RISING Festival: The Wilds – Event Review

Intended to replace Melbourne’s iconic White Night and the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Rising Melbourne boasted an inaugural program the size and scale of which the city had rarely seen before. With the promise to “transform and invigorate Melbourne… and stake its claim as “Asia Pacific’s pre-eminent cultural festival””, Rising Melbourne was set to wow Melbournians with its large-scale installations, wacky private experiences and live shows curated by Meredith Festival’s Woody McDonald.

On it’s opening night, under an incoming lunar eclipse that brought with it a sense of renewal, Rising Melbourne’s installation at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl was in full swing. The Wilds, an exploration of nature, light and sound, had completely taken over the bowl and its surrounding area in all its ethereal, supernatural beauty that night. Walking up the gravel path toward the monument of King George V attendees are first met by a steel canopy with bright lanterns lighting the path from overhead. After completing the standard COVID-19 safety measures, the entry to The Wilds comes into focus, a bold neon green sign standing sentry, inviting you into another world.

From under the neon, you step into the beginning of the bamboo forest, the pathway low lit with orange lights and an eerie soundtrack guiding you through. It sounds like it might be Indigenous music overlaid with the sounds of a deep rainforest, croaking and whiffling in your ear. It pushes you forward and opens up into the rolling slopes of the Music Bowl’s green spotted with bamboo ‘bubbles’. The lights inside each bubble emit a warm glow that contrasts the chill of the evening; it’s an inviting outdoor escape. Just off the path, resting against a small body of water, a ring of bright white light glows in the darkness. A mist swirls around the structure. In contrast to the bamboo bubbles it feels spooky, almost sinister, but equally captivating.

Returning to the path of the bamboo forest, you walk under a bamboo canopy structure and emerge in The Wilds’ dining area, an assortment of standing bar tables and picnic benches adorn the grass behind the Bowl where patrons can enjoy an assortment of cuisine and beverages under glowing baubles. For a more elevated dining experience tables could be booked at The Lighthouse, a large glass structure sitting atop the peak of the hill, overlooking the Bowl, the light and artwork projections, and the remainder of bamboo forest. Inside the bowels of the Bowl, the stage normally graced by musicians had been turned into the Rinky Dink ice skating rink. Under the glow of a large moon suspended from the roof, patrons can enjoy a skate on the ice. The ice was rough, carved by an infinite number of skates throughout the evening, but the experience was fun nonetheless.

Sadly, due to the city’s most recent outbreak and subsequent lockdown, this was the one and only night that Rising’s The Wilds & Rinky Dink was able to be experienced by Melbourne’s art loving community.

It’s been an extremely difficult 12-18 months in Australia’s art and culture capital. Truly, for those of us who lived through last year’s Stage 4 lockdowns, it goes without saying. While politicians and media cried injustice over a cancelled or rescheduled footy game in the midst of this circuit breaker, the creative directors of Rising Melbourne had to watch over a year’s worth of work from Melbourne’s broader art and culture community go to waste yet again. I believe in and respect the impact that sport has had in our country, and especially in our city as the home of AFL, but for those of us who don’t particularly care for athletics, festivals like Rising are a saving grace. They’re safe spaces for exploration and expression, especially for historically marginalised communities. Too often events like Rising do not get the recognition they so dearly deserve, left mostly to just exist in the background.

This isn’t meant to be a dig at sport, but rather a lament over the lack of attention and appreciation given to the arts as a whole. In December 2015, when Scott Morrison was merely our nation’s treasurer, government funding for the arts was cut by $52.5 million. Over the next 5 years the government would slash resources for the arts at breakneck speeds, causing at least 65 arts organisations to lose major funding. When COVID-19 finally brought our industry and economy to its knees last year, the government’s Job Keeper scheme conveniently left out freelancers who make up large portions of the arts. Then in June the government announced that the cost of arts and humanities degrees would double in order to drive future students to what they called “employable” fields. All this and more despite the arts and culture industries generating roughly $111 billion to the economy each year.

As I explored The Wilds and strapped on my skates for Rinky Dink that night, knowing I was one of a small portion who had that privilege, I felt a sense of loss for my fellow art loving Melbournians who probably wouldn’t have the chance to see what this marvellous festival had to offer. What Rising represented was the promise of inspiration and expression, of reviving a stagnant arts community, and that it barely got to live up to that promise is both sad and cruel.

When the time comes for us to emerge from this lockdown, I implore you to patronise the arts and culture hubs of this city. Visit a gallery, attend a show, tell a friend or family member about it and nourish what art and culture creates; the reshaping of our thoughts, the broadening of our perspectives, and the deepening of our emotions.

For more information on Rising Melbourne and to donate, visit: https://rising.melbourne

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