Robert Reid attends The Wilds on the opening night of Rising, and finds that it’s a mixed experience
Described as a “supernatural forest of ice, art, sound and moonlight”, The Wilds at Rising is collectively a walking tour of lighting installations, a chance to sample some bespoke food created for the event and – if you were lucky enough to get a ticket – the return of ice skating at the Sidney Myer Musical Bowl. As a grab bag of experiences it sounds promising, but the reality is haphazard and disjointed. Which is a shame, because I was really looking forward to what it might have been.
On entering The Wilds, the lights from many of the installations peek tantalisingly over the horizon. The promise of these half-hidden but glowing worlds reminds me of The Royal Melbourne Show or Luna Park at night. The lights of the Melbourne CBD twinkle and dance around the edges of the park and above us the super moon is just beginning to slip into the earth’s shadow.
There are many people scattered around, looking at the lights and chatting. Almost everyone I see has their phone out, hunting for the Instagrammable moments that almost define this event. Those photos of loved ones silhouetted by walls of light or glowing clouds are inevitably more beautiful than the real thing, cropped and posed and angled for the best effect, #nofilter. The installation themselves are for the most part less impressive than their reproductions.
The pathway around the Music Bowl is strictly one way, and this is enforced by the event staff who, along with the many uniformed police patrolling the space, give the experience a distinctly authoritarian undertone. It’s probably not helped by the anxiety spreading through Melbourne about the new outbreak and the threat of a fifth lockdown.
Taking the works individually, I was most impressed by the first few we came upon. The Bamboo Forest is a gentle but still soaring installation that is exactly what it says it is: a lot of very tall bamboo stalks, lit from below, through which you can see parts of the next installation, Bubbles. Bubbles, large hemispheres made of split bamboo, reminds me a little like giant versions of the willow balls you see in interior decorating magazines or might give to your cat to play with. They’re scattered throughout this part of the park, but they’re concentrated at the beginning and are very effective. They appear frozen in the act of rising from the earth and, especially when seen through the bamboo forest, create a sense of an alien landscape.
From here one passes through The Light Tunnel which, despite its height and cathedral-like appearance, still feels a little too much like a tunnel made of fairy lights. Pretty enough, but not a lot of depth. This is one of the choke-points for Instragrammers, so we had to keep our wits about us if you’re looking around at all the lights and not keeping an eye on where you’re going.
Coming out of The Light Tunnel we encounter Arc Zero Eclipse, an arresting work which from a distance looks like a completely black sphere shrouded by a corona of illuminated mist. As you get closer, it resolves into a flat half-circle that is completed by its reflection in the water beneath, but this takes nothing away from the quality of mystery that it evokes. It looks so much like how we imagine a black hole that it’s hard to see anything else. This was the highlight for me.
The further we followed the path, the less impressive the installations became. The path leads you around the back of the Music Bowl to the open food area, where Shannon Martinez of Smith and Daughters fame, working with Hector’s Deli, Colin Wood of Cutler & Co and Casey Wall of Bar Liberty, are making their take on street food, vegan beef and pickle toasties, and classic American loose meat sandwiches, and we sit around communal tables to eat after ordering via the QR code. The food is relatively cheap, considering, and it’s not terrible, although it’s a little cold. Sitting there I feel that this might sum up the whole experience of The Wilds: not terrible and a bit cold.
From here I get a sense of why The Wilds is already feeling more half empty than half full. Looking around the park, the lights of each installation struggle to outdo the city buildings all around it. Not to mention the cosmic light show happening above us with the blood moon eclipse. Maybe it’s churlish to compare the installations to the high-rise office blocks and an actual eclipse of the moon, but I can’t help thinking that if a celebration of art made with light is placed in the middle of a fully illuminated city, and opens on the night of a Super Blood Moon, the comparison is inescapable. An immersive experience, even one as minimally immersive as this, must consider its whole environment, or risk being undermined and overwhelmed.
Leaving the food court area, we carry on along the path to Terrain, a massive projection of rainfalls and forest on the back of the Music Bowl. It’s got the size to be spectacular at least, though I wonder if Melbourne hasn’t seen enough digital projection. This feels very much like a legacy of White Night.
From Terrain, we follow the path to Vertices V, a bank of lights set up in a circle that pulse and orbit to a techno soundscape, above the heads of those who step inside the installation. There were too many people gathered in there for my liking on the eve of lockdown five and I didn’t step in to join them, so I can’t comment too much on it. It does remind me that most of the installations are accompanied by a gentle industrial soundscape. I’m not sure if it’s the same one piped throughout the whole of The Wilds, or it’s tailored individually for each installation, but everywhere you go there’s a near constant sound of running water, deep rumblings like far-off thunder and creaking, popping, breathy synth sounds.
Past Vertices V there is Woven Tunnel, another series of arches made from woven bamboo and lit from below. The Bubbles from earlier are visible on the other side of it just beyond and they still conjure the alien landscape but the repetition of ideas is starting to pall. Coming out of the tunnel, we’re led to what’s unquestionably the least inspiring of the installations, Forever Fall. This is a freestanding digital screen, maybe three metres tall, running a continuous loop of coloured falling clouds, or smoke. It seems drastically out of place. Everything else has so far has been organic and curved, whereas here we are confronted with the equivalent of a giant smartphone with the screen saver on. Still, plenty of people pose in front of it to get a selfie with a cool background. I wonder if that was the artist’s intent, if this is just meant to be wallpaper for another self-portrait that will disappear into the cloud.
The central element of The Wilds is undoubtedly the Museum of the Moon, which can be seen from most parts of the exhibition: a giant seven-foot replica of the real moon, which by now is barely a fingernail with a dusky red shadow. It hangs above the other central attraction of The Wilds, the Rinky Dink ice skating rink constructed on the stage of the Music Bowl. Here skaters whiz around, while anyone who wasn’t fortunate enough to book tickets to both events can stand by and watch.
We grab an Italian hot chocolate from the nearby stall and watch the various levels of skating prowess on display, and move on. We wander up and out of the bowl and past the Bubbles once more. The path here becomes darker and I wonder if there’ll be one big installation to leave a good final impression before we go. But I’m wrong. There isn’t any more, this is it. We come to the exit and wander back out into Melbourne, unilluminated.
Overall, The Wilds feels superficial, and the installations seem at odds with its title and theme: aside from the Terrain, there’s very little wildlife in evidence. There’s more emphasis on images that evoke the moon, which is perhaps to be expected given the festival’s name. Its installations are enough in their own way, but when compared to the Vivid Festival or even the Gertrude Street Projection Festival, the whole seems underdeveloped. I never lost myself in the experience, the aesthetic or the world.
The Rising Festival has been cancelled this week due to the Covid lockdown. Updates at the Rising website.
The Wilds, presented as part of the Rising Festival. Designed by Matt Adey. Cave Urban: Jed Long and Juan Pablo Pinto. Composition and sound design by Mark Mitchell and Pascal Babare, sound system designed by Nick Carroll, Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram, Arc ZERO Eclipse by James Tapscott.