Many works of art tell a story, as well as being stories in themselves. The Parthenon Marbles told the early history of ancient Greece, and the marbles’ own difficult history continues today, drawing ever more attention. When presented with a masterpiece, we crave narrative from it; if it tells of no events by itself, we ask about it: what made the Mona Lisa smile?
Many artists try to interest you in their stories. Anri Sala deliberately keeps narrative out of his artworks, yet many of his methods and materials are historical. Invited to create a new work in Sydney by Kaldor Public Art Projects, he studied the city’s history and decided to place his installation, titled The Last Resort, in the Federation-style octagonal timber bandstand constructed in 1912 on Observatory Hill. “The work still carries my interest in political and social history, but it is embedded in the structure of the work,” he says. “Nothing is there to produce narrative.”
The obvious external structure of The Last Resort consists of 38 snare drums suspended neatly from the rotunda’s ceiling. The paired loudspeakers concealed artfully inside each drum could tell many a tale, but they speak only in sound-shards, rattling and reminiscing phrases of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, as rearranged by Sala’s sound designer Olivier Goinard (a long-term collaborator) and performed by the Munich Chamber Orchestra.
Mozart didn’t call for any percussion when he wrote the celebrated piece in 1791, soon before his death. The low murmur of snare drums evokes many incongruous associations: an approaching army, an impending thunderstorm, and Maurice Ravel’s 1928 orchestral dance masterpiece Boléro. Sala and Goinard similarly used the piano concerto for left hand by Ravel as the raw material for a highly successful video installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale, where he mixed two separate performances by different pianists. It sounds surprisingly good.“You can enjoy it for what it is,” says Sala, “but one can reflect on where music for the left hand comes from: the First World War.”
Many of Sala’s other collaborations with Goinard adapt concert hall favourites in response to specific sites. Sala compares developing The Last Resort to “reverse archaeology”, where artefacts are created and rearranged according to historical records as well as aesthetic goals. During periodic breaks from the orchestral score, the drums rustle according to weather reports from a ship’s journey to Australia in 1839.
What Sala is studiously avoiding after all his study of history is producing a discernible story. “I don’t work with narrative,” he states flatly. Even in his 2008 video work Answer me, which situates within a disused NSA listening station a “borrowed narrative” of a couple breaking up, his focus is on non-responses, on (in his words) the “awkwardness of silence in between”.
It's remarkable that an artist whose primary medium is video, and whose raw materials are often chronological records and time-based components, should produce works where nothing much seems to change. He is a sculptor of shards and gaps. The core of his works seem to be things that are not present nor even directly referenced.
And yet The Last Resort is successful: it allows reflection on the life of Mozart, the creation of a British colony around Sydney, and its effect on the first inhabitants of that land.
Back in 1770, when James Cook landed at Kurnell, Mozart was an opera-writing teenager touring northern Italy with his father. By 1776 he was in resentful servitude to the Archbishop of Salzburg, churning out under-appreciated masterpieces, when a group of unpatriotic colonials in Philadelphia declared that all men have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When the First Fleet arrived in 1778, Mozart was having a tough year, but managed to complete his last symphony.
“It was a period of flourishing high ideals, which I cherish myself,” says Sala. “But what do they mean when Europeans are pursuing their happiness in America or Australia to the detriment of local populations? I wonder whether this new certainty, with all its emancipating qualities, at the same time provoked a blindness towards the culture and way of living on the other side of the world?”
Neither Sala nor this artwork really answer such questions, which they raise subtly over many layers, few of which will be noticed by the typical visitor. He is at peace with that, accepting that his gentle ruminations will, like Mozart and Voltaire, be unevenly distributed and differently received.
Anri Sala has created for Sydney a masterpiece that, as much as a Michelangelo sculpture, rewards prolonged and informed consideration yet will please and satisfy almost everyone who gives it even a few seconds of cursory attention. “I’m not interested in being demanding,” Sala says. “You don’t need to know all these things to establish contact with the work.”
Kaldor Public Art Project 33: The Last Resort is open every day until (and including) November 5 at the Observatory Hill rotunda.