In this article I consider the ways in which a variety of artists, including myself, have sought to capture identity in their work. Focusing on the way the work of art envelopes and scaffolds subjectivity I reference key concepts on which my research is based. By looking at Foucault’s early research into ‘Other’ spaces, which he termed heterotopia, I argue identity can not be stable when delineated space is conceptualized as a false architecture. In doing this I link Peter Hill’s concept of superfictions to Giorgio Agamben’s reading of bio-politics. I apply these concepts to a number of spaces and frameworks throughout the article. Exploring the historical and bio-political contingencies on which modern Australian identity rests – with reference to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – I reason that any space conceived as home, can be defamiliarized. I suggest this is the case for the non-Indigenous subject in Australia. I conclude that super-fictions are the hidden frameworks we construct our identities from.
Image 1: The Room That Was, 2008, Wood, carpet, office chair, spy-hole, DVD player and screen, 900x200x300cm
Introduction: The Room That Was
The subject first stands at the threshold of a corridor; its ambient light recedes as he/she looks into its length, at the end of which is another light, an artificial glow. Compelled to find the source of the second light the subject then walks the length of the curved corridor to stand at another threshold. Here they find a dimly lit, shallow carpeted space, resembling a dilapidated, austere office environment. They are compelled to step into the space and to fill the absence presented by the empty, backless, swivel office chair. Imagining another viewer has come to stand at the threshold of the stairwell she/he watches the subject of the piece sit on the chair and send the space into total darkness. The subject has tripped a sensor, simultaneously deactivating the light and activating a soundtrack accompanying the looped film that plays inside a small spy-hole at her/his seated eye-level, the only source of light in the room. Meanwhile, the second viewer must wait, in pitch darkness, until the subject leaves.
Image 2: Film Still from TRTW
The original viewer, sitting on the chair, inhabits a third space of disorientation. She/he is subject to a rendition . In the spy-hole the subject/viewer looks into yet another space; a room (film loop) that looks very much like the one they inhabit at that very moment, only someone else is in there, a hooded, white suited figure . The subject/viewer witnesses the hooded figure’s descent into madness, in the very space they now sit in. If this description is disorienting, or seems de-contextualized from the article, it is appropriate as it mirrors the disorienting experience of one of my most recent pieces, The Room That Was, first shown at West Space Gallery, Melbourne, in 2008. The work summarizes many of the political and conceptual concerns I have brought to my practice in recent years.
In exploring its componentry and the subject’s experience of it, I aim to contextualize the arguments I make in this essay. This includes my most recent series of paintings in which I re-present mirror images of iconic Australian Impressionist works – only the subject is missing. Explicitly, in much of my work, the viewer is rendered other, forced to inhabit the space of a marginalized subject. Like all of my recent sculptural installations The Room That Was (TRTW)triangulates the viewer in a series of perspectives. It is literally a room within a room, found at the end of a long, arcing corridor. I consider the work to be a series of invitations offered to the subject. Instead of a collapsing one-point perspective creating the illusion of false depth TRTW positions the second subject/viewer at the point of intersection for the lines of a one-point perspective. So that rather than looking into a contracting, illusory perspective, the subject looks out to an expanding perspective where the lines will never meet. It is only for the viewer already inside the space that the contracting one-point perspective makes sense as they look back to where they once stood. For the viewer standing at the second threshold, at the bottom of a small stairwell, the space seems shallow.
The intention of the piece is to firstly unnerve the subject, place him/her in the role of viewer/voyeur and then to transpose the hooded figure’s experience onto the viewer’s real-time experience inside the space. In doing this I hope the viewer/subject might conceive of themselves as an ‘othered’ subject, if only for a short time. Interestingly, when the work was exhibited at West Space Gallery some unforeseen, but fitting experiences emerged for the subject. As explained, if someone was sitting on the office chair, there was no light, so for those people waiting to go into the actual room they were left standing in a queue in complete darkness, often with strangers. To be in the corridor was to be immersed in darkness and a muffled looping soundtrack, coming from the room itself. The people remained silent, passively waiting to be rendered. The work in this regard toyed with social relations, rendering the subject uncertain, and guaranteeing a reaction from the viewer. TRTW raises a number of points regarding pre-conceived notions of how a space is meant to function, the emergent subject within a false framework, and most tellingly, the erasure of subjectivity given certain discourses and ideological frameworks – such as the nation-state. I address these points in the following pages.
