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Winter Solstice: New Lights and Dark Chords

June 21, 2014

While Hobartians are enjoying a full-on festival – Dark Mofo – to celebrate the Winter Solstice, we here in the national capital have had our little celebration. Or, at least, Mr Gums and I attended one. There might be others going on that I know nothing about.

Winter Solstice: New Lights and Dark Chords was, hmmm, what exactly was it? Well, it was a program inspired by the solstice that combined story, poetry, astronomy and music to explore our responses to light and darkness. It was held at the National Library of Australia. Their promotion described it as follows:

White like black, like light and like darkness, connect literature, music, art, spirituality and science. Cultures around the world have been observing the winter solstice for thousands of years. Join us to celebrate the universal wonders of light and dark and their resonances through contemporary art, music and poetry …

That’s pretty much what it was … and this is how it went.

We arrived and entered the atmospherically darkened theatre before start time to find flautist Kiri Sollis and harpist Laura Tanata of the Griffyn Ensemble playing the opening movements of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s moody, atmospheric Good Night (which I have heard them perform before). It was a moving opening, spoiled only by two women talking rather loudly, completely oblivious it seemed to the quiet, expressive performance going on in front of them.

The program then officially opened with a video “welcome to country” from Paul House. It was a longer “welcome” than we usually hear but I appreciated the exhortation for us to follow the law of the country which includes to “honour all people and parts of country, respect everything living and growing”. Should be simple, eh?

This was followed by our MC for the evening, actor Rhys Muldoon, reading a brief poem titled “Sunset” written by John Kinsella for the Luminous World exhibition currently running at the Library. Muldoon then introduced us to the aforementioned Paul House who told us the local indigenous story of the Seven Ice Maidens who, he said, are also known as Pleiades. It’s a creation story about ice and snow that integrated perfectly with the program and marked, I think, an important step on our reconciliation journey, at least in terms of my experience of such events.

House was followed by Helen Carroll, the curator of the “Luminous World – Contemporary art from the Wesfarmers Collection” exhibition currently at the National Library. Wesfarmers is a Western Australian corporation that has been collecting Australian (and now New Zealand) art for over three decades. Luminous World is a travelling exhibition of photos, painting and sculpture that has been formed around one idea – light. Carroll then showed several of her favourite pieces from the collection – such as David Stephenson’s intriguing “Star Drawing” photos, Gretchen Albrecht’s abstract expressionist “Sherbert Sky”, Howard Taylor’s austere “Bushfire Sun”, and Rosalie Gascoigne’s dramatic “Hung Fire”. Another was indigenous artist Timothy Cook’s yam dreaming painting “Kulama”. What did that have to do with the theme I wondered? But Carroll explained that it depicts the orange light around the moon which indicates that the yams are ready to eat. Carroll ended with two beautiful photographs by Bill Henson, the last being of Sardinia which perfectly conveyed, she said, “the poetry of light”. You can check out the exhibition online. Fremantle Press has produced a book of the exhibition, which includes the art works, essays and John Kinsella’s poetry.


Analemma pattern in the sky (Courtesy: jailbird, using CC-BY-SA-2.0-de, via Wikipedia)

Next up was probably for me the most surprising – as in surprisingly interesting – part of the evening, astronomer and photographer David Malin who presented a talk titled “Casting light on the solstice: the stars as clock, calendar and compass”. I say surprising because I find astronomy beautiful but, like geology, mind-boggling.  Malin explained the science of the “solstice” and introduced me to the concept of the “analemma“, which is most commonly used for the curve that describes the Sun’s apparent motion, observed from a fixed position on the Earth (Wikipedia). He accompanied his talk with the first successful photo of an analemma taken by Dennis Di Cicco in 1978/9. I found it all beautiful and fascinating. Of course, this may not be new to you all, but for me it was a case of “you learn something new every day”!

Malin’s talk was followed by the Griffyn Ensemble performing the last movement of “Good Night”, with soprano Susan Ellis and the rest of the ensemble on percussion joining Kiri and Laura. You can hear another version of this piece, with piano instead of harp, online.

Muldoon returned with another poem by Kinsella, titled “The Universe”. I loved the line “When we are made, unmade, remade” for reminding us that we and the universe are never static. He then concluded the program with a well-known but apposite quote by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross:

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.

