Do You Hear The People Sing? Metro Arts, Brisbane

Do You Hear The People Sing
Metro Arts, Brisbane

30 January – 16 February

Opening Night: 30 January, 6pm

Curator’s Talk: 30 January, 5:30pm

Liam Benson and Cassandra Bird, Dean Cross, Beth Dillon, George Haddad, Heidi Lefebvre, Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Luke O’Connor, Katy B Plummer, Em Size, Marcia Swaby, Alexander Tanazefti, Athena Thebus, Amanda Wolf and Zoe Wong.

Curated by Heidi Lefebvre, Katy B Plummer and Luke Létourneau.

 Inspired by the many versions of Les Misérables, this exhibition encompasses a kaleidoscopic range of artistic approaches to subverting and interpreting personal and historical narratives, via high-drama, excess and passion.
Each work in the exhibition both meditates on the way our culture creates memory and intervenes in how we understand ourselves within those memories. It contains works from 15 artists in various mediums, including sculpture and video.
As part of this project, I have presented a new interactive installation which combines soft sculpture, clay, found objects, fresh lillies, and food platters. 'The Flesh around the Bruise' presents as an abandoned feast littered with teeth and severed heads. It drips with lavish textures and colours and invites the audience to pick at the carcus of a decadent and seemingly violent affair. Over the course of Do You Hear The People Sing, the flowers will wilt, the wine will sour, and the offerings will spoil from temptations to abject waste.
                      The Flesh Around the Bruise, installation view. Photograph courtesy of Holly Bates

Essay By Luke Létourneau

‘Do you hear the people sing?’, the song, is part call-to-action, part war cry and part tribute to all that is lost in revolutionary commotion. That song first appears in the indelible megamusical Les Misérables around the midway point as a group of students prepare to launch a rebellion in the streets of Paris. The rebellion, by most accounts, fails. Yet then the song recurs at the culmination of the musical, and at this point the song is a recognition that past actions are not taken in vein. A rebellion will come again, and it will be the beneficiary of the passion it shares with, and is built on from, its fallen predecessors.
That song, and its narrative dynamic, is what provides this exhibition its namesake. The central concern of Do you hear the people sing? is how we consume and regenerate narratives.
It understands that history is constantly being forged not by reasonable adults building a considered future, but by passionate individuals tangling on a gut level. History is never a static thing, and they don’t just come out of nowhere. Each of the works in Do you hear the people sing? is a meditation on the way our culture creates memory, and an intervention into how we understand ourselves within that culture.
Les Misérables is a story famous for emphasising the experiences and conditions of peasant life in revolutionary Paris. It opens in 1815 and follows a series of interpersonal melodramas and culminates with the 1832 failed revolution known as the June Rebellion. Revolutionary ferment provides the backdrop for the characters to fall in love and confront their own values within a repressive society. Les Misérables is one story about the many stories that arc through the June Rebellion. My co-curators Heidi Lefebvre and Katy B Plummer had originally planned an-almost literal homage to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel interpreted through the lens of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s 1980 megamusical. For Heidi and Katy, Les Misérables’s scale created complications when attempting to pay homage as a mere duo. Instead, to keep true to the story’s sprawl, they opted to allow the spectacle to unravel a bit.

      Soft Skull (2019) upholestry material, foam, wire, and stuffing. 
       Installed as part of The Flesh Around the Bruise for Do You Hear The People Sing?

