From a cherry picker several stories above a City West car park, the super fine detail in Canberra’s newest major artwork on the side of the Street Theatre is nothing short of remarkable.
Artist Luke Cornish (better know to many as ELK) is using a quickly sourced oak leaf to apply a serrated edge to a skull. The skull, in turn is being held in the hand of a giant Hamlet/everyman figure – who is wearing an all too familiar pandemic mask.
To the right, a mandala that echoes Tibetan spirituality radiates instead with the masks of comedy and tragedy, stage lights and a subtle reference to Parliament House and the people who inhabit it. Multiple layers of meaning anchor the mural to this site, this place and this city.
The work is called Together Alone, and is the result of an intense and difficult year for the performing arts community in Canberra. The word unprecedented has been thrown around repeatedly, but for actors, directors and those who work or support the the performing arts industry, the end of live performance was a brutal shock.
Street Theatre artistic director Caroline Stacey found herself alone in the building, trying to piece together a program that could no longer be performed to an audience now only available via a computer screen. From the depths of this experience, a major artwork was born with help from the City Renewal Authority.
“I’ve been thinking about placemaking in City West for a long time,”said Ms Stacey
“People don’t quite know what it is and who we are.
“The pandemic was a line in the sand for the performing arts. I wanted a marker for that time, for theatre to do something that contributed to the conversation where we work and live.”
The choice of Mr Cornish for the project was an important starting point. An internationally acknowledged artist, he grew up in Canberra and makes complex, nuanced stencil works using multiple layers.
In addition to his deep local DNA, Ms Stacey felt the community needed to be embedded in the project.
“We needed a willingness to meet with artists, neighbours and staff to hear their thoughts around theatre and what connected them to this place,” she said.
“Work on this scale is a new direction for Mr Cornish, although Ms Stacey said part of the Street’s brief is to uplift artists “in this case, literally”.
The question posed by the Street was why theatre?
Aware that for many in the arts community 2020 had been an extremely tough year, Mr Cornish thought about the Zoom generation and the role played by the arts in connecting people.
He understood that many passers-by wouldn’t have an intimate knowledge of the theatre and that the images would need to speak to everyone.
Artist Dan Maginnity (Byrd) worked closely with him and City Services gave their support as the project evolved.
As the images emerged over a three week period, people from nearby offices and buildings began sending in their photos, often with Black Mountain in the background.
“I wanted to have more than one focal point on that wall, using both abstraction and figurative images,” Mr Cornish said.
“The mandala fades out into background and the figure emerges, depending on where you are standing. It’s almost like two murals – there are so many different points of view, a bit like a big jigsaw puzzle.”
Ms Stacey thinks he has succeeded brilliantly.
“If anything came from COVID it was a pure and distilled understanding of what happens between people when we gather and come together,” she said.
“This image talks to all the tropes of theatre with the Hamlet reference that goes from high to pop culture, the mandala’s energy and life force. It’s enigmatic and it’s provocative.
“When I ask people how they respond, they bring their own readings. There’s actually life in a space that didn’t have life – it’s energised the place overwhelmingly.
“I just hope that it starts conversations – that’s about connection isn’t it?”