Features/What to SEE/Multi-arts/Visual Art

Sky show fans embers of ancient stories

17 March 2023

First Lights has illuminated skies over Perth and Darwin, sharing ancient stories in modern ways. As the Fremantle Biennale project embarks on a regional tour, Greg McFerran speaks to two of its creative forces.

Above land and sea, hundreds of lights float like fireflies. They colour the night sky, moving and transforming in the cool evening air. A voice cuts through the quiet. It tells the stories of creation — of rhythm, belonging and healing; the stories of the Menang Noongar people. 

The voice belongs to Kim Scott. The celebrated author – he has twice won Australia’s most coveted literary prize, the Miles Franklin – and 2012 West Australian of the Year was also recently named one of Western Australia’s Cultural Treasures. Throughout his stellar career, Scott has been dedicated to reclaiming and elevating Noongar culture. 

It’s what has drawn him to Middleton Beach/Binalup, Albany, as a contributing artist for Fremantle Biennale’s innovative First Lights project.  

“I suppose what intrigued and attracted me was the idea of exploring and elaborating on some of the deep, bold stories in the Albany region,” Scott says. “I wanted to tell the story of fanning the embers of some of those old stories — bringing those stories together.” 

First Lights is a large-scale, choreographed, light-art performance of 200 LED-fitted drones that will be unveiled in different forms across the State between April and July. Led by traditional owners and Aboriginal artists, each show presents ancient knowledge of culture and place unique to local communities from the Great Southern to the Pilbara.  

The innovative technology behind the light show enables a mind-boggling four billion colour combinations, creating an immersive cinematic soundscape with a light ecological footprint.

A snake-like trail of different coloured lights is emblazoned across the night sky. This is First Lights: Balarr Inyiny.
First Lights: Balarr Inyiny’ illuminated the Darwin night sky in 2022. Photo: Duncan Wright

Fremantle Biennale’s co-founder and artistic director Tom Mùller says the success of First Lights: Moombaki (over Perth in 2021) and First Lights: Balarr Inyiny (Darwin in 2022) created “great momentum and great opportunities to extend the project”. 

With the support of the Federal and State Governments, Art on the Move and the Minderoo Foundation, the project’s leaders have been able to augment and amplify the voice connected to place across the State. 

First Lights is kind of a contradiction because first light comes in the morning and yet the show happens at night,” Mùller says. 

“But somehow, it just felt like the right appellation to use for the project because it is quite encompassing and it talks about a wide interpretation. It speaks to the first stories, perhaps the first lights that lit up the sky, perhaps the first nations.” 

It was also a fortunate surprise that Binalup, the opening location for the regional shows, actually means first, or morning, light in the local Noongar dialect. 

The First Lights team have been working with Kim Scott for months to bring their vision to life. 

“I think the piece that we have here is informed by deep heritage stories — creation stories,” says Scott. “But my concern is not to quickly bring them into contemporary world when we are still in recovery. These sort of stories are a denomination of the currency of identity and belonging.” 

Scott, who is also a professor at Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, says these are times of transition for Noongar communities.  

“I wanted to be respectful of the fact that we are still, as a Noongar community, recovering from a time of trauma,” says Scott.  

A sneak peek of ‘First Lights: Binalup’, which will light up over Albany in April.

Having been born in the Binalup region, Scott says he wants to suggest what might be possible by referencing and alluding to the stories of his home, rather than retelling them.  

“I wanted to tell the story of fanning the embers of some of those old stories, bringing these stories into some sort of contemporary currency,” he says. 

Mùller says Scott’s interpretation for First Lights: Binalup digs deeper. “It is really more of a poem to place; it goes beyond the mere surface interpretation. Whereas other iterations of First Lights have been conceived in a more linear fashion.” 

Scott says he is trying to explore the rhythmic nature of the Albany coast. “I reference one of the big creation stories around Albany to do with whales. I talk about how the water flows into the sound and its harbours; the swells of the Southern Ocean beating on the headlands there. They are all rhythms.” 

He refers often to the way water moves towards Middleton Beach, describing it as a rhythmic focal point. There are big swells running into that area, as well as streams and springs. “It’s a centre.” 

Fremantle Biennale’s First Lights symbolises a cultural renaissance of reconnection which Scott thinks is very important in these transitional times. “We are playing with the resonance of cycles and rhythms and cultural renaissance,” he says. 

Mùller says there are several layers to First Lights. “In one way, it is an experientially artwork that will unfold over 12 minutes, prefaced by a ceremonial welcome to country and smoking. 

“But first and foremost, it is about augmenting what’s in place, highlighting it and really acknowledging what’s in situ.” 

First Lights will be flying over the following locations across Western Australia:  

First Lights: Binalup 
8 April 2023 – Binalup/Middleton Beach, Albany 
Artists: Kim Scott with the Menang Traditional Custodians  
Co-presented with the City of Albany  

First Lights: Nyinggalu  
19 April 2023 – Cardabia Station, Coral Bay 
20 April 2023 – Town Beach, Exmouth 
Artists: Hazel Walgar and Sonya Edney 
Co-presented with the Baiyungu Aboriginal Corporation and Tourism WA as part of the Dark Sky Festival  

First Lights: Boodja Dwordak Wirn  
12-13 May 2023 – Esperance Foreshore 
Artists: Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation  
Co-presented with Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation  

First Lights: Cowaramup  
20 May 2023 – Cowaramup Bay/Gracetown Beach, Gracetown  
Artists: Mitchella Hutchins and Viv Brockman Webb 
Co-presented with The Farm Margaret River 

First Lights: East Pilbara  
7-9 July 2023 – Location to be announced  
Co-presented with Martumili Artists and the Shire of East Pilbara  

Pictured top: The success of ‘First Lights: Moombaki’ has enabled Fremantle Biennale to take the show on the road. Photo: Duncan Wright

Fremantle Biennale’s First Lights takes flight from 8 April 2023

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Author —
Greg McFerran

Greg McFerran is a postgraduate journalism student at Curtin University studying journalism. He completed an undergraduate degree in Electronic Music and Sound Design (Hons) at UWA. As a child, he enjoyed the playground monkey bars the most, mainly because he preferred to walk upon them instead of swinging underneath them — much to his mother’s displeasure.

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