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Melbourne Festival

One house, many homes

Tony Reck

Outside In Outside In
photo Jim Kellam
At the Atherton Gardens Community Centre, the audience is transported back in time 50 years to a space inhabited by a Housing Commission Officer (Stig Wemyss), facing off against members of Melbourne’s Chinese Mandarin Community defiantly performing their traditional dance. Persuaded by the retentive officer, they sing The Road to Gundagai in broken English. Temporal and spatial dislocation, cultural difference and political oppression are the ingredients in this hot pot of housing estate life entitled Outside In.

Flat 1 contains 1940s Estonian immigrant Anne Kirss and her vexed Australian neighbour, John Connolly. Space within and between their flats is minimal. Anne’s welcoming story, song and vodka impinge upon John’s reserved life. He requests silence, yet there is a trait in the rambunctious European woman which is unfamiliar to the straitlaced Australian. Trapped by circumstance, Anne and John mediate their needs and find friendship through the negotiation of a noise level agreement. Cultural collisions initiated by the political upheavals of World War 2 papered upon walls make for interesting reading.

Political oppression and the desire to preserve disintegrating cultures characterise flats 2 and 3. Across 20 years—1970 to 1990—the Vietnamese, Kurdish and Chinese cultures represented in both flats are defined by their differences. In flat 2 the effect of the Vietnam War is starkly expressed in clippings from the defunct Melbourne Herald, war images on a black and white TV, and a mournful song by Liz Than Cao and members of her Vietnamese choir. Loss and sorrow are counterpointed by offers of fried rice and a refreshing jelly dessert served in brightly coloured cups. In flat 3, the brutality of war is further undercut by the lively Kurdish sitar of conscientious objector, Fadil Sunar. The cultural mix within each 20-storey tower has also shifted. No longer just Australian and European, the Middle Eastern and South East Asian cultural fusion is further accentuated by Zao Ming and members of the estate’s Chinese Community. These are just some of the approximately 40 culturally and linguistically diverse groups living at Atherton Gardens.

Time moves forward to 2004, but not before transitional stairwells and foyers are negotiated. A capella singers remind the audience not to “... look anyone in the eye...” in the lift. The grizzly business of syringe disposal is softened by the gentle tone of a cleaning team cum choir. Life at Atherton Gardens may be a celebration of cultural diversity and freedom from political oppression, but high density housing involves its share of violence and drug abuse. In flat 4, these problems fade when compared to the prevailing Australian attitude toward asylum seekers. Vacant, except for several cheap carry bags emitting the recorded voices of people currently in detention, Flat 4 is a curt reminder of the place Australia has become in the 21st Century: smug, mean-spirited and contemptuous of those in need of political asylum.

Outside In showed its audience that joy and optimism are a direct result of the culturally diverse society Australia is, and might continue to be, if governments can find it in themselves to show generosity towards those human beings less fortunate than ourselves.

The Department of Human Services, Mpact Arts, North Yarra Community Health, Outside In, creative director Graham Pitts, music director Jennie Swain; Atherton Gardens Housing Estate; Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, October 15-24

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 39

© Tony Reck; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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