In 1997 I created a looping video work on VHS – My Country. This work explored ideas of place, nationhood and identity by casting a critical eye on some of the iconic images and words that describe this land known as Australia.
The idea for the work came when I found some old prints in the bin at my part-time job at an Art Museum in Brisbane. This discovery began the development of the project which is comprised of a series of collages combined with a re-telling of Dorothea Mackeller’s My Country.
This work was initially presented at Metro Arts in Brisbane as an installation and featured a wonderful catalogue essay by Linda Carroli.
Although this work is now over 20 years old, it still resonates for me. Many of the issues are still current: environmental and social justice, First People’s self-determination and righting the wrongs of history.
An essay for Tracey Benson’s My Country by Linda Carroli
“Reconciliation is about acceptance, respect and recognition. It accepts the special place of indigenous peoples in the nation’s history, respects indigenous cultures and recognises their human rights … Just as Australia began the twentieth century with a significant act of nation building, it can go into the twenty-first century having completed its nationhood though a process of renewal.”1
“A nation, like an individual, can come to know itself better by learning how to remember its dreams.”2
Australia is a country divided: some might say at war. Hence the need for a process such as Reconciliation. How that process is presented and discussed in the public realm is a matter which should occupy all our thoughts, woven into our actions, encounters and daily lives as ‘Australians’. However, in recent times, Australians have been occupied with its other, a declamation by those who reject Reconciliation and instead vigorously espouse fear, hatred, ignorance and division: in a word, racism. Those loathsome sentiments resound like echoes of a filthy history, emanating from the backbench of our national parliament, bouncing like shockwaves through the community and selectively echoed again in the daily media, shorthanded as the ‘Racism Debate’.
This is the scenario which frames the production of political artworks such as Tracey Benson’s My Country. She speaks, as I do, as a non-indigenous Australian woman, as an artist who does not seek to represent or mediate the concerns of indigenous people in this country, but as an artist who exercises her conscience, her responsibility and her concern about national identity. She has done this by appropriating and plundering the archive of colonial cultural history to present an unnerving, parodic and critical intervention which seeks to dislodge the (white, masculine) supremacy and romanticism of colonial discourse and representation. The work is informed by postcolonialism as a critical appraisal of history in an Australian context. Her position and her intention, in this sense, is acute and clear although not without its risks and discomfort in such a volatile environment. The risk is to be accused of appropriating the experience of the ‘other’. The risk is to be accused of ‘political correctness’ at a time when moral community and the concern for equity and social justice is disregarded. Despite the accusation, the risk is worth taking because the stakes are too great to risk silence, to be complicit in the multiple oppressions which write the experience, the history and the bodies of the ‘other’. Benson describes this work as an archaeology in order to establish a mode of interrogating a series of representations which are historically and culturally specific but which are imbued with sufficient authenticity to speak for or evidence nationhood. She states that “these images primarily serve to open a discussion about who this nation has treated as its others.”3 In this sense, Benson too, has situated herself outside the cultural centre, transgressed beyond metanarratives and monoculturalism into a more fractured terrain.
In operation is the idea of nation/hood and its telling: “an idea whose cultural compulsion lies in the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force”.4 But the nation itself is enmeshed in modern doctrines of unitary order: pre-modern practices of land and identification are not accommodated by this order while postmodern practices of space and critical pluralism destabilise and fragment it. Carter asks, “what kind of representation could make present to us the historical space which has been so effectively excluded from our historical narratives?”5 Herein, the colonial and the postcolonial are inextricably linked, internal to each other. According to Bhabha:
the ambivalent antagonistic perspective of nation as narration will establish the cultural boundaries of the nation so that they may be acknowledged as containing thresholds of meaning that must be crossed, erased and translated in the process of cultural production.6
As Benson’s work elaborates, a great injustice has been perpetrated in this country. It underwrites our sense of nationhood and undermines any claim of cultural integrity. The promise of postcolonialism seems just that, a whispered promise of a better future rather than a bold leap into the beyond. Bhabha states that “the ‘beyond’ is neither a new horizon, nor a leaving behind of the past … in the fin de siecle, we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. For there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction, in the ‘beyond’.”7 This is apparent with Benson’s collaged imagery in which the violence and romanticism of colonialism collide with the crass and kitsch of contemporary tourism; they allude to the shifting imperatives and investitures in notions and practices of national identity. Presented with a reading of Dorethea MacKeller’s My Country, which as a literary form articulates the melding of nationalism and the landscape, this work critiques this relationship as well as the normative processes of cultural identity and tourism.