Reflections in Other Spaces: From a Heterotopia to a Superfiction
The Room That Was reflects the subject as an ‘Other’ where the viewer is invited into the experience of a marginalized subject. In this way it follows the story of Narcissus which for me is more than a moral lesson and a warning against vanity. In my research and artwork it has come to represent a succinct allegory for subjectivity in the post-industrial Western world, a place where reflections of the modern self are maintained in a series of perspectives that are generally banal, but sometimes dangerous. From internet social networking sites Facebook and My Space, to the economic identity expressed in most of the mail (bills and bank statements) we receive, as well as the identity framed in other discourses such as the law, medicine and citizenship, we are not so much fixated on the singular image in the other space of the mirror/lake, like Narcissus, but on the triangulated self at the centre of many perspectives. These fragments of self, contained in what amount to virtual frameworks, like TRTW, are predicated on the suspension of disbelief and the notion that the spaces are built on solid foundations, and yet the statements that emanate from them are nothing but reflected fictions, including the subject.
If space is conceived as a heterotopia then what is produced inside it becomes something other than real. The term, heterotopia, literally translates from the Greek as ‘other place.’ Defining the term in his 1967 essay, Different Spaces, Foucault discusses how all cultures create other spaces against which their real sites become unambiguous, clarified and legitimated (Foucault, 1988, 175-185). Initially, for my research, it designated those spaces in which other bodies are marginalized, and reified, such as detention centres, desert communities and, in a broader analysis, the mapped continent of Australia in its original European incarnation – a gigantic prison. I propose that any space can be seen as a heterotopia, given certain conditions, and therefore all bodies, no matter how privileged, are capable of being othered. Although the passage below describes the ‘heterochrony’ of the museum, for Foucault, he could just as easily be defining the modern nation state as a:
general archive, (modernity has) the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity (Foucault, 1988, 183).
Due to their demarcation heterotopias are distinguishable from other spaces and inside them ‘the individual has to submit to certain rituals and purifications’ (Foucault, 1988, 183). In spaces such as Kakadu National Park, the tourist’s entry is conditional upon observing certain practices acknowledging the significance of sites like Ubirr Rock. The illusion of sanctity inside the space creates the impression for some non-Indigenous people that the space outside of it is deconsecrated and capitalized, holding no special value for anyone, and therefore remains open to annexation and exploitation. For some it might suggest that the practice of Aboriginality, outside of the heterotopia, is devoid of meaning . Heterotopias, simply, maintain the illusion that what is outside the frame of the ‘other place’ is the real space much like the concept of a fiction infers that non-fiction, or truth, lie elsewhere. From the perspective of the tourist inside Kakadu the space outside of the heterotopia is the realm of real life. I argue, however, that in the case of Australia, the tourist merely looks from the National Park into another heterotopia (other space). The boundary of the National Park asks the subject to presuppose that what is outside it is the space where real life takes place. Yet in Australia, imagined as the antipodes, and an other space, “real life” mimics a values system inherited from elsewhere – Europe. My argument coincides here with Peter Hill’s concept of superfictions, a methodological parallel to my artwork.
Image 3: The Mnemonia Room, with Bozo Ink, 2007, Mixed media, 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5m
‘What happens when illusion slips out of the picture frame and fiction escapes from the pages of the novel’ (Hill, 2000, 12)? Posing this question in relation to the term, superfictions, Hill roots his investigation to contemporary art practice, seeking out those artists directly engaged in creating fictional situations in the gallery environment. Antecedents or those whom he considers work in a superfictional way include Marcel Duchamp (his readymades), Jorge Louis Borges (fictional worlds within fictional worlds), Guillaume Bijl (replicas of spaces) and Charles Green and Lyndal Brown, to name but a few. His contention is that superfictions is, in and of itself, an art movement that insinuates fictions into seemingly real life ‘organisational structures’ or ‘primary framing devices’ (Hill, 2000, 153). They thereby lead the viewer to suspend their disbelief, because the structure that surrounds the fiction seems so stable. The structures he has used include the ‘museum, the teacher-pupil paradigm, the hotel and the casino’ (Hill, 2000, 153).
