Australian Chamber Orchestra’s most recent show, Luminous, opens with a moving image. It’s dusk and there’s a wooded road, partly lit. The trees are moving and fluttering in the wind and the camera moves closer and closer into the thicket, giving us the illusion commencing a journey on a mysterious path. There is something beckoning and seductive about the scene. The way is obscured but there is no choice but to go into the woods.
Luminous is billed as a “multi-sensory concert experience”. First performed in 2005 and again in 2009, it features the orchestra playing works by Yared, Britten, REM and Paul Healy, with vocals by Australian-Israeli singer Lior accompanied by the images Australian photographer Bill Henson.
Immersion is key. You can’t film this show or take a selfie with it or step out it after five minutes. You have to surrender to its carefully constructed elements and let the full experience this extraordinary collaboration wash over you.
Lately I feel like I’ve been having a lot conversations about art and how we consume it. Over the weekend I had the same conversation with two writers who both agreed that reading has become a niche experience largely practised by a few who all agree with each other, therefore literature has lost much its power to change the culture.
On Monday, after Toni Morrison’s death, Ross Douthat in the New York Times said something similar: “Something has changed in the cultural status the novel.” Responsibility for the decline was put, at least partly, at the feet social media. So obliterated have our attention spans become that we lack the muscle and endurance to properly consume lengthy and difficult text. Under these circumstances not only are we unable to read great writers, but we won’t produce them. How can our splintered hive-mind that consumes ideas in haiku-like Twitter threads be expected to turn out the next Saul Bellow?
It’s not just literature. Social media has had a deep effect on visual and installation art. James Turrell’s light artworks at Mona pop up on my Instagram at least once a week, and Random International’s Rain Room, which opened in Melbourne this week, has been viewed millions times on social media since iterations it appeared everywhere from London to Shanghai. Go see any live music now and your view the stage is likely to be impeded by a wall smart phones, as people have less an experience the show and more an experience mediating their experience the show.
In his groundbreaking 1972 book and television series Ways Seeing, critic John Berger wrote: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Now we – men and women – have taken this many steps further. We look at art. But we also look at other people watching us looking at art. In a thought-provoking essay for literary magazine Kill Your Darlings, critic Cher Tan asked what happens to culture when it gets fed through the social media machine? Answer: it becomes flatter, and much less interesting.
What this constant social media mediation does to your experience art is subtle and personal. But it does something. And that something can vary. Your addiction to your smartphone can mean that you put down a difficult novel after you’ve failed to lock into a multi-clause paragraph. Or it can mean you step into an immersive artwork with your phone fully charged because somehow capturing it on film and broadcasting that to your followers is more important than capturing it in the fullness your attention in a way that allows the art to sink into you and mark your own interior.
Which is another way saying social media has changed the way that art touches your soul.
Which brings me to the ACO, and the revival Luminous I saw on Sunday afternoon at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.
When projection the woods fades out, it is replaced by an immediately recognisable Bill Henson image: a beautiful young person in gilt-edged darkness, the embodiment the Keats’ ideal in Ode to a Grecian Urn:
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above.
Henson filmed his photographs to match the score, and his camera travels in close to the images: extreme closeups pigment, skin, a face, an ear whorl, a goosebump, a freckle. In some images sleeping young people appear like angels, floating in a blackened galaxy. Others, eerie landscapes power stations, appear almost like columns the Parthenon.
This is no mere slideshow Henson’s work accompanied to music. In the first half, the music is carefully chosen to lull you into a melancholic and twilit mood to match Henson’s visual world. A rendition REM’s I’ve Been High reduced my seatmate to tears. It’s designed to work on you in mysterious and deep ways – and it does.
ACO’s Richard Tognetti said in an interview recently: “I always get a sense longing from Henson’s] photos, like I’m looking through some opaque glass at young people doing some thing that I’m not able to access. It’s not some Instagram party. It’s interesting.”
It’s not some Instagram party. That’s what we forget sometimes about art. The good stuff is for you alone – a private charge, that might change you in some subtle and wordless way. It’s not to be shared with friends; it’s not for the likes.
I left the ACO performance feeling like something had shifted in me. I had seen something that moved me and was beautiful – and somehow the world was not the same place it had been before I went into Hamer Hall.
That evening I got on a bus that travelled through central Victoria. It was winter and everything was monochrome until a short burst golden twilight. It was a Henson twilight. I listened to REM and Britten again as we drove through it. The world was transformed into something beautiful and mysterious, just like Henson’s pictures. The work had given me a new way seeing.