Walking down Little Bourke Street in the heart of Melbourne’s Chinatown on Wednesday night, the temperature a chilling 9 degrees, there was a sense of anticipation in the air.
Beyond the Swanston Street arches, about 60 metres up the street, lies Golden Square Car Park — an otherwise unremarkable commercial lot that has been spectacularly transformed into a multi-level contemporary art park as part of this year’s Rising festival.
On the first floor, Tabita Rezaire’s glowing video art pyramid Ultra Wet Recapitulation bounces light off aluminium foil-wrapped walls.
As you journey up through the neon-lit floors of the car park, you’ll encounter a 2-metre tall inflatable sculpture of a screaming head (Lu Yang’s self-portrait Power of Will — final shooting), and an abstract three-panel video work set to pulsing techno and spoken word, about the impact of travel on nature (Guan Xiao’s Weather Forecast).
Emphatic bold text flashes across the screen reading: “WHAT EXCITES US IS ALSO EXCITED. WHAT DELIGHTS US IS ALSO DELIGHTED” — a sentiment shared by visitors to Rising.
Su Hui Yu (pictured) performs at Golden Square in The White Waters, based on the life of Tian Qiyuan, Taiwan’s first openly gay and HIV-positive student, and co-founder of experimental theatre group Critical Point Theatre Phenomenon.(Supplied: Rising/Remi Chauvin)
On Golden Square’s rooftop, you’ll find Paul Yore’s capitalist mega church titled Seeing Is Believing But Feeling Is the Truth, an explosion of lurid neon signs assembled in a temple-like structure. Jenny Holzer’s six-storey projection I CONJURE lights up the facade of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, while Atong Atem’s Banksia, a video homage to Australia’s first African migrants, can be seen on the back of the Supper Inn.
Rising’s co-artistic director Hannah Fox says situating events in spaces that are iconically and culturally ‘Melbourne’ was a deliberate choice.
“When we started thinking about Rising, we were looking at where the natural atmosphere and culture [is] within Melbourne, as opposed to trying to recreate that somewhere else,” she says.
A sound artist and former associate creative director for Dark Mofo, Fox heads up Rising alongside director, choreographer and founder of Melbourne-based dance company Chunky Move, Gideon Obarzanek.
“We are both keen collaborators. We come from quite different backgrounds but [we] have a shared sensibility,” says Fox.
The pair applied for the position jointly and were appointed in May 2019, after the Victorian government announced it would combine two existing festivals: White Night and Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF).
Paul Yore’s vivid and playful work (pictured) has been presented at Dark Mofo and Sydney Contemporary. (Supplied: Rising/Remi Chauvin)
The aim was to deliver an expanded program that would transform Melbourne’s CBD and “present, produce and commission more art, in more venues, to more people than ever before,” the announcement read.
Obarzanek says he and Fox share a passion for bringing art to a wide audience.
“We are both interested in how culture plays a role in community. And that’s a really important part of Rising because it’s a festival that you do rather than just see — you are in it, you traverse the city; the large public artworks are things that you experience, walk through, become involved in — and you can see that kind of engagement right through the program,” he says.
“I think it’s really important [for] festivals to have multiple doorways into the program. Something we’ve tried to do is create a festival to be explored and that’s interwoven into public space to create greater access and a sense of critical mass and visibility for audiences,” says Fox.
With 225 events to be staged across 37 venues, including 14 world premieres, and works from 801 local and international artists, the program is nothing short of ambitious.
“One of the things that has always struck me about these sorts of festivals is that they’re so huge, multi-art form and multidisciplinary that it really does take a village of experts to make something that has depth in all of those areas,” says Fox.
Third time lucky
This is — technically — the inaugural year of Rising. Although originally slated for 2020, the festival was postponed because of COVID and rescheduled for mid-2021.
Fox and Obarzanek made the decision to redirect 2020 funding to commission a suite of new works via a call-to-artists. They received more than 1,100 applications.
“We did a big call-out for bold and ambitious ideas and we felt it was appropriate to bring together a curatorial advisory group to work with us to go through the applications,” says Fox.
