In light of recent eventsWho’s preferencing whom?
The Monthly Awards
The Monthly thanks the members of its Arts Issue selection committee:
Alison Croggon, David Marr, Anna Goldsworthy, Wesley Enoch, Jonathan Holloway, Stephanie Bishop, Christos Tsiolkas, Benjamin Law, Delia Falconer, Terri-ann White, Jenny Valentish, Michael Williams, Alexie Glass-Kantor, Callum Morton, Katrina Sedgwick, Gideon Obarzanek, Lisa Havilah, Brian Ritchie, Julian Day, Claire G. Coleman, Deborah Conway, Shelley Lasica, Susan Cohn, Miriam Cosic, Helen Elliott
In an age when both reality TV and comedy have trended towards people looking straight at the camera in declarative mode, often brutally narcissistic, the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That is like an apology for past misdemeanours. Each of its episodes, across three series now, is smart and savvy, humorous and heartbreaking. Each is the product of a deep understanding of the work of cultural representation, and the beauty of personal expression – in one’s own voice – and the act of listening.
Producers and directors Kirk Docker and Aaron Smith give “marginalised” people in our society the forum to introduce the features of their lives that have made them distinct from the “majority”. People who live with divergence, and possibly prejudice, by dint of the circumstances of their birth, their life choices, or what someone else has done to mark them out as “damaged”.
The format is simple: a set of questions collected from mainstream society – sometimes ignorant or aggressive in tone, sometimes merely curious – is posed to the reference group of each 30-minute episode (titles include “Eating Disorders”, “Survivors of Sexual Assault”, “Swingers”, “Refugees”, “Blind People”). The participants, set against plain backdrops as singles, pairs or trios, respond with remarkable generosity, sharing the real, often raw, experiences and issues they live with constantly.
As with life, even the most harrowing stories have lightness, resilience and, regularly, humour. There is a warm rapport, usually, between the people sitting together on camera, and a weirdly wonderful and subliminal-level score that nevertheless keeps the viewer focused on the talking. I’m a serial watcher, laughing and crying and in love with the extraordinary humanness and intimacy on display. Two quick tips: the episodes titled “Down Syndrome” and “Drag” are magnificently illuminating.
“Nobody here,” says Hannah Gadsby midway through her astonishing stand-up show Nanette, “is leaving this room a better person.”
She’s right. One of the enduring misconceptions about art is that it makes you a better person (or, if it happens to be decadent art, it makes you a worse one). If art of any kind were that magic, the world would be a very different place.
If it’s very good, art does something else: it invites you to reflect. And perhaps then, in tandem with a lot of other imponderables, it may change the way you act in the world. It may even change your life. Nanette is the kind of art made by someone who has no fucks left to give, who has decided, whatever the cost, that she will tell her truth.
Gadsby is, as she tells us, very good at what she does. She knows how to write a complex script that weaves multiple narratives through an architecture of thought. As a performer, she knows how far she can stretch tension and precisely when to release it. She lays out her tools of trade for our examination, and judges them as wanting.
All her professional life, she tells us, has been about humiliating herself for the pleasure of others, and now she’s not going to do that anymore. And then she tells us why.
The result is breathtaking, even on repeat watches. Nanette is a stunning demonstration of unerring formal skills applied to the raw, ineradicable pain of being different in a society that punishes that difference.
“I will never flourish,” Gadsby says desolatingly towards the end. Some wounds change the very structure of your being. But, as Nanette demonstrates, if you survive being broken, there are things beyond it: generosity, perceptiveness, pride, connection and, most of all, courage. Courage won’t change the world by itself, but nothing will change without it.
“Classical” or “art” music practitioners are no longer household names in Australia, but if they were, contemporary composer Brett Dean would be one of them. He is probably better known in Germany, where he played viola with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for years. Since then, he has been climbing heights internationally in the symphonic and opera worlds.
Dean’s second opera, an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was commissioned by the famed Glyndebourne opera festival in England – its first new opera in years. Hamlet premiered there last year, and in Australia at the Adelaide Festival in March.
The music in Hamlet is sharp, abstract and yet lyrical. It is far mellower and more accessible than that of Dean’s first opera, Bliss (based on Peter Carey’s novel). The vocal lines are longer, the orchestral music more rhythmic, and it shifts gears more eloquently to illustrate and intensify dramatic shifts on stage.
Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn, the only non-Australian on the team, has elegantly filleted Shakespeare’s words, abbreviating them, arranging them more aphoristically and generally taking all kinds of liberties that neither lose the sense of the original nor compete with Dean’s music.
The production, directed by Neil Armfield and designed by Ralph Myers, was visually stately yet emotionally intense. Hamlet was a layabout with a sense of humour masking his intense inner fusion of parental jealousy and existential angst. Gertrude was a nervy hysteric. The character emphases were both traditional and updated, and the excellent singers were clearly chosen for their acting chops as well. Allan Clayton, who sang in both venues, was a brilliant Hamlet.
In Glyndebourne, Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, both international drawcards. Here, an expanded Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the State Opera Chorus and Sydney’s Song Company were superb.
Dean’s Hamlet is an opera for both aficionados and those who say they don’t like contemporary incarnations.
Blackie Blackie Brown (STC, Malthouse)
The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (STC)
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music by Taylor Mac (Melbourne Festival)
John Mawurndjul is one of the greatest Australian artists of our era, no need to add the qualifier “Indigenous”. From his youth in still traditional Kuninjku lands in Western Arnhem Land, where he displayed a precocious understanding and execution of traditional arts, to his cosmopolitan ease in the art galleries of the world today, he has been a great ambassador for his country and people.
In that time, Mawurndjul made a brilliant transition from depicting significant flora and fauna, ancestral history, the supernatural and the ceremonial, to a luminous abstraction that still pays obeisance to his traditions. He continues to live on the traditional lands of his people, and to respect the protocols of the duwa moiety to which he belongs, even as he reaches for human universality.
He retains the rarrk, or cross-hatching, that marks this homeland’s art – whether he’s dealing with the ceremonial, the symbolic or the purely decorative, as in the West – but has shifted from the figurative to the abstract. Themes include the Rainbow Serpent, Mimih spirits, fish and turtles and marsupials, the beautiful and ubiquitous local waterlilies and much more. Increasingly as he ages, the sacred Mardayin ceremony looms large. Though his “canvas” is still largely bark, he has also worked with sculpture and etchings.
This large-scale retrospective of his work, co-curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the Art Gallery of South Australia, moves to Adelaide this month. It represents not only the creative journey of a great artist but also the positive aspects of Indigenous intersection with balanda culture. That Mawurndjul and his people continue to suffer socially and politically under federal government interventions in their ancestral lands makes for bittersweet background knowledge.
The exhibition catalogue – brilliantly written, eloquently illustrated and beautifully produced – is more than a memento. It stands in its own right as a magnificent testament to Mawurndjul’s time on earth.
Mikala Dwyer: a shape of thought (AGNSW)
Mutlu Cerkez: 1988-2065 (MUMA)
Patricia Piccinini: Curious Creatures (GOMA)
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong and Dark Emu are united in their unflinching examinations of Australia’s colonial history. Through the medium of dance they expose truths that have remained hidden for centuries.
Bennelong (performed here by Beau Dean Riley Smith, who won an Australian Dance award for the part) was a tragic figure. He was there to see the invasion of Australia begin and was almost certainly the first Aboriginal person to attempt to live in both cultural worlds, Indigenous and European. Bennelong is a powerful work, informing the audience of the horror of the times in a visceral and emotional way. The dancers move through clouds of ochre dust and smoke, pausing in seemingly impossible positions during unbelievable flight.
The colonisers are terrifying and it’s impossible to ignore their brutality. Yet the victims, Indigenous people, are impossible to dehumanise. Bangarra has found a way to infuse every movement with story, and when Bennelong is finally imprisoned and consumed by his place in society, we cannot help but feel it as a gut punch.
Dark Emu is an expressionistic response to the Aboriginal agricultural history book of the same name by Bruce Pascoe. Less narratively tight than Bennelong it is nevertheless powerful work. I could feel, watching it, the frustration of the defamation all Indigenous Australians live with. We were never nomads.
Both Bennelong and Dark Emu drill straight into the audience’s emotions and tear them apart from the inside. That is the reality for many Indigenous Australians. Our stories, our experiences of colonisation and racism, cannot be put easily into words that outsiders can understand. The flow of the dancers, the atmospheric music and the sets make the audience feel the story in a way words cannot.
Claire G. Coleman
Split by Lucy Guerin Inc and Arts House
Attractor by Dancenorth, Lucy Guerin Inc, Gideon Obarzanek and Senyawa
Like Michelle de Kretser’s other Miles Franklin winner, Questions of Travel, her sixth novel works its plot around a set of questions. Here they turn on how to shape a life for oneself and for others. The Life to Come consists of five precise, ample slices of life, stretching from youth to old age, and features a large cast. Pippa, a mid-list writer, unites their stories; though not always the central character, she moves through them with a disarming but brutal naivety.
