Flinders Street Station an iconic space to host stories from the spirit world

Hayley Millar Baker can see spirits. While it was a tiny bit disturbing when she was young, the Gunditjmara filmmaker recognises it now as a joyous thing, and an inherited connection.

“Having people who have passed – and even people I don’t know who have passed – talk to me and seeing spirits in my everyday … it’s not uncommon in my family,” she says.

From left: RISING co-artistic directors Gideon Obarzanek and Hannah Fox, filmmaker Hayley Millar Baker and Shadow Spirit curator Kimberley Moulton.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Millar Baker’s latest film The Umbra explores dreams and astral travel, a commission for Shadow Spirit, which opens in Melbourne in June.

An ambitious show featuring some of the country’s top Indigenous artists, Shadow Spirit will take over level three of Flinders Street Station, including the iconic ballroom, following on from street artist Rone.

The show is the brainchild of RISING’s associate director Kimberley Moulton, who says it came out of many years of thinking about the Indigenous stories of the spirit world.

She grew up with them, sitting at the kitchen table and around the campfire, “where these yarns are told, especially when you are with community and elders”.

Filmmaker Hayley Millar Baker (left) and Shadow Spirit curator Kimberley Moulton.Credit:Scott McNaughton

“These stories are often relating to deep systems of knowledge, about the protection of Country, of children, relating into stories of navigation, cosmology, celestial space, right through to water, the subterranean, and they are a reflection of Country and that embodiment of Country our communities hold.”

The art in Shadow Spirit often melds the traditional with pop culture, which Moulton says illustrates “the way we live our lives as mob in these two worlds, and also the space in between – what we feel, what we know – this astral plane and this multiverse of time”.

Woven through are ideas of temporary space and time, of dreaming and spirit ecologies, she says, like the bunyip or certain creatures on Country that protect and warn, and sometimes cause mischief.

“There are light moments and dark moments, there are things that we reflect on in terms of malevolence and warning, there’s also spaces of healing and protection, but there’s also humour, this beautiful mix,” Moulton says.

Some of the artists whose work will feature in Shadow Spirit. Clockwise from top left: Paola Balla, Rene Kulitja, Judy Watson, Warwick Thornton and Brian RobinsonCredit:Aresna Villanueva

It is a national show, with 15 Indigenous artists featured, from north Arnhem Land down to Hobart, including Karla Dickens, Judy Watson, Warwick Thornton and the Mulka Project with the late Mrs Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda. Fourteen pieces are new RISING commissions.

The festival’s full program has just been released and it includes 185 events, work by more than 400 artists, 35 commissions and 12 world premieres.

Millar Baker hopes her film will remind us to listen to and heed our instincts.

“Particularly in the south-east coast of Australia, we have deadlines, people asking this and that, we’ve also got our home life which is a job in itself, the busyness and chaos of everything sort of mutes that intuition and that inner voice,” she says.

A still from the film The Umbra, by Hayley Millar Baker.

“My films have no dialogue, it’s just movement and watching, [it’s through] that silence and stillness, that quiet, empty space, that intuition speaks up.”

In part because of her experiences with the supernatural, Baker has always been fascinated by horror films. She subverts many of their classic tropes in her work, particularly by flipping the role of women: her characters are sure of themselves, powerful and calculated.

“My practice is very much focused on female magic and in particular Indigenous female magic and where that sits today in contemporary times,” she says. “That magic that still flows through women, whether through intuition or a deeper connection to spiritual realms.”

Her first film, Nyctinasty, currently showing at Gertrude Contemporary in Preston, was commissioned by Hetti Perkins as part of the Third Annual Triennial for the National Gallery of Australia.

The ballroom at Flinders Street Station.

Flinders Street is an iconic space, says Moulton: for 169 years a station, 113 years a building, and for time immemorial a central gathering place near the river for Kulin people.

“To put our work in this very colonial space but to remember what lies beneath the concrete is really important,” Moulton says. “We’re bringing all these cultures into the heart of Melbourne to share with our audiences the breadth of our cultural practice but also [to show] how fun and cool it is.”

RISING runs from June 7-18. Hayley Millar Baker’s film Nyctinasty is at Gertrude Contemporary until March 26.

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