On 26 May, the same night a super full moon will be totally eclipsed, Melbourne will finally premiere the first season of Rising. The city’s new 12-night cultural festival was cancelled last August during a dark year for the arts when Covid-19 forced performances and exhibitions to shutter.
The festival, which will feature more than 800 artists, including more than 750 from Victoria. A takeover of the hidden former ballroom upstairs of Flinders Street Station by surrealist sculptures, a two-month-long musical performance on Melbourne’s rivers and the transformation of the Myer Music Bowl into a supernatural forest are just some of the 133 art, music and ceremony events that will take place.
Amalgamating the 35-year-old Melbourne international arts festival and White Night, the Rising co-artistic directors Hannah Fox and Gideon Obarzanek said their vision is “culture as a human right”, with a strong emphasis on Indigenous artists and artworks.
Of 36 world premieres, 11 come directly from a “call to artists” initiative. During the enforced Covid-19 shutdown, Rising’s directors decided the festival would concentrate more on producing local works by offering $2m in development money to artists. “We put a call out to artists and asked them, what are the ambitious and big ideas for now?” Obarzanek said.
Last Saturday, The Rivers Sing began its two-month “pied piper” journey through greater Melbourne’s suburbs along the Birrarung and Maribyrnong rivers in the lead-up to the festival’s opening night, with long-range speakers projecting harmonised voices over a 2-km radius at sunrise and sunset.
Composer and soprano Deborah Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman, has collaborated with contemporary music artists Byron Scullin and Thomas Supple, both of whom helped create a similar, critically acclaimed work Siren Song at the Dark Mofo festival in 2017. Cheetham unearthed songs in consultation with Indigenous elders from along the route to combine with a new ephemeral composition that changes each day.
It’s just one of many works that will be performed in public spaces. In the Royal Botanic Gardens, Daniel Browning and Urban Theatre Projects have created Seasons in Blak Box, encouraging audiences to step inside and listen to ideas and language from Kulin elders. Inside Hamer hall, Melbourne audiences will finally get to see Buŋgul, a Yolŋu celebration of the late singer-songwriter Dr G. Yunupingu, the tribute dance tour that was partly postponed last year, while projected on the wall outside will be an artwork called Ancestral Memory by Maree Clarke and Mitch Mahoney, showing a spirit eel swimming across the night sky.
Rising is based on a district model, with events occurring in five geographic areas: along the Birrarung, in satellite Melbourne locations, the arts district, in midtown and in the city’s Chinatown, where a new three-channel video by visual artist Reko Rennie will be presented with a new operatic score composed by Cheetham and recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Funded under the festival’s call to artists program, Rennie draws parallels between growing up in Melbourne’s western suburbs and initiation practices of his Kamilaroi ancestors in northern New South Wales.
In Banksia, a fantastical short film to also be presented in Chinatown – at a car park – Atong Atem explores the relationship between convicts of African descent and Australia’s national landscape. Atem, who grew up on the New South Wales south coast, escaped the second civil war in her parents’ home country, South Sudan, then spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya before the family arrived in Australia when she was six years old.
The Sidney Myer Music Bowl will become a supernatural forest of ice, art, music and moonlight called The Wilds, while surrealist sculptural artist Patricia Piccinini will take over the hidden former ballroom and at least 15 surrounding rooms upstairs at Flinders Street train station with A Miracle Constantly Repeated, a “parallel world suspended above the city”, using her hybrid human-animal sculptures to explore human relationships to nature.
Meanwhile David Woods of Ridiculusmus fame will take over The Substation at Newport with This, a site-specific installation and performance in collaboration with independent artists and writers from around Melbourne, with audiences choosing how they will view stories that eventually burst into mess and writhing bodies. Obarzanek says the work is a critique of the corporatisation of experience and “it involves a lot of mud, a lot of discourse, and it’s recommended you don’t bring your best clothes”.
On the more daring side of audience participation, artist Stuart Ringholt’s Club Purple is a “naturist disco” to be set up at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre Trust, inviting an audience to remove their clothes, pick their songs from a jukebox and dance in an enclosed carpeted space for 30 minutes in an alcohol-free environment.
The emphasis throughout the festival is one of participation, Fox said. The festival was always going to favour local artists even before Covid-19 forced travel restrictions on international visitors and sporadic state border closures.
“No one will believe us, but we actually did set out to do a kind of ‘Melbourne now’ performing arts festival,” she said. “It’s been fortunate in that sense, but it sounds really like a tall story.”