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Artworks revealed for Vivid Sydney Lighting of the Sails: Life Enlivened 2023 by John Olsen and Curiious

“To see my work extended to the exterior, splashed across the sails, completes my life.”

Dr John Olsen (1928 – 2023)

Life Enlivened by John Olsen and Curiious runs each night of Vivid Sydney from 26 May to 17 June

Global premiere to be streamed live on Friday 26 May via the Opera House Facebook page and on Stream

Sydney – Monday, 8 May, 2023. Acclaimed Australian artist John Olsen’s vibrant paintings of life and energy within the natural world will illuminate the Sydney Opera House’s sails in the annual Lighting of the Sails for Vivid Sydney from 26 May – 17 June 2023.

Lighting of the Sails 2023 fittingly honours the legendary artist in the 50th anniversary year of the Opera House, home to Olsen’s captivating mural Salute to Slessor’s 5 Bells. Prior to his passing, Olsen worked closely with Destination NSW, the Sydney Opera House, curator Dr. Deborah Hart and creative technologists Curiious on the concept for Life Enlivened (2023). Distilling the essence of Olsen’s esteemed sixty-year career, the animated artwork traces an arc through his enduring fascination with the Australian natural environment, aligned with the festival’s 2023 creative direction, ‘Vivid Sydney, Naturally’.

“John lighting up the sails of the Opera House for Vivid Sydney will certainly be bittersweet. To be remembered and to adorn the greatest blank canvas on earth is a wonderful honour. It brought him great pride and joy in his final months. It's heartbreaking that he won’t be able to see it but he knew that the whole of Sydney will bathe in it.” Tim Olsen

Starting with a single brushstroke, Life Enlivened will move through Olsen’s time as an artist coming into his own in the early 1960s, where he was struck by the dynamism of Sydney Harbour intersecting with the metropolis – pulsing with luminosity and water. It will spotlight later works from his travels with environmentalists and filmmakers to regional Australia, where Olsen encountered vast areas of the country with rivers running, like those weaving to Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre, and fertile habitats such as lily ponds; the inspiration of birds and frogs invigorating his line.

The full list of artworks to be brought to life on the Opera House’s iconic sails as part of Vivid Sydney:

Sydney Sun, 1965, National Gallery of Australia

Entrance to the Seaport of Desire, 1964, Art Gallery of NSW

Wet Season, 1994, Private collection

The Bridge, n.d., Private collection

Jacanas, 1983, Private collection

Lilypond NQ, 1983, Private collection

Frog 1, 1978, Private collection

Hanging Tree Frog, 1979, Private collection

Tree Frog NQ, 2011, Estate of the artist

Salute to Slessor’s 5 Bells, 1972-73, Sydney Opera House

Lake Eyre 1975, 1975, Private collection

The Flood – towards Lake Eyre, 2008-09, National Gallery of Victoria

Broken Egg and Summer Landscape, 1986-87, Private collection

Golden Summer, Clarendon, 1983, Art Gallery of NSW

Largo al Factotum: tribute to Rossini, 1984, Arts Centre Melbourne Art Collection

“It is an honour to celebrate the genius of one of Australia’s most renowned artists on our truly iconic building. This year we proudly showcase John Olsen’s immense talent and exceptional art to millions in person and around the world over the 23 nights of Vivid Sydney. I encourage everyone to come down to Circular Quay and to enjoy his incredible artwork and get involved in Vivid Sydney.” Minister for the Arts and Minister for Jobs and Tourism, John Graham

"Dr John Olsen was a giant of Australian art and his work will live on for generations to come. We are proud to be honouring his significant talent and creative legacy on the sails of the Sydney Opera House for Vivid Sydney 2023. Life Enlivened will spotlight his fascination with Australian landscapes and nature in a true reflection of the festival’s 2023 creative direction, Naturally. We know John was excited and proud about this project.” Vivid Sydney Festival Director, Gill Minervini

“It is an especial privilege to be honouring the sublime art of Dr John Olsen in this year’s Lighting of the Sails, and deeply fitting that it takes place during the Opera House’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Olsen is forever entwined with the fabric of the building through his seminal Salute to Slessor’s 5 Bells mural, created in situ in the Concert Hall Northern Foyer during construction and open to public view from the 1973 inception of Sydney Opera House. It is a singular joy to know Olsen was touched and enthused by this large-scale public survey of his career, a truly incredible career as one of Australia’s most lauded and recognised artists.” Sydney Opera House Head of Contemporary Music and Vivid LIVE Curator, Ben Marshall

“The selection of images by John Olsen for Lighting the Sails, was inspired by the overarching vision  for Vivid Sydney: Naturally. Over the years Olsen has had a profound connection with the natural world in his art, from works relating to Sydney that established his reputation, to others informed by journeys to regional areas, opening up passionate engagements with landscapes and natural habitats that continued to inspire him throughout his life across media. Olsen’s drawings are often as succinct as haiku poems, while his paintings at times inhabit space with swathes of luminous floating colour energised by his dynamic line and myriad signs of life. His poetic vision seems made for the idea of Vivid, enlivening the way we see the world around us and reminding us that art, poetry and environment can coexist quite naturally.” Curator, Dr Deborah Hart

“The talented team of artists and animators at Curiious are honoured to bring John Olsen's works to life on the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House. With a combination of traditional hand crafted animation and the latest AI powered motion technology, Curiious paints the sails with vibrant watercolours, ink brush strokes, acrylics and oils exploring the exquisite detail, colour and stories from a selection of John's most iconic works.” Curiious

Visitors who are blind or have low vision and their companions are invited to listen to a live audio description of the sails lighting, with sessions on the 13 and 15 June at 6pm. Registrations are free and essential. For more audio description videos of Vivid Sydney, please visit the Vivid Sydney website.

For media information, please contact:

Vivid LIVE Media Enquiries

Julia Barnes
Senior Communications Manager 
0402 678 589

Francesca Breen
Communications Specialist 
0434 257 068

Genvin In
Communications Coordinator
0449 939 864

Vivid Sydney Media Enquiries

Jenna Whyte
PR Manager – Vivid Sydney 
0484 719 536