19-01-2011 2-48-22 PM

In nature, light arrives well ahead of sound. But when Power Plant was originally commissioned, by Jo Ross, at Oxford Contemporary Music, with Oxford Univeristy Botanic Garden, they both came together, just as they do, for us, for the Sydney Festival, in that urban oasis of peace and harmony, the Chinese Garden of Friendship, anachronistically situated in the greenless, Breretonian, Darling Harbour precinct.

An experiential, nocturnal walk-through event, it features nigh-on 30 installations and projections by artists Mark Anderson, Anne Bean, Jony Easterby, Kirsten Reynolds and Ulf Pederson, collectively creating a magical world, as they appropriate, exploit, corrupt, toy with and subvert our fundamental understanding and perception of what a garden can grow and be. They till the fertile soil of our imaginations, planting seeds, ploughing, hoeing and raking our consciousness with unexpected, primal, mesmerising, provocative and even political evocations.

It’s a fanciful feast for the ears as much as the eyes, kinetic sculptures with comical, tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-botanical names (like Ulf Pedersen’s Aglomero Salictarius, or Wind In The Willows), mimicking the playful inventiveness of, say, Heston’s Feasts, which seek to and succeed in indulging all the sensory palates.

Enticing, enchanting and magical, a visual and aural wonderland is set up, as much in our mind’s eye as before us, since the works call upon faculties of mind such as memory, with a particular focus on latent, or dormant, but still present, childlike ways of seeing. For example, what were those whirling dervishes, discs spinning like hypnotic lollipops? Who were those invisible, murmuring Aboriginal women, hiding in the bushes, discernible only by dint of their floral frocks? How did those flames, leaping from the water, play out their Close Encounters musical homage? What does that subliminal neon text say?

Gramophones etch their way into our awareness opening up dusty, old albums full of recollections photographs and fragments of deteriorating moving footage framed with nostalgia, as they scratch out their suggestive soundtracks. It’s eccentric, haunting, touching, entertaining and mesmerising. Sometimes, all at once.

Inspired by the natural, the fab five create something supernatural and dreamlike, an animated, illuminated sideshow alley, in a meditative, traditional environment (how ’bout that serenity?), setting up an on-the-spot dialectic between modernism and postmodernism. It boasts, at once, sophistication and charming naivety, technology and old-school craft: compare and contrast. Darling Harbour’s Chinese Gardens are traversed by as many paths as these five artists have taken to insinuate their way into our awareness. Strangely arresting, time is temporarily put on hold, as you enter another dimension.

We used to take drugs to get this high.

Curtain Call rating: A-

The details: Power Plant is at the Chinese Garden, Darling Harbour until January 30. Tickets on the Sydney Festival website. More Festival reviews here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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