The setting is mostly Sydney, but we have come to expect that de Kretser’s characters will live across geographies and cultures. A lonely woman in Paris; two ageing émigré spinsters; white old-money Australians; a Sri Lankan shopkeeper; a Muslim osteopath: all possess lives ripe with backstory, and some have been touched by historical barbarities.
Throughout they tweet, Facebook and Skype, write novels and wait for letters. The novel suggests that these technologies – whether banal or engaging – are the medium through which we fashion ourselves but also try to keep the existential void at bay.
Although de Kretser likes her social archetypes, this is not quite satire; and, while her descriptions of place and human contradiction are pinpoint, The Life to Come is not quite realism either. Instead, she renews Patrick White’s tragicomic vision, offering loving homage to it in her beautiful but wounding Sydney, and the wasted but profound lives of Pippa’s elderly neighbours in the book’s final section. Though less cruel, de Kretser’s no slouch herself at the funny-appalling, hinting throughout that Pippa, in her smug sense of remove from global matters, may be the dominant Australian type.
In this remarkably full novel, each character struggles with a sense that life is elsewhere. While some contemporary writers are questioning the conventions of character and interiority, de Kretser shows that the Modernist novel still has major work to do.
In Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin, author of Traumascapes, Courage and Otherland, once again picks a path through humankind’s roughest of terrains, using instinct as her compass. She has switched her focus to a new existential crisis: the past as a ghost of the present.
Tumarkin feels like a trustworthy guide through suicide, grief and sexual trauma; she’s an honorary artistic outreach associate at the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions, after all. Instead of interviewing experts and falling into academic analysis, she seeks out those suffering on the frontline and falls into step.
In lieu of chapters there are five axioms: “Time heals all wounds”; “History repeats itself”; “Give me a child before the age of seven and I’ll give you the woman”; “Those who forget the past are condemned to re–––––” and “You can’t enter the same river twice”. Tumarkin weaves in mythological and historical context, visits museums, tags along on outings, jots down conversations on trams, and excavates her own thoughts.
Frequently, she picks at the structures of modern society. Take what she calls the “casserole period” – a sanctioned term of mourning that drops off abruptly. Then there are the invisible boundary lines of garden-variety altruists, as explained to her by a community lawyer:
“Vanda says when we pick people up we are responsible for what we’re doing and it is our responsibility to go all the way.
“Says the fox in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘People have forgotten this truth but you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.’
“Does it mean a little help is often worse than no help? We’re talking and I am getting a pulling feeling in my stomach. I get it when something important is happening and it’s easy to miss.”
Axiomatic posits that our histories are not so ancient. Personal tragedies intertwine with strands of DNA. Grief ambushes decades later, or keeps expanding and retracting in the lungs. This book could be the perfect gift for those who insist “the past is in the past”.
One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton
Collected Short Fiction by Gerald Murnane
Common People by Tony Birch
The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
When the Ian Potter Cultural Trust publicly described the most recent co-commission in its partnership with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) as “un-Australian”, and removed the trust’s name from the credits, it ensured this film would become an instant cult hit. And the work delivers. Soda_ Jerk is an art collective comprised of sibling duo Dominique and Dan Angeloro, and Terror Nullius: A Political Revenge Fable in Three Acts is a vehement and unrelenting remix of Australian cinema that is, as billed, “equal parts political satire, eco-horror and road movie”.
The 55-minute piece samples and remixes national iconography and canonical screen references to create a critical work of social commentary and an audacious take on the Australian Gothic. This epic counterculture film riotously traverses the vexed landscape of Australian mythology and identity. It is an ode to our film and television archive, while also mining its content to reconstruct and redefine narratives around Indigenous land rights, LGBTQIA+ issues, refugee policy and misogyny. At a time when Australian politics is increasingly sinister, Soda_Jerk instrumentalises historical touchstones such as Gough Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975, the Tampa crisis of 2001, the celebrations of the Australian bicentenary in 1988, the rise of Pauline Hanson, the 1992 Mabo decision and last year’s marriage-equality postal survey to create an irreverent and acid-tinged historiography.
Soda_ Jerk describes its practice as being at the intersection of documentary and speculative fiction, and this work continually shifts tonalities from lyricism to the didactic, and layers moments of representation and unreality. Characters in Terror Nullius are untethered from their films of origin: when asylum seekers wash up on our shores they are greeted by Russell Crowe’s character from Romper Stomper; the Mad Max 2 character Lord Humungus is now in cahoots with Pauline Hanson; and Josh Thomas from Please Like Me talks Indigenous rights and constitutional recognition with Terence Stamp’s character from Priscilla.
