World literatures, theatre and visual cultures

Look into the eye of another: what reflection will you see?
We are a hub of research on the literary, visual, performance and screen cultures of the world, from medieval Tibetan texts to recent Greek cinema, and from ritual origins of Chinese theatre to contemporary French sculpture.

No civilisation is without its narratives or aesthetics, the striving to reformulate the human condition in terms that endure and are comprehensible to future generations.

It is these areas that give cultures their characteristics, which cannot be reduced to patterns or data.

The universal desire to express and communicate, formulated in the foundational impulses of storytelling and the search for the beautiful and the sublime (as well as their modern and ancient antitheses), contains what every civilisation in history has valued in its societies, often above all other achievements.     

Our researchers explore communication as embodied in literature, performance and visual cultures from across the globe in their original languages.

Bringing these artforms into conversation with each other illuminates our understanding of world culture, challenging dominant, anglosphere frameworks.

Our current areas of focus include

Humans are narrative beings. Our researchers connect us to the stillness of vision in Tang poetry or the emptiness of the world as glimpsed by the existentialists.

The narrative pulse and the aesthetic eye combine to generate the stories of the earth—world literatures— the building blocks which give human experience meaning, shape, and direction.

Literary studies investigate the stories we have told over hundreds of years, how they emerge, how their meaning shifts, and how human societies react over time to the constant spinning and unspooling of human life, told and retold. 

The realm of performance, the urge to use the body to recount, invoke, evoke and provoke, was the earliest form of artistic expression.

The body provides the direct analogy of the performer—in whom the future or the past or the other is alive, the impossible is enacted.

Differences of place and time and language are bracketed, and the ritual of the divine—for theatre has its roots in religion—combines with humanity’s other defining quality, the ability to claim to be, even in our bodies, someone else.

From Hokkien music drama to Japanese girl culture, our researchers illuminate these consecrated performances.  

The visual arts are bound by neither word nor flesh, nor are they linear (like text) or fleeting (like performance)—the object remains before the observer, requiring its figure or form (or rejection of figure and form) to be construed, answered.

Our researchers respond to these questions through specific studies such as the intersection between narrative and the visual in the work of Louise Bourgeois, and how and where politics meets art in Indonesia.

Every object of art from neolithic bracelets to abstract impressionists reflects and helps shape what a given culture values, and how it sees itself.      

Our projects

Led by Associate Professor Giorgia Alù. This project explores how perceptions of human exploitation are suggested, maintained and mislaid through the interrelation of visual (especially photography) and written texts, and how these texts promote or work against a culture of compassion, solidarity and ethical awareness.

By looking at Italian individual and group histories, from the 1800s to the 1960s, and by employing an interdisciplinary approach, it aims to show how experiences of dominion and hardship are appropriated and translated into a vocabulary and imagery that often reveal a blind spot in the historical, cultural and economic inheritance of forms of subjection and confinement.

Led by Dr Kylie Giblett. This project employs a close textual analysis to explore themes of legal philosophy, politics, and dealing with the past in the fiction works of contemporary German lawyer-writers Juli Zeh, Bernhard Schlink, and Ferdinand von Schirach.

Led by Dr Mats Karlsson. The period of Japan’s so-called Economic Miracle (Period of High Economic Growth, 1960–1973) has gone down in national collective memory as a Golden Age, a period supposedly suffused with a forward-looking, energetic spirit that today has become shrouded in sentiments of nostalgia.

While the era has become the target of recent social trends like the so-called Shōwa Retro Boom, politicians have revisited its policies in search of solutions to the ongoing economic stagnation, notably the Income Doubling Plan that was implemented in 1960 and is credited with setting Japan on the path of high-speed growth.

This project aims to problematize this retrospective glorifying perspective by excavating the contemporary social Zeitgeist as reflected in popular films from the period.

Led by Dr Musafumi Monden. This book-length project explores the interrelated cultural history of the fashioned male body, consumer culture and society in Japan.

The text addresses broad themes including attitudes towards gender and the body, developments in technology and consumer culture, the interlinked history of race, aging, fashion and consumption, and the emergence of “youth” as a cultural driver within the modern Japanese imagination.

This project has been funded in part by The Japan Foundation Japanese Studies Fellowship.

Led by Dr Musafumi Monden. This is an extensive, collaborative research project with the University of Queensland and University of Tasmania examines contemporary Japanese girl culture and its interconnecting media formats using theories of shōjo (literary girls in Japanese) developed in Japan.

In doing so we draw on a particular branch of Japanese girl studies that has made girlish imagination and the agency of girl readers its subject; this is in contrast to the body of work that analyses the shōjo as a vehicle of male (sexual) desire, objectification and consumption.

As the latter approach has tended to dominate English-language scholarship on the girl and the shōjo, this project addresses this imbalance, making the largely underexplored, girl-centred work more accessible to Anglophone audiences.

This project has been funded in part by Australia-Japan Foundation Grants and The National Library of Australia Japan Studies Fellowship.

George’s Narcissism: Aesthetic Fundamentalism and the Reception of Stefan George since 1995.  

Led by Professor Peter Morgan. Controversial anti-modernist German poet, Stefan George has figured large in contemporary historical sociology of the anti-modern reaction of the early twentieth century.

This short monograph discusses George in terms of recent psychoanalytic and sociological theory, concluding with a suggested alternative interpretation of George’s narcissistic imago.

Led by Professor Peter Morgan. This monograph discusses the wave of novels that attended the emergence of a modern homosexual male identity in late 19th and early 20th century Germany.

Due to various factors, the emancipation movement was stronger here than elsewhere in Europe. In fictional works that have by and large disappeared from the canon of German literature, writers experimented with the new possibilities of a homosexual male’s life in the social environment that the novelistic form represents.

