IIt seemed like every person in Brisbane was on the banks of the Maiwar River on Saturday afternoon, settling in with beach chairs and eskies to get the best vantage point. It was Riverfire: a much-loved explosive spectacle featuring fireworks, fighter jets and helicopter stunts that several locals separately described to me as “the most Brisbane thing ever”.
But back on the water, a smaller, quieter, newer sight was also strolling along the Maiwar: the Brisbane Art Boat (Northshore, until September 24)an interactive work that returns for the second time as part of the Brisbane festival.
Where last year’s Art Boat housed a cartoonish neon bouncy castle, this year’s artwork is almost the exact opposite: the Spheres are a sleek and ethereal stainless steel structure by Lindy Lee, the famed sculptor and Brisbanite. It’s incredibly eye-catching – and every bit as engaging as last year’s colorful work, it seems, with Instagrammers competing with young children to squeeze in.
The Spheres is made up of three large perforated spheres enclosed in tall curved perforated steel walls, through which light floods, mimicking the stars, sunrise and sunset. It is inspired by the “music of the spheres” – a theory developed by Pythagoras, who believed that when the planets move, they generate a celestial hum.
“I owe everything to Pythagoras in this case and I don’t mind admitting it,” says Lee – but the Spheres are also deeply personal to him. Lee was born in Brisbane in 1954 but now lives in the hinterland of Byron Bay. She sees the work as a kind of homecoming.
“When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a bit of shame about the river and a bit of cultural pushback about Queensland – pretty much anyone who wanted a creative life had to leave,” says -she. “It’s wonderful that our attitude towards the river and Brisbane itself has been transformed. With the South Bank and [art gallery] QAGOMA on the river, for me, the Maiwar is emblematic of this turn.
“I want it to be a big celebration of Brisbane and how wonderfully and gracefully it has grown into a city with its own character.”
Lee’s family, who had fled communism in China, endured discrimination in Queensland; as an adult during Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s 20-year reign as state premier, Lee felt she “had to leave Brisbane because I felt diminished because of my cultural background, my my ancestry – I had to find myself”.
“Somehow coming back to Brisbane and pouring my heart and soul into this work means I have come full circle,” she says. “It’s really emotional for me – I felt a lot of shame for being Chinese when I was young, so being celebrated and hugged is a wonderful feeling. I’m coming to terms with my past very deeply.
Lee isn’t the only artist exploring their relationship with Queensland at this year’s festival. The Anna Yen Show slow boat 緩舟 (Brisbane Powerhouse, until September 10) has a fascinating true story at its heart.
Yen’s father, a playwright who fled his home after the invasion of Japan, was one of 580 Chinese indentured laborers who were evacuated from Nauru to Australia during World War II, and who eventually found in Brisbane. Yen discovered that the workers put on shows for each other on their evenings off. Slow Boat is therefore a play within a play: five workers putting on an amateur show as part of the celebrations marking the end of the war.
Asking actors to play bad actors is a risky move, and Slow Boat is a little too long and doesn’t always work. But the story itself is compelling, and the live music, performed by a small in-character band, is beautifully rich.
There is also Fourteen (QPAC, until September 17), a stage adaptation of Shannon Molloy’s bestselling memoir about surviving homophobic bullying in the small Queensland town of Yeppoon. Conor Leach is remarkable as 14-year-old Molloy, who seeks refuge in his mother’s barbershop and her small group of friends to escape his classmates at his Catholic boys’ school, who find that he was gay even before he was.
References to Fruity Lexia and Impulse elicited heard groans from the audience; the depiction of teenage life in 1990s Australia is spot on. Perhaps less its balance of light and dark; the tonal shifts are sometimes too drastic, leaving everyone feeling uneasy and unsure whether to smile or grimace.
All in all, the Brisbane festival looks remarkably odd this year – remarkable given that Queensland is still losing its interstate reputation for being behind on this front. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in the state until 1990; Bjelke-Petersen believed that “southern gays” were conspiring to oust him, and as an example of his many homophobic and racist policies, attempted to ban gays from pubs and clubs.
But on Friday, all the homosexuals of the North gathered at the Tivoli to celebrate Bowerytopiaa lively dance party and fashion show that paid tribute to the late queer performance artist Leigh Bowery.
The LGBTQ title shows fourteen and Hold Achilles (QPAC, until September 10) are in progress, but there are still more to come: Considerable Sexual License (Brisbane Powerhouse, September 15-17), a history of Australian sexual mores in dance and cabaret; Le Bal Alexandre (Tivoli, September 24), a prom stage event celebrating Brisbane’s LGBTQ people of colour; and associated event The House (BOQ Festival Garden, September 13-15), which will explain the connections between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, Southeast Asia, and LGBTQ Pasifika people, with queer liberation in New York’s underground ballroom scene.
It’s saying something that even when shows unpacking Queensland’s history of racism and homophobia competed with helicopters and fireworks, audiences were packed. “It couldn’t have happened 20 years ago,” says Lee, of the festival’s overt celebration of diversity. “We matured and grew, and entered into something that has always been there. Brisbane has come of age.