambiguous. In Aegis, nothing has any pre-existing function, and each element has been conceived of and custom-made by the artist.

Aegis presents incompleteness as a quality that is self-consciously resolved. The white shape has irritating and subtle imperfections as it rests grandly on its golden scaffold. The physical tensions and contradictions require us to rethink the preconceptions we bring to materials and form, and their application. If we presuppose too much, we’re often wrong.

Doug Hall


Good design has never resided in “things” but rather in the experiences and interactions that these things – spaces, objects and interfaces – enable. Sometimes, but not always, these things are beautiful. The notion that design is all style and surface is being eroded by designers who make products, places and services that encourage positive societal change, and provide aesthetic rewards. Sydney-based George Khut, creator of the BrightHearts app, is one such designer.

BrightHearts helps children to manage pain and anxiety before and during medical procedures. A pulse sensor monitors the child’s heart rate, which the app represents on an iPad with colour and sound. The aim is for the patient to slow down their breathing to maintain a lowered heart rate, which is then rewarded with more colour and sound. To play the game, you have to learn to relax.

But it is Khut’s representation of medical data, not his use of biofeedback, that makes this design stand out. BrightHearts bypasses the usual visual tropes – numbers, charts and beeps – and replaces them with vivid, pulsing concentric circles and a soothing soundscape. The alienating visual language of medical science is replaced with imagery that intuitively communicates the internal workings of the body, making it easier to “tune in”.

Khut has been collaborating since 2011 with Angie Morrow, a paediatrician at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, to develop the app. While using video games to distract sick children is hardly new, BrightHearts’ innovation is that it teaches children to manage their fear. It gives these children, who have little power over their illnesses and endure regular invasive procedures, an opportunity to momentarily take back some control.

It is not difficult to imagine wider applications. With our fast-paced lives, we all need the capacity to respond to stress in healthy ways. Most apps we use to relax are forms of distraction, helping us to disconnect from our selves. Khut’s BrightHearts teaches us to focus, and reconnect.

Kate Sweetapple

Concert music

The premiere of a new Australian oratorio should be an event; it doesn’t exactly happen every week. In fact, there seems to be a tepid attitude to the performance of new music by our heavily subsidised symphony orchestras and opera companies. It is sometimes difficult to grasp how the new generation of composers can hope to map their progress.

How wonderful then that the first Australian performance, in July, of Brett Dean’s The Last Days of Socrates was such a triumphant demonstration of orchestral and choral forces’ ability to express the power of profound ideas. In this case, it was Socratic meditations on life’s passing and the nature of liberty, hauntingly rendered by Melbourne poet Graeme William Ellis.

Dean weaves an extraordinary sonic tapestry over 50-odd minutes; his orchestration is servant to his architecture, within which massive rhetorical gestures sit comfortably with delicately assembled, often unusual combinations of instruments and deftly blended electronics. His choral writing displays this same exhilaration in the possibilities of sound. What results is a constant flow, surging and receding eloquently. Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, already blooded in the demands of Dean’s music with his starring role in the opera Bliss, summoned up a gravitas appropriate to the role of the great sage, by turns questing, curmudgeonly and accepting.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, led by another of our most notable contributors to the international stage, Simone Young, performed with commitment and enthusiasm. And, unsurprisingly, an energised reception from a capacity audience at Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall matched the undertaking. More, please.

Paul Grabowsky

Popular music

Record labels aren’t benevolent parents: they don’t smile indulgently when an artist decides to switch genre. So it’s a good thing Abbe May doesn’t need one. The Perth singer has been playing independent rock’n’roll since she was 16 – first with stoners The Fuzz, then as a solo artist. She’s considered a lifer by her peers.

With her fourth solo album, Kiss My Apocalypse, she’s ditched the six-string accoutrements to make a doom-pop masterpiece. The big, bluesy voice is now a Princely falsetto – take the stuttering staccato of ‘Sex Tourette’s’, or the cool trip-hop of ‘Tantric Romantic’. It’s a two-fingered salute to the boofheads who just want to see May shred her guitar behind her head. (She recently earnt death threats from Baby Animals fans when she suggested people should stop chasing their nostalgia trips and celebrate the new.) Even one old bandmate gets the chop: “Like when he said I couldn’t make the scene / And I replaced him with a drum machine.”

Much of Kiss is devoted to the exorcism of an affair in which May doesn’t know who to despise more: “I open my mouth and the suburbs come out”, “I drunk you like a Coca-Cola when I should have stoned you.” Vitally, it’s about real sex in a climate of narcissistic twerking. May is one of few artists – like Adalita, who grooves on power struggles, and Lana Del Rey, who steals lines from Nabokov to describe her predilection for older men – who can genuinely smudge your edges. And it’s not always pretty.

As a wise woman once said, “Love will kiss your mouth and then piss on your feet.”

Jenny Valentish


It does not necessarily follow that the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award is the best Australian novel of the year, but this is the case in 2013. Questions of Travel is Michelle de Kretser’s most formally inventive and intellectually ambitious work, politically astute yet wholly engaging in narrative terms. It is a clear-eyed love letter to a flawed nation, a meditation on culture, place, modernity and the need for roots. The novel is such a powerful interrogation of its historical moment that we might overlook the simpler pleasures of its prose: the braided registers of wit and melancholy, the perfectly weighted sentences, the startling aperçus.

JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus left many readers baffled. Its tale of a young boy and his adult guardian making a new life for themselves in an unnamed country trembles on the edge of Christian allegory but suggests much more. It is deeply concerned with current economic, social and literary situations: submerged meanings that may only clarify over time. In fact, the work’s resistance to easy explication, its disdain for convention and its uncanny atmosphere mark its enduring worth. Here is an exquisite illustration of Frank Kermode’s claim that the novel, by “upsetting the ordinary balance of our naive expectations, is finding something out for us, something real”.

Perhaps it is too soon to put Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book on a “best of” list — my mind is still swarming with the arguments and the agonies it raises. Febrile, yes; angry, for sure; but what Wright summons up is a nightmare of uncommon beauty, a vast chorus speaking against white Australia’s convenient historical amnesia about indigenous suffering.

Geordie Williamson


It was a lean year for Australian film. The Great Gatsby was an outstanding success at the box office, but would I call it the best Australian film of the year? I initially baulked at Baz Luhrmann’s theatrical approach to the delicate material of F Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessentially American novel, but there is no doubting Luhrmann’s visual talent and the wonderful central performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, not to mention Joel Edgerton as Gatsby’s nemesis.

Three other films are contenders: one a documentary, one a fiction feature and one an event.

Red Obsession, directed and written by David Roach and Warwick Ross, looks at the Bordeaux wine industry, which for centuries has been producing the best reds in the world. The global financial implosion dented traditional markets, and Chinese billionaires stepped in to gobble up the great labels. As a metaphor for avarice, this insightful and entertaining film becomes more than the sum of its parts.

There is also writer-director Kim Mordaunt’s debut feature, The Rocket, made under extraordinary circumstances with limited means and great heart. Filmed in Laos, as was Mordaunt’s 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest, it features the year’s most beguiling performance: young Sitthiphon Disamoe as a boy born under a dark star whose efforts to impress his father after the death of his mother go horrendously wrong. It is a classically constructed narrative, but one imbued with political and cultural references that give texture to a gently life-affirming film.

Finally, the film event of the year is the adaptation of The Turning, a collection of short stories by Tim Winton. Seventeen ingeniously linked chapters by 17 filmmakers, including actors Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham in their directorial debuts, make this daring three-hour marathon very much worth seeing. But there is no outright winner this year.

Margaret Pomeranz


Politics and opera have always been natural bedfellows, but seldom have the two been so entwined as this year. Offstage there was Richard Mills’s remarkable departure from the conductorship of Opera Australia’s Ring, scant months before the Wagner cycle opens in November, while onstage two new OA productions controversially took on totalitarian themes with varied results.

Director John Bell won critical approval in moving the great Puccini classic Tosca from Napoleon’s time to Mussolini’s Rome, aided by compelling performances from Alexia Voulgaridou as Tosca and John Wegner as Scarpia. The transition worked, adding to the peculiar menace the opera portrays so brilliantly.

Verdi’s A Masked Ball stood out for the opposite reason. Directed by Alex Ollé of Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, the production had an unspecified modern setting – with a big clue being the number 1984 on Amelia’s back – and the merciful king became a tyrant. Completely pointlessly, the ball was turned into a gas chamber, and not just the king but everyone died. If it was a directorial shambles that made a travesty of the original opera, the singers – led by the admirable baritone José Carbó – and conductor Andrea Molino rescued it musically.

But the best production of the past 12 months, also from OA, was a different sort of politics: Strauss’s Salome, based on Oscar Wilde rather than the Bible. Cheryl Barker was mesmerising in the title role, matched by John Wegner (Sydney) and Thomas Hall (Melbourne) as Jokanaan (John the Baptist); director Gale Edwards’ highly carnal staging saw them lit in infernal red against a backdrop of hanging carcasses. A State Opera of South Australia version of Edwards’ interpretation played in Adelaide in August.

Barney Zwartz



Samuel Taylor Coleridge intimated in his “flashes of lightning” description of Edmund Kean’s Shakespearean acting that moments of brilliance did not necessarily add up to a consistent whole. That vivid image will serve when looking at the past 12 months of dance, a period graced by a handful of outstanding individual performances and some very good productions. The Australian Ballet’s new Cinderella, from international hot shot Alexei Ratmansky, put the most insistent claim for top spot.

The laurel wreath, however, is given to Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela for his stimulating, highly distinctive leadership. Bonachela matches the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti for the quality of his artistic cross-pollination – there is no higher praise – and the two came together for a rollicking collaboration, Project Rameau. Audiences cheered lustily. In late August, Sydney Dance Company, singer Katie Noonan, Sydney Symphony Orchestra string players and fashion designer Toni Matičevski joined forces for Les Illuminations, a shiny jewel that had the added zing of showcasing composer Benjamin Britten in his centenary year.

I also loved the programming of Alexander Ekman’s witty, sophisticated Cacti and the main-stage exposure given to Larissa McGowan’s kick-arse Fanatic. There’s more, but that gives a flavour. Bonachela bobs up everywhere in the broader cultural scene, drinks it in, then brings it back home to his ravishing dancers. Bravo.

As for those singular performances, the indisputable high point was Rachel Rawlins’ searing Odette in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, her farewell role with the Australian Ballet. The Australian Ballet’s prima ballerina, Lucinda Dunn, was beyond wonderful in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929, and Queensland Ballet’s Lisa Edwards announced her arrival with a striking Queen of the Wilis in Giselle. As for regrets, I wish I’d seen 247 Days, from new Chunky Move artistic director Anouk van Dijk: she is a bracing addition to Melbourne’s dance scene.

Deborah Jones

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