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20th Biennale of Sydney: fierce return of the Futurists

Keith Gallasch: Justene Williams, Sydney Chamber Opera, Victory Over the Sun

Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera
Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney, Document Photography
In a world familiar but not, we come face to face with profoundly strange humans, their bodies gloriously embellished with but made awkward by volumetrically eccentric head pieces, leggings and skirt-coats. Two equally odd characters, if of a different ilk—elegant, fashionable women—hymn ambiguously to the sun:

“immolateus plasmaperfect
we crave your soft little red little
nucleus/ nuke-kiss/ nuke-kiss/ new kiss/ kiss me
kiss/ (nuke) my skin all cancertender
kiss me.”

The singers are characters in a recreation of Victory Over The Sun, the seminal Futurist opera conceived and staged in St. Petersburg in 1913 by Russian futurist artists Aleksei Kruchenykh, libretto, Mikhail Matyushin, music and with set and costumes by Kazimir Malevich. The work has been re-invented in 2016 by visual artist Justene Williams and Sydney Chamber Opera.

As their hymn turns into a defiant tango, these Strongwomen, fierce, glamorous sopranos, reveal their determination to capture the Sun, box it in concrete and celebrate the “multi-faceted” dark. The work’s non-naturalistic characters embody various states of being—Bad Man, Vast Man, Time Traveller, New Human etc—and the plot is a broad arc full of bewildering events that lead up to and observe the consequences of the Sun’s capture. A New Human celebrates its digitised body but is anxious, “We have executed our own history,” while the one formally named character, who symbolises history, Nero/Caligula (the remarkable Mitchell Riley executing huge vocal swoops), despairs, “I will slide into another century/ hidden in the folds of a quotation mark.” A Traveller reports, “In the future?where I visited, yesterday,?some of my best friends are weaponry.“

Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera
Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney, Document Photography
In 2016, we seem to be helplessly living out our escalating digitisation, but the points of reference in Victory Over the Sun are equally those of the Russian Futurists of 1913, their aspirations and fears juxtaposed with ours via the recreation of a pivotal 20th century avant-garde anti-opera. This new version implicitly claims Victory Over the Sun for opera, but without relinquishing the dark energy, eccentricity, wit and passion we imagine of the original and its bold ‘what-if’ scenario. It’s a remarkable fusion, oscillating between past, present and grim speculation but with an acerbic, often comic sense of pervasive nonsense, resonant with extreme vocal delivery, exaggerated movement and bizarre costuming. Much of it flies past, sung and declaimed words and surtitles grasped for, but it doesn’t matter, the scale and sweep of the vision is enthralling.

This contemporary Victory Over the Sun sings, dances and moves to an engrossingly propulsive keyboard-led score from a tight ensemble seated in a circle at one end of the traverse staging, an integral visual component of the work. From within a tight framework, the music embodies and reinforces the extravagance of the rest of the production with theremin, sounds and effects that belie the scale of the small ensemble. There’s little known of the original 1913 score; all that remains is a badly transcribed fragment. But the 100 years between now and then is heard in the theremin, invented in 1928, Minimalism maybe, the tango certainly, the Moog sound familiar from Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach (1968) and, for my ears, not a little Prog Rock in the keyboard alongside the more ambiguous tonalities and jagged shapings of ‘contemporary classical.’ Keith Emerson died 10 March; I wasn’t a fan of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (founded 1970), but recognised Emerson’s agility with the Moog and admired the keyboardism of fellow prog rockers Rick Wakeman of Yes (founded 1968) and Tony Banks of Genesis (founded 1967), often forgiving their many musical excesses. I was doubtless hearing things, but Victory Over the Sun is nothing less than a treasure house for a century of associations and is, above all, dreamlike, if verging on nightmare when we are faced with the future we are inventing for ourselves—very different from the one envisaged by the Futurists, but no less alarming in the ways we continue to challenge nature and our bodies.

At a forum held at the MCA (Translating History: Justene Williams and Sydney Chamber Opera in Conversation, 31 March), composer Huw Belling said that when Justene Williams described what she was doing as “baroque grunge,” he thought, “You beauty… I can be myself.” With ravishing ornamentation, Belling has composed a tight-knit, swirling chamber score centred around the keyboard (Jack Symonds) alongside theremin (Symonds also), piccolo and alto flute (Jane Bishop), viola and viola d’amore (James Wannan) and electric and bass guitars (Joe Manton), collectively elevated at times to orchestral dimensions and space opera theatrics by electronics and sound design (Belling, Matthew McGuigan, Alex Goldstein). The theremin’s glides are echoed in voices and other instruments while the sources of, say, percussive sounds—a beautiful gonging over which soprano voices soar—were not evident. The Futurists’ Victory Over the Sun was in part a reaction against a Wagner opera craze in Russia at the time, resulting in a work with only a piano, no arias, neither characters nor plot in the conventional sense. Belling’s new score for the work is at once challenging and engaging, sustaining the impulse of the original.

Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera
Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney, Document Photography
Victory Over the Sun depicts a revolutionary overthrow of the star at the centre of our planetary system, provider of our energy, determiner of our sense of time and space and symbol of traditional power. The Strongmen in the original capture the Sun in a black box, aiming to create a new future for humanity. From the original text, designs and a fragment of the score, visual artist Justene Williams and Sydney Chamber Opera have fashioned a largely new work brimming over with invention, anarchic fervour and a sense of artistic, if not political, transformation. Save for its revolutionary artistic drive, even the original was politically opaque. As librettist Pierce Wilcox explained at the forum about the work, insider knowledge was required to recognise political references amid the nonsensical lexicon and neologisms of ZAUM, the anti-language deployed by the Futurists to undo logic and the literary establishment.

The black box in the production of 1913, painted on a stage cloth, anticipated Malevich’s famous painting of 1915, Black Square. In the traverse staging of this new production, it’s an impressive, tall, black perspex box dominating centre-stage in an old timber-beamed building on Cockatoo Island; above it, in a transparent case, is the Sun, its rays at times blazing across us before it’s captured and slowly lowered into the black box.

For Malevich and the Futurists the removal of the Sun’s rays would allow our senses greater play in the dark, realising a new awareness of time, space and human potential. However, their vision was neither programmatic nor rational; the work was, and is now, invigoratingly nonsensical, but nonetheless loaded with striking images, observations and, in the end, potential contemporary meanings.

Malevich’s costume designs are wonderfully realised by Justene Williams with a mix of fidelity and invention. In particular, the artists collectively felt the need to reflect the much transformed gender relations of our time compared with those of 1913. As Rosamund Bartlett—a British specialist in Russian literature and translator of the original text from which librettist Pierce Wilcox worked—explained in a deeply engaging and entertaining lecture at the MCA (Malevich and the Black Square: 100 Years On, 23 March), the Russian Futurists followed the masculinist code of their Italian peers in the making of Victory Over the Sun—no female characters and a libretto using only masculine nouns. In this new version, the Strongmen are now Strongwomen but, unlike the other characters, Williams has not dressed the pair in Malevich’s disjunctive collaging of geometric and volumetric shapes (soon to be expanded on in Picasso’s costumes for the dance work Parade in 1917 and The Triadic Ballet in 1922 by Bauhaus visual artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer).

Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera
Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney, Document Photography
The two near-identical soprano Strongwomen—wonderfully sung and performed by Jessica O’Donoghue and Sarah Toth—are glitteringly high-hatted, long-legged, high-heeled and draped front and back with a transparent plastic that stylishly aligns them with the centre-stage perspex boxes. They are clearly 21st century women. The other 13 characters—distributed between seven actors, singers and dancers accompanied by an 18-strong chorus—are largely costumed in the Malevich mode, with some witty variations. Another costume with a heightened contemporary look is given to a Time Traveller, a female figure (Hannah Cox), appearing to be a self-illuminating cyborg, clothed top to toe in a tight-fitting metallic-sheen jumpsuit evenly covered in hundreds of small nodules that refract light. The Malevich costumes noticeably distort and restrict bodies (something Williams says she delights in), making for intriguing appearances and movement, collectively suggesting a mutant ecology. This meshes finely with the world of our own evoked in Wilcox’s libretto.

If the Futurists aspired to create a new non-naturalistic art free of restraint, to override nature and exult in masculine power, we aspire to ‘de-gender,’ globalise and make a better future for ourselves out of the Singularity of becoming one with digital technology: “Live/ Where the datasphere whispers crack, fizz, /the blood shouts with narcotic truth/ the eyes read every spectrum?/Take my body for raw material.”

At the MCA, Wilcox commented that in the original, despite the joy of capturing the Sun, the work ends on a sombre note, as if the revolution has gone too far. Artistic speculation has unleashed fear. Similarly in this new version, the erasure of difference results in entropy, nothing grows, “[everything] changes everyday, so no-body knows where to have lunch,” and, as musical director Jack Symonds described it, the final part of the score becomes “a cloud of unknowing, dismembered, single grains of sound.”

Victory Over the Sun makes explicit concerns about progress; the New Human points to its ambiguities, “We built an organ factory where you can get anything: eyes for the blind, hearts for the psychopath, arms for the pacifist. Another character asks, ”whose hand can I hold in a thousandyear?/ will you still have a hand/ will it be warm and willing/ will it be gunmetal tentacle spiked/ and where did you put all your skin? … what is victory/ without a fleshmatefriend to share it with?”

It occurred to me that in an era of extreme dependence on electricity and, above all, digital tools and massive electronic networks, we should re-estimate our relationship with the Sun. A major solar flare could be more than merely disruptive and the consequences regressive, in ways good and bad, but most likely disastrous. It’s not enough to just back up your files.

Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera Victory over the Sun, Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera
Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney, Document Photography
Any future for Victory Over the Sun?

Is there a ‘back-up’ of this production of Victory Over the Sun? At the MCA talk it was made clear that video of the performance will become part of Williams’ installation, still a work-in-progress on Cockatoo Island. Biennale Artistic Director Stephanie Rosenthal, who chaired the session, hoped that a copy of the performance would be made available to researchers and that the production might be remounted at some time and tour, although admitting the financial investment was considerable and of the kind biennales can manage but which might be otherwise challenging. It’s a pity; although sold out, the three performances of this remarkable work were for small audiences. The scholar Rosamund Bartlett, who revealed she’d seen unimpressive versions of Victory Over the Sun, thought this one “an absolutely brilliant recreation,” a sentiment shared by we lucky few who experienced it.

Special tribute is due to the brave, expressive and highly skilled performers—Simon Lobelson, Jessica O’Donoghue, Sarah Toth, Mitchell Riley, Hannah Cox, Danielle Mass, Eleni Schumacher; the dancers—Nicola Enrico Bruni, Olive Dwyer Corben; and the Inner West Voices choir. All were sustained and propelled by the musicians conducted by Jack Symonds within the precise staging by Justene Williams and Pierce Wilcox.

Victory Over the Sun offers a different perspective on Stephanie Rosenthal’s mantra for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, William Gibson’s “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The future shared here is distributed chronologically, resurrected after 100 years; here again, same, same, but different. For all their masculinism, the Futurists share with us a challenge to comfortable art in uncomfortable times.

20th Biennale of Sydney, Justene Williams & Sydney Chamber Opera, Victory Over the Sun, Cockatoo Island, Sydney, 18-20 March

My thanks to Sydney Chamber Opera for providing me with a copy of the libretto.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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