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3 August 2023

Never at Sea: Artists Abroad Confront the Migration Crisis

Marcia Lemke-Kern in Never at Sea Image: Marcia Lemke-Kern in Never at Sea  
© Dominic Turner

- Tony Abbott, 2013 / Rishi Sunak, 2023

"I find it very difficult to make art for art's sake in today's world."
Cat Hope, June 23, 2023

Australians abroad will recognise the shrill rhetoric of the UK government's illegal immigration policy, echoes of the Abbott-era debate on home soil still ringing. Estimations of the potential scale of forced migration - driven by intersecting forces including climate change and political upheaval - position this crisis amongst the most urgent of the 21st century. 'Home' is an evasive and contested concept, and a global discourse of belonging is reaching fever-pitch. Expat artists exercise a kind of homing in their practice, often with the privilege of international mobility by choice.

Never at Sea is a social intervention by artist Kate McMillan (AU/UK) in collaboration with composer Cat Hope (AU) and choreographer Sivan Rubinstein (UK). Themes of forced migration and the climate crisis flow through installation and performance, moments of poignancy found in the confluence of various media. The interdisciplinarity of the project means that the complex subject matter remains lively and emergent, with new insight to be gleaned at the convergences of music, dance, film, and sculpture.

A humid day in central London. The water in the air is hanging densely at St Mary le Strand, an island around which spills relentless foot traffic. The shadowy interior of the church is a refuge of sorts, the cool marble and stone fortified against the stickiness of the urban British summer. My gaze is drawn towards the ornate ceiling, illuminated by windows aloft, altogether giving the sense of a sunken congregation. Here we are in, on, and of the water - St Mary le Strand is the historical home of the Women's Royal Navy Service, whose motto McMillan borrowed as her project's title. Never at Sea is in conversation with this island church; murmuring tensions between sanctuary and severance, institution and injustice.

The work begins with the ceremonial flow of attendees into the church from the outside. We cross this threshold before settling into the pews to see similar spatial transgressions repeated in performance; the boundaries of 'here' and 'there' negotiated and re-negotiated. McMillan's film (captured off the coast of Western Australia) dips in and out of the water, and Hope's music slides from silence to crescendo and back again. Dancer Lydia Walker swims in and out of the pews, blurring the delineation of the performance space. We are reminded of the futility of hard borders against fluid logic and leaky aesthetics.

Reverence is built into McMillan's visual language. Walker - along with percussionist Louise Devenish and vocalist Marcia Lemke-Kern - is wearing a custom silk tunic with ancient and holy association. The dancer wears a cluster of hagstones around her neck, suspended by rope, which clatter as she moves, their rocky sound disintegrating into the massed sandy texture of Devenish's ceramics and Lemke-Kern's vocal percussion. Hagstones, with naturally occurring holes worn by water, are thought to have mystical properties in British folklore. This earthy magic stone, somehow warmer than the lofty Anglican marble, is given ritual significance by the three performers, who move steadily through their ocean liturgy.

Lemke-Kern draws our ears upwards as she overlooks the congregation on a small balcony. Her voice brings an abject quality to the sound-world - expressions of longing and melancholy seem to escape her as if from a lump in the throat. She cycles virtuously through a range of extended vocal techniques, including innovative use of a conch shell, yet another ritual object fashioned from the deep timescales of the sea. Hope's signature use of bass frequency (pre-recorded by ensembles Decibel (AU) and Ruthless Jabiru (AU/UK)) drags the lump from the throat to the stomach. Low sound washes through the church. The celli and bass heave and bend as if propelled by transoceanic currents.

Never at Sea at St Mary le Strand, London.

Hope and McMillan want their audience to hear through their skin, the body as an ear. Indeed, McMillan has crafted a cluster of ceramic ears, at once sculpture and instrument. Other fragments of the body populate the installation, especially the film component. Hands float in silty water, or grasp at other limbs in saturated desperation. The artist was specific in her intention for this imagery, drawing on the long history of hand-related metaphor in Christianity. This imagery adopts new meanings in the context of the migration crisis - a struggle of global agencies, and international charity weakened.

Certainly, the most agentic performer in Never at Sea is Devenish, her hands moving deftly between the bespoke instruments. In the filtered light of the church she looks like an alchemist of sorts. The sound she conjures is at times silvery and fragile (the waterphone, the metallic singing bowls, the ceramic ears), and at other times inundating (the bass drum, the tam-tam). In the final moments of the work, we hear repeated breathy gasps from all three performers, as if the air was being drained from the church. Hope's score is a rich liquid narrative, complementary to McMillan's film.

Never at Sea is a humanitarian exploration of some of the most pressing questions of our time. McMillan, Hope, and Rubinstein remind us of the importance of situated belonging, of embodied and spiritual understandings of 'home'. It is a kind of anthropological art. I would have liked to have seen further emphasised the non-human creativity and simultaneous destructive power of the ocean, tidal forces on a profound scale that will ultimately stretch beyond the horizon of humanity. Against such a deep timeline, the human scale of the migration crisis reminds us to cherish and value immediacy, and to exercise radical empathy in the now.

We need music that compels us to be better custodians of our time. Hope's compositional language compels us to not only listen, but to act. Embodied forces take hold in her audiences, a knowing that subverts the rational frequencies of public discourse around migration and taps into more fundamental understandings of movement and empathy. We are moved by this music, towards urgency and away from home.

Kate Milligan is a Perth-born composer, designer, and researcher currently based in the UK. With a background in feminist musicology, her work critically examines the entanglement of social and natural phenomena. Her work has received support from APRA AMCOS and the Australian Music Centre, as well as the Australia Council for the Arts. Recent work includes a performance-installation for the London Symphony Orchestra Soundhub, and a spin-system instrument presented at the IRCAM Forum for spatial sound.


Kate is a graduate of the Royal College of Art (MA IED) and The University of Western Australia (BAHons, MMus).


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