Björk Cornucopia Friday 3 March Perth, Australia Photo credit: Santiago Felipe
Björk Cornucopia Friday 3 March Perth, Australia Photo credit: Santiago Felipe

Perth Festival 2023: Björk, Kronos Quartet, Djinda, and the Trees We Have Lost

On the 6th of October 2022, Perth Festival announced that its 18-year association with fossil fuel company Chevron was coming to an end after the 2023 season. Chevron stood as a long-term partner for the festival, providing extensive financial support to bring global arts to the city of Perth to the point where at the 2013 festival the Festival Gardens were rebranded as the ‘Chevron Festival Gardens’. The act of ‘greenwashing’ the arts by major fossil fuel companies has received increased scrutiny over the years with activist groups and artists protesting events and demanding that money from climate change accelerating organisations be rejected by the industry.

This divorce, of sorts, comes as the festival celebrates its 70th anniversary. Launching in 1953 and founded by Professor Fred Alexander, then Director of Adult Education at UWA, with the vision “to offer the best cultural events that are available from British, European, American, Asian and Australian sources,” Perth Festival has maintained a keen focus on spotlighting the global arts scene to the extent where it now stands as the oldest annual international multi-arts festival in the southern hemisphere.  

It also marks the second last festival from Artistic Director Iain Grandage, who as custodian of the festival masterful ushered the event through COVID lockdowns and carried it through to a new continuous-pandemic world. Grandage will be succeeded by WA arts leader, Anna Reece, in 2025.

Naturally, a festival of Perth Festival’s size cannot move forward without shifting and adjusting to the changing world we live in. The shift away from Chevron was an inevitability for the festival, and it’s a move that was thematically reflected in the 2023 program with artists like Björk and Kronos Quartet, alongside nature-based events like Djoondal, and filmic presentations of calls for action on climate change in the form of Blueback and The Giants.

The theme of the festival was Djinda (stars), spotlighting Noongar language in a continuation of the amplification of First Nations culture that set the theme for previous festivals: 2020, Karla (fire), 2021, Bilya (river), and 2022 Wardan (ocean). The spotlight on First Nations artists has long played a part in the festival, but it’s just another sign of Perth Festival leading and supporting changes in our society. It’s easy to imagine amidst a changing nation how past events like the 1979 festivals celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Swan River colony would likely not take place today.

In a 2020 interview with the Australian Financial Review, Grandage talked about the importance of being the first artistic director for the festival who was born in Perth:

“I was aware festival directors always fell in love with Perth over the course of their tenure, so my pitch was ‘Imagine what you could do if you were in love with the place already, you knew all the practising artists already, you had friends who lived here and around the state already so could access people immediately, and you had friends who work across business, the top end of government and in various organisations.'”

It’s this mindset that helped make the mammoth Highway to Hell experience in 2020 the landmark arts event that it was. It’s clear that that kind of celebration of AC/DC and the drive for community unification around iconic guitar riffs and head banging could only come from someone who is a true blue Perthian. It also extended to engaging with Noongar artists like Kaarljilba Kaardn (Kylie Bracknell) and Maatakitj (Dr Clint Bracknell) who collectively recontextualised the continued connection to country that Noongar people have maintained for more than 45,000 years.

The feeling of his feet sinking further into the sandy shores of the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) was evident as each festival under Grandage’s guidance embraced the soul and spirit of Boorloo (Perth) with events that encouraged locals to reconnect with their city in a new context. The 2023 festival opener, Djoondal, saw a retelling of Noongar stories sweep across the sky with lasers, drones, and lights over Lake Joondalup, changing how visitors will see the lake forever more.

Echoing how the resonance of sounds lingers in a location across time, as shown in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (Perth Film Festival 21-22), the nature-based venue choices have changed how many Perth-folks will see the city. Stories create a memory touchstone, transforming and influencing how we see the world we live within.

Events like Michaela Gleave’s public art event Between us beamed into the Perth night sky in an exact and powerful manner, pulsing words from the Perth community via Morse code, adjusting my memory of the skyline forever more. Between us was crafted with the notion of “[engaging] audiences in a poetic consideration of the spaces that exist between the structures and systems that shape our lives.” In its own way, Between us perfectly encapsulated the way that the arts must push for existence within a social structure that often devalues the work of artists, forcing them to lay in the bed of wealthy environmentally destructive organisations just to exist.

