Last Drinks

Artist: Sarah Barns
Location: Sydney, Australia
Year of completion: 2012
Researcher: Leon Tan

Hotel Australia opened in 1891 on Castlereagh Street in Sydney, and rapidly acquired a reputation as the city’s most glamorous and iconic social venue. Situated directly across the backstage entrance to the Theatre Royal, the hotel and its banquet hall hosted celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt, Kathryn Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier, and Alfred Hitchcock, alongside high society wedding receptions, political events, and business meetings. It was the place to be seen, and its immediate vicinity (Rowe Street) catered to the cultural and entertainment needs of those whose business or aspiration was to be seen, with cafés, galleries and bookstores. If Sydney had become a world city in the late nineteenth-century, Hotel Australia was an important node in the flow of an international class. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the hotel’s fortunes turned, and the building and Rowe Street were demolished in 1971 to make way for a new development, the current MLC Centre.

Last Drinks was a multi-site sound and moving image installation commissioned for Sydney’s 11th annual Art & About Festival. Over a one-month period (September to October 2012), artist Sarah Barns staged on-site moving image projections and sound installations drawing on archival footage and audio recordings from the heyday of Hotel Australia and the Theatre Royal. The audio was also available to users through their mobile devices. Projections recreated a sense of the long gone Theatre Royal through footage of the building and its activities, while the soundscapes heightened audience immersion in the site’s past. Recordings of interviews with members of the neighborhood today added a layer of complexity to the installation, weaving history and the contemporary moment together in such a way as to refute the conventional understanding of time as the chronological succession and displacement of the past by the present.

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Last Drinks belongs to a recent proliferation of urban projection artworks. As an example, the UrbanScreen collective from Bremen, Germany have, since 2005, executed several award-winning, moving image and sound installations in cities around the world. While Last Drinks is not charting new ground from an art historical or technical point of view, it is nevertheless commendable for being well executed and highly attuned to the historical specificity of the site. It is an imaginative way of engaging local residents and visitors in the history of an iconic place.

There can be no doubt that large-scale installations such as this temporarily transform the experience of a public space. The question of how precisely it transforms the public space is rather more complicated to answer. After all, large-scale advertising campaigns also transform the experience of public space. Does Last Drinks create a sense of nostalgia, as the title implies? If it does generate a longing for the ‘good old days,’ what exactly was good about those days? Were the wide class divisions of those days, or the treatment of Aboriginal communities at the time good, for example? Does Last Drinks encourage emotional investment in the site? Perhaps it does, by celebrating Australian icons such as broadcaster Peter Luck in the projections, or by reminding audiences of Sydney’s long history as an international city, and thereby contributing to civic pride. Rigorous frameworks for the evaluation of public art projects remain to be developed and implemented. For now, a great deal of evaluation must rest on available information and careful conjecture.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency