October 2014

Arts & Letters

The best of Australian arts 2014

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

Contemporary art


It is hard to imagine that an Australian figurative sculptor who works on a modest scale, invokes a 19th-century tradition and uses materials such as tinted and painted plaster would attract much institutional, commercial or critical interest. In the past decade, Linda Marrinon has produced few paintings, devoting her career to sculpture and mainly working in plaster, clay and bronze. Titles like Victorian Woman with Earrings, Voltaire, Woman in Fake Fur and Monty in Camouflage suggest a cheesy repertoire in old-hat media that’s destined to fail.

Her work is on the scale of a figurine, a statuette or a modest commission. But no subject, regardless of how grand or prosaic, is treated with the commemorative cliché of bombast and triumph. Marrinon’s pieces hold a quiet sincerity and no sense of cheeky or uppity appropriation. They are the opposite of what we expect if we think of the tradition to which she offers a discreet nod.

In 2012, the classical sandstone niches that circle the entry to the Art Gallery of New South Wales displayed ten of Marrinon’s statuettes; later, the gallery acquired all of them. The National Gallery of Victoria’s recent Melbourne Now, the largest coffee-table-book exhibition of contemporary Melbourne art in history, included an installation of her recent work.

In May this year, Tammy Wynette appeared in Marrinon’s Plaster Busts exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Whatever her subject, Marrinon reveals vulnerability, a subtle and beautiful introspection.

Doug Hall

 

Theatre


The Australian theatre I saw this year included many good shows, though few leap to mind like the outstanding international productions that have come our way: Ivo Van Hove’s Shakespearean adaptation, Roman Tragedies, which hit the Adelaide Festival with the force of revelation, or the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s intimate 12-hour epic, Life and Times.

But one performance keeps nagging my memory. A solo act of around an hour, it was developed by Chamber Made Opera and Bell Shakespeare Mind’s Eye and performed at La Mama, one of the smallest, if also one of the most durable, theatres in Melbourne. It was the culmination of a life’s work by one of Australia’s most important theatre artists, Margaret Cameron.

In Opera for a Small Mammal, Cameron played Regina Josefine del Mouse, a character drawn from Franz Kafka’s short story Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk. “Here,” wrote Kafka of his mouse who sings, or rather “pipes”, “is someone making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing.” Cameron has long been fascinated by “the usual thing”, or what she calls “the lowercase letters of art”, and her complex and beautiful text was a challenge – or, at the least, a piping question – to the “uppercase citadel of Art”.

Accompanied by Jethro Woodward’s glorious soundscape, Cameron explored the profundity of the ignored and ordinary. She drew on the work of artists and thinkers such as Henry Purcell, Michel Foucault, Gertrude Stein and Hélène Cixous to weave a charming and at last enormously moving work of philosophical theatre. With a linguistic and intellectual richness that is rare on our stages, her performance was redolent with wit, sorrow and sensual passion. Small, but perfectly formed.

Alison Croggon

 

Concert music


Red Flag Dancers at the Garma Festival, north-east Arnhem Land, August 2014. © Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation


It was at the bunggul ground at the Garma Festival near Yirrkala in the Northern Territory that I had my favourite concert experience of 2014 as an audience member. Perhaps it will confuse some readers that a consideration of concert music across a year might arrive at this inclusion, but the performance in August met all of my criteria. The Red Flag troupe from Numbulwar performed a song cycle, or manikay: the music is of indeterminate age in a formal sense but represents a dynamic, living tradition in dialogue with the contemporary lives of its makers.

Technically, this was manikay on the most accomplished level. The form consists of quite short bursts of intense activity, punctuated by periods during which the dancers reorganise themselves for the next tableau. I use that term intentionally as the songs refer to activities in the seafaring lives of this Yolngu community, down to details such as the rolling of cigarettes. The movements were performed with impeccable timing in an inspired and nuanced choreographic language.

But it was the performance of the manikay by the vocalists and yidaki players, working in alternating pairs, which made this the musical revelation of the year. Never had I heard rhythmic didgeridoo patterns of greater detail and complexity within a traditional context. The dense polyrhythms supported haunting vocal lines intoned in the musical mode belonging to these particular songs (sometimes distantly evoking the Macassans with whom the Yolngu traded over centuries). The voices reached climactic cadence points with the sharpest precision before cascading downward in melismatic arcs of great beauty. The whole construction was bound together with the mighty rhythms of the bilma (clapping sticks).

This was an exhilarating performance: virtuosic, challenging, beautiful and bursting with the joy of the performative moment. It was an example of one of the world’s oldest musical traditions, and we must do everything to recognise its enormous value to our lives as Australians.