I witnessed this unique dialogue between art and audience after experiencing the pinnacle event of the 2023 festival, Icelandic artist Björk for the first time. My partner and I walked past the cultural relic that is the Bell Tower, now dwarfed by gargantuan six-star hotels that precious few in Perth can afford to visit, and looked towards Northbridge, seeing the piercing beam of light carving its way through the light-pollution in the sky.

Instantly, I thought of the WA Youth Theatre Company’s presentation of Seven Sisters, a communal act of storytelling by a diverse group of artists, each one telling a story about the stars. In that varied event, each artist used the story of the Seven Sisters as a launching pad to tell stories about their relationship with the night sky. While some stories resonated more than others, and the tonal inconsistency of the event forced it to lack a level of tonal coherence, it’s Makaela Rowe-Fox’s comment, “As easy as it might be to tell you about how beautiful the stars are, I can’t do that if I can’t fucking see them,” that stuck in my mind.

There we were, standing under the mammoth safety of the remaining 100-year-old Moreton Bay fig trees, looking through the dominant lights of the skyline to see this beam, cutting its way through the darkness and telling a story we couldn’t read. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t glean what story it told, its presence was present enough. Acting as a manifestation of a mass of stars, exuding brightness into the night, where those who were near and far could experience it just by looking at the Perth skyline, Between us reminded me of how easily we’re united under the banner of the arts.

When the 2023 festival commenced in 2022 with the Lotterywest Film Festival presentation of the Australian premiere of Robert Connolly’s Blueback, I questioned whether this forward-thinking, aspirational film about a young woman who forges a bond with a blue groper could push those in power into action on climate change. It’s a question that I asked myself at the midway point during Björk’s opening night concert of her four-night run when climate activist Greta Thunberg appeared on screen, urging action to save the climate. I received my answer when cheers rang out across the 5,000-person strong audience, with a dominant ‘fuck Andrew Forrest’ raging through the air.

Björk Cornucopia
Friday 3 March
Perth, Australia
Photo credit: Santiago Felipe
Björk Cornucopia Friday 3 March Perth, Australia Photo credit: Santiago Felipe

In a glorious and all-encompassing digital presentation with otherworldly visuals by German artist Tobias Gremmler, and accompanied by a flock of flautists, a smattering of percussion instruments and ‘all the way from Perth’, the choir group Voyces, Björk synchronised a visual and aural sensation that stands as one of the very best concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Co-directed by Argentinian-filmmaker Lucrecia Martel (Zama), the Cornucopia tour was dominated by tracks from her 2017 album Utopia and the 2022 stunner Fossora, with earlier tracks like ‘Isobel’ featuring in the setlist. Her vision of a female-focused world was reflected by the dominance of women on the stage, from the flautists to the women from Voyces providing backing vocals on some songs.

Unlike the Perth Writers Festival, which featured live transcriptions of speakers on select stages, there were no subtitle options for Björk, leaving some of the lyrics to be lost in the sheer magnitude of the event. Yet, like Between us and the repetitive and overlapping vocals of Voyces, it often doesn’t matter whether the words can be understood when the message is clear from the intonation of the way it’s sung, the visuals of how it’s presented, and the mood that it conjures in the air around you. With that said, the lyrics that mattered cut through the layers of instruments, sticking in my mind, where they have been bouncing around daily, providing a new context to how I see the world around me.

“Hope is a muscle”, she sings on ‘Atopos’, which received its first live performance here in Perth. It’s a song that comes early in the set, encouraging audiences to stay hopeful in the face of continued destruction and devastation. “If we don’t grow outwards towards love // We’ll implode inwards towards destruction.” The pulsing, insistent drums dominate the air, making it feel like their beat is coming from within our chest. For me, it’s the most emotional track of the night, full of anger, fury, and yet a determined fight for unity.

I share in the anger that is sung by Björk, voiced by Greta, and chorused by those in the audience who emerged enlightened. Granted, there was the occasional punter who commented about being perplexed by the experience, and I can understand that. Björk has talked about how Fossora is an album that’s inspired by fungi, and with a stage that looked like one giant mushroom, and projected imagery that had a digital Björk morphing into mushrooms akin to The Last of Us, alongside jaw-dropping costumes, it’s understandable that the curious attendees might wonder just what they experienced.

