JUST*ICE? SMH LIFE AND DEATH SHOW Greg Leong ROGET'S CIRCULAR Sean PayneCarmel Bird Sharon Pittaway Deborah Malor Simon Longstaff Helen Rayment BEWARE OF PEDESTRIANS Roger Palmer Carmel Bird Michael Buckley
LANDSCAPE: Simon Longstaff
For many, the Federation of the six Australian colonies to form a new, sovereign state, the Commonwealth of Australia, was and remains, primarily, a political achievement. However, to contemplate Federation solely in these terms is to leave unexplored some of the deeper questions of significance attached to events that came to fruition in January 1901.
After all, there was nothing inevitable about Federation. While the colonies inhabited the same continent, its vastness meant that the very idea of being one people, occupying one land, was problematic. Not only was there an absence of contiguity in space, the same dislocation occurred in time. Even today, crossing time-zones from West to East reinforces a sense of Australia being bound together for reasons that are more than the result of mere proximity. Added to this is the fact that meaning seemed to enter into strangely configured realms of possibility in the Antipodes. Some of this dislocation was due to the different conditions under which the colonies had been established (some free from the convict stain, some not - and so on). Then, as we will see below, there was the assault on the European sense of meaning presented by the land itself. This was not simply a reflection of the near-ritual divide between the city and the bush. It was something more profound - a perplexing, ironic landscape that defied the categories of European sensibility.
Yet, for all that, Federation was achieved. And this, I believe, was due to an act of imagination that drew together the strange, multiple dimensions of Australia so that Europeans could conceive of their place in this Southern world in a new way.
Indeed, it seems to me that the process of how we weave meaning into and out of identity lies at the core of the work exhibited here by Smith and Roberts. Theirs is a personal expression of identity based around and built on dimensions borrowed from the mind of Europe (represented by Roget) but re-articulated in the Antipodes (in their own lives and their intersection with the histories that have helped to shape their identities).
Some of the reference points are obvious - six colonies morph into States that combine to make the Commonwealth whole; Roget's six dimensions are united into a universe of meaning. However, I want to suggest that Smith and Roberts have done something more than make such obvious allusions.
The intensely personal material that lies at the heart of their art provides an analogue for what Federation was at its most fundamental. Created by a free and popular vote (albeit involving the limited franchise of men [but including men of all races, as Aboriginal men were entitled to vote until 1904), the creation of Australia was a project mandated by ordinary people rather than great powers. While popular reasons for finally agreeing to the act of Federation are bound to have varied considerably - each reason would have been based in individual experience of a kind that gives rise to meaning such as Smith and Roberts explore here.
As noted above, we should not underestimate the challenge posed to European sensibility when presented with the raw stuff of Australia. A land that was mysterious and ironic in nearly equal measures routinely confounded the cultural categories imported by the settlers (whether free or not).
For example, Paul Carter argues, in his alternative account of nation building, The Road to Botany Bay that European settlers made meaning in Australia by requiring that the strangeness of the land and its inhabitants conform with the colonist's language. The reality of Australia was quite unlike anything that the settlers had previously experienced. One important result of this was that the language of exploration tended to be metaphorical rather than purely descriptive - as it had to be in a land where reality refused to conform to expectations.
Take the case of the explorers task in relation to the discovery and naming of rivers. Carter argues that the explorers' task was to take possession of the land by naming it. To do so, it was necessary to discover and name things of cultural significance, such as rivers. The explorers came to Australia with an established sense of how rivers were meant to behave. Their assumption was that rivers should rise in the mountains and then flow towards the sea. The strength of this expectation was such that the mere discovery of a river could provide the travelling explorer with a sense of direction, with a purpose. However, as the explorers soon discovered, many of Australia's rivers behave in a quite different manner - flowing as they do towards the inland, there being exhausted in a network of capillaries that water the thin soils of the interior.
Yet, the conventional practice of naming went on as explorers and surveyors sought to make sense of the interior by labelling what they found with words that didn't quite fit the reality they encountered. In fact the naming of rivers,creeks, hills, mounts and so on was more about the need to differentiate space than give a strictly accurate description of the phenomena that explorers encountered.
Carter offers a couple of examples of this peculiar naming practice:
The early travelers, then, invented places, rather than found them. To designate a place as mount might express, in fact, the absence of that desirable feature. Paraphrasing one of his names, Sturt wrote,
The peak itself was nothing more than a sandy eminence on which neither tree or shrub was growing, and the whole locality was so much in unison with it, that we called it Mount Misery.