Paul Grabowsky

 

Opera


The Melbourne Ring cycle. © Jeff Busby


Opera Australia’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) in Melbourne for the first time was the most exciting operatic venture not only of the past year but also of the past decade or more. The 16 hours or so of Gesamtkunstwerk – Wagner’s long-held ambition for an all-embracing “total art work” – was simply an overwhelming experience. It just got better and better as the four operas – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – unfolded.

The Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, who stepped in to replace Victorian Opera’s Richard Mills mere months before the cycle opened in November 2013, proved himself a top-rate Wagnerian. He maintained a marvellous sense of shape throughout all four operas, yet was equally attentive to detail and sensitive to his singers. The greatly augmented Orchestra Victoria was nothing short of heroic.

A somewhat unheralded cast performed superbly, and generally very evenly. Warwick Fyfe, filling in for the ill John Wegner, nearly stole the show as Alberich. Stefan Vinke was a thrilling Siegfried, while Susan Bullock (fiery as Brünnhilde), Terje Stensvold (a noble Wotan) and Daniel Sumegi (a villainous Hagen) also shone. Nearly every singer enhanced his or her reputation – far too many to single out.

Neil Armfield’s direction was a touch erratic. Sometimes it was marvellously successful; sometimes it was idiosyncratic, such as the choreographed showgirls waving the gods into Valhalla or the elaborate but barely relevant stuffed animals. It was always strikingly original, however, and that is no small achievement. Armfield gets another huge tick for the way he, unlike so many directors, has no egotistical need to compete with the music but serves it instead.

Barney Zwartz

 

Literature


The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not just a novel by Richard Flanagan, it is the novel. The Tasmanian author has written brilliantly before now, of course, and he will write brilliantly again. But this is the book in which literary ambition and personal history coalesce.

Narrow Road was 12 years in the writing. The grit in the narrative oyster shell for Flanagan was his father’s experience of the Thai–Burma railway during World War Two. Both the extensive research and the appalled filial impulse are everywhere apparent and nowhere intrusive.

In “Dorrigo” Evans, readers are given an Australian war hero who is anything but, a Weary Dunlop in photographic negative. He is a healer who spends his time as a Japanese prisoner of war being forced to make a mockery of the Hippocratic injunction to do no harm; after the war, he is a surgeon emptied of emotion by lost love. It is the man’s flaws, however, that permit a glimpse of his virtues.

Flanagan’s wider account uses a similar method. The novel’s chronicle of wartime experience descends into hell and hunkers down there, as if to better examine its demons. The final result is to bring the frail decency of which humans are capable back to the surface.

It is a story that proceeds by such paradoxes and succeeds by them too. Theodor Adorno’s admonition that there should be no poetry after Auschwitz seems a mere professorial cavil in the light of Flanagan’s imaginative valour.

Just as the author’s great Russian predecessor Vasily Grossman did not shrink from taking the reader inside the gas chambers of Treblinka in his magnum opus Life and Fate, Narrow Road never resiles from picturing the worst of human nature. The triumph of both works is that we are not destroyed by the knowledge imparted but borne up. This is not the novel of the year; it is the novel of the decade.

Geordie Williamson

 

Fashion


Samantha Harris in a coat by Lachlan Nathaniel with possum-fur trim. © Justin Ridler / Australian Indigenous Fashion Week


Authenticity is so hot right now. Not the sort that comes stamped on a certificate for a designer handbag, but the sort that comes from ancient artisanal traditions, handwoven fabrics and garments with a story. The sort of authenticity that takes time. Enter the inaugural Australian Indigenous Fashion Week (AIFW), which was held at the Sydney Town Hall in April this year.

Forget dot-painted silk scarves and colourful Dreamtime T-shirts – leave those to the tourist trade. Forget even the problematic term “wearable art”. Think possum-fur capes draped over classic black separates, dresses that wind and twist in sculpted shapes, full skirts in cool prints worn with hooded sweatshirts and sneakers, and resort wear that demands a beachside photo shoot.

In recognition of the fact that even high-profile names find it hard to survive, the festival’s founder, Krystal Perkins, worked to ensure that the designers showing at AIFW were nurtured over a period of 18 months as part of a program intent on transforming potential into long-term viability on an international stage. In fashion, ethical design and millennia of history count for little if the product doesn’t sell.

As one industry insider put it, you need to be first, best or different. Not everything that went down the catwalk passed that test and, inevitably, only some of the designers who showed this year will be able to repeat the performance twice a year, year in, year out. But there was enough – in the creativity, the skill and the styling – for the industry to take notice. And with the announcement of its official incorporation into Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia next year, it would seem that the AIFW is an idea whose time has come.