“We made different decisions than we otherwise would have and, I feel, better decisions [based on] lots of different areas of expertise and cultural backgrounds that influenced our thinking and gave us a deeper insight into approaching those decisions.”
“A mind that is unable to change is a dead mind. Having more voices in the room to make decisions was a really healthy thing,” says Fox (pictured with Obarzanek).(Supplied: Rising/Jo Duck)
The curatorial advisory group included a number of diverse artists and arts specialists, including Jeff Khan, Amrita Hepi, Daniel Browning and Genevieve Lacey, and expanded to include artistic associates Kimberley Moulton, Grace Herbert and Woody McDonald.
“There can often be a fear of design by committee, but I think that’s a fallacy. Collaboration is really healthy and having to fight for an idea is really healthy,” says Fox.
Through their call-to-artists, Fox and Obarzanek were able to fund 26 new works, which were to be spread across the 2021 and 2022 programs.
“The amount of work that goes into a festival of this scale is monumental and dismantling it is almost as much work as building it. The initial stages for us were really just dealing with the immediate fallout and I don’t think Gideon and I had time to process it until much later,” says Fox.
The news was particularly crushing for Melbourne-based artists, who had already endured what was then one of the world’s longest lockdowns and were now staring down the barrel of another.
“[Artists] from Sydney and other cities were just assuming that the show would go on at some point and everyone from Melbourne just went home and cried. We were all pretty well-schooled at that point of what was going to come,” says Fox.
Although cancelling was disastrous, Fox says the extra gestational time has enriched this year’s program.
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“So much work has gone into getting it to this stage that I feel the overall outcome is better for it.”
Around 40 per cent of the works from 2021 have been rescheduled for this year’s festival, including a re-imagined sculptural work from Filipino contemporary artist Leeroy New using repurposed bamboo from the 2021 incarnation of The Wilds.
Fox says the reason other 2021 works didn’t make it into this program mostly boiled down to venue and artist availability.
“It doesn’t mean those works will never be seen. We’re in discussion with some of the artists from 2021 about 2023 and beyond,” she says.
A festival for community
In addition to Golden Square, there are two other tentpole public works in the program that, Fox says, have been curated for audiences to experience on their way to and from festival shows: Monochord and The Wilds.
The former is a kilometre-long laser-beam installation over the Birrarung (Yarra River), created by audiovisual artist Robin Fox.
“It’s an incredible feat in that space but also a very clear beacon to the city that the festival is on,” says Fox.
To the west of the Birrarung in a transformed Sidney Myer Music Bowl is The Wilds, a sensory adventure for which every detail has been carefully and imaginatively considered.
Through Kings Domain, a lantern-lined path delivers you to the entrance and a warm humming soundscape carries you over the threshold into a dreamlike night garden. The grounds are aglow with towering video projections and octopus-like inflatable sculptures.
“These large-scale events are really for everyone and for people who may not be familiar with or hugely versed with being in a theatre, concert hall or gallery,” says Obarzanek.(Supplied: Rising/Eugene Hyland)
Inside the Bowl is Rinky Dink — a throwback to the 1980s and 1990s when the Bowl was used as an ice rink during winter. Kaleidoscopic projections gently morph overhead and swirling lights wash over the ice as figure skaters glide past and ambient synths warm your ears. Titled Glass Paintings, the quadrophonic soundscape was composed specifically for the experience by sound artists Nick Huggins and Ben Talbot Dunn and sonically evokes the resonance of glass.
“It’s this massive and quite eccentric event that’s really built for winter … and it’s been created in a way that the Bowl has never been seen or experienced before,” says Fox.
“There’ll be dance ensembles promenading the grounds, a huge community choir, fine dining in a glasshouse, fire pits and DJs out the back.
“We’re so excited about it. It’s really crazy and huge and beautiful.”
It was also important to Fox and Obarzanek to encourage public participation.
“There [are] multiple ways that the community can get involved in Rising and it’s something we really [focused on],” says Fox.
“There’s the work Multitud, [from Uruguayan] choreographer Tamara Cubas, who is working with 70 participants to make a dance work in Melbourne Town Hall, which is really beautiful. There’s also Night Chorus, a community choir [at The Wilds], and Jason Phu’s Parade for the Moon at Golden Square.”
