Tuesday 9 February 2016
At the threshold of the Perth International Arts Festival, I offer my respect and acknowledgement of the Noongar people, the traditional custodians of this land, and the stewards and artists of its knowledge and culture.
Two days in Perth, and there are so many wor(l)ds I don't yet know.
In 40C heat in King's Park, with crows panting and wild bees thick on the red eyelashes of a still nameless gum flower, I got off my bike by a broad and twisted tree on May Drive. I read the three plaques at the foot of the tree, and then I read them again. It's an old story, but new to me: three brothers, Selwyn, Gordon and Arthur Curlewis of Cottesloe Beach died within three months of one another at Gallipoli in 1915 (Arthur died in Egypt of wounds sustained at Lone Pine).
I had to sit down at the thought of that. Perhaps only a tree could encompass the scale of such loss, could hold in its rings all those griefs and ghosts, all those years of absence, repeated in tree after tree throughout this park.
But even the Curlewis tree, so solid and deep-rooted, has its own ghost of colonial pride and affiliation: it replaced the original English oak planted in commemoration by the men's family in 1919, which had grown from an acorn sent by Queen Mary from Windsor Castle for her heroic 'sons of Empire'. But the oaks, unsurprisingly, struggled in Perth's climate and were replaced in the 1940s by Bangalay (Eucalyptus botryoides). The tree, now almost 80 years old, which reproduces following bushfire, seems at home in this place of fierce beauty and fierce heat. But it too was introduced, from Australia's east coast, where I was born, and is described in this part of the country as an alien. Many things in Perth, it seems, are less absolute than they look in the stillness of a blazing afternoon, and the stories move in and down, ring by ring, towards the only truth, which lies in the silence of the ancient soil and stone of this place. Colonialism, migration, usurpation, adaptation, love of country and the immensity of absence still remain a deep source of many of the stories - and their ambiguities - told by artists and makers of the Southwest today.
We tell stories of and to one another. We seek a connection with the natural world in life and in death, and our knowledge of mortality means we live with absence, and so record it. And art does these things – narrates, contextualises, connects, commemorates. These remembered young men have me thinking of the lines of connection between stories and events in this year's Festival – the roots and sources of our storytelling in the shared soil of our vitality, vulnerability, sociality, mortality.
The word festival comes from the Latin and Old French for feast, good fellowship, generosity. A festival involves hosts and guests, and both words share a common (tap)root in the Proto-Indo-European word for 'ghost'. A festival is a coming together, a crossing of thresholds between inside and out, stranger and friend or enemy, past and present, and at all thresholds there is opportunity, and there's risk. We're all hosts, guests or ghosts in one another's lives and in every encounter we commit to both danger and chance; the danger of loss, of conflict, the opportunity for knowledge, friendship, love, and the chance to learn new languages without eroding the old.
I think that making art, particularly live art that brings people across thresholds into the shared space of the unpredictable and continuous present, is not just necessary for our cultural welfare, but increasingly, for our survival. We're all involved in the crisis of disconnection which is undermining our relationships with the world and with one another. A convergence of art and performance animates and illuminates place, in part by bringing to light the unspoken, the unspeakable, the invisible; by giving voice, in director Anne Bogart's words, to issues that crave to be addressed and as yet have no language.
The Perth International Arts Festival is, I think, an act of stewardship – a bringing together of host, guest and ghost in preparation for a journey whose outcome can't be known in advance but which will, I hope, change us all in the acts of perception, listening, and attention. Discovery comes not from locking ourselves away from the world but from falling bodily into it.
So it's back on my bike, and off in search of words, voices and stories to accompany the living landscape in this time of meeting and dreaming. Please come with me, and help me find the pathways.