Curator Tom Muller commissioned Jennifer Kornberger to create a multi-disciplinary artwork for the 2017 Fremantle Biennale. The work was site-specific, a spoken word installation involving 22 poets and a speech chorus in the crypt-like interior of Pakenham Street Art Space.
Introduction to 22 Pillars
by Jennifer Kornberger
I’ve always had a simple fascination with the way people can be moved by words, how they can be stirred or soothed or shown another way to feel. Poetry offers the most intense experience of words but does anybody read it? As a writer I know that poetry can be a fairly solitary pursuit – there’s the poet with the pen and there’s the reader with the book. But in its roots poetry is communal, it’s shared mythos, it’s the first songs of every culture. Words make us human, so it follows that strong, beautiful words can have an extraordinary effect on us.
Over the last few years I’ve been experimenting with ways to bring poetry into new contexts, to redraw its parameters and even bring back the social aspect, the collective experience. As a poet I get to meet quite a few poets. Unlike some hopeful prose writers poets know they will never pay the bills by writing poetry. This makes the air around them very free. You can breather better in their company. I had the idea of gathering up a group of them and creating an installation called the ‘Forest of Poets’. It was somewhere between a flash mob and a ritual for place. I found that people were hungry for meaningful words, it was very encouraging. Then I worked with a group of new writers to create an installation called ‘Oraculum’. In both these artworks I wanted the audience to move through the space and encounter the poets speaking to them. It’s quite intimate, there are no microphones, no distancing, each poet is entirely present for the audience member.
So 22 Pillars is the next in this series of experiments. I was asked by Tom Muller, the curator of High Tide, to respond to a particular site – Pakenham Street Art Space. It’s an orderly, evocative space, almost like a crypt. It has literally 22 Jarrah pillars, each one crying out to be inhabited by a poet. I decided to create 22 ‘local archetypes’ and have each poet write a piece to bring that archetype to life. The whole artwork would reveal and vivify Fremantle in a completely new way. What does the The Harbourmaster’s Daughter have to say, or The Green Lighthouse? If The Mouth of the River could speak what would it tell you, or The Shadow of the Roundhouse? In this installation The Fremantle Doctor poses a question, and The Ghost of a Woman finally speaks.
The poets have come through with some strong work. More than half of them actually live on the Aeolian dunes of greater Fremantle. 22 Pillars is a chance to meet them in action. Yes, there are some notable names in there, poets whose work regularly shows up in anthologies of best Australian poetry, prizewinning poets, but also poets whose work is emerging, so it’s a very egalitarian mix. To have the whole cohort focused on the Fremantle theme is really a first for the City.
22 Pillars goes further than the previous works because I decided to add a speech chorus. I call it The Limestone Chorus. There is something exhilarating in the sound of a word chorus. Again, it’s another aspect of the collective voice. Words behave like powers. 22 Pillars is a living artwork; it speaks, creates images and makes its own world.
There is nothing in the performance to distract from the words, the lighting is simple, the human voice is unadorned, what happens is between audience member and poets in a field, a highly crafted field of words.
The poets’ costumes, or orator’s garb, are designed with elegant simplicity by local designer Deborah McKendrick.
What can audience members expect? To be touched by unique performances and original material, to be opened to poetry in a totally new way, and to realise that poetry is indispensable to their lives.