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Time Out Sydney’s guide to Anri Sala’s ‘The Last Resort’

Dee Jefferson

John Kaldor has been helping international artists transform Sydney since Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the coast of Little Bay in 1969. In 2016, he and his team made it possible for Sydney artist Jonathan Jones to take-over part of the Royal Botanic Gardens with his ambitious public art project barrangal dyara.

The latest Kaldor Public Art Project – the 33rd – is currently in residence at Sydney’s Observatory Hill, where French-Albanian artist Anri Sala has taken over the 105-year-old rotunda with the world premiere of a new public art installation inspired by Sydney’s colonial history. 

Here's a quick guide to get you across the who, what, why and how of Kaldor Public Art Project 33: The Last Resort.

The artwork:

‘The Last Resort’ is an audio-visual installation comprised of 38 snare drums, suspended from the roof of the Observatory Hill rotunda with mirrored surfaces facing down, from which an altered version of the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major (K. 622) plays via twin sets of small speakers (contained within the drums). The score plays for about 58 minutes, then begins its loop again.

The artist:

Anri Sala, the subject of a major career survey at New York’s New Museum in 2016,  is best known for works that engage with social and political histories. For the last 15 or so years, he’s been increasingly interested in music and sound as psychologically charged mediums for evoking and reinterpreting the past; for example, his 2013 Venice Biennale exhibition Ravel Ravel Unravel; and his 2014 video installation ‘The Present Moment (in B-flat)’.

Why outdoors?

On Kaldor Public Art Projects’ philosophy of taking over iconic Sydney sites, founder John Kaldor says: “If you do a project in the art gallery or a similar institution, people go there with certain expectations: to see art. But if you do it in strange places – whether it’s in a church, or Bondi Beach – people don’t know what to expect. We get a completely different audience, which is exciting; an audience who is not necessarily looking to see art, but who encounters art unexpectedly.”

The inspiration behind ‘The Last Resort’:

John Kaldor invited Sala to visit Sydney in 2012, and the artist became fascinated with the history of Dawes Point as a site of First Contact, and the conversations between lieutenant William Dawes (an astronomer with the First Fleet) and young Indigenous woman Patyegarang that led to the first European record of local Aboriginal language.

“Anri is one of the most committed artists that I’ve come across,” says Kaldor. “He did a lot of research [for this project], and contrasted what was happening in Australia when the First Fleet arrived in 1788 with what was happening in Enlightenment Europe at the time.”

Observatory Hill rotunda
Photograph: Pedro Greig

Why the rotunda?

Sala specifically asked Kaldor to find him a pavilion to work within – ideally an existing colonial structure – and when the Observatory Hill site became available it seemed like a perfect fit. “[The rotunda] is such a colonial type of architecture,” says Sala, “not just because it’s designed for a small orchestra, but because it is designed to produce points-of-view, or perspectives; this idea of curating the site, producing the gaze – this is a very Western approach.”

Why Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto?

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major (K. 622), written in 1791 (two months before his death), was chosen by Sala as an emblem of the “golden age European Enlightenment” – a movement directly related to colonial expansion, with its mantra of science, rationalism and progress – and because it was roughly contemporaneous to the arrival of the First Fleet.

“I’ve always been interested in this intricate, complicated relationship between the ideals of the Enlightenment, including this idea of ‘emancipation’, and the fall-out once these ideals made it to another shore, and encountered other ways of life and cultures and civilisations; Enlightenment, and the darkness that it imposed.”

How did Anri Sala made the score?

Sala says: “I look at [Mozart’s concerto] like a musical artefact that we have thrown in the ocean … the winds, the waves, the water currents take it one way and the other and it eventually reaches somewhere, though not as it originally started out, as it is transformed by the journey."

Sala and sound designer Olivier Goinard (who has worked on the films of Olivier Assayas and Agnes Varda, among others) took the ‘legato’ (flowing) second movement of the concerto, and adapted its musical phrases using wind data taken from the diary kept by Scottish migrant James Bell during his six-month 1838 voyage to Australia.

“It’s as if Mozart’s music is under the mercy of the ‘force majeure’, the greater power, rather than the will of its composer,” Sala says.

Whenever the wind was recorded by Bell as being ‘at the back of the ship’ (ie bearing it in its chosen direction), then Mozart’s score is heard almost intact. But in moments that correspond to gales, or conversely ‘doldrums’, the piece is almost unrecognisable.

The Last Resort
Photograph: Pedro Greig

Why the snare drums (and why upside down)?

Sala has worked with drums for about ten years now. “I’m interested in them as a visual speaker,” he explains. “You don’t only hear what they play, but you see it.”

In the case of ‘The Last Resort’ he also drew a line from the military history and function of the drum to the topic of colonialism.

The drums are inverted partly as a playful reference to the land ‘Down Under’, and partly to evoke the bats that Sala observed hanging from the Moreton Bay figs of Observatory Hill park.

Tech stuff: how does the installation work?

The skin of the each drum vibrates according to low frequency sound emanating from one of two small speakers within (the other speaker plays higher-frequency – or audible – sound: the musical recording of Mozart’s altered concerto). When the drum skin vibrates, it bangs against the drumsticks positioned just above – and so, in a funny way, the drums are playing the sticks, rather than the reverse.

Tips for enjoying the work:

  1. Lie down if possible, and look up;
  2. Stay for the full 58-minute duration of the score.

You can see Anri Sala: The Last Resort at the rotunda in Observatory Hill park every day until November 5 – for free.

See what else is a must-see for Sydney art this month.

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