This is how I begin to understand Reconciliation: as a moment or process that is produced in the articulation of cultural difference/s8 and the assertion of non-unitary nationhood. It is, as Bhabha argues, an ‘in-between space’ which provides “the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.”9 For this nation, Reconciliation promises not just the opening of a space for the disavowed but also for, as the Chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Patrick Dodson has argued, the process of a renewed national identity, complicit with its temporal and cultural diversity and its competing hybridities and differences.
Embedded within My Country are the signs and representations of disavowal and dispossession: the means by which indigenous occupation and knowledge have been overwritten. In the first instance, it was the declaration of terra nullius which according to Pitts is:
the doctrine of empty spaces, voids without a sovereign presence … the doctrine was used by the English to legitimise their invasion of Aboriginal Australia. The land that belongs to no one, according to terra nullius, belongs to those who can take it. The Aborigines, lacking a [recognisable] sovereign and deeds of fixed possession, were regarded as no-ones, as legal non-entities.10
Colonial artists reinforced the connection between nature and nation by misrepresenting the vast ’emptiness’ and incomprehensibility of the Australian landscape, the absence or ‘naturalisation’ of indigenous people and the presence of the (predominantly male) colonists as ‘nation-builders’. Benson takes this as her point of departure, describing My Country as an anti-portrait which seeks to disrupt the popularised mythologies and heroism.11 The manner in which indigenous people inscribed and altered the landscape was disregarded. Australian hegemony continues to deflect the question of sovereignty and the cultural landscape of indigenous people. Presently, federal and state governments are in the ready to support pastoralists and mining companies in their campaign against Native Title despite a ruling by the Supreme Court that the existence of pastoral leases did not necessarily extinguish Native Title. Seemingly, the law that revoked indigenous sovereignty is also the law that protects it.
Subsequently, Benson is undertaking re/de/territorialisation as an ironic and interventionist strategy. As Gunew argues, irony acts as “that double vision which implicitly challenges any claims to universalism or speech in the name of humanity”.12 It makes possible subversive local practices which disrupt and contest the closures occurring in the construction of identity as it relates to national identity or other, more specified identities.13 Benson endeavours this by actively intervening on and disordering the historicity of the works which she has appropriated or literally ‘found’ and coupling them with the poem, My Country. She recounts the story of having rescued a number of reproductions of etchings from the rubbish bin at the art gallery where she works: the trashing and sacking of history and representation made ironically explicit.
