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Walk into the light with the annual Vivid Sydney festival

The annual Vivid Sydney festival is a stimulating mixture of dazzling lights and ideas, and one of the reasons to visit the city

The light installations make Vivid Sydney a unique attraction, transforming public places from parks to tunnels into works of art.
The light installations make Vivid Sydney a unique attraction, transforming public places from parks to tunnels into works of art. (iStockphoto)

There are the classic reasons to visit Sydney: the Opera House, the beaches, as a base to head out to the vineyards of Hunter Valley a couple of hours away. To this a newer, fourth reason can be added: Vivid Sydney. This festival had its 13th edition earlier this year, the second since its return after the covid-19 pandemic. It saw some 3.28 million visitors—a record turnout.

This massive response shows how, in its short existence, the festival has become a mainstay of the city’s cultural calendar, drawing visitors from across the continent and outside. The festival has four broad umbrellas—light, music, ideas, food. It’s the light installations that make Vivid Sydney a unique attraction, transforming public places from parks to tunnels into dazzling works of art.

“In Vivid Sydney’s first year, there were about 200,000 attendees and the festival had a much smaller footprint,” says Vivid Sydney festival director Gill Minervini over email. “When I started as director, I wanted to bring in works of scale and look at ways we can activate and bring the Light program to different areas of Sydney, such as the Wynyard Tunnels.” This year, the festival had 60 light works, which included 26 international ones. It debuted its longest-ever Light Walk— 8.5km of free light installations and projections. One of the installations was their largest to date: The Last Ocean by American artist Jen Lewin, a shimmering, interactive work made with reused ocean plastic.

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Some of the most spectacular images were the ones projected on the city’s most iconic landmarks. The theme for 2023 was ‘Vivid Sydney, Naturally’, which meant that nearly all the imagery had a strong environmental aspect. On the Harbour Bridge, there were spectacular illustrations of native animals, from Gouldian finches to flying foxes, by design studio Eggpicnic. For the ‘Lighting of the Sails’ this year, the colourful, invigorating works of celebrated Australian artist John Olsen were animated and projected. One of these was a mural called The Five Bells, commissioned for one of the foyers of the Opera House, in which he aimed “to show the Harbour as a movement, a sea suck, and the sound of the water as though I am part of the sea”.

In an interview in the run-up to the festival, Olsen said: “The Five Bells mural—which is my biggest challenge ever—is looking very good after 50 years, it looks so happy there. To see my work extended to the exterior, splashed across the sails, completes my life.” Sadly, Olsen died a month before the festival.

Some of the light walks and experiences were ticketed, like Lightscape at The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, or the pulsating Dark Spectrum, in which Wynyard Station’s secret tunnels were opened to the public. But several were out in the open, free for everyone to explore or interact with. There was a sense of a city getting together and enjoying pretty lights and a little art and good weather (May in Sydney is pleasantly nippy, though the heaters at open-air restaurants were a touch too much).

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Most institutions in Sydney and the rest of Australia now make it a point to acknowledge the Aboriginal land on which they operate. There are tours and programmes if you are interested in learning more about the traditions of the original inhabitants of the country.

We were taken on a 90-minute walk by our wonderfully sharp guide Margret Campbell, known as Aunty Margret. The Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour, organised by Dreamtime SouthernX, was a fascinating introduction to the culture and history of the Gadigal Eora people, and a reminder that, though progress has been made, there is a very long way to go.

As it expands its scope and footfall, Vivid Sydney is almost a perpetually ongoing project now. “We start planning a year in advance, including the festival theme,” says Minervini. “We also open ‘expressions of interest’ for artists and creatives to be involved across the Light, Music, Ideas and Food programs aligned with the overarching creative direction of the festival.”

The 2024 edition of the festival (24 May-15 June 2024) is in the works, with the theme of ‘humanity’.

The author attended Vivid Sydney on a trip organised by Destination NSW.

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