Karen de Perthuis

 

Architecture


The Stonehenge Visitor Centre © Peter Cook


To win an architectural competition is an impressive achievement. To win twice is even more impressive. In 2001, Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) was awarded first place in a two-stage international competition for a long-awaited visitor centre at Stonehenge in southern England. A radiating assembly of massive steel walls partially buried in the terrain, DCM’s design could be read as both an exemplar of the emerging field of landscape architecture and a contextual response to Stonehenge’s timeless monoliths. The ambitious project was halted in 2007, when the British government abandoned plans to build the £500 million tunnel on which the £65 million visitor centre depended.

In 2009, with the London Olympics looming, a smaller, temporary visitor centre was planned for a site closer to the monoliths, at a fraction of the original budget. A second competition was held and, incredibly, DCM won again. But where the original design had been massive, DCM’s second iteration was ethereal. While the first scheme hunkered into the landscape, this one floated on top. Though the global financial crisis caused further delays and budget reductions, the facility finally opened to the public in December 2013.

The Stonehenge Visitor Centre occupies a site loaded with symbolism. As the gateway to the world’s foremost Neolithic monument, the centre will be unavoidably compared to the mysterious standing stones. What is most remarkable about DCM’s achievement is not that the architects managed to win successive competitions, nor that they were able to survive numerous bureaucratic and budgetary challenges, nor even that they were versatile enough to strip down the building’s infrastructure to its barest requirements. What is most remarkable is that the architects were capable of imagining not one but two convincing counterparts to Stonehenge. The completed project features hundreds of irregularly placed, spindly columns beneath a lightweight steel canopy. The monolithic walls of DCM’s first design are replaced with an even more archaic architecture, one that predates Stonehenge itself: the forest.

David Neustein

 

Dance


Steven McRae and Natasha Kusch in Queensland Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. © David Kelly


Even if it hadn’t been a thumping success, Queensland Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet would have merited great admiration. QB’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, not only secured the Australian premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s monumental ballet for his company but also enticed no fewer than three international superstars – Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Steven McRae – to Brisbane for the season in June and July. Li’s smartest move was to pair the visitors with his own principal artists rather than relegate the home team to the status of back-up dancers. Not only was the decision politically sound but it also worked brilliantly on stage. The level of ambition was off the scale, the QB dancers radiantly rose to the occasion, and Romeo and Juliet was a smash hit every night. QB is now very much on the national ballet radar.

On the contemporary dance front, Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything for Chunky Move was a witty excursion through human progress. Lauren Langlois, Benjamin Hancock and Alisdair Macindoe performed with scintillating virtuosity. Whether they were dull-eyed primitives, glassy-eyed automatons or cheerfully vulgar suburbanites, their life force was unstoppable.

And a quick word on the incomparable Paul White, who made – sadly – an Adelaide-only return to Australia in August with Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle (2009), in which he is transcendent. This gives me a chance to mention White’s July success in London in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon, which premiered in Sydney in 2012. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: White is the best male dancer in Australia. Well, he just visits now. He has joined Germany’s Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Only the best for the best.

Deborah Jones

 

Popular music



Half a lifetime ago, seven teenage friends in Sydney’s inner west bonded over graffiti culture and rap music. Together they formed the One Day crew, and the nearby railway line – dubbed the “Mainline” – became their canvas. Eventually their passion for music overtook their graffiti obsession, and the seven coalesced into four acts: Horrorshow (Solo and Adit), Jackie Onassis (Kai and Raph), Joyride (himself) and Spit Syndicate (Jimmy Nice and Nick Lupi). After ten years of talking about it, late last year the One Day crew booked a holiday rental in Byron Bay, turned the villa into a makeshift studio and set about creating the ultimate hip-hop crew album. They’ve achieved that with Mainline.

The danger in making an album like this is that it can easily become a piecemeal affair, a procession of disconnected solo spots. Although there are five rappers and three producers in One Day (Joyride wears both hats), the result here is a singular vision. They’ve been able to distil their collective wisdom and deep friendship into something akin to a concept album.

The One Day “Mainline” stops at diverse stations. ‘Many Hands’ begins the trip with a synth line that wouldn’t be out of place on an old-school Grandmaster Flash track. Crisp beats, lean-and-mean rhymes and tricky production touches abound here and throughout the album. The journey continues with a hip-hop battle (‘To the Beat’), various ruminations on binge culture, including candid examinations of the triple addictions of sex, drugs and alcohol (‘Love Me Less’, ‘Cloudstreet’ and ‘Spin the Bottle’), and some comical dealings with The Man (in this case, a lady from the ‘S.D.R.O.’) before concluding with ‘History’, which is not so much a final destination as a jumping-off point for further adventures.