Baudrillard argues that the representation “starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent (even if this equivalence is utopian, it is a fundamental axiom)”.14 In My Country, Benson is disrupting that (modern) utopian equivalence by reinscribing, manipulating, reproducing and displacing specific representations and by conflating multiple histories and narratives: as if to generate inconsistent and discontinuous dialogues, a sense of crossed purpose and crossed messages. Clearly, she is toying with notions of simulation and reproduction, “insofar as it is opposed to representation”15 and temporality as it “resists the transparent linear equivalence of event and idea that historicism proposes”.16 Baudrillard argues that:
Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA – it is the map that engenders the territory and … today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own.17
The hyperreal provides another excess which overwrites and confounds the landscape. According to Eco, hyperreality presents not just a vision of excess which exposes the fantasy of realism but a demand for the real where to attain the real, the absolute fake must be fabricated, “where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred, the art museum is contaminated by the freak show, and falsehood is enjoyed in a situation of ‘fullness,’ of horror vacui.”18 Benson takes her own journey through the hyperreal, evoking the monumental iconography of Queensland’s tourist landscape: a Big Cow, a Big Pineapple, a Big Banana, a Big Merino. Her arrangement, like an itinerary, despite its attachment to the poetic narrative of My Country, is random and its internal il/logic is neither obvious nor predictable. Rather, the work plots points which define pathways, points from which innumerable trajectories, lines of flight and connections are possible. Ulmer argues that “tourism is rhizomatic – that it makes national identity the way bees make honey”.19 History knows its lack: no longer a lineal recollection, a metanarrative, but a restless movement of back and forth.20
In the touristic journey, the monument represents another type of anticipation, another site of desire. According to Hodge, “touristic desire … acts primarily though the ambiguous status of monuments. Monuments are what tourists look at without understanding: tourists are people who look at monuments without understanding.”21 In the journey through hyperreality, monuments purport to signify the ‘real’ Australia. Ulmer states that the prevalence and proliferation of such monuments testifies the existence of a “‘monumental’ tourism – an activity whose motivation is economic but whose effect is symbolic, involving a visit to a place marked by a thing or an event that represents collective value.”22 He further states that “when tourists add theoria (witnessing) to their itinerary, they expose a problematic dimension of the environment to a new kind of attention whose function would not be ‘spectacle’ but ‘healing’.”23 Such healing drives the process of renewal. However, in so doing ‘the witness’ is not simply a position for the tourist. It is how citizens can participate directly in not just the continuing invention of a place but also in the remembering of its dreams. In this territory of monument and spectacle, of beauty and terror, Benson has traversed differentiated terrains and temporalities to evoke not just the dreams of the nation, but also the dreaming of the land.
1Patrick Dodson, ‘Preface’, in The Path to Reconciliation, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 1997 (unpaginated).
2 Gregory L. Ulmer, “Metaphoric Rocks: A Psychogeography of Tourism and Monumentality”, Postmodern Culture, vol 4, no 3, May 1993, (unpaginated). Accessed via internet glulmer@nervm.Nerde.Ufl.Edu
3 Tracey Benson, unpublished artist’s statement for My Country, 1997
4 Homi K. Bhabha, “Introduction: Narrating the Nation”, Homi K. Bhabha (ed), Narration and Nation, Routledge, London, 1990, p1
5 Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, Faber and Faber, 1987
6 Homi K. Bhabha, “Introduction: Narrating the Nation”, op.cit., p 4
7 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, New York, p1
9 ibid., p 1 – 2
10 Graham Pitts, “Sub Terra Nullius”, Meanjin, Melbourne, 4/1988, p 641
11 Tracey Benson, op.cit.
12 Sneja Gunew, “Feminism and the Politics of Irreducible Difference: Multiculturalism / ethnicity / race”, Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman (eds), Feminism and the Politics of Difference, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1993, p 11
13 ibid. After Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.
14 Jean Beaudrillard, “The Map Precedes the Territory”, Walter Truett Anderson, The Fontana Postmodernism Reader, Fontana, London, 1996, p 77.
16 Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation” in Homi K. Bhabha (ed), Nation and Narration, op.cit., p 292
17 Jean Baudrillard, op.cit., p 76. The fable to which Baudrillard refers is one by Borges in which the “cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory”. As the Empire declines so too does the map fall into ruin.
18 Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver, Picador, London, 1986, p 8
19 Gregory L. Ulmer, “Metaphoric Rocks: A Psychogeography of Tourism and Monumentality”, op.cit. After Joseph Beuys’ statement that people make thought the way bees make honey.
20 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, op.cit., p1
21 Bob Hodge, “The Atlantis Project: Necrophilia and Touristic Truth”, Meanjin, Melbourne, 3/1990, p 389 – 390
22 Gregory L. Ulmer, “Metaphoric Rocks: A Psychogeography of Tourism and Monumentality”, op.cit.