A similar approach seems evident in Major Mitchell's rather surprising approval of the name River Lett, a name that came into being in the following way:
On 24 November 1813 Evans had reached the valley, commenting merely that the descent is rugged. A day of rest was spent beside the Riverlett (i.e. rivulet and the name remained as River Lett
Apart from revealing something of the source of Australia's keen sense of irony, these passages indicate that the explorers made the best use of the only language that they had available to them - a language that couldn't do justice to a reality that it could hardly contemplate. Thus, the apparent disappointment of later travelers whose expectations of the Australian interior were confounded by the reality. Thus, the charge that the explorers had been incompetent, dishonest (or both) in their description of Australia.
I want to suggest that this mismatch between the language of the explorers and the reality that they sought to describe had two related effects. First, it allowed any latent feeling of distrust and discomfort about this strange land (in which rivers flow backwards, trees retain their leaves but shed their bark, and nature's hoax is found actually to exist in the form of the platypus) to go unanswered amongst the majority of the population whose knowledge of the bush was only second hand. Second, the lack of a precise fit between what could be directly experienced and that which could be expressed, in the loose-fitting language of the European colonists, allowed gaps within which the possibility of the bush being mythologised could be realised.
However, there is a further possibility that should at least be considered. It may be that this gap between imported expectations and concepts and the reality encountered in the land provided the necessary space within which a new Australian identity could be forged. Unrestrained by an over-determined set of definitions, the colonists were actually free to invent something original and to share this through the common experience of a land that was indifferent to income, class or personal history in its ability to confound.
Smith and Roberts have engaged with Roget in a way that is therefore quite distinctively Australian. While Roget provides a fairly formal map of meaning based on his six primary dimensions, Smith and Roberts have subverted the formality of the structure by using it simply as a prompt to artistic reflection and expression. So it is that their work has a capacity to use Roget's conceptual framework as a foil for creativity. The result is something mysterious - a product that calls upon the viewer/participant to wonder about the implicit relationship between the work and Roget's explicit framework. Why this image? Why this word? Why this memory? Furthermore, the mystery is deepened by the fact that we are invited to make meaning in relation to two, interleaving artistic responses that, while related, remain distinct.
As with the task of the explorers described by Paul Carter, Smith and Roberts have undertaken a journey in which their task has been to craft meaning out of personal experience. Like the map-making explorers of the past, Smith and Roberts have translated private significance into a public space where, through the gaze of the viewer, its meaning again becomes private. It is this journey that we are invited to take - with the sense of movement being marked by an asynchronous passage through time and a series of references that we can arrange according to our individual interests and preferences.
Finally, there is significance to be found in the rich variety of media through which each artist has chosen to express her personal journey - and that of the other people who she has woven into the collection. For example, Smith's principal works are the product of the painstaking and detailed preparation of blocks from which a series of prints have been taken. Roberts has chosen the much freer forms of painting and drawing. In the first form, the hand is naturally constrained in its movements - leading to a significant concentration of time in one work. In the latter, the hand can be moved with relative freedom - allowing a greater expansion of colour, tone and especially, space. Yet, there are also more radical choices in the presentation of this collection - the use of interactive computer technology, sculpture, text and so on. Again, the making of meaning is offered as a form of exploration of multiple dimensions in which relationships are forged in the minds of the participants.
Yet, for all this variety and opportunity, there is an objective relationship that stands alongside the subjective act of making meaning. The key to understanding this relationship is not to be found in some conscious process of design but in the common point of reference provided by Roget's framework. Even as each artist subverts the fixed meaning of Roget's categories, she is bound to the other by the common point of reference that these categories provide.
It seems to me that something similar can be said about the way in which Australia has been made during the period since Federation. The making of meaning in Australia has seldom been (if ever) a conscious national project. Instead, a serendipitous process has produced an amalgam of individual experience expressed in a variety of relatively free forms. Of course, our forms of life in Australia are not entirely free. A subtle discipline is exerted by the land itself - a presence that ensures that Australia is experienced as a single country and not a mere collection of former colonies. The character of this land; its vastness and its defiance of conventional expectations, invites people to step beyond positions defined by others (in Europe and elsewhere) and make something new in which each individual expression is welcomed as a contribution to the whole. Yet, just as Smith and Roberts are linked by Roget's taxonomy of meaning, so our land links us all.
Simon Longstaff, Sydney, 2000
In 2000 Dr. Simon Longstaff was Exectutive Director of the St James Ethics Society, Sydney.