Here, Björk presents humanity and nature combined, and when paired with technology, there’s the sensation of having nature reflected back at us with conjured imitations and mutations. The visuals overwhelmed the senses, with sweeping lasers that cut through the air, and pulsing red lights that throbbed like a pained earth yearning for salvation. Next to that mushroom-stage platform stood a koala-without-ears looking sound booth, which Björk and the flautists would occasionally enter: a fictional nature, adjusted to encompass humanity, to allow the art to grow and bend with it.

After Cornucopia, I now understand what it feels like to be a fruit growing on the vine, to have a tentative soul play glorious music in my presence, to have it flow around me, nurture me, singing me into life. Throughout the show, we witnessed the birth of a new world, and within that birth, we as the audience became like dragon fruit, splendid and spiky, bright and beautiful, different and new. We became unique and reimagined in the eyes of Björk.

At the concerts close, Björk urged the audience to “care for me” and to “imagine a future // be in it”. This wasn’t just some kind of aspirational call for action, but rather, a genuine plea for change. It’s a theme that I felt dominated many of the events at the 2023 Perth Festival. From Virginia Gay’s welcome reimagining of Cyrano which turned a classic text into a queer tale to the raucous and utterly joyful Hide the Dog, to the urgent and angry art exhibition of However vast the darkness… in the John Curtin Gallery, to the pointed choice to close the Lotterywest Film Festival with Feminist Riposte.

Co-written by Tasmanian playwright Nathan Maynard (trawlwoolway pakana) and Aotearoa writer Jamie McCaskill (Māori), Hide the Dog tells the story of best friend Niarra (a splendid and career-launching turn from Najwa Adams Ebel) and Te Umuroa (an energetic and exciting Poroaki Merritt-McDonald) who discover the world’s last Tasmanian tiger (Tibian Wyles) and set off on a boat to Aotearoa to keep it safe. On their journey, they encounter various gods and spirits from both First Nations and Māori cultures who remind Niarra and Te Umuroa the importance of keeping their cultures alive by learning and speaking their languages and telling their stories.

Hide the Dog is a family-friendly show, making the predominantly primary school aged audience I watched it with be the prime atmosphere to experience it with. They sat on the edge of their seat transfixed by the story and the energy on stage, lapping up the antics of farting gods and the cheeky self-confident humour of goddesses, while they also found deep resonance with the presentation of how young folks deal with the self-doubt that comes with being born into a living culture that has existed for tens of thousands of years.

Hide the Dog – Poroaki Merritt-McDonald & Najwa Adams Ebel

It’s easy for society to bubble wrap kids and to keep them ‘safe’ from complex ideas or subjects that adults simply do not want to address themselves, but as we’ve seen through climate change protests around the world that have often been driven by the youth of society, and in Australia, the eagerness from kids to engage with First Nations culture, and the joyous reception that Drag Queen Story Hours have with younger audiences, kids are desperate to engage with the world in a way that has them at the centre of it, rather than having choices made for them. This is a play that distinctly tackles the impacts of colonisation and the oppressive dominance of white culture over First Nations voices, themes that are often restricted to adult fare. At the close of Hide the Dog, the kids bounced out of the theatre, trying their best at replicating the language they’d heard on stage, all the while being absolutely thrilled by witnessing something that wasn’t what they’re usually delivered.

Partly, Hide the Dog is about how the arts can keep culture and the past alive through the sharing of stories and legends across generations. The thylacine that Niarra and Te Umuroa were keeping safe is revealed to be a spirit, protected by them and ferried back to their ancestors, with the two youngsters coming to realise that they need to keep the story of the tiger alive for future generations so that their connection to country continues. It’s a powerful close that reinforced within the audience the need for voice, treaty, truth in Australia, a reality that will certainly come with future generations. It also made me wonder how far away it will be that Perth Festival will permanently change its name to Boorloo Festival? Maybe within my lifetime they will.

While the thylacine is extinct, replicated in the arts by puppetry, our living nature was replicated by Kronos Quartet. Kronos Quartet mimicked the sounds of our living world with their string instruments, with the pluck of a cello replicating the sound of a frog sounding off in the night as the violins chirped like crickets, voicing their concern about their imminent demise by the frog. Elsewhere, the harmony of a birds song was created in unison, transforming the Perth Concert Hall into the wetlands of Perth. I closed my eyes during one of the pieces and found myself feeling the breeze of the Fremantle Doctor flowing around me, my feet immersed in the waters of Bibra Lake as the sound of the ancient gums talking to one another in the flow of the air rustled nearby.

