Sydney is going through a bad patch. Yes, life can sometimes dish out lows on the other side of enraptured highs. But this time it feels deeper than that. There is this smell of stagnation in the air — like the taps of cultural development have been turned off tight. Like we’ve been asked to stand obediently still and to ignore all of our flow and our undercurrent.
Seventeen years ago, with the spotlights of the world lighting up the iridescence of our city, Sydney beamed with pride and welcomed with a local charm. We danced, sung and strut for all of our Olympics visitors. We celebrated our identity wildly. Here was an emergent and bright young culture that knew how to savour this gift called life. We rolled out onto the world stage with aplomb.
But somehow, since then, we became culturally complacent. We became lazy. Perhaps we just became uptight. Whatsmore, we selected leaders who felt it was a sensible thing to try to tie us down. Leaders who turned off our nightlife and decided to mollycoddle us during the day with all sorts of niggling little rules.
The headwind that our international guests blew into our soaring spinnaker has dissipated without a gasp. Where we were once moving, sailing, running, discovering who we were, it now appears that we’re stuck — stuck in a house with peeling paint. Stuck with our micromanaging parents who insist that we’re only allowed to wear those daggy old jeans that they feel comfortable with us in. Jeans that we grew out of years ago.
And whilst Sydney trudges through all of the regulations and institutions constructed to protect us from ourselves, other Australian cities are boldly taking risks. They’re experimenting with culture and talking about what it means to be a young city in a young country. Our neighbours are growing up around us. Sydney is being culturally leapfrogged.
In Hobart, for example, the MONA has become recognised on that world stage for it’s confidence and its edge. By being brave, this gallery has been a key factor in placing Hobart at the top of many international bucket lists. The Chinese can now fly directly to Tasmania, to its fresh air and fresh perspective, bypassing Sydney completely.
And during the cold southern month of June, the Dark Mofo festival breathes fire and screams sound into Hobart. It not only explores the power of the winter solstice, but also how the seasons influence us. It looks at a primal side of ourselves. It promises dangerous bursts of real fire that can burn you if you get too close. A quirkiness that would never be allowed in Sydney.
Melbourne, too, is streaking ahead. The days of Sydney being the envy of Melbournians are finished. We might have the body, but Melbourne has the class. It is now the dominant capital of the night. With Sydney relinquishing its crown, Melbourne has stepped into the vacuum and emblazoned it.
Last month, Melbourne hosted its fifth consecutive White Night. A festival that ignites at sunset and sprints all the way until dawn. This is a night that allows families, lovers and the elderly to swing dance until sunrise right in the middle of Collins Street. To visit the art galleries, libraries and the grand old buildings of Melbourne after midnight. A festival that harnesses a single snippet of poetry for its entire creative direction:
“Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is gone, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
And then there is innovative Adelaide and its Fringe festival, which has humbly matured into the largest outdoor festival in the Southern Hemisphere. A festival that describes itself as “mythical, magical, fantabulous, fantasmagorical, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” A fantastic flurry of words that promises the visitor fun.
Of course, one cannot compare the culture of different cities by simply talking about a handful of mainstream festivals. However, there is something in the ambition of these events: the way they talk; the way they hold themselves; the way they’re curated; the mood that they aspire to spark in their audiences – that you cannot find in Sydney. These are celebrations of life that are inspired by the more raw elements of our humanity. Visceral ingredients that seethe through all of us. Ingredients that Sydney seems to be afraid of, or to suppress underneath it’s polish.
Some say, that out in the ocean lives the bearded old Poseidon — the ancient Greek god of the sea. With his broad shoulders and his trident, he’s been known to chortle while he swims. Sydney owes much to Poseidon, because we are the city of the water. But should old Poseidon one day get cranky, slap the ocean top with his trident and take away our waves, our beaches and our harbour – if we were stripped of our natural beauty – what would Sydney actually have left?
And seventeen years after the Olympics, should our international friends decide to stop on by to breathe in some of the nostalgia of how charming we were, and how this city buzzed – would they even recognise us today? Or would they now be more likely to notice our charismatic neighbours, whistling something interesting in their colourful garden right next door?
Would there be a realisation that perhaps Sydney is just the pretty one, without really have very much to say?
Potential is abundant in Sydney. We have a violent, courageous and impressive history to talk about and share. We have enormous public spaces that lay dormant and are yearning to be activated. We have energy, we have strut. We dance wild and love our music loud. Our mornings seduce and bristle.
But we need to fear less and take more risks again. We have to relegate those who try to stifle our personality to the sidelines. We need to embrace the millions of everyday tales that swim within our city’s perimeter. We need to let back in the primal, the carnal, the raw.
Our city is not skin deep. It is not skin deep because humans are not skin deep. There is a fascinating personality lying just underneath this comfortable polish. So, come on – let’s snap out of this boring vanilla and learn to express ourselves again. To live the way we know we can. For there is so much more to you than this, Sydney.
Joseph O’Donoghue is a freelance writer who is passionate about Australia’s exuberant culture, and it’s burgeoning self-discovery. You can read more of his work here