Opinion

Requiem for A Black Summer: Michelle St Anne on Witnessing, Knowing and Remembering

Artist, director and composer Michelle St Anne reflects on grief, care and connection to place ahead of this weekend’s presentation of ‘Myosotis’ – her requiem at Sydney Festival.

Paddington Reservoir, photo by Liberty Lawson

In this two part series, we sit down with artists Julie Vulcan and Michelle St Anne. Both are contributing immersive, experiential performance works as part of the Requiem exhibition at Sydney Festival at Sydney Festival, interrogating the wake of the black summer bushfires.

While their practices and methodologies diverge, Michelle and Julie’s pieces reflect deeply personal experiences, both centred in the home. They challenge the notion of home as mere refuge, instead curating works that confront the kinds of threats that walls cannot protect us against – the scale of environmental injustices; the subtle nuances of loss and grief that transcend place; or the domestic violences that manifest within.

Here, Michelle speaks about her work ‘Myosotis’ – her requiem, which will be presented on Sunday 24 January at Paddington Reservoir.


My witness comes from the depths of me. At times a child, a woman, a child becoming a woman with my audience straddling the line of co-witness, co-author and co-inhabitor With this relationship I play with time, particularly the elongation of time or as I call it amplified time. In doing this, I envelop the audience in details that may seem inconsequential but upon reflection, document series of events, memory and incidents. I’m more interested in the legacies of violence as a way of recognising violence that lives in bodies, memories and the imagination long after they have been perpetrated.

I see this work as a gift of care. A gift to my colleague Danielle Celermajer. A showing of solidarity that I don’t know precisely her grief but I understand what it is to be present to that grief.

And so this is how I come to this work  – through grief. That all-encompassing layer of truth and mis-truths that challenge our body, mind and sense of knowing or understanding. That leads us into the circularity of remembering, re-remembering and misremembering.

Myosotis is the botanical name for ‘forget-me-nots’. And so often we work towards getting through grief, we entertain the notion that grief is wicked and that it will eventually leave. I prefer to argue that grief takes up residence and we live with her, return her when we seek wisdom. That she is place when Time lived, without its flow.  I take this from the title of a beautiful essay of grief and time by poet and philosopher, Denise Riley. Grief numbs us to aid our sense making.

“We entertain the notion that grief is wicked and that it will eventually leave. I prefer to argue that grief takes up residence and we live with her, return her when we seek wisdom.”

Myosotis asks me to return to my childhood faith of Catholicism, Accessing the visceral nature of kneeling at a pew which Charlotte Wood aptly describes in her essay, “the ledge of the pew, where prayer books and hymnals and rosary beads rested, was just about shoulder height for a toddler wobbling to stand – so it was only natural to reach out and grasp hold of the ledge, put my mouth to its sweet, vinegary, golden wood, and suck”.

This strong connection to that kind of place echoes through the cathedral arches of the Paddington Reservoir. A built environment that holds you close in her belly. Dissonant sounds of traffic and care flights hover overhead and yet as evident in Julie Vulcan’s performance of ‘Rescript’ the space allows you to sit quietly to contemplate and gaze at images and movements that beat in and out as a series of visual amplification. The beauty and quiet influence of Vulcan’s work is her elongation of time that allows you to see the small in the vacuous. The unseen in the seen. To make sense of what she returns to with her palette of ash, muslin, archways and her distinct use of red. What is left are those images burnt into my subconscious that I will now recall on my visits back to the Reservoir. She has left behind a legacy with spatters of ash on the concrete floor that I pick up and weave into my own work. Where ash becomes the charcoal on my performers hands. Her floor pattern I extend between the two chambers and her seven arches become the seven performers.

This work for small ensemble features prose from Danielle Celermajer’s upcoming book Summertime recorded onto tapes and spoken live by the author herself about the moment before grief. Before the mind becomes one with the body. The moments leading up to the painful discovery that are imbued with a heighten sense of observation often mundane but together culminate a sense of dread. That precipice between the visceral sense of knowing ‘this is bad’ in our belly to the fractured-ness of discovery. Where the mind competes with the body’s sense of knowing through the sounds, taste, and strange lack of smell. Certain senses submerged in order to make sense.

During this past year we have found ourselves trapped within the small confines of our homes, balconies and yards. Time took on a more laissez-faire approach and as we learned to sit and wait the boundaries of our worlds might have been smaller but what became apparent was I found my world getting larger, or rather deeper, by paying attention to its details. The squiggly lines of snails left on fences, the choreography of a gum leaf coming to rest on the lawn, the sound of the butcher bird song in concert with magpies and minor birds.

“I found my world getting larger, or rather deeper, by paying attention to its details. The squiggly lines of snails left on fences, the choreography of a gum leaf coming to rest on the lawn, the sound of the butcher bird song in concert with magpies and minor birds.”

These fragments of observation brought me to think about these same boundaries when we are grieving.  My Catholic roots give me a connection to ‘being’ and those rituals help me shroud this new work in the layers of grief that is resistant to the flows of time. To push us into the ‘letting go’ of that fine thread on being present in the materiality of this world. That allows us to imagine the ‘otherside’ beyond the scriptures and hymnals but a world that culminates a place of perfection.

Myosotis isn’t going to tell you anything. There is nothing new about ‘thinking’ here. I hope it’s a work that engages your attention through sound as amplified time. It just simply invites you to sit in waves of sound to exorcise pain. The repetition of four double basses provide a platform for reflecting, considering and mourning.  The reoccurring offertory procession by women adorned in black – a nod to the Nonna’s of my youth – a latch to invite deeper contemplation.

We are but memories and memories are of intense feelings.
Myosotis is a care package to a friend.
To find solidarity in our bereavement.


‘Myosotis’ – her requiem will be performed at Sydney Festival on Sunday 24 January, 4.30pm at Paddington Reservoir.

Merging story with a double bass ensemble, ‘Myosotis’ – her requiem, asks us to sit within grief, to remember the non-human bodies lost in the 2019/20 fires. A plea to never forget that their lives are a legacy of our inaction. Presented by The Living Room Theatre, featuring Danielle Celermajer.


Michelle St Anne is a multidisciplinary theatrical artist with over twenty years of experience. Her extensive body of work is centred upon themes of violence, complicity and women’s bodies. Her stories are meted out through the elongation of time, using object & light; film & movement; body, sound and space. Building a reputation as a site-responsive artist whose immersive and intimate works eschew traditional narrative-driven performance, Michelle’s work is known for its unique, and often profound, audience engagement. She has collaborated with the acclaimed musical mavericks Ensemble Offspring, Bass Liberation Orchestra and Ensemble Onsemble. She is the co-founder and artistic director of The Living Room Theatre which celebrated 20 years in 2020.