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Fire Gardens review (Melbourne Festival)

Once again, I’m coming at you LIVE from a shrubbery somewhere in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, which are seeing a lot of after-hours activity this week. In fact, if there’s a hub at this years festival it’s here, where Lexicon now sits cheek-by-jowl with this: Fire Gardens, from Compagnie Carabosse, a French group who’ve been setting fires at Australian festivals for many years.

A few hours ago when I left home it was warm but turning cold. The wind was a gusty 37 ks an hour. Fire season is only a few weeks away. Perhaps they don’t have bushfires in France, but in Australia, an event like this is not, shall we say, un-nuanced!

I tell my inner kill-joy: “shut the f*** up and ‘proceed to the route’”.

The queue to enter the site is long, but expectant. Start times are staggered an hour apart but it seems you can stay till last coals, as it were, which is, er, warming.

I’m with a writer friend, Kirby Fenwick (we’ve just taken in a lecture: Women’s Football: Past, Present and Future at the St Kilda Library) and she’s startled by the sheer numbers, she wants to know why everyone is here. I tell her we’ve been trained in night-walking by the annual White Night, plus its relatively cheap. But the ‘why are we here’ question persists.

The night air is chill.

This is going to be a promenade experience, where we walk through allocated paths and watch the Gardens burn. (Kirby’s sending her friends an instagram ‘Bot. Gardens on fire!) The warmth will be welcome.

As we enter we see old-fashioned mechanical figures cycling determinedly on plinths along the path. They’re going nowhere. Portable radios affixed to poles, murmur with snatches of overheard conversation.

Otherwise, it’s a walk through fire from the get-go.

Past small ceramic pots of flame (fire pots?) and stencil-cut flues of fire.

Through arches of fire, framing and re-framing the night.

A woman in a fabulous flaring long red coat walks – all unawares – a little close to one of those pots, a gust of wind and… Nah, it’s ok. This is immersive (kind of), but we’re not going the Full Pyre.

Huge ‘seed pod’ structures are rowed out from shore to float on the ornamental lake, occasionally opening to full fire flowering then closing, against the dark. Cue musician hooked up as a sort of one-man band, crooning smoothly.

The entire event is scored with a variety of musical styles – maybe too many – set to accompany the various incarnations of fire one encounters through this journey. I found myself wondering what the night might sound like without them. A clarinet-scape (very ooh-la-la French bistro) sounds further along the path and later, what might be a Chinese erhu weaves gently on the breeze.

There are small but exquisite mesh structures, memorials one might think, floating on the water and, magnificently long stretches of raised fire-pits, like snakes, like dragons, with embers billowing above. To walk between these is to feel the intensity, the power of the fire in a way none of the other structures attempt. It’s almost too much.

It’s in the nature of an experience like this that the event is largely self-curated. We look for meanings, signs, portents… looking back, a hillside of small fires suggests a temple; we start to anticipate a human sacrifice – a lot of people are coming in through the gates, but how.many.come.out.?

Kirby is fixating on the possibility that we may have inadvertently entered an Agatha Christie novel – it’s the slightly ’20s ambience of promenading in a park after dark. We expect the body to be found in the ashes of tomorrow. Murder in the Fernery or possibly, Flaming Death.

What looks like paper lanterns from a distance turn out to be fire-lit singlets hanging in the breeze. As if some ’50s housewife finally tired of a never ending day of laundry and did… this.

Oddly, the smaller installations are more moving than the more obviously impressive large structures, suggestive of a spiritual dimension.

But I can’t help it, it just seems a bit, what? Lacking? Or maybe just a bit of a lost opportunity.

It’s very beautiful and very controlled and pretty well very safe. (We know that because this mob have 20 years of controlled burn behind them and council let them go ahead. Still, the mind is reels at the O.H.and S. implications…)

It’s a little bit comfy, a little bit easy…. friendly fire.

Maybe I’m just squirming at an exercise in controlling the elements.

Quite apart from the millennia history with fire of the indigenous peoples of this land.

Quite apart from any vestiges, any remnants of other collective or tribal memory – Beltane, and it’s equivalents, is just around the corner on this hemisphere.

Quite apart from the ever-more-regular, ever-more-devastating potential furnace that is the Australian fire season.

It’s the lack of ‘significance’ that burns. The commodification.

Why are we here?

I tell my inner kill-joy: “shut the f*** up and ‘proceed to the route’”.

Until October 21

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One response to “Fire Gardens review (Melbourne Festival)

  1. Yeah, yeah, I know. I ‘m a reviewer too and Fiona is an old mate, but come on already, this is one very vivid description of what a piece of performance/installation/spectacle/ immersive experience/art-journey-theatre looks and feels and sounds and seems and might have been like. There’s no ‘you had to be there’ about this, I ‘was’ there.

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