I was taken back to the cruelly destructive final days of the Barnett government, where the nihilistic premier demanded machinery to plough through the culturally and environmentally sensitive Beeliar wetlands in the middle of a searing summer, with contractors failing to properly relocate quendas who ended up dying trapped in their burrows, and pulping 300-year-old Jarrah trees in less than an hour for the sake of a highway that he knew would never be built. Some 40 hectares of land was cleared, which conservationists have said will take decades to recover from.

Perth received the presence of Björk due to being “one of the most biodiverse places on the planet”, yet as I opened my eyes and returned to the auditorium, I found myself terrified for the future of this planet, for the future of our gloriously biodiverse environment here in Western Australia. Hearing the perfect mimicry of the sounds of nature from Kronos Quartet made me fear that the arts would be the last remaining place, outside of a museum, that I would be able to experience these sounds. I was moved beyond belief, shaken by the audible brilliance I was experiencing and feeling myself becoming changed by what I was seeing. Once I was a dragon fruit, and now I am the sand of a riverbank.

When Kronos invited Maatakitj on stage to present their collaboration, the ceiling was transformed into the night sky, with the lights bouncing off the reflective pipes of the organ that stands at the back of the stage. As Ruben Yorkshire and his fellow performers took the front of the stage, UV lights turned their painted bodies into moving neon visions that cut through the darkness of the auditorium. In unison, Kronos, Maatakitj, Ruben, and the other performers, became the stories of Noongar Boodjar, they became the creatures who once called the Derbarl Yerrigan home, they became the past, the present, and the future all at once. They became an impossibility: nature without humanity.

Photo by Cam Campbell IG and FB @placeorpoint

In the suburb I live in, change is taking place in a destructive manner. Ageing houses are being cordoned off, the asbestos is removed from its weathered, poorly maintained structure, useful artefacts are removed before the home is demolished completely. The memories existed in the walls are now gone, the passion, the anger, the love, the familial bonds, gone. Left in its wake is a bed of sand that rejects all life. Prior to the destruction, vibrant and lively gardens are ripped out and pulped. At one house, a bird yelled from the road as the tree that it raised families in was turned into mulch. Days later, that bird became one with the road, its feathers flapping as each uncaring car drove over it.

We’re in a war against nature, and nature is losing.

That war is documented in Rachel Antony and Laurence Billiet’s The Giants, a documentary about activist and politician Bob Brown, and Hlynur Pálmason’s magnificent Godland. In Godland, a young Danish priest treks across Iceland with a scowl on his face to build a church and bring his dominant religion to a land that outwardly rejects it. On his journey, he judges the land, condemning the vista that he believes his God made. His active rejection of Icelandic culture and their understanding of how to live with the land almost kills him, leading to a pivotal moment where he lays on his deathbed in the middle of marshland, with cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff’s camera sweeping around in a jaw dropping 360 degree shot, showing just how dominated by the environment he truly is. Yet, even being dwarfed by the physical presence of nature isn’t enough to change his noxious world view, leading to a climactic act of condemnation that dooms both the Icelandic guide that brought him across the lands, and the priest himself.

Pálmason frequently uses the bridge of time to conjure a sense of humility within ourselves, with montages of bodies decomposing over years flitting by in the space of a minute. In this way, he is saying that while we may dominate and control nature during our life span, it will outlive us, it will endure. It will return more powerful than ever before after we have destroyed ourselves. Godland is an uncompromising, monumental work of brilliance, making it a fitting presence at the heart of Perth Festival’s film line-up.

While the main event of Perth Festival closed with Björk’s Cornucopia, it’s Marie Perennès and Simon Depardon’s Feminist Riposte that helps bring to close the festival with its Australian premiere. This documentary presents the powerful acts of protest on the streets of France as feminist activists rally for equality, safety, and a better world for women, transwomen, and non-binary folks by pasting messages on the streets and walls of the cities they live in. These are feminist messages against the dominant masculine society we live in, they’re tributes to victims of violence against women, they’re calls for equality. They’re ‘no means no’ and more.

