Anri Sala: Message in a Bottle

Monday, November 13, 2017

Having wrapped Kaldor Public Art Project 33: Anri Sala, The Last Resort, we look back and reflect on how this installation for Sydney fits within the broader picture of Sala’s practice.

Many of Sala's past works explore the idea of interludes and rifts: spaces between narrative, meaning and intent. How do these ideas present themselves in The Last Resort?

At the centre of The Last Resort is a seminal piece of music from the Western canon: Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. When describing his reimagining of the iconic piece, Sala likens the Concerto to a message in a bottle. Having travelled across oceans—from Europe to Australia—and through time—from 1791 to 2017. Sala imagines a variation on the piece, altered by the shifts and turns of its passage to a different place, culture and time. Like a message in a bottle, Mozart’s piece has been buffeted by wind and waves, arriving in Australia in a different state from what its composer intended. Like Sala’s ‘unravelling’ of Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand in Ravel Ravel Unravel, Sala again deconstructs a canonical piece of music to lay bare the historical and political framework from which it arose and is intertwined. 

Sala sets up multiple contrasts and contradictions that play out as we experience the work. One of these is the divide between audible and inaudible sound. While each drum contains two speakers, only one of them plays an audible recording: the reimagined Clarinet Concerto. The second speaker plays a track made up entirely of vibrations, the inaudible waves of sound. These trigger the movement of the drumsticks, which in turn create their own beat across the reflective drum skins. What we see and hear are not the vibrations themselves, but a visual and audible live response.

Sala’s version of the Clarinet Concerto was recorded by the Munich Chamber Orchestra, while the responsive pattering of the drumsticks is live: unmediated by instruments of recording and amplification.

Why did Sala change Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto?

Sala refers to music as being a fossil of its own time. Though where an archaeologist might work to uncover its past, Sala does the opposite, seeking to unlock its future. Emblematic of the landscape from which it emerged, the European Age of Enlightenment, the Clarinet Concerto has been fragmented and changed by Sala to reveal new meanings and directions.

Sala’s point of reference for altering the Concerto was the private diary of Scottish sailor James Bell, whose sea voyage from England to Australia was diligently recorded in a series of diary entries between 1878–79. Each of these varied entries begins with a description of the wind; sometimes a stiff breeze, calm wind, hurricane or gale. Sala applied these wind descriptions to the second movement of the concerto, using them as alternative tempo indications for the music. In this the concerto takes the inflection of this historical sea voyage, as if the music were literally buffeted by the winds and waves.

At the same time the Concerto sounds audibly changed: a corruption of Mozart’s intentions. This ‘corruption’ evokes the rift between Enlightenment values of freedom and tolerance, and their counterparts of progress and rational enquiry, which drove the colonial agenda.

The architecture of the rotunda

Architecture is a recurrent focus in Sala’s practice. Like sound, Sala mines architecture for its social and historical meaning, frequently investigating the relationship between the aural and visual. Historically used for musical performances, the rotunda frames the gaze from a defined vantage point. From inside the rotunda we survey the landscape from an elevated position, moving our focus away from the land and out towards the sea and the colony’s origins.

Sala simultaneously uses and disrupts this structure for viewing. The Last Resort is visible and audible from multiple angles, both inside and outside the rotunda, but unconventionally, the work is bound to the ceiling, encouraging visitors to reorient themselves in relation to the sculpture and sound raised over their heads.


Image 1: Kaldor Public Art Project 33: Anri Sala, The Last Resort, photograph: Peter Greig

Image 2: Kaldor Public Art Project 33: Anri Sala, The Last Resort The Rotunda, Observatory Hill Park, Millers Point, photograph: Peter Greig