The Gordon Assumption

Sonia Leber and David Chesworth's installation
'The Gordon Assumption', was installed in the subterranean toilets at Gordon Reserve in Melbourne for the Visual Arts Program of the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival.

An incessant outpouring of female voices lured passersby down the stairwells to the cave-like subterranean toilets. The voices gathered and thickened without respite, in upwards glissandi, constantly trailing upwards. Behind the locked lower gates, the luminous green chamber beckoned as a vertical slit of white light slowly scanned the surfaces of the empty cubicles. 

The installation recalled the mythologies and mysteries of voices heard in caves, where the voices of spirits, sibyls and oracles are believed to announce predictions and warnings from the mouth of a cave.





“A chorus...streams up out of the ground like a legion of mad souls fleeing their opened graves. Is the city disgorging its dead from the sewers? Chesworth and Leber, like necromancers, wind up supernatural effects from the mundane fabric of the city.” Edward Colless, The Australian

How was the space first identified and who was contacted to secure it?

In 2004, Juliana Engberg was curator of the visual art program of the Melbourne Festival and she commissioned us to find a public space for making a work around the theme of 'voice'. During our third day of walking around the city we looked below us to find stairs leading down to a 100-year old underground toilet facility. The site was a perfect subterranean cave. The Melbourne Festival then liased with City of Melbourne to secure the site.

What was required to secure the space?

Both the festival and the City of Melbourne conducted a complex risk assessment.

What needed to be provided by you as hirer or user of the space?

We needed to provide a design for the work that ensured that the public would not be at risk. However, we wanted passersby to have an unsupervised encounter with the work, an encounter which would instil a degree of trepidation as people descended the stairs, particularly at night. We minimised the actual risk by creating some lockable doors for the bottom of the stairs, and visitors could peer into the chamber through some large slots in these doors.

What were the costs?

The only cost to the artists involved costs to develop, create, install and de-install the installation. Our fee from the festival was supplemented by a project grant from Arts Victoria.

What were the resources available to you?

The festival provided an invigilator to visit the site every morning to tidy up around the stairs and check that all elements were functioning. Wide marketing of the festival's program ensured that many people visited the installation, it was widely reviewed and a visual arts catalogue was produced.

Who helped you to fit it out?

Our fabrication assistant was Bill Buckley. Ben Cobham of Bluebottle fabricated the scanning light and Michael Hewes installed the sound system. We also worked with singers from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir to create the sound elements.

What were/are the obstacles?

We were lucky to be working in a self-contained site where we could fully control the fabrication and experience of that site, provided we were able to return the space back to its original condition. The City of Melbourne agreed that the toilet facility could be non-functioning for the three-week period of the festival, if not, this would have been our biggest obstacle.

What were/are the risks?

When working in public space, quite frankly our biggest risk is that the artwork would need to be compromised in a major way to accommodate the bureaucratic needs of others. In this case, the installation needed to be loud enough to lure above-ground pedestrians down the stairs to peer into the very noisy lower chambers. We were convinced we had found a perfect site for this, in the grassy pocket-park of Gordon Reserve, right near the Parliament Station subway entrance that would deliver thousands of people right past our installation.

For more information and a sound excerpt visit