Superfictions, for my discussion, presuppose that all architectures prejudice experience. All spaces – real, analogous and digital – create fictions, which then intersect with other fictions from other spaces with ideological foundations. The obvious conclusion is that we live in a vast super-fictional framework. The art gallery, as a counterpoint to the museum, is a space to illuminate this. I sometimes wonder if super-fictions is the underlying infrastructure to every aspect of our lives, from religion, to Facebook and legal system. Imagined on this scale, which was not Hill’s intention, super-fictions becomes a concept for a science fiction narrative. Perhaps art is all there is; the art of performance; the staged identity in the theatre of space. Perhaps super-fictions form the foundations for all experience, and by extension, the emergence of subjectivity. Certainly, this was alluded to in the work The Mnemonia Room, with Bozo Ink, (2007). The viewer/subject was ensconced in a series of super-fictions starting in the grounds of McClelland Gallery where a film of an abject astronaut lighting a flair for a lost Captain Cook was shown in the back of the space. I see the concept as an important adjunct to the conception of space that heterotopia provides – an other space holding others in representation, which is exactly what The Mnemonia Room was built to be. The problem exists outside the gallery, in other false frameworks, where some spaces and the bio-political differences – and outright fictions they perpetuate – detract from our experience, and indeed, can erase the individual, or group on a mass scale .
Image 4: Film Still and figure from interior of The Mnemonia Room
Artists: Many Worlds and the Human Menagerie
Advancing Foucault’s exploration of disciplinary space as the fundamental context for the emergence of subjectivity, Giorgio Agamben suggests the extermination ‘camp – as the pure, absolute, and impassable bio-political space – will appear as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity …’ He warns that we will have to learn how to recognize this bio-political space’s ‘metamorphoses and disguises’ (Agamben, 1998, 123). Imagining super-fictions as an all encompassing paradigm not only shows the boundary between fiction and reality to be porous, it opens up the possibility that all spaces produce fiction dressed as truth. Richard Billingham’s films and photographs of animals in zoo enclosures position the zoo as a heterotopia exemplifying this subterranean paradigm. Billingham presents the zoo as more than the inhumane incarceration of wild animals and poor facsimiles of their habitat, but as a biopolitical space where the distinction between animal and human collapses to the point where the animals display the most depressing signs of humanity.
Billingham’s ZOO series, made-up of videos and photographs, and shown at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2007, depict a number of animals in a habitat that is not theirs, but supposedly ours. Humans have entrapped animalism in order to study it, covet it, preserve it, kill it and train it. The threshold between animal and human is solid and definable, writ large in a space such as the zoo. It maintains the fiction that what is outside of it is human and at the same time allows for a dangerously apparent anthropomorphism. In his film, Elephants, the animals move back and forth, over and over again in movements that make the viewer think that the video is on a short loop of just a few seconds. It is not, this is their endurance, day in day out. What the viewer witnesses in the actual space of the zoo and what they witness in the gallery space are of two different orders. The first, in real time, is the disengaged view whereby the viewer is able to move onto the next exhibit because their gaze is not fixed to the choices someone else has made whereas, in Billingham’s video, the second order of viewing, the viewer is trapped by the view the artist decides best enunciates the animal’s psychosis.
The audience came to the art gallery, a heterotopia, to see his works of animals confined in their zoo enclosures. The animals, trapped in climates, habitats and cultures a long way from home, perform ‘animality’ in the zoo. Their space orders their behavior as much as their instinct. They are mere projections of animals, all they do is look like the animal they resemble; they do not behave like the animal they were or were meant to be (if bred in captivity). Elephants move back and forth; a gorilla swallows its food and then regurgitates it; whilst a seemingly unconscious panda bear lies slumped in a corner. This is Billingham’s misanthropic zoo, and rightly so, because in creating these simulated environments for wild animals, humans have sought to construct themselves as human. His work exposes the tendency for individuals and imagined communities inside the nation-state, particularly in the West, to compose them against something other. At a deeper level, with careful surveillance and selective editing, Billingham asks the viewer to step onto the threshold that separates the animal from the human.
The false architecture of the zoo – its painted backdrops, imported trees and vegetation, man-made watercourses and caged sky – creates a super-fictional framework; an unnatural set of conditions from which, for instance, the “lion-ness” of the lion emerges. It roars like a lion, it moves like a lion, it looks like a lion and it even sniffs its prey, in the next enclosure, like a lion – only it will never consummate its desire to meet with what its olfactory sense suggests is there. It is the fiction of the lion; the ‘reiteration’ of a lion; it is the ‘trace structure’ of the lion; indeed, I contend that the caged lion is the ‘supplement’ of a lion (Lucy, 2004, 123). According to Derrida (1976, 144), the supplement works to fill a void, it ‘is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place’ of another, not simply as an additive to the ‘positivity of a presence’ but as a substitute whose ‘place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness’. If it were not for the simulated natural environment the zoo conjures the lion could not appear, here, in another continent. It exists in a super-fiction exuding some signs of lioness, but ultimately its behavior conforms to the strictures of the space in which it is framed – most distressingly exemplified in Billingham’s films.
