Sydney Summer Cultural Highlights

ARTS, Music, Visual Arts
img_venusrisesfromtheseaOn the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Sydney Festival, and more.

The energy is stimulating at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Beautiful—and beautifully designed—wooden-floored spaces flow into wide windows, with panoramic views of the gardens and Sydney harbour. There’s plenty to revisit in the free permanent collections, like Brett Whiteley’s very sensuous ‘Woman in bath IV’. Asian collection highlights include Aida Makato’s playful, transporting ‘Group of girls’, set on the Tokyo subway. Yang Yongliang’s environmental cry ‘Infinite Landscape’. Liu Jianhua’s striking, elegant claret ‘Container’ sculptures. Elsewhere, notable works include Aboriginal art, William Kentridge and “Angry Penguins” like Sidney Nolan.

January’s paid exhibition was The Greats: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland. The exhibition draws you in with its first piece, Titian’s gorgeous ‘Venus rises from the sea’. A major influence on Picasso and the rest, the technique and impact is sumptuous. There’s plenty of white space around the Titian-refreshing in our over-cluttered lives. And the clever design continues through this on-point hang. Memorable works include Rembrandt’s ‘A Woman in Bed’, Gauguin’s ‘Three Tahitians’, and Velazquez’s ‘An old woman cooking eggs’. My second favourite is Edgar Degas’s ‘Diego Martelli’. Degas was the Impressionist most interested in portraiture (and people), and it shows in this sensitive rendition of Martelli, the noted Florentine art critic (and Impressionist champion).

img_flaminglipsThe Sydney Festival turned 40 this year. As they’ve done for years—wish I saw Al Green— there was a big free gig in The Domain. This year ‘twas The Flaming Lips. The Phoenix Foundation’s Luke Buda tells me the Lips’ “not holding anything back” style is a major influence on his band’s much improved live gigs. Wayne Coyne is a charismatic frontman with intelligent lyrics and an affecting voice. His Oklahoma group’s all-in performance was quite something, at once a psychedelic spectacle, joyous night out, and moving meditation on mortality. Much played numbers such as ‘Do You Realise??’, ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’, ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’, and ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ resonated anew.

Afro-Finnish singer Mirel Wagner was a stately presence in St Stephen’s Uniting Church—white robe, splendid hair— instantly commanding. Her dark materials, Appalachian songs of murder and blues, were performed with a light, luminous touch. Her voice and guitar were both ethereal and gutsy as she sang about what lies beneath on ‘1234’, ‘Ellipsis’, and ‘The Dirt’. Gently, oddly charming.

Two further Sydney Festival shows worth crossing the ditch for were Die Winterreise and Woyzeck. Schubert’s masterpiece Winterreise was freighted by an exceptionally sensitive, dynamic performance from the leading baritone Matthias Goerne. Schubert’s beautifully sad world of a ditched, declining man was ably heightened by pianist Markus Hinterhauser. Overall artist William Kentridge’s visual backdrop was striking and complementary, though occasionally redundant and distracting.

img_woyzeckWoyzeck was a powerful, imaginatively staged tale of cruelty, melding the talents of Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan, Robert Wilson, and Berlin director Jette Steckel. Waits’s brilliant 2002 album Blood Money was inspired by the depraved story of Woyzeck, a poor soldier wrecked by medical experiments. Returned to their formative context, Waits’s German-accent inflected songs zing with ecstatic truth, from ‘Misery Is the River of the World’ to ‘Coney Island Baby’. Tilo Werner’s evil doctor’s version of ‘God’s Away on Business’ is extraordinary.

On a happier note, my four-year old nephew’s favourite museum is Powerhouse. I also thought their exhibition on super heroes—and super hero ideas—in lego form was cool. Even cooler was Disobedient Objects, from the Black Panthers to Italians protesting against education cuts with the Book Bloc.

Main Image: Titian, Venus rising from the sea (Venus Anadyomene), c1520-25, oil on canvas, 75 × 56.2 cm

The Greats: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland’ concluded in February. The Sydney Festival ran from January 7-26.


Filed under: ARTS, Music, Visual Arts


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.