Led by Professor Peter Morgan. Literature played an important role in the Eastern European socialist dictatorships.

Living and writing in Stalinist Albania until 1990, writer Ismail Kadare realized an alternative form of literary dissidence to that of figures such as Solzhenitsyn in Russia.

In volume 1 of this study of Kadare’s work the works of the communist period are discussed; Volume 2 covers the years since the end of the regime, in particular his post-communist coming-to-terms with the regime along with his engagement with Albanian social, political and intellectual life since the nineties.

Led by Dr Benjamin Nickl with Dr Chris Müller, Macquarie University and Dr Helen Wolfenden, Macquarie University.

Real is Not Real Enough is an audio or sonic translation project that translates and adapts the remarkable writings of Jewish German philosopher Günther Anders from page to sound.

The project’s research space is hosted by the Goethe Institute and the initial podcast production was made possible with generous funding support by the Goethe Institute and the Austrian Embassy.

The aim of this interdisciplinary research project is to follow Anders’ prime agenda, to find the right tone for the wrong ears—expressing a new reality with an old language.

A research companion podcast called Unpacking the Real that gives experts from various disciplines a space to use the original podcast experience and its truths as a point of departure for their research narratives is in the works and will be published in 2023.

Led by Dr Fernanda Peñaloza. Southern Cinemascapes challenges the traditional perspective that positions Europe as the cradle of film festivals; it develops new perspectives on ‘world cinema’ due to very specific geographical orientations, locations and geopolitical tensions within a South-South circulation axis.

Led by Dr Clara Sitbon. This project, anchored in Digital Humanities, uses computational tools (Stylometry and NLP primarily) to map the literary style of French writer Boris Vian, and that of the 27 alter-egos he used during his prolific literary career.

It seeks to investigate whether there are commonalities in the linguistic fingerprint and literary style used by Boris Vian and all his pseudonyms, or whether it could be posited that Vian exhibited different linguistic fingerprints depending on which name he wrote under.

Led by Dr Clara Sitbon. This project seeks to investigate the mechanisms at play in Corsican Crime fiction, and how the dichotomy between language use and power can shift expectations of the literary canon around crime fiction.

The project is linked to others involving regional crime writing in the Mediterranean, through the “Med Noir” network, to re-evaluate how minority languages and literatures can push the boundaries of the crime fiction genre itself.

Led by Dr Josh Stenberg. This project researches the Hokkien music drama known as liyuanxi (“Pear Orchard Theatre”), heir and current expression of one of China’s oldest unbroken xiqu (“Chinese opera”) traditions.

Musically and narratively highly distinctive, liyuanxi is closely associated with the historic port city of Quanzhou, and draws on the same musical system as the vocal tradition of nanguan/nanyin, included by UNESCO in 2009 as representative of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Led by Dr Josh Stenberg. This project aims to address the reception of China's state-funded cultural diplomacy initiatives among Overseas Chinese communities in multicultural societies.

Using performance observation, interviews and analysis of archival sources, it will assess how diasporic communities react to local and transnational pressures and stimuli as the Chinese state invests in cultural diplomacy. 

Led by Dr Brangwen Stone. The first comprehensive study of refugees in contemporary German-language literature and theatre, this book will explore contemporary depictions of refugees in recent German-language literature by a range of authors including while also touching on the depiction of refugees in German theatre.

It will focus particularly on the way in which traumatic experiences of the German past are often placed alongside the traumatic experiences of refugee figures.

Led by Professor Adrian Vickers. Art in Indonesia has been shaped by institutions, for colonial exhibitions to private museums.

This project examines the history of these institutions and their role in producing distinctive forms of art, art which is often explicitly political.

In the absence of state sponsorship of modern and contemporary art in Indonesia, communal approaches to art have come to the fore.

The institutional setting of Indonesian art also means that it has been open to international collaboration and participation in ways that other national art scenes have not.

Led by Dr Léa Vuong. What is the impact of literature on the work of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois? How has literature shaped the practice of an artist primarily known for her sculptures, installations, drawings, and paintings?

To answer these questions, this book (under contract with Penn State University Press) offers a new portrait of the artist as a writer, arguing that her oeuvre can be read as a work of literature.

Using the perspective of literary studies to reassess the artist’s work, it establishes how writing, reading, but also collecting and making books are central to her artistic practice.

Led by Dr Léa Vuong, Associate Professor Michelle Royer and Dr Nathalie SegéralThis forthcoming edited volume (Liverpool University Press) seeks to reposition Oceanian studies within the global Francophone studies academic discourse by establishing an état present of academic research into literature, visual arts, film, and other cultural productions in the region.

It will contribute to setting up new research agendas across the field, by exploring themes and critical approaches that matter today, such as the global circulation of Francophone Oceanian art, political activism of artists and writers, ecocritical perspectives on art, literature, and cinema.

Led by Dr Sonia Wilson. Objects once considered personal - photographs, diaries, letters - are now turning up in unexpected places: dumpsters, ebay, piles of confiscated objects at borders. These finds have generated new literary objects and cultural forms, both on and off-line.

This book-length project probes the relational work performed by this revalorisation of fragments of other people's lives, seeking to generate insight into this previously unexamined and very contemporary form of memory-making.

Led by Associate Professor Xiaohuan Zhao. The scriptural source for the Ghost Festival in East Asia is the Yulanpen Sūtra, which, however, is overwhelmingly considered apocryphal in modern scholarship.

This book project challenges this widely held belief by demonstrating that the sūtra is a Chinese creative translation rather than an indigenous Chinese composition.

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