The facsimile of their natural environment invokes disturbingly human responses from the animals. Clearly, some are mad, driven to repetitive behavior by a situation that inhibits their natural instincts, others just remain still, their eyes darting, seemingly looking out for a point of interest to break the monotony of the day. The viewer of Billingham’s work, in his/her desire to anthropomorphize the animals, cannot help but look at their manifested psychosis as a result of an unnatural incarceration. Though in this instance, they also witness an ascent that is the very human becoming of animal. The event parallels Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphorical collapse of the animal into the human: the snout of the animal de-territorializes into the nose and mouth of the human (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988, 172).
The zoo becomes a platform for the management of the animal’s humanity, and metaphorically, it becomes the pond into which Narcissus falls. The viewer is forced to contemplate a descent into the murky space between the ‘animal and the human’; a space Giorgio Agamben marks out in his book, The Open: Man and Animal (Agamben, 2004, 79). In a secular, science and reason based world, he suggests, humanity does not emerge from the double knit of a living being and a spiritual being, but rather the very political separation of man from animal and the human from the inhuman (Agamben, 2004, 37). He describes the human experience as an ‘anthropological machine which – in its two variants ancient and modern – is at work in our culture’. The human, he argues, is produced through its separation from animality, adding the ‘machine necessarily functions by means of an exclusion … and an inclusion’. In essence, Agamben suggests politics defines the human by what it excludes, and necessarily, by those indeterminate beings who occupy the gap between animal and human. These are the people that have the mark of atavism thrust onto them. They are a shifting population made-up of people, according to Agamben, like ‘the man-ape, theenfant sauvage or Homo ferus, but also and above all, the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner’ … ‘figures of an animal in human form’. Billingham’s Gorilla confronts the viewer with the ape-man, the figure of a human in animal form (Agamben, 2004, 35-38) .
Home is a Heterotopia, Superfiction and Simulation
To make a giant conceptual leap I propose that the Australian nation state is, like Billingham’s zoo, a space where humanity is performed rather than naturally occurring. In part, the foundations for this emergent humanity and the concomitant production of a national identity, requires a bio-political separation of the civilized from the uncivilized. Infused in the scaffolding that a shared national identity stems from is a system of symbolic ephemera, such as a flag or a post card of Uluru. What concerns me is the way they are contextualized in the space of the nation-state, itself only a concept, or like the museum, a general archive where ephemera gathers meaning. From the nation-state to arbitrarily bounded territories such as the National Park the false architectures in which identities emerge contain hidden mechanisms for the production of otherness. A tropical island for instance, becomes a detention centre, as is the case with Christmas Island, but the island also figures in the imagination as a paradise with associations of pleasure and idleness – only for the privileged subject though. Uluru doubles as an Aboriginal community and yet tourists are generally ignorant of this, choosing to view the rock from the well worn perspectives of the millions of non-Indigenous people who have visited before them.
The Yankunyjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, the traditional owners of Uluru, request that tourists do not climb the rock (although many do). For the uninitiated, whether they climb Uluru or not, what kind of experience do they have when they look at the lonely icon that sits in the middle of the driest continent on earth? Is it akin to looking at a piece of Aboriginal art, only more of the senses are involved? Of course the non-Aboriginal tourist does not have access to the spiritual dimensions of the rock that the traditional owners hold as their secret-sacred. Is it beauty itself that orders the experience, or the want to connect with the landscape that drives the tourist to take hundreds of photographs of the most photographed rock in the world? Surely all angles have been covered. Perhaps it is the rock’s sublime visage that draws people to it, rising red, from the flat desert plain, as described in all those photographs. No doubt, the experience consummates the representation. Against the vast emptiness of the desert and the ocean the rock and the island refortify subjectivity for the national identity and for those it proclaims as ‘Others’. Dispersed as ephemera reproductions of Uluru provide the illusion of presence, but is the rock really that solid?