Unravelling the spectacle is the point at which I joined the curatorial team. And while this exhibition marks our third iteration considering this source material (starting with Les Misérables ’18 at Kudos Gallery, Sydney and continuing with La Petite Veste Militaire at Tributary Projects, Canberra) I still have almost no attachment to Les Misérables, the book or the megamusical.
It’s just some thing that has happened which other people feel deeply about. It is in my consciousness, no doubt, but that’s probably more due to a strange social and cultural osmosis.
To understand the source material, its narrative sprawl and continuing cultural value, I relied on how my co-curators explained their attachment to it.
When I first met Katy, she expressed a pointed interest in the overwhelming mainstream success of the megamusical, and it as a product so unapologetically sympathetic toward the idea of violence as an unavoidable aspect of the revolutionary charge. Les Misérables is also an idol of her tween years and is inseparable from her own stories of toiling away in her adolescent bedroom making crafty costumes and belting out songs of social unrest and revolutionary upheaval. For this exhibition, she has made a work that cobbles together the grand swell of history, deep psychic interior space, radical politics and adolescent feelings –
wrapping it in craft felt and plasticine and fashioning it into a light-hearted operetta about all the saddest things in the history of the world.

Heidi levelled Hugo’s text as something adjacent to poverty porn. However, she still understands Hugo as an author sensitive to the unifying force of social injustice and heartbreak. For Heidi, Les Misérables needs to be both updated and appreciated. It has value as an expansive vision of unstable cultural hierarchies, but it is also a story inseparable from the (potentially hypocritical) person telling it.
Both of my co-curators have made work for this exhibition that intersects their own personal and political narratives with an existing one. They occupy and unravel elements of Les Misérables to retell their own stories and histories. Neither of my co-curators treat Les Misérables as sacred, they enjoy unravelling it, but they do not treat it as devoid of cultural value. Every artist in this exhibition is performing a similar version of this cultural and narrative subversion.

Do you hear the people sing? is less indebted to the source material’s plot points, and more so to the expectations of the megamusical as a mode of storytelling. The exhibition is an adaptation. It isn’t a faithful adaptation by any stretch – you won’t find set pieces, period details or plot points, let alone famous characters or songs – but the exhibition is tethered to a storytelling mode where a large-scale display of feelings is framed through an historically-situated drama. Each artist utilises that megamusical impulse for a high sense of drama as a method for retelling personal and political narratives to subvert and reinvent them.

These remade narratives are presented in Metro Arts across four semi-contained spaces.The first space presents a sedate version of transformation. The works by Em Size, Athena Thebus, Zoe Wong and the collaboration between Liam Benson and Cassandra Bird reveal fantasies about upending the status quo from a comfortable space of intimacy and safety: bedrooms, bathrooms, backyards.
The second space deals with monuments as another material trace of history. Monuments, like the histories they stand in for, only ever hold esteem to people when their value is questioned. Literal and figurative monuments feature in the works of Beth Dillon, George Haddad, Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Luke O’Connor and Marcia Swaby. The artists handle these monuments directly and critique their value, both internally and to the wider culture.

Katy B Plummer, Dean Cross Alexander Tanazefti and Amanda Wolf occupy the third space, their works engaging with the visual imagery of violent or disruptive politics. Be it of the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution, the indulgences of the Dutch Still Life traditions, the myths of Ned Kelly, or the 1968 student protests, unrest is a legitimately productive political tool that flaccidly survives in images. The artists recall this imagery to question its palpability in contemporary culture.
In the fourth space, on the final wall before the exhibition flow cycles back around, sits an installation by Heidi Lefebvre. This work is the most literal engagement with Les Misérables as cultural product. The artist imagines a restaging by telling a story about telling a story.

Do you hear the people sing? emphasises the act of telling and retelling in political narratives. Like the historico-peasant drama of Les Misérables, the artists in this exhibition inflect stories we may already recognise from their own perspectives. Histories are being critiqued here, sure, but this criticality generates an instability that welcomes us into the fray. The fray is not about writing narratives anew, but about emphasising the instability of any kind of singularity. Histories are always being meddled with, and without a critical eye new and old icons will begin being inscribed without our permission or without us even knowing about it. After all, this exhibition urges its audience to acknowledge that history is in fact constantly being forged by passionate individuals tangling on a gut level. So be a participant in its meddling, and only then will our shared narratives begin to reflect that very thing; that they are shared and that they must be shared to mean a thing at all.

Documentation by Louis Lim