Feminist Riposte

Support on the streets from fellow activists creates the sense of change, with women pushing back against vocal men in the streets who aim to regain a brutal dominance of women. In the midst of pasting these messages on the streets, Feminist Riposte shows the visionary conversations that take place behind the scenes where the path to a safer society is discussed and plotted out. There’s a distanced approach to the direction from Perennès and Depardon that gives the subject space to breathe and be heard in a reasonable manner.

Within Feminist Riposte, we see that the future is one driven by women, and it’s with that notion in mind that I’m excited to see what kind of festival Anna Reece will bring in 2025. By all accounts, Anna will continue Iain Grandage’s support of Noongar culture, while also fostering a vision for a growing and transformative arts ecosystem. It’s equally important then that Reece’s Perth heritage is mentioned too, having been born in Walyalup (Fremantle) and maintaining a deep connection with the arts culture of Perth, and in turn, knowing what it means to be from this ever-changing city.

Us Perthians are conflicted beings. We live in a city that’s dominated by mining dollars, with the city skyline crafted by Woodside and co over the decades as they engage in a crawl along St Georges Terrace, with mammoth buildings erupting in their wake. We’re isolated by distance, yet at times, we’re culturally adrift from the rest of Australia; when Björk was announced as the centrepiece event for the festival, there was a collective ‘why Perth?’ from the East coast. We’re also proud folks, loving the land we live on and proudly spruiking the distinct environment we have on our doorstep. We do have the best beaches in the world, which showcase on a nightly basis the finest sunsets you’ll ever get to see. The Freo breeze is like no other, revitalising your soul after a shitty day at work and making you feel like it’s all going to be ok.

But it’s changing in ways that may make us lose that brilliance. The physical program for Perth Festival’s 2023 line-up contains the following words from Dr Lynette Narkle and Bobbi Henry, amplifying the importance of the theme of Djinda:

“We as Noongar people were the first astronomers – the cosmos was like an almanac of the connection between the stars and us.

We didn’t need a map to navigate – the stars, moon and tides were our signposts that guided us for 65,000 years.

But our young people today looking up at the cosmos polluted with white light, will they see the stars to guide them?

We hope that our future generations will look towards the stars with the gaze of our ancestors, embracing our sacred boodjar in all its glory both celestial and earthly.”

There’s more sky today than there was yesterday. Trees are falling at a rapid pace, and no matter how many saplings are planted as ‘offsets’, they can’t grow quick enough to keep up. Light pollution spills into our increasingly dominant sky where shooting stars have been replaced by billionaires jettisoned Tesla’s, culminating in a loss of a navigation system that has guided humanity for tens of thousands of years. With that loss also goes our ability to comprehend just how small and unique our planet is amidst a sea of stars, to glean how fortunate we are to live right now as millions of years of history hangs in the night sky. The stars tell stories, and in doing so, they make humanity humble.

Iain Grandage’s artistic vision is best summarised in four words:

“Our Time. Our Place.”

There’s a hopefulness that is instilled in those words. There’s a vision that we can hold onto and embrace. There’s a notion that when united and when we are considerate of others, we can attain greatness together. Through the arts, we are reminded of what we have lost, what we risk losing, and how we can move forward together as one. Whether it’s Björk’s vision of a techno-environmental future where fungi and folks become one in a digital melange, or whether it’s Kronos Quartet’s cross-cultural collaboration of nature and Noongar, or even the realm where politics and art unite and change societies, it’s clear that there is a movement for all going forward.

For me, each of these events are now tethered as memories that will spill into my mind with immediacy when I revisit the locations they were held in. The custom built pavilion for Björk’s show at Langley Park has now smothered the memories of rally cars from the early 90s. Perth Concert Hall is a venue where each memorable event plays as a disjointed symphony in my mind each time I visit, but now it’s Kronos Quartet who have set the initial tone. Finally, witnessing The Giants under the stars and surrounded by the pine trees at Somerville auditorium felt like the perfect realisation of the vision of this years festival.

Ultimately though, at the close of Perth Festival 2023, I’m holding onto the Björk’s urgent lyric the most:

“Hope is a muscle // That allows us to connect”

and like every muscle, we need to keep using it to keep it strong. I yearn for the next Perth Festival which will continue to stretch the muscles of Perth’s international arts scene, and I hope that it continues to move away from its mining-adjacent legacy into a greener, cleaner future.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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