White Night Melbourne: down Alice’s rabbit hole and into the Yarra light

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Has Melbourne ever shone brighter? In one of the warmest nights of the year some half a million people made their way into the much expanded wonderland of Melbourne’s third incarnation of White Night.

White Night is inspired by the Paris Nuit Blanche that has birthed an internationally networked series of events around the world. But Melbourne has added its own stamp by closing off most of the city to cars and public transport and utilising its laneways and Victorian facades as extended canvases for the art to flourish.

From dusk till dawn on Saturay night, Melbourne’s CBD was transformed into an incandescent landscape of video projections, music, film and installation art – a creative playground open for anyone game enough to persevere through the crowds.

After record-breaking crowds in 2014, this year’s event was extended to include the Melbourne Museum and Exhibition Building, while Melbourne’s major cultural institutions the State Library, the National Gallery of Victoria and Federation Square remained open all night, playing host to art, film and a significantly expanded live music and DJ program.

If the intention was to quell the exhausting crush of crowds characterising last year’s event, it appears to have worked – this was a much more chilled affair and an easy flow of foot traffic was sustained throughout the night. But the sheer scale of White Night meant it required careful planning and lots of stamina to take in the prime events without being stricken with Fomo (fear of missing out) syndrome.

Early in the evening we headed straight to the new precinct near the museum, where Tek Tek ensemble played a saltry Balkan-meets-Asian fusion, providing the perfect opening with high-energy trumpet–fuelled global beats.

Come sunset, the Exhibition Building came to life with stunning four elements-inspired projections across its 134-year-old facade featuring primal dance performances from the National Dance Company of Portugal, an aerial circus artist and a synchronised swimmer. The projection included animated flames engulfing the building in perfect symmetry with its architectural features, complete with amplified sounds of licking flames, howling winds and dripping water all set to an orchestral soundtrack.

Around the corner at the State Library, to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland, Alice frolicked across the side of the building in a fitting metaphor for the night’s hallucinatory down-the-rabbit-hole feel. But the main attraction at the library was the transformation of the dome reading room into a glittering techno wonderland. The reading room is grand at any time, but with an ambient electro soundtrack and spritely android-like projections across the walls, it became mesmerising.

Some of best bits of White Night are the ones you stumble upon by accident. In a grungy car park on La Trobe Street around midnight, we chanced upon a massive cut-out graffiti mural of a beautifully amorphous girl splayed across the wall, synced with projections of city skylines and industrial wastelands all set to an electronic soundtrack. The wows from the onlookers said it all.

Major city churches opened their doors in what might’ve been their busiest 24 hours of the year. The historic Scots’ Church on Collins Street had subtle projections including what appeared to be a pig mask in front of the pulpit – demonstrating they were willing to leave dogma aside for the night and embrace the anarchic spirit of the event. Revellers filled the pews in appreciation of art over scripture.

The Yarra river was also well utilised with illuminated lotus flowers on the river surface and a floating stage with Indian dancers. It was a beautiful and fitting display, but with minimal room among inebriated revellers to sit on the banks, the logistics of how to take in the spectacle could have been better thought through.

On the south side of the river in Alexandra Gardens, bands performed across two stages, including the Bollywood-inspired Bombay Royale and cool indie rocker Jack Ladder. The commercial reality of staging an event on such a massive scale also reared its ugly head here, with one light installation appearing to be a blatant advertisement for two branded cars that flashed their headlights on and off.

By the time we returned to the epicentre of the action at Flinders Street and Federation Square around 1am, there was no sign of crowds dissipating – but they remained manageable to navigate. The facade of Flinders Street Station was a light show of psychedelic proportions and the Alice in Wonderland theme was extended all the way from Russell Street to Elizabeth Street.

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Federation Square hosted all-night free movie screenings, including a 45-minute Vincent Price hagiography from film-maker Michael Lane that provided a welcome respite from the relentless energy outside. The National Gallery of Victoria garden was also a choice chill-out zone, with projections alongside a funky dancefloor.

A main complaint for this year would be that distances between events made it even more difficult to take everything in without the stamina of a long-distance athlete, and the Alice in Wonderland theme was ever so slightly trite and overdone. Also, despite isolated highlights, the festival lacked a strong narrative focus or creative centre.

But these are minor quibbles in what has already proven to be a brilliant addition to Melbourne’s cultural calendar. For those of us who grew up in Melbourne during the 70s and 80s and still remember the drab “dark nights” when the CBD was a veritable cultural wasteland, White Night is a joyous and welcome antithesis.

This article first published in The Guardian

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