A many-Splendoured thing: how art at music festivals makes people think

Splendour in the Grass festival’s challenging artworks including a full-sized Amish community, an archaelogical dig and Nicolas Cage ... in a cage

This year’s Splendour in the Grass festival had its fair share of oddities: a man dressed as a giant disco ball, 3D mini-selfie figurines and a bunny in a cat carrier. Yet even the most blasé festivalgoer raised an eyebrow at what appeared to be an on-site Amish community. Some of the softly spoken besuited men and women in bonnets and full-length skirts whittled; some gathered around a maypole outside the full-sized barn; many reclined for hours on giant hay bales.

Anabaptister was one of seven Splendour art installations, with a greenhouse filled with multi-coloured sugar sculptures, an enormous maze of illuminated columns, an apparent “archaeological” dig and an inflatable jumping castle featuring actor Nicolas Cage in a cage.

Splendour’s arts curator, Craig Walsh, enjoys interrupting the expectations of festival-goers. “It’s a great moment to be able to stop someone or intervene in their path and make them think differently,” he says of the installations placed strategically between the main stages.

And the audience’s confusion around the works is just what he’s after. “It’s part of contemporary culture that we are conditioned to read or interpret something in a particular way. All these artists – and contemporary art – like to disrupt that conditioned response to the experience.”

Bennett Miller, the artist behind Anabaptister, says audiences are often irritated or bemused by the Amish community installation, particularly when none of the 150 volunteers will confirm or deny their reason for being. “I don’t want it to be as adversarial as it can end up being but it is trying to give a gentle prod at how people’s behaviour can be at these festivals.”

Walsh works with both established artists, such as the sugar sculpture creator Pip and Pop, and emerging artists such as the “archaeological dig” artist Tom Borgas, who are interested in working in alternative spaces. There are obvious challenges to festival arts programs like this: work stays outdoors for four days and is likely to be seen by thousands of inquisitive festival-goers, so it needs to be robust.

Yet it’s an opportunity for artists to reach different audiences. “For an artist, to be able to stand beside the work and hear the commentary about the work, it’s so honest. It can be brutal, but it’s intense and that’s why it’s really good for an artist to do a project at the site,” says Walsh.

Barcelona creative studio Hungry Castle, who presented the inflatable Nicolas Cage in a cage for this year’s festival, says festival audiences allow them to be more “out there”. Says artist Killian Cooper: “What’s great about a festival is that people are up for it. They are like ‘I’m here, rain or shine, I’m up for it.’ Because our stuff is weird and wonderful and bizarre, we feel like it’s embraced more. This is our audience.”

Non-traditional spaces like festivals are becoming increasingly important to artists, says Walsh, particularly with changes to funding like those recently announced by the federal arts minister, George Brandis. Walsh fears “a creative drain” in Australia, as emerging artists and cross collaborations are most likely to be affected by the cuts.

The Splendour organisers support the arts and artists, mostly commissioning new work for their program because it fits with their festival philosophy. “Visual artists are as important as the musicians”, says Walsh. “It would be unbalanced not to have visual culture represented. Some contemporary artists make music and some do it in other forms.”

The art of Splendour

Nicolas Cage in a Cage. Splendour In The Grass festival (day two) in Byron Bay, Australia, in July 2015. Photo by Jonny Weeks for The Guardian
Nicolas Cage in a Cage. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian

What was it? Nicolas Cage in a cage, by Barcelona creative studio Hungry Castle, who make art, clothing and “cool shit”.

Looked like ... A large jumping castle-type sculpture with an inflatable version of actor Nicolas Cage’s head and pink inflatable bars

The idea behind it … According to Hungry Castle’s Killian Cooper: “Our art is inspired by the internet and the way we see it, Nicolas Cage is the internet. He is everyone. He’s a banana, he’s a hamster, he’s the queen of England. Our thing is cool shit is the internet in real life, and we wanted to put it in 3D and put Nicolas Cage in a cage.”

Why? Last year Hungry Castle brought an inflatable Lionel Ritchie’s head to Splendour, so they had to follow up with something special. Says Cooper: “All our installations are always interactive, because our sculptures comes alive when people interact with it.”

The Splendour crowd ... took selfies with Nicolas Cage.

Splendour In The Grass festival (day two) in Byron Bay, Australia, in July 2015. Photo by Jonny Weeks for The Guardian
Anabaptister on Saturday at Splendour Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian

What was it? Anabaptister by Perth artist Bennett Miller, the third in Miller’s series of commissioned Splendour works including Rumspringer and Barnraiser.

Looked like … a full-sized barn surrounded by hay bales and a maypole, run by besuited and bonneted faux Amish people.

The idea behind it … Miller wanted to investigate the behaviour of festival-goers and came up with the idea of the Amish community as the opposite extreme.

Why? “We try to get people to consider their behaviour and how coded it already is at the festival,” says Miller. “[It’s] a way to check in with their friends, what they are doing, this group costume mentality thing. When we do it this other way, it really bothers people.”

The Splendour crowd … Loved it or hated it.

A mock excavation site at Splendour in the Grass 2015 in Australia. The art installation is called ‘Postdigital Ruins’ and is by Tom Borgas.
Postdigital Ruins by Tom Borgas Photograph: Tom Borgas

What was it? Postdigital ruins from emerging Adelaide artist Tom Borgas, the 2015 Splendour in the Grass NEWART commission.

Looked like … A group of dungaree-clad scientists excavating a muddy patch over four days to uncover a fluorescent pink triangulated sculpture.

The idea behind it … Borgas was inspired by the idea that digital knowledge is now stored in clouds, imagining the over-saturated cloud had ruptured on the Splendour site, so the “archaeologists” were attempting to investigate.

Why? Borgas wanted to a work that evolved over the four-day festival and incited curiosity. “I want people to be compelled to try and work it out without quite getting there,” he said.

The Splendour crowd asked … What on earth are you digging for?


Alexandra Spring

The GuardianTramp

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