When the Ian Potter Cultural Trust withdrew its public endorsement just prior to the work’s premiere, it issued the understatement of the year, claiming the film was “a very controversial piece of art”. ACMI, to its credit, was unwavering in its support for the commission, and a dialogue around the implications of commissioning and exhibiting political works of art and film ensued. Terror Nullius is a landmark piece of agitation, and, as Soda_ Jerk have boldly claimed, “even in late apocalyptic neoliberalism it’s still possible to live the art and keep the fight”. Too right.
Sweet Country by Warwick Thornton
Acute Misfortune by Thomas M. Wright
The first song Mojo Juju wrote, for the album she nearly didn’t make, was “Don’t Stop Me Now”. It’s a yearning ’60s soul number in response to feedback she’d received over the years: that while she was respected as an artist, she was too queer, too brown, too “out there” to be marketable.
Native Tongue, Juju’s third solo album, taps into conversations about cultural identity that are dominating 2018. It’s a natural successor to Sampa the Great’s Birds and the BEE9, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, REMI’s Divas and Demons and Briggs’ Reclaim Australia, but it also marks a bold new musical direction for Juju.
Juju has Filipino, Wiradjuri and Anglo-Saxon heritage. She grew up in country New South Wales as Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga, constantly forced to explain her identity. A track like “Shut Your Mouth” shares the sentiment of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, but generally the spirit of Native Tongue is one of betterment, such as in the dance-floor stormer “Something Wrong” – a call to put things right.
There’s also a love story, but it’s not her own. Juju’s great-grandmother had a child with the Indigenous man she loved, but stigma shamed her into taking the truth of the paternity to her grave. A trilogy of songs tells this story from different perspectives. Juju also recorded oral-history interludes of her father and grandmother talking.
Musically, Native Tongue is a quilt of influences, stitched so skilfully that the thread is invisible. The tracks are built from the beats up, populated with dirty synths, flickers of blues guitar, glitchy electronica, elements of trip-hop and a definite nod to Michael Jackson. Collaborators include Jamieson Shaw, best known for his work on the Netflix hip-hop drama The Get Down, and Joel Ma, aka Joelistics. Most moving is the appearance of the Pasefika Vitoria Choir, on the title track and the reprise. It’s somehow as mournful as a chain-gang chant but fortifying for the soul.
Birds and the BEE9 by Sampa the Great
Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett
In less than eight years, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) has grown from an idiosyncratic art gallery on the outskirts of Hobart to an internationally celebrated and multifaceted cultural marvel. Under the spiritual directorship of David Walsh it has set the heartbeat of Tasmanian creative life, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the state and across the seas to its exhibitions, performances and various commissioned works.
Over the past year, the Mona gallery hosted the acclaimed travelling exhibition The Museum of Everything, as well as On the Origin of Art and Zero, and has opened a new wing, Pharos. Its January festival of music and art, MONA FOMA (aka Mofo), presented Gotye’s tribute to Jean-Jacques Perrey, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s live collaboration with Violent Femmes, Canadian alt-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Brian Jackson and the Southern Gospel Choir, Thembi Soddell, Austin Buckett, Electric Fields, Sonya Lifschitz performing Robert Davidson’s Stalin’s Piano, and much more.
Dark Mofo, its winter festival, brought to Tasmania acts including Laurie Anderson, Jagwar Ma, Einstürzende Neubauten, Chrysta Bell, Tim Minchin, Marlon Williams, Archie Roach and Tiddas, while presenting a feast of visual and performing arts such as the remarkable Under the Bitumen the Artist by Mike Parr.
The breadth of work presented over the past year under the various Mona banners is too great to list here let alone describe. Suffice to say, the combination of festivals, events, galleries and works has transformed the state and enriched the nation.
Other arts notable mentions
Teacher’s Pet (podcast)
Australian Chamber Orchestra and Steven Isserlis play Shostakovich and Elena Kats-Chernin (concert series)
In light of recent eventsWho’s preferencing whom?
Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist
The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’
Election special: Who should you vote for?Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!
‘The End’ by Karl Ove KnausgaardThe ‘My Struggle’ series arrives at a typically exhausting conclusion
A man and his bear: Marc Forster’s ‘Christopher Robin’Adults will find this new tale of Winnie the Pooh surprisingly moving
Eternally CherThe queen of reinvention turns her attention to the works of ABBA
‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga TokarczukOffbeat intrigue from a Booker Prize winner
Election special: Who should you vote for?Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!
Remembrance or forgetting?The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence
Property damageWhat will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?
Present indicative: Daniel Johns’ ‘FutureNever’The former Silverchair frontman’s second solo album lacks cohesion, but affords him space to excavate his past
zzzAre you enjoying the Monthly?
You can subscribe and receive full digital access on the website, and via the iPhone and iPad apps.
Subscriptions start from $44.95.