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Melbourne Festival

Seeing voices

Daniel Palmer

Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001 Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001
photo John Brash
The 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival’s refreshingly anti-ocular theme of ‘voice’ provided an opportunity for some creative curatorship. From an allegory featuring Islamic singers to a reconstructed 16th century choral masterpiece and extreme digital manipulations, the visual component of the festival presented a range of important contemporary works as well as a few surprises. If an underlying preoccupation emerged from the visualisation of voice, it was, perhaps inevitably, a sense of awe, often directly evoking religious and transcendental themes and the experience of the sublime.

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), now the official heart of the festival’s visual arts program, staggered a series of performances and exhibitions. Turbulent (1998), by New York based, Iranian born artist Shirin Neshat, provided a dramatic opening. This minimalist work features 2 huge black and white projections facing one another, between which the audience sits. What unfolds is a kind of musical duel between the masculine and feminine, in which we are carried away and torn between the beauty and order of a male singer and the other-worldly, throaty gymnastics of a female singer. It’s a nuanced work, but as curator Juliana Engberg suggests in her catalogue essay, on one level the political message is clear: women have not been able to sing in public in Iran since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s seizure of power after the 1979 revolution. She goes on to propose that the work represents a kind of lament for a culture that has come to be rendered black and white by fundamentalism. Things become even more complex in the post-9/11 context of the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’. Indeed, as the audience we hover in a haze of half-understanding which seems to sum up the West’s contemporary relationship to Islam. A shame the work was only on display for 4 days.

ACCA then hosted a series of sell-out ‘visual opera’ performances by the Melbourne artist Jude Walton entitled No Hope No Reason, which I missed (see Marshall: Voices in and beyond history). Following this was a more conventional but very interesting series of drawings, paintings and a video by the never-before-seen-in-Australia Vienna-based duo Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum, entitled Being in and out of love too many times itself makes you harder to love. Their deadpan yet heart-on-the-sleeve portrayal of young, languorous fashionable types is something like a cross between Melbourne artists David Rosetzky and Darren Sylvester. The link to the festival theme was the inner voice; the generic angst of those depicted was presented in paradoxical, downbeat philosophies of love and friendship included within the works as subtitle-style text. In an accompanying video installation, To Die For (2002), a lush 360-degree pan in a shopping centre car park evoked tableaux painting, and the disastrous inertia associated with contemporary individualism.

Muntean’s and Roenblum’s cool existentialism was overshadowed by the adjacent work in the main hall by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, whose work has also never previously been seen in Melbourne (her 1999 work The Muriel Lake Incident was a highlight of the 2002 Biennale of Sydney). Cardiff was an inspired choice for this festival, given that her work always uses intimate, displaced vocal recordings (she is best known for her usually site-specific ‘audio walks’ in which viewers are taken on a journey guided by a voice on a walkman). Forty-Part Motet (2001) is a ‘reworking’ of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, a classic liturgical work. The 40 individual voices of this soaring composition—written for Queen Elizabeth in 1575—were individually recorded and played back via an arrangement of 40 tall black speakers. Moreover, before and after the 11-minute cycle, there were a few minutes in which we could also hear the young boys and men talking among themselves. In an experience both uncanny and endearing each speaker acquires a personality.

Quite aside from the sheer beauty of the overlapping layers of the rich polyphonic sound, Cardiff’s work brilliantly conspires to encourage participation. Comfortable museum benches located in the middle of the speaker circle encouraged us to be still, but to stay seated without moving would have been to miss the work, which provided a radical opportunity to wander around the voices. Indeed, as we stood up close to the speakers and listened to the individual voices, in a way impossible in a live choral performance, they became faceless personifications of the singers (who always remained elusive presences). Cardiff has said that she wanted to be able to “climb into” the music, and is “interested in how the audience may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.”

Trite as it sounds, this is a work that has to be experienced. Ostensibly about the intimate experience of extraordinary voices, it is also about being with strangers. Like-minded strangers, no doubt, but strangers all the same. Amidst the generally depressed mood following 2 catastrophic election results, the rapturous state of other visitors was a temporary respite. Within the landscape of spatialised sound, one’s body movements seemed to slow down. Individuals seemed more lonely and beautiful, as did children with fingers in their ears. I was reminded of the scenes in the library early in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1988) where the angels are able to listen to readers’ most intimate private thoughts. It also brought to mind Thomas Struth’s photographs of people in art museums, immersed in private looking. (ACCA’s front-of-house staff apparently also enjoyed their CCTV more than usual, with reports of people doing yoga in the spaces). ACCA provided an ideal venue for this journey of transcendence, reaching heights in its main hall not seen since Susan Norrie’s opening video installation Undertow (2002).

Like Cardiff, Granular Synthesis are also interested in how our bodies are affected by sound, but more in the mode of alienated despair than intimate ecstasy. Two ear-bleeding video installations by the Austrian group were presented for the first time in Australia as part of the SenseSurround exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Granular Synthesis are named after their main aesthetic technique, in which tiny grains of image and sound are broken down, redistributed and reorganised. The ticketed work included as part of the festival was Modell 5 (1994-6), which lived up to its promise of being “an extreme acoustic and visual experience that manipulates video images and sound to create a new machine-generated aesthetic.” What we endure is the continual dissolution, distortion, amplification and reconstruction of a Japanese woman’s head across 3 screens, flickering in ultra-fast strobe-like frequency (think Edvard Munch on speed). An aggressive work, its perceptual rush is generated by the intensity of the sub-sonic sound. Dubbed a “choir of cyborgs”, few would doubt the publicity claim that this is “video art for the techno dance and rave party generation”, but ironically its cold post-humanism feels decidedly historical. To be fair the work is now a decade old, but Form (1999), their more recent work in SenseSurround, remained at the level of formalistic exploration of video grain. Maybe I’m missing something, but these works also seem to reinforce passivity. Still, I look forward to ACMI attempting more historical shows, as the only institution equipped to offer a broad context for new media art.

SenseSurround also included a retrospective of Jon McCormack’s historically significant evolutionary digital works (c. 1990s), and a new commission by Jeffrey Shaw and David Pledger called Eavesdrop (2004). Shaw and Pledger pooled form, content and resources to produce a 360-degree panoramic series of video narratives in another of Shaw’s ongoing cylindrical projection environments. Disappointingly, its high-tech formal innovations amounted to little more than a taste of entertainment to come, and its centralised control requires the kind of sustained solo interaction that is difficult in a gallery context.

Another Festival exhibition, The Gordon Assumption by local artists David Chesworth and Sonia Leber, was staged in one of Melbourne’s old underground public toilets near Parliament House. A distinct screaming could be heard emerging from the depths, and I certainly wouldn’t have ventured down the dingy stairs late at night without knowing there was art to be found. The discovery in the toilet was appropriately minimal—just a rotating beam of light behind the grill. The asynchronous chorus of individual voices was designed to be encountered unexpectedly, and I like to think it might have scared the pants off some unsuspecting pedestrians. The work might seem slight, and rather too theatrical, like a visit to Madame Tussauds’ Chamber of Horrors. But fear, as we’ve recently seen, is the most powerful and conservative emotion of all, and could do with some transforming.

Melbourne International Arts Festival, various venues, Oct 7-23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 40

© Daniel Palmer; for permission to reproduce apply to

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