The Sinking Ship Song

by Mark Calderwood

Come sail your ships around me. And burn your bridges down?

In a co-ordinated flurry that soaked social media in chardonnay and schmaltz, the Sydney Opera House recently released its Ship Song Project. Created by Sydney creative agency Three Drunk Monkeys, the year-long project presents the esteemed song by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds ‘recreated’ by a variety of musical artists beneath the famed architectural sails.

A wash of marketing hyperbole accompanied the media release, much of it focusing on the venue rather than the art. The ABC described it as ‘love song to our world heritage wonder.’ CNN went even further, calling it a tribute to the ‘arts epicentre of the nation’, with the ’emotional idealism of Nick Cave’s tune’ showcasing the ‘harborside (sic) home’ of a ‘creative nation’ to the world.

In plain speaking, it’s a promotional piece. An ad. One that turns a genuinely wrenching classic by a subversive songwriter into an insipid Qantas ad, while passing itself off as high culture.

This isn’t culture: Nick Cave performing at the Opera House would have been culture. This, to call a spade a spade, is commercialism that attempts to cash in on, and generate cultural cachet out of, two-decades old indie cred. As an art work it is aesthetically dishonest, intellectually disingenuous and pseudo-edgy saccharine that is aimed squarely, and somewhat patronisingly, at the lowest common denominator.

What do Daniel Johns, Sarah Blasko, The Temper Trap or Angus & Julia Stone have to do with opera? They might be current pop luminaries, but their inclusion in this project is bewildering- the contrived casting looks more influenced by ARIA sales than by any genuine relationship with the Opera House. No, that content is provided by having ballet classes, powdered wigs and the Bangarra Dance Company randomly shoehorned into the sequence backgrounds…at least when it’s not simply bare stages and packing crates, so we know it’s Serious Art.

Even more tragically, despite the extraordinary talent of the participating artists, the finished product resembled nothing so much as a rehash of Stairways to Heaven. Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ operatic rendition, or instance, immediately brings to mind Michael Turkic and Sandra Hahn’s gloriously overblown version of the rock classic, while John Bell gravely speaking his assigned line (all of five words) is an unintentional parody of the late Leonard Teale’s deadpan recitation. But while there were moments in the 1989 comedy project when farce approached art, it’s much harder to stomach when art approaches farce.

Cultural vandalism may be what all the cool kids are doing nowadays (looking at you, ABC) but this seems a very public case where one of our most prominent cultural institutions is falling down on the job, and shortchanging itself with its own vision. What constitutes ‘culture’, high or low, when the self-proclaimed icon of culture trades off pop stars, relegating its own purpose- opera, dance and theatre- to the background?

To be fair, the Opera House is undeniably a beleaguered institution, like many others hobbled by the appalling dearth of funding to stage and promote the art forms that are its raison and mainstay. But are our public cultural institutions justified in doing whatever it takes to appeal to the Facebook generation, disguising treacle-thick marketing as art? What price reputation?

It’s even more disturbing to think that the project really is a reflection of ‘a creative nation’: pandering to populism, dumbing down art and paying ‘tribute’ without understanding. (Angus Stone, for example, witters ‘it’s almost like the song’s written for the Opera House and bridge,’ misreading (as did the project director, apparently) the lyric as referring to literal sailing ships rather than a metaphor for justifying infidelity. Not so surprising, given he admits not being aware of the original Ship Song until being asked to join the project.) Worse, not even lip service is paid to the intent and aesthetic of the originating artist;  a few grand in the hip pocket may secure permission, but it doesn’t seem to buy genuine respect (except perhaps from Katie Noonan, who has previously navigated similar waters with dignity.)

Standing trial-by-facebook, the five-minute video met with rapturous bleats of approval: chief among the comments were ‘something that doesn’t appeal to middle-aged people living in Rose Bay,’ and ‘I cried…then I came’. Reasoned argument if ever it was heard. (Plus, ick.) But then, advertising is designed to exploit emotion. This might be the direction the Opera House plans to head in once those snobby aria-loving dowagers are shuffled off, but seriously, is the demographic who flock to see the creator of True Blood really going to come back for a season of interpretive dance?

As a contemporary art project, the Ship Song Project taps into a broader dialogue with the state and direction of the arts in Australia, and poses some unsettling questions. To quote Winston Churchill, ‘criticism…fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.’