Mozart Exposed to the Winds

Anri Sala: The Last Resort
Kaldor Art Project No 33, Sydney
13 October – 5 November 2017

Somewhat to my surprise, while still mulling on John Kaldor’s latest Art Project—Anri Sala’s The Last Resort—I was at a concert performance of Elgar’s ‘The Dream Of Gerontius’ and encountered the following apposite words:

And hark! I hear a singing; yet in sooth
I cannot of that music rightly say
Whether I hear, or touch, or taste the tones.

For Sala’s construction of snare-drums, hung upside-down from the roof of the rotunda on Observatory Hill in Sydney, may appear to be more of a musical event than an optical one as the drumsticks drum and a strange version of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto plays; but then again, it may actually be about 90% conceptual. And its difficulty is—as is often the case with the conceptual—that any real appreciation of the artist’s ideas requires more curatorial reading than simply observing.

Mind you, observing the delicate fluttering of these drums-sticks on Downunder drums and wondering both how it happens, how it relates to Mozart’s undrummed Concerto, and why is a good start. Do the drums, for instance, simply conjure flying foxes hanging from Sydney’s Port Jackson figs, as the Albanian-born, French national and Berlin-resident Sala noted after visiting the city to set Kaldor’s 33rd Project in motion some years ago? The delay in realising his project was caused by a subsequent invitation to Sala to represent France at the Venice Biennale with another musically-related work, Ravel Ravel, featuring the composer’s ‘Piano Concert for the Left Hand’ in two competing versions with deliberately different tempi. The First World War which caused the excision of many such limbs was referenced.

So, what is referenced in The Last Resort? This late, 1791 composition by Mozart (who died the same year) coincided in Sala’s mind with both the First Fleet’s then recent arrival in Australia and the ideals of the Enlightenment which it brought with it. But just how much of Mozart’s Enlightenment actually arrived all those months later across the seas? And why did an idealist like Captain Phillip set out bathed by European light but arrived blinded to the Indigenous people and culture that already existed in pre-colonial Australia? As with the invisibility of the Eora Nation’s peoples to these invaders, so Aborigines do not actually appear anywhere in Sala’s work. We are left to deduce their presence from his disruption to the historic bandstand/rotunda on this important spot in early Sydney, where all arrivals through the Heads were announced by fluttering flags.

And in 1839, those flags were hoisted for the ship carrying one James Bell. Bell’s sole claim to fame is that he kept a detailed narrative of his journey, with particular note of the wind conditions. And it is these aeolian events that Sala has used to transform Mozart’s ‘Second Movement Adagio’ into a piece that sounds strange to those familiar with the work. Wasn’t it Number 1 on ABC Classic FM’s Top 100 chart? For, when the going was good for Bell, Mozart is unaltered; but when his ship was becalmed or hit by hurricanes, Mozart is subtly disrupted, playing faster or slower—and in such a legato movement, this feels mighty weird. It must have been an even greater challenge for the Munich Chamber Orchestra who recorded it!

They actually recorded the whole Concerto—with the 3rd Movement rewritten to disrupt the succession of sections involving soloist and the band, ‘as if the movement did not reach its destination in the originally intended order’. But this did not make the final cut—though arguably it might have made Sala’s philosophical point quite effectively.

As it is, one may stand beneath the thirty-eight drums and be distracted by a view that sweeps around the Harbour from the Bridge to Ball’s Point and Balmain and enjoy the music. Or there is the lying option to concentrate the mind on drum-skin surfaces that reflect the colours of your fellow-listeners, the surrounding greenery or the parallel lines of the floorboards beneath your back. This permits the greatest concentration of the mind to observe the drum skins shiver and to wonder why, for no obvious reason, the drum-sticks motivate.

In fact, each drum contains two speakers—one playing Mozart, the other offering inaudible infrasounds that respond to James Bell’s wind movements. But they do not move the sticks; they set the drum-skin vibrating and that—in a wonderful inversion of the musical norm—sets the sticks in motion. We are indeed Downunder! An insolent trombone—like the drums, not part of Mozart’s original intention—adds its vibrant sonority and further strangeness to the music.

Olivier Goinard must be credited for the technology that responds to Sala’s conception. A twenty year relationship between the two—though Sala has really only brought music ranging from Schoenberg to The Clash into his art in the past ten years—suggests they know each other’s minds. And Sala recognised his partner’s contribution at the opening by describing him as ‘sculpting the music on site’. And the site, with all its associations (not the least of which, today, is a succession of heedless Asian wedding photo-extravaganzas), is just about perfect for Anri Sala’s subtexual story. John Kaldor’s patience in both finding this setting and in waiting for the delivery of this busy Vincent Award-winner’s work which arose from that setting has been virtually rewarded.

Not quite a Christo (and Jeanne-Claude) wrapping of Little Bay, a Koons flowering Puppydog, or Xavier Le Roy’s pride of naked human lions. But thought-provoking in both sound and vision; to hear, to touch and to taste.

PS: A ‘Downunder’ thought for imagery—when turned upside down, the drum kits sit almost perfectly on their ceiling and it is the Bridge and North Sydney that are upside-down!

 

Anri Sala, The Last Resort, 2017. The Rotunda, Observatory Hill, Sydney. 33rd Kaldor Public Art Project.

 

Anri Sala, The Last Resort, 2017. The Rotunda, Observatory Hill, Sydney. 33rd Kaldor Public Art Project.