Art for the here and now
Site-specific performance works are a defining feature of the festival, with many staged in unusual locations or iconic but radically transformed venues.
Over at the Forum, a whopping 10 sound systems have been set up for Heavy Congress, a temple to Jamaican, Colombian and Afro-Caribbean sound system culture.
“Nothing like it has been seen in Melbourne before and I think most people would be unfamiliar with the idea that [Melbourne has] a really amazing sound system culture,” says Fox.
For reference: a medium-to-large-scale music event would typically deploy two to three sound systems.
“This is getting up to Notting Hill Carnival [in London] level,” she says.
“Heavy Congress (pictured) is a huge undertaking with a real mix of Colombian and Afro-Caribbean music, to British-via-Jamaica dub and techno as well,” says Fox.(Supplied: Rising/Francesco Vicenzi)
Obarzanek says it was important to frame Rising as an international cultural event — not just a Melbourne one.
He and Fox have created a program that features a refreshingly diverse mix of international artists, including Sui Hu Yu (Taiwan), Slime Engine (China), Rianto (Indonesia), Sampa the Great (Zambia), Mette Ingvartsen (Denmark), Masego and Shabazz Palaces (US), and Arab Strap and Baxter Dury (UK) — not to mention their Japan in Focus music strand, which includes Midori Takada, CHAI and Buffalo Daughter, among others.
“2022 is really the [first] opportunity for us to bring artists we admire from overseas, [who] we haven’t been able to consider for a couple of years,” he says.
In acknowledging the significance of ‘place’ to the festival, Fox says: “[We] couldn’t make a culturally relevant festival connected to place without really strong First Nations curation and leadership within the organisation.
“That’s something we’ve been working on at every level: from the board to the curatorial team, to producers, to working with our Kulin Elders directly.”
The festival is being held on the lands of the Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation and features many First Peoples-led works including Art Trams, The Return, Ancestors Are Calling, Janet’s Vagrant Love and Jurrungu Ngan-ga.
Elevating First Peoples-led art
Few symbols say ‘Melbourne’ quite like its trams and returning this year is a fleet of six Art Trams featuring designs by First Peoples artists, now trundling around the city.
Each design responds to this year’s theme “Unapologetically Blak”, curated by Boonwurrung and Wemba Wemba artist Jarra Karalinar Steel under the mentorship of Yorta Yorta writer and curator Kimberley Moulton.
“We’re conduits as producers and as curators working for the festival … but it’s really the artists leading the conversation around what they’re wanting to do and [Art Trams] is a beautiful example of that,” says Moulton, who is the senior curator of South Eastern Aboriginal Collections for Museums Victoria and one of Rising’s artistic associates.
She came on board with Rising through Fox and Obarzanek’s 2020 call-to-artists and says their collaborative approach to programming has been “amazing”.
“I really respect their leadership. They’re so focused on relationships with people, relationships with artists and communities … and that really comes out in the community-led and artist-led projects.”
The artists behind this year’s Melbourne Art Trams are Lin Onus (whose work is pictured), Louise Moore, Patricia Mckean, Paola Balla, Tegan Murdock and Darcy McConnell / Enoki. (Supplied: Rising/James Morgan)
Last year, Moulton became the inaugural curator of Art Trams — even though the project has run for many decades. Rising 2022 is also the first time an all First Peoples team has been assembled for the project.
“[The team] really wanted to amplify and celebrate Victorian Aboriginal artists, and it was an honour to work on that program last year and bring it to life,” says Moulton.
“[Having] a First Nations curator lead that … is really about making it accessible to community.”
Having opened on Wednesday and set to run for the next 12 months, the fleet includes a recreation of a 1991 design by the late Yorta Yorta painter, sculptor and activist Lin Onus. The curatorial team under Steel and Moulton worked closely with Onus’s son Tiriki to reinvigorate the design for a new generation.
Fox says: “The evolution of that is really exciting and significant for Melbourne.”
If you take the tram up to North Melbourne’s Arts House, you’ll find Jurrungu Ngan-ga, a political dance work from First Peoples and intercultural dance company Marrugeku. Translating to “straight talk” in Yawuru, the work scrutinises the detention of asylum seekers and the disproportionate imprisonment of First Peoples in Australia.