It was the perfect end to an enjoyably varied and nicely structured program – except that wasn’t quite the end, because we all filed out of the theatre and up to the National Library’s foyer, with its famous stained-glass windows, to partake of canapés and a choice of drinks, including ice wine*, mulled wine, hot apple cider. We went home warmed and enlightened!

* Coincidentally, I only discovered ice wine last month when we visited Canada’s best-known producer of ice wine, Pillitteri Estates Winery.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2014 11:07 pm

    Sounds like a lovely evening. David Malin takes such wonderful photographs.

    • June 21, 2014 11:20 pm

      Oh, you know him bmpermie? Yes, he does. He showed a couple of his own. He was a very engaging – though not showy – speaker. I enjoyed him.

      • June 21, 2014 11:24 pm

        I know of him because I have seen some of his amazing photographs. How lucky to have heard him speak.

        • June 21, 2014 11:28 pm

          Yes, I realised I should have said “know OF him” as I guessed that’s what you meant. I hadn’t seen his photos before so it was great to “meet” him now. Never too late, eh?

  2. June 22, 2014 7:44 am

    Sounds like an enchanting evening. I was born in Tasmania but these days my body finds the winters there to be absolutely appalling. Winter in that State has been saved, however, by the enigmatic David Walsh and his Dark MOFO.
    Of course, I find Canberra far too cold in the winter too but this Winter Solstice program sounds fascinating and might just be the ticket to lure people like me to the capital in the darker months.

    • June 22, 2014 8:36 am

      Ah, I didn’t know or had forgotten that Karen Lee. I find Tasmania too cold too. Yes, I know Canberra is cold too! As I get older I am liking it less but at least we have more warmth than Tasmania which I love. I don’t mind the heat. I love Canberra though because we have so much at our fingertips. We don’t have to gird our loins to go anywhere.

  3. June 22, 2014 10:48 am

    This sounds beautiful, thank you for sharing it. As a former Canberran intending to move to the Huon Valley, I am blocking my ears to all this talk of ‘too cold’. Personally, I can’t take the Melbourne summer any more.

    • June 22, 2014 11:00 am

      Thanks Jane … well the Huon is pretty and I suppose with climate change we should all be moving there. I like the heat … but I’m not keen on Melbourne’s weather at all. I don’t think it’s heat is as clean and dry as ours here!

      • June 22, 2014 12:28 pm

        There’s no better summer than a Canberra summer!

        • June 22, 2014 12:49 pm

          I think so too … We have the occasional string of very hot days but I prefer them to strings of very cold days or to strings of meek summer days. But then, I am Queensland born, though I left there when I was 14!

  4. June 22, 2014 12:56 pm

    What a wonderful festival. Hobart’s festival has been focused on music and food. We have seen the sky lights (6 beams rotating above Hobart) managed by children and others each night. The food festival was turning people away as over 14,000 people on the wharfs. Now to settle down to real winter days and nights. (You should have told those ladies to be quiet. As I get older I get bolder. I grabbed a lady by the shoulders in the theatre royal and shook her one night after she refused to turn her phone off 3 times during a dramatic performance.) It startled her. Great post and great times.

    • June 22, 2014 1:24 pm

      Thanks Pam … the crowds are so positive for the event holders but make it less fun for the attendees I think. I try to avoid crowded events these days. Seeing the skylights from afar would be great though.

      As for the ladies. I did shh them, but I was a few rows back. After I gave it a go a few others did too, but they were completely oblivious – maybe they were hard of hearing. That’s my generous response to their behaviour!

  5. June 23, 2014 12:28 pm

    What a multi-faceted event to mark Winter Solstice. It’s so interesting to read about these special conglomeration of artistic/literary/scientific events your country has to offer. We have our summer solstice as you have your winter, however, we don’t have anything literary to celebrate this longest day of the year.

    • June 23, 2014 2:47 pm

      Thanks Arti … I enjoy attending and writing about these events. It’s exciting seeing ideas being connected across diverse realms of thought and activity. I suspect Winter Solstice lends itself more to such celebration. In the summer one you just want to be outside enjoying!

  6. June 28, 2014 7:30 am

    What a wonderful winter solstice celebration! I would have enjoyed it very much. Of course while you were celebrating winter I was celebrating summer with a meal that came almost entirely from my garden.

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