“The aim for (the flaneur) is to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.”
Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life
Sydney is one of Australia’s most cosmopolitan cities, perhaps rivalled only by Melbourne. There are layers and textures born of history and circumstance which will always bubble to the surface and break through the superficies.
There is also a cultural infrastructure in place that in some strange way accepts outside influences and flips them around so that they act as mirrors for a more native aesthetic experience.
Which can be not only a revelation for the cultural tourist but a catalyst for reflecting on the state of the arts in his or her home town.
Take my two most recent visits to Sydney, a month apart. One was during festival time; the other was when two big shows at different ends of the cultural spectrum were just opening. Viewed as a whole, they form a phantasmagorical procession of images that still refreshes my perspective on Perth.
This was Belgian-born Lieven Bertels’ first Sydney Festival after taking the reins from its previous director, Lindy Hume, and it was appropriate that I should have had as my base the recently-opened boutique hotel QT Sydney, which inhabits the Gowings Building and State Theatre on Market Street. Because in its combination of unashamedly arty and eclectic decor and respectful restoration of the exterior and interior design, it reflected Bertels’ balance of the populist and the elitist.
On my first morning, I rose before the sun to make my way by foot to Darling Harbour to hear Arkady Shilkloper’s Dawn Calling on the alphorn, only to be first greeted by Florentijn Hofman’s giant Rubber Duck floating by the Druitt Street landing.
Thankfully the disturbing sight of this monstrous creature all but dominating the skyline soon receded into the background as Shilkloper’s beautiful, jazzy improvisations began to float serenely over the water.
By contrast, Chinese artist Song Dong’s moving, transcendent installation Waste Not at Carriageworks mapped his mother’s grief following the death of her husband through displaying the entire contents of her house, from plastic bags and cooking utensils to books, clothes and record players.
This expression of a frugal hoarding born of living through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in turn found its analogue in the critique of modern China that is Smash Palace, a spectacularly good exhibition at one of Sydney’s finest contemporary art galleries, White Rabbit, which I visited during my second trip.
But to return to the Festival, there were other highlights which sought to lift the ordinary and the superficial alike out of their quotidian slumbers. Such as Micro Parks, which transformed tiny, unassuming parks situated throughout the inner-city suburbs of Newton and Erskineville into performance spaces for Japanese tea ceremonies, dancing and the seeking-out of four-leaf clover.
Or the wildly imaginative Semele Walk, Ludger Engels’ take on Handel’s baroque oratorio Semele, in which audience members sit on either side of a catwalk as singers and fashion models show off Vivienne Westwood couture while a punk baroque band and chorus members sitting among the audience provide gutsy instrumental and vocal support.
These two events were themselves in contrast to two concurrent visual arts exhibitions, one part of the Festival, one part of the Sydney International Arts Series. In the former, Francis Bacon’s raw, confronting paintings at the Gallery of NSW provided a visceral counterpoint to the smooth, eerily perfect surfaces and unpredictable textures of Anish Kapoor’s sculptures at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Lunch at Dan Hong’s superb Cantonese-style restaurant Mr. Wong provided some welcome respite from cultural overload while providing a culinary prelude to dinner at The Bar at the End of the Wharf ahead of the undoubted highlight of the Festival for many, the premier of Sydney Theatre Company’s (STC) The Secret River, and adaptation by Andrew Bovell with direction by Neil Armfield of Kate Grenville’s acclaimed novel of the same name.
My second, non-festival visit proved equally rich and thought- provoking. Not only did the Sebel Pier One Hotel provide a perfect base from which to explore the backstage areas of the STC’s Wharf building HQ and the historic Rocks area of Sydney; further backstage tours of Opera Australia’s Opera Centre and the Sydney Opera House proved the perfect bookends to one of the most spectacular and unusual nights at the opera one could wish for.
This was the opening night of the second Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour after last year’s staging of Verdi’s La Traviata, Bizet’s Carmen. With the Fleet Steps stage extending out over the water, the lights of the CBD on one side and the Harbour Bridge and Opera House on the other, I sat under the stars and watched in awe as Opera Australia’s singers, dancers and orchestra brought to life a stylish, technicolor production set in Franco’s Spain. The fireworks in the second half were just the icing on the cake.
And if the following evenings’ opening-night performance of The Addams Family musical – the first outside of Broadway – seemed even more surreal, that’s because it was meant to be. Creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky, as the song goes. Just like Hofman’s Rubber Duck …
QT Sydney, 49 Market Street. Prices at QT Sydney start at $460 per night. qtsydney.com.au.
Sebel Pier One, 11 Hickson Road. Prices start from $299 per night. sebelpierone.com.au.
Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh. carriageworks.com.au.
White Rabbit, 30 Balfour Street Chippendale. whiterabbitcollection.org.
Don’t forget to visit the Tea House for the dumplings.
Mr. Wong, 3 Bridge Lane. merivale.com.au/mrwong/.
Sydney Theatre Company public tours are held every Tuesday at 10.30am and take 60 minutes. Tours cost $10 per person. Bookings are essential on (02) 9250 1777. sydneytheatre.com.au.
Opera Australia’s Opera Centre backstage tours take place weekdays at 10am and 2pm. Cost: $15 per person. At least two weeks’ notice is required to allocate a guide. opera-australia.org.au.
Various tours of the Sydney Opera House are available with prices starting from around $30. sydneyoperahouse.com.
William Yeoman travelled to Sydney as a guests of Destination NSW.