An Afternoon of Underbelly Arts

8-001’s Elfy Scott ventured on an art adventure to Sydney’s Cockatoo Island:

Underbelly Arts Festival was conceived six years ago as an experimental amalgamation of Sydney artists; it aimed to lure them out of their self-contained creative spaces and instead generate a weeklong transformative experience with the production of works being open to both the public eye and fellow inspired minds. 2013 presented the third year that Sydney’s iconic Cockatoo Island has hosted the festival and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to catch my annual novelty ferry ride and see what all the fuss was about.

1What I discovered was a totally surreal, disorientating and rewarding experience. The greatest benefit of Underbelly’s settlement on Cockatoo Island is the utilisation of the vast space comprising of overwhelming amounts of nooks and crannies. Venturing around the island and searching each corner of the warehouses was a gratifying experience as every alcove was inhabited by a new spectacle and where there wasn’t art, there was a coffee van to motivate you to go and find that damn art again.

There was such an intense profusion of activity and creation that even with the most dedicated of Sunday afternoon meanderings, I really felt as though I was barely scratching the surface. Nonetheless, my best friend (and generous volunteer photographer) Lilly Perrott and I had some truly extraordinary experiences starting with a brilliantly entertaining “Art Vs. Love” debate, hosted by FBi Radio’s Nick Coyle, it featured a healthy assortment of writers and artists who battled it out with equal parts of riveting humour and stunning sincerity.

2Wandering the primary warehouse, we discovered Michael Salerno and Marcus Whale’s presentation of “Passage”; with an audience crowded on the concrete floor, faces gazing up to a serene image projected onto plastic sheets that lined the wall and silenced by the deafening roar of discordant rumbling, the scene felt wholly as though the crowd were taking refuge in a hull from an impending storm. The film itself was a sinister blare of bewildering faces of Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson and Katy Perry that made me feel slightly nauseous- although to be fair, that’s the sensation generally reaped from looking at any of those faces normally.

3Heidi Axelson, Hugo Moline and Adriano Pupilli’s “Mammoth” installation was a gorgeous project that breathed a temporary life into the industrial artefacts of Cockatoo Island. The ship and crane were rigged with a little speaker and tube that read “talk to me”, which encouraged the active participation of audiences to wail, shriek and blab into the cone that in turn produced a deep, lonely, mammoth-like rumbling within the belly of each structure. The resulting dialogue was one that reverberated across a large stretch of the area behind the warehouses and was really quite stunning and sad. Largely because Pixar made everybody a sucker for a good old-fashioned anthropomorphised machine, let’s face it.

Other notable exhibitions included Annika Blau and Lewis Doherty’s “Mussels”; an impressive installed landscape of small robotic mussels that clacked and stirred atop white wooden shards in an odd little symphony of delicate mechanical creation. As well as Penelope Benton and Alexandra Clapham’s “Tableau Vivant”, a living painting of surreal figures of a French aristocracy meets Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sitting before an extensive bench of candy structures.


Then there was the just plain weird and I’m not sure my hangover could have adequately accounted for all of the confusion, either. A cheerleader troupe of awkwardly choreographed people that just happened to show up sometimes, a warehouse dedicated to a “Zingen” set up that…I just don’t even know…it got to a point where I had it boiled down to the event being either a comment on clubs with terrible ideas or whether it was just a plain club with terrible ideas. My personal favourite, however, was an exploration of the ZV Live warehouse; a large apocalyptic rave environment of installation art and perplexing music where Lilly was pulled aside by a six year-old boy and taken into a small exhibition where 7he shouted indistinguishable nonsense at her, encouraged her to stand in a certain spot while she tried to maintain politeness and dignity, questioning this boy’s motives before he turned a smoke machine on full blast. In her face. It was amazing.

Overall, a few hours spent on the island exploring the possibilities was a wonderful experience but not nearly satisfying. Underbelly Arts has an absolute excess of activities, talks, debates, installation and participation to delve into and I wholeheartedly recommend assigning an entire day to next year’s festival to adequately visually consume and experience all there is to offer. It is an incredibly vast showcase of some of Australia’s wildly imaginative talent and well worth the time and energy whenever it should come around.

elfy scott


Words by Elfy Scott. Pictures by Lilly Perrott. Find out more about Underbelly here.