“[Part of] what’s so powerful about it is the cast themselves. They are such a fantastic group of people and come from really different backgrounds, from different parts of Australia [and] have come together, in some ways, [to share] their own stories, but also firsthand accounts of people in detention,” says Obarzanek.
In developing the work, the creative team drew on stories and experiences from Kurdish Iranian writer and former Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani, Yawuru leader and senator Pat Dodson, and Iranian Australian academic and activist Omid Tofighian.
“Jurrungu Ngan-ga is not just a didactic, political work, it is a really powerful emotional voice,” says Obazanek.(Supplied: Marrugeku/Abby Murray)
Set against a cold metallic backdrop designed by West Australian artist Abdul-Raman Abdullah, the piece unfolds from the confines of a prison cell. Live video footage of the performance is projected onto slate-like panels, evoking a sense of surveillance.
The dancers interact with the audience directly and via the camera — a sort of faceless, voiceless Big Brother — toggling between states of distress and defiance.
“Be careful, you could become a refugee too,” says one dancer to camera.
Programming the work was a no-brainer for the curatorial team, says Moulton.
“The subject matter is so pertinent to us right now, with Indigenous incarceration rates being higher than ever. It was important to support [Marrugeku] not only because they’re phenomenal artists, but also because of how important [this] topic is to all of Australia and the world really.
“These are big global conversations that should be had around human rights and Indigenous rights.”
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The choreography was co-devised by Marrugeku co-artistic director Dalisa Pigram with the performers and spans an electrifying array of physical and emotional states — at once a convulsing mass of jerking bodies, almost short-circuiting as they move through the space; at others a slowly retching and prolonged spasm. The performers vividly conjure the anguish and torment of detention, spliced with moments of jubilant protest and earned rage.
Obarzanek says: “While it’s politically quite strong and unflinching, it’s also a remarkably beautiful work with some extraordinary performances.
“It’s one of those rare works, those rare performances that will really shift you.”
Leaning into the ephemeral
Fox and Obarzanek have also made a point of programming works that are immersive or ephemeral in nature.
Harriet Gillies and Marcus McKenzie are award-winning performance artists, based in Sydney and Melbourne respectively. (Supplied: Rising/Eugene Hyland)
One of the best examples of this is 8/8/8: WORK, an 8-hour durational performance by artists Harriet Gillies and Marcus McKenzie, which will be staged this Saturday, June 4 in a disused Coles in Coburg.
Framed as a workday, 8/8/8: WORK is one part of a 24-hour triptych that examines the influence of capitalism on self-worth and which Fox describes as “truly ambitious”.
“Harriet and Marcus and their whole team [are] masters of this kind of choreographed chaos and delivering quite heavy critique, but in a very absurd and hilarious way.
“I think it’s one of those things that will be talked about for many years to come,” says Fox.
Still Lives by Luke George and Daniel Kok is another one-off performance art piece, set to be staged this Sunday, June 5 at the National Gallery of Victoria. The artists will suspend five AFL players from the ceiling of the Great Hall with ropes to create a “living sculpture” of an iconic mark from Australian Rules history.
“They are working with rope as a medium but [also] as a metaphor for many lines of social relations,” says Fox.
Still Lives: Melbourne is part of a series of works by George and Kok using rope as a material — including an incarnation at the 2019 Venice Biennale.(Supplied: Rising/Gregory Lorenzutti)
The work draws on principles of rope bondage, macrame, and rock climbing and Fox says, “it couldn’t be a more Melbourne story”.
“It is talking about the kind of push and pull of social change in Australia and the culture of AFL. It’s an ephemeral, spectacular work that draws from a really specific culture that also speaks to a broad audience — and that’s what [Rising] is trying to do.
“I think those kinds of really unique and very placed-in-their-context works is where we’re headed as a festival.”
Rising runs until June 12 in Melbourne.
Posted 23h ago23 hours agoThu 2 Jun 2022 at 6:57pm, updated 9h ago9 hours agoFri 3 Jun 2022 at 8:25am