Head to Observatory Hill this month, where a stunning constellation of sound and vision has taken up residence in the 105-year-old rotunda
You couldn’t ask for a more picturesque Sydney spot than Observatory Hill; the highest point of Dawes Point, overlooking the Harbour Bridge on one hand and Johnston’s Bay on the other, it offers scenic vistas from the vantage of rolling grassland peppered with giant Moreton Bay figs. The ‘English pastoral’ aesthetic is so strong that if you squint, you might be in another country.
Beneath the beauty is complexity, of course – as with any developed site in Sydney, or indeed Australia. Dawes Point was first named Tar-ra, and was home to generations of Gadigal people before the arrival of Europeans in 1788. The British named it after one of those 1788-ers: astronomer William Dawes, who built a makeshift observatory on the point and struck up a friendship with a young Aboriginal woman, Patyegarang, that formed the basis for the first European record of local Aboriginal language.
It is this complex history that struck the fancy of French-Albanian artist Anri Sala, when he visited Sydney in 2012 as part of a speculative ‘site visit’ led by Kaldor Public Art Projects. Sala doesn’t speak for the Indigenous history, but he has some authority to explore the colonial project – and this is what he assays in ‘The Last Resort’: Kaldor Public Art Project number 33.
An audio-visual installation, ‘The Last Resort’ harnesses the distinctly European aesthetic of the Observatory Hill site, and takes up residence in the Federation-era octagonal timber rotunda (a quintessential British bandstand). The musicians are in the ceiling rather than on the stage: 38 snare drums, suspended from the rotunda’s dome with mirrored surfaces facing down, contain speakers from which music and vibratory frequencies emanate.
The soundtrack is a version of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major – which premiered in Prague on the same day as the final ship of the ‘Third Fleet’ arrived in Sydney from Britain: October 16, 1791. A beauty in its own right, this piece also symbolises the European Enlightenment, which gave rise to Pacific colonisation project.
At the opening of ‘The Last Resort’, Sala said he compared Mozart’s original music to “an archeological fossil: you can see in embedded in it many of the qualities, relations and tensions of the time when it was produced.”
In Sala’s work, Mozart’s music – as if weathered by the 16,000km voyage and 226 years between Enlightenment-era Europe and present-day Sydney – appears in an altered state: snatches of melody, and notes divorced from tempo, fall off into lacunae of low-rumbling vibration in which drumsticks tap at skins. (Sala and sound designer Olivier Goinard did in fact alter Mozart’s score according to wind data taken from the diary of a sailor).
The result is beautiful, and a little haunting. To encounter this kind of unusual sight and sound in this setting is also a tiny thrill. Visitors who perambulate will notice that the sound design mirrors the layout of the chamber orchestra who recorded this soundscape; you can choose to ‘sit amongst’ woodwind, string or brass sections, for example.
But for best effect, or at least the most poetic, lie down on the floor of the rotunda to take in this stunning constellation of sound and vision – and consider how the colonial project has emerged from the storms of time and space.
Read our guide to Anri Sala: The Last Resort to find out why and how the work was made.