Mainline is an insider’s view of a hip-hop posse, and when the album is over you’ll almost feel like you’re a part of the One Day crew. It’s a celebration of who they are, where they come from and how they see the world.

Dave Faulkner

 

Film



This wasn’t a year that a high-profile, internationally lauded Australian film such as The Great Gatsby hit our cinema screens. It was a year in which movies crept in from the edge, as most Australian films have to do these days. There were some very good films: Matthew Saville’s Felony, Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, and Anne Fontaine’s underappreciated Adoration. But standing head and shoulders above these was The Babadook, an extraordinarily assured first film. Writer–director Jennifer Kent expanded her short film Monster to tell the story of a widowed mother and her child whose past literally comes back to haunt them.

It is an excitingly coherent film for a first-timer. Everything seems part of a whole, from the production design, cinematography and music to the performances. In what is basically a two-hander, the ever-excellent Essie Davis plays an overwrought mother struggling to cope not only with her difficult and possibly damaged child but also with her own demons. Young Noah Wiseman tackles his disruptive role with gusto.

The Babadook is an eerie character from a children’s book that mysteriously arrives on the doorstep. Once in the house, he proves difficult to dislodge. The book that brings this potentially evil intrusion into the lives of both mother and child has been beautifully, creepily designed by Alexander Juhasz.

A grim fairy story involving primal touchstones, the film taps our subterraneous fears. Underseen but well regarded critically, The Babadook tops the year for me.

Margaret Pomeranz

 

Design



Design adds value, whether to an object or a service or an experience. The Mittstrom midstream urine device by the Melbourne-based Charlwood Design is an ingenious solution to a tedious problem.

This is not glamorous design, but it reminds us of the anonymous nature of good design where someone has carefully considered all aspects of a problem.

Everyone at some time or other has to provide a urine sample for pathology analysis. And what a pain it is, especially for women, but also for children, the elderly, the disabled or seriously ill patients. Mittstrom is a simple, hands-free, no mess mechanism to assist with the hygienic collection of a midstream urine sample.

This easy-to-use device holds a standard pathology collection jar, securely fits any toilet, automatically diverts the initial urine that can contaminate a sample, and can be hygienically flushed away when finished. The catchment saddle is cleverly made from biodegradable cornstarch material with natural latex adhesive. Its refined shape provides maximum strength where needed, and the barrier that diverts initial urine dissolves at a predictable rate. Its accurate midstream collection significantly reduces high contamination rates (currently up to 56%) and therefore helps to avoid re-testing. It is not surprising that this low-cost product has been granted patents internationally.

The Charlwood team has not only designed an original product but also inventively made it user-friendly, sustainable and medically proficient. Most of all, this thoughtful idea has made an awkward experience easier for everyone; this is design at its best.

Susan Cohn 

Tammy Wynette (2014) by Linda Marrinon. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Cover

October 2014

From the front page

Pub test: ‘Who?’ for Wentworth

The stakes are ridiculously high in tomorrow’s by-election

At the gateway to Cape Fear

After the storm, North Carolina is a glimpse into a climate-changed future

Illustration

Feliks Zemdegs, Rubik’s champion

Meet the world’s fastest cuber

Image from ‘The Insult’

The personal is political in ‘The Insult’

Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past


In This Issue

‘Stone Mattress’ by Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury; $25.99

‘Acute Misfortune’ by Erik Jensen

Black Inc.; $32.99

Paul Kelly and Kevin Rudd laughing together at the launch of The March of Patriots in 2009

Kelly country

Contesting Paul Kelly’s ‘Triumph and Demise’

A young boy holding two dead possums at a trappers camp in the Blackall district, Queensland, 1908

Shaped for good purpose

From stick insects to swagmen in Don Watson’s ‘The Bush’


Read on

Image from ‘The Insult’

The personal is political in ‘The Insult’

Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past

Image from ‘A Star Is Born’

Lady Gaga mesmerises in the uneven ‘A Star Is Born’

After a beguiling first act, director Bradley Cooper struggles to maintain momentum

Image of ‘The Arsonist’ by Chloe Hooper

The Detectives

Inside the hunt for the Black Saturday arsonist – an extract

Image of Sydney Opera House

Promo ScoMo and commodifying public space

The crass commercialism of last week’s promotion on the Opera House was a step too far


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