Anri Sala: The Last Resort

October 20, 2017
Anri Sala, drum beats over Sydney Harbour
Anri Sala, drum beats over Sydney Harbour

Historians can never agree about the so-called “Age of Enlightenment”. The narrow definition has it beginning with the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and ending with the French Revolution in 1789. The long version begins somewhere in the late 1600s and fizzles out in 1815 with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

As the dates are disputed so too are the achievements of this era in which science and philosophy made such advances. We used to think of the Enlightenment as a landmark in the history of civilisation, but increasingly it is viewed as a Eurocentric movement that inspired imperialist attitudes toward the rest of the world.

The dual nature of the Enlightenment is explored in the 33rd Kaldor Public Art Project: Anri Sala’s The Last Resort. The combination of a spectacular location (the Rotunda on Observatory Hill), and a brilliantly conceived installation, makes this one of the most memorable of all the Kaldor projects.

Sala was born in Albania in 1974 and would spend the first 11 years of his life under the declining dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, an experience that might be described as character-forming. In 1996 he left to study in Paris and within a few years had became a familiar presence on the contemporary art circuit.

Sala made his mark with a series of video works that combined reflections on the nature of music, architecture and politics. These are hardly unusual subjects for today’s artists, but it was the acute thinking behind each piece that set Sala apart. Not content to present an audience with ‘themes’ to be ticked off on a check-list, he researched each project thoroughly, creating multi-layered works that focus on relationships and contradictions rather than fixed ideas.

In the past, Sala has used music as diverse as Schönberg’s Transfigured Night and the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? (for barrel organ). For The Last Resort he has drawn on one of the musical masterpieces of the Enlightenment, the Adagio movement from Mozart’s Clarinet concerto in A major.

Anri Sala, The Last Resort, getting closer

Anri Sala, The Last Resort, getting closer

Sala has replaced the original tempi from Mozart’s score with new instructions based on weather conditions described by sailor, James Bell, in a private journal of a voyage to Australia written in 1838-39.

The rearranged score, recorded by the Münchener Kammerorchester, purrs, wheezes and hurtles out of a set of speakers arranged in the rotunda. Each note triggers an answering beat from one of 38 snare drums with a pair sticks attached, which are suspended upside down from the ceiling. The artist says he was inspired by seeing flying foxes snoozing in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The result is not a cacophony but a collaboration between Mozart and the elements. When the weather is good the music settles into a harmonious pattern, with the drums adding emphasis like distant thunder. Sala refers to the process as a “corruption” of the original score, perhaps inflicted by the distance it has had to travel from the old world to the new.

Letting the wind dictate the tempi seems peculiarly appropriate for a concerto written for a wind instrument. It enacts a struggle between nature and culture, between the Enlightenment dream of perfect control and understanding, and the unruly interruptions of the weather.

One may read this as a metaphor for the way the British colonists of the First Fleet sought to impose an ideal of civilisation on a new land and its inhabitants. There was no recognition that Aboriginal life represented a different form of culture worthy of respect. To the colonists the Aborigines were savages whose lives could only be improved by the adoption of western ways. At best, following the sentimental conception of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they might be “noble savages”, living in harmony with nature in a way no longer possible for Europeans.

This dewy-eyed view of indigenous society had few practical consequences. Even the most sympathetic observers believed the Aboriginal races were destined for extinction. The white conquerors could only apply palliative care while progress took its inevitable course. It was a view that would be confirmed by the Social Darwinism of a later age.

All this is implicit in the deformations of Mozart’s concerto, but the setting is equally important. Observatory Hill was the highest point in Sydney. It was where the colonists went to gaze at the stars, chart the weather, and keep a watch for incoming vessels.
It was a place that held a central importance for the science and security of the settlement.

The Last Resort, one drum at a time

Closer still

The rotunda is a place for scenery, music-making and parties, but it also serves as a look-out. In its 360 degree scope it echoes the panopticon model that Enlightenment philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, recommended for keeping watch on prisoners. It suggests an intersection between the romantic pleasures of a view, and a device for social control. It reminds us that even the most ‘enlightened’ laws and customs are ideologically determined, and backed by the implicit threat of violence. The massed snare drums are reminiscent of a military band.

There’s much more that could be said about The Last Resort, with even the title presenting a puzzle. Is Sala saying Australia was the last resort for a British justice system that required a new home for its criminal classes, or is he suggesting that a corrupt and exhausted civilisation needed to look beyond its own borders to seek renewal? There’s also the idea of Australia as a “resort” where tourists go to relax and have fun. In one word we recognise the way the nation’s image has metamorphosed from prison to pleasure park.

An exemplary work of public art, The Last Resort invites us to appreciate the beauties of the harbour and of Mozart’s Concerto, but also prompts more critical reflections. It makes us think about the place we call home but sends no obvious messages. On the other hand it doesn’t avoid engagement by concentrating on a purely formal dimension, as in the $11.8 million Cloud Arch that seems destined to rise in front of Town Hall. If ever this city manages to have an open and honest discussion about the role of public art, Sala’s ingenious Kaldor Project would be an ideal place to start.

Anri Sala: The Last Resort
Observatory Hill Rotunda, Sydney, 13 October – 5 November, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October, 2017