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09 Jan 2020

Review: Astrolabe – whakaterenga

Contributed by Pete Kellock

The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) would like to thank our member Pete Kellock for contributing his review to CSS’ website. All views belong purely to the author.

Astrolabe – whakaterenga is an installation that ran from 5 Dec 2019 to 5 Jan 2020 at the National Museum of Singapore. It is a collaboration between about 15 artists from New Zealand and Singapore: film-maker/choreographer Daniel Belton of Good Company Arts, dancer Jill Goh, composer/sound-designers from New Zealand and Singapore including Joyce Beetuan Koh and PerMagnus Lindborg of SOUNDISLANDS, and others. The installation makes use of video, dance, soundscapes, kinetic sculpture, virtual reality and other media.

On 2 Jan 2020, I visited this for about an hour. I found it beautiful, intriguing and moving. I have seen some of Belton’s black and white videos before and they are always stunning: imaginative, sophisticated and elegant – a visual treat. The imagery here drew heavily on star constellations and maps from the traditions of Chinese and Pacific Island cosmology, sometimes extended/transformed into animated abstract line-dot arrangements. Other visual elements included recorded video of the dancers, often transformed (e.g. motion blur and inverse brightness), wispy cloud-like fractal textures, and a huge recurring visual icon of an Aboriginal “throwing stick” similar in shape to a boomerang.

The soundscapes mixed recorded sound and more traditional musical material (erhu, drums, flute, strings..) in a way that complemented the visuals perfectly: to me there was a sense of space, peace and timelessness which permeated the whole installation, making one ponder how the patterns we see in the night sky are a human universal, something witnessed in similar form across most human cultures (overlapping views across a wide range of latitudes) and across countless generations (on cosmic timescales nothing is static, but viewed from the brief time-windows of our lifespans and those of our recent ancestors, these patterns seem timeless).

In addition to the main soundscape permeating the room, there were at least two distinct audio “channels”: two sound “pools” around illuminated sculptures in the room. These used highly directional beam speakers overhead to project sound down on the user, providing additional sound layers which melded with the primary sound in the room as you approached the sculptures. I liked the blend of the soundscapes and the effect of entering and leaving these “pools”, though I felt the additional layers could have been a bit louder: this would have made the experience more dramatic. (The reason for keeping them relatively low may have been a good one: this level was perhaps necessary to keep these layers local, not turning them up to the point that they became part of the soundscape throughout the whole room.)

The virtual reality (VR) experience worked well: museum staff were on hand to help visitors don the headgear, and the experience was highly immersive, without appreciable display artefacts or motion delay (both are common problems with VR). The imagery was an extension of the main projected video in the room, incorporating similar elements to those mentioned above. I watched the entire loop, around 7 minutes in duration. Were it not for other users waiting their turn for the headset, I would have happily stayed immersed in it for another couple of loops.

Personally, I would have liked a bit more explanation of the cultural roots of the installation: some ethnographic information, like how the astrolabes and cosmological concepts/imagery from these cultures work, how they are used traditionally, and then how they were interpreted in this work. But that is a minor gripe, and probably a minority one, in an otherwise excellent and powerful experience.

In summary, I was delighted to have caught this installation. It is an experience I will carry with me.

Photo credit: Timothy S. H. Tan