Stations of the Southern Cross, in the 2013 Underbelly Festival, was the latest from self-described “small but likeable theatre group” Applespiel. Taking audiences on a faux-tourist walk through Cockatoo Island’s Dog Leg Tunnel with various stops and stagings along the way, they told their own sham history of Cockatoo Island, which gradually imploded in on itself as its contradictions mounted.
Stations of the Southern Cross’ hysterical conclusion saw the arrest of Applespiel’s members by History Police for crimes against truth, the idea being that the mainstream story of Australian history is itself a giant fallacy with less to do with reality than continuing colonial mythology.
Despite, or rather because of, a dedicated lo-tech anti-aesthetic, the show was punctuated by a series of seemingly disparate but extremely beautiful images that remain sharply inscribed in my memory: the choppy waters of Sydney Harbour rendered as ruffled blue cellophane in a home-movie-style shadow projection; Ned Kelly singing Cold Chisel at a pub karaoke, under a disco ball looming from the tunnel’s recesses, his infamous helmet re-fashioned from VB tins; and tiny white origami ships, floating in pink- and blue-lit silvery steel buckets, symbolising the first fleets of boat people that came through the heads over 200 years ago.
Braided narratives that tie plot-knots around themselves are now standard in theatre and cinema. The worst of these self-referential projects invariably emit an annoyingly smug, post-postmodern vibe of all-knowingness. Applespiel do indeed turn their narratives inside out, but their childlike humour, sincerity and perceptiveness endear rather than alienate them from their audiences, whom they clearly regard with the utmost intelligence. Applespiel seem to really know what they’re doing. This latest smart, self-assured, formally inventive work cements the troupe as true cultural innovators, although I assume, a little sadly, that the site-specific nature of the project will most likely preclude its presentation elsewhere.
The real genius of Stations of the Southern Cross was the way it worked with and not against its setting in the chilly Dog Leg Tunnel. The site of Cockatoo Island was key to the experience of Underbelly Arts—traipsing around this place gives audiences the sense that their city is expanding internally and into the harbour rather than away from the CBD. But many artists are still most accustomed to working in black boxes or white cubes, and the projects that tried to simulate the self-contained conditions of a traditional gallery or theatre were the least successful. Art events on Cockatoo Island must almost program against the location by curating works that can hold up against the imposing industrial ruins.
Nick Keys was an artist who communed successfully with the site during his work Filibust, under a Moreton Bay fig in the Convict Precinct. His was a work of halves. The first was a sprawling hour-long group discussion akin to a very egalitarian university tutorial. Keys analysed the filibuster, an American congressional procedure that allows politicians to delay and obstruct bills they oppose by speaking at length, using the language of durational performance art—a flat-out great idea that successfully overlayed politics and art. A teacher and writer, Keys conversationally showed how an epic and absurd tradition could be both a sign of a broken political system and an elegant performance piece. As he said, “it’s not hard to see why artists are attracted to a gesture of great symbolic potency with marginal real effect.”
The second half of Keys’ performance was a 75-minute filibuster-style talk on the art of rhetoric, using clips from the unlikely foursome of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Kanye West and Jay-Z. Weirdly, it worked as a kind of “intergenerational double date” on the inheritance of the civil rights debate, and not just because it excavated the almost infinite connections between the language of these four, but because Keys was one of the few artists who questioned the politics of using Cockatoo Island as a rehabilitated destination for cultural tourists.
Otherwise, the mandate of the festival was fun. For the wonderfully titled I Met You in a City That Isn’t on the Map, by We Do Not Unhappen, this sense of fun came at no conceptual expense. A simple premise–what would you do if today was our last?—melded participatory art with the imagery of disaster films to produce a project that anyone could engage with, regardless of age or art expertise. Audiences were unleashed into a cardboard shantytown and given four choices: riot, remain, repair or explore. Explorers were given sheets of blank yellow stickers on which to scrawl their own messages (“Happiness is almost here,’ “S.O.S.”) and dot them around the city. I slapped one of mine onto a decrepit skyscraper, only to see it overthrown a minute later by a gleeful ‘rioter’ and then crazily restacked by a small child. The whole sprawling mess coalesced with a sweeping soundscape by local composer James Brown. Quite simply, it worked, making a functional collective out of an audience of strangers. If this is the art of today, I’m on board, and so it seems is a hefty slice of Sydney’s art-going populace.
Underbelly Arts Festival 2013, Cockatoo Island Sydney, Aug 3-4