The postcard of Uluru comes before we visit it. In his 2003 essay, The World Will Be Tlon: Mapping the Fantastic onto the Virtual, Darren Tofts uses Jorge Louis Borges and Jean Baudrillard to illustrate how fiction overlays the real, or how it can feed back into reality and confuse the certainty of memory. Tofts coincides here with Hill’s concept, super-fictions, when he talks about information from ‘outside-text’, ‘proof artifacts’ and ‘scattered ephemera’ (Tofts, 2003). He explains that in the Borges short story Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius objects from the world of Tlon – such as a compass and a small, but unnaturally heavy object made of a metal not of this earth – begin to infiltrate the real world thereby proving the existence of Tlon. The real world appropriates the ephemera in good faith. What is the Shroud of Turin but a proof artifact? For that matter what is a picture of Uluru? In the making of a nation-state what does it mean to plant a flag in the ground? It is an artifact of faith before value and signification, just as the myths and imagined maps of the antipodes were for Ptolemy and future explorers.
Fantasy has always been projected onto the Australian landscape and its people, from the grotesque representations of Aborigines found in early colonial paintings to the Australian Impressionists’ interpretations of the Australian bush – from which Aboriginal people had presumably disappeared (McLean, 1998, 20-29). Rather than considering Arthur Streeton’s 1890 work, Near Heidelberg as an Impressionist work, it might be called a ‘proof artifact’, ‘simulated mnemonic device’ (Tofts), or perhaps, a super-fiction.
Image 5 Near Enough, Oil on Plywood board, 2009, 53.7 x 43.3cm<
Streeton was obviously enamoured with the landscape, demonstrated in many of his letters (Lane, 2007, 123-127) but most keenly in paintings like Near Heidelberg (1890). In the work he renders an idyllic and idle scene encompassing not just the landscape but the non-Indigenous subject’s engagement with it. Men and women, dressed in their finery look out from the middle ground of the work, onto a sunlit valley. They are bathed in light, almost lost in the golden glow of the summer grasses. No doubt this was Streeton reflecting his affection for the landscape on the edge of Melbourne, in the late nineteenth century. At the same time it, and many of the other Heidelberg School’s practitioners’ works, demonstrate a need to suture the European to the landscape. The Aboriginal subject disappears from the landscape in their paintings and in his/her place the pioneering white man (sometimes effete and idle), and the idle white woman (in most cases) are made native . In the re-appropriated painting above, I have replaced the idle figures in the landscape with a couple of distressed, abject astronauts.
It is instructive to know that from the perspective Streeton paints his scene, following the path of the Yarra River to Mount Donna Buang on the horizon, the group of people gaze out to the Aboriginal reserve of Coranderrk. At the time, it was made-up mostly of people from the Kulin nations, and was a contested piece of land, particularly in the 1890s. White settlers in the area were unable to acknowledge its long success as a self-sustaining community, and importantly, as a community adapted to European economic culture. In 1886 the Half Caste Act was instituted meaning that Coranderrk became a settlement where people of mixed descent under the age of thirty-five were banned (Perkins and Langton, 2008, 142-169). It was thought that they would eventually assimilate – the Aboriginal blood line over generations would fade into white. Meanwhile, the ‘Half Caste Act and its policy of exclusions and removals caused populations on reserves to plummet, but people still attempted to live close to their traditional lands and families, even if that meant living in fringe camps and rubbish tips’ (Perkins and Langton, 2008, 166).
One of the essential characteristics of modern bio-politics is its constant need to redefine the threshold in life that distinguishes and separates what is inside from what is outside (Agamben, 1998: 131).
Understandably, in an effort to render the European subject indigenous, reserves, fringe camps and rubbish dumps were uncommon backdrops to the Impressionist landscapes. This is a narrative that remained unexplored by the Heidelberg School painters, although now, the people of Coranderrk’s stories can be found in the political activist and clan leader’s, William Barak’s paintings, hanging in the same major galleries as the iconic Australian Impressionist works. A bio-political separation is evident here. Perhaps the camp as hidden paradigm, or as bio-political space, was established (in Australia) earlier than Agamben suggests (Agamben, 1998, 166-176) . In the Half Caste Act we witness the political exiling of another race, created by the seemingly stable ‘organizational structure’ of the Victorian Parliament. The legislation was a super-fiction of grand proportions, similar in nature to the Nuremberg laws of 1935 which saw anybody with three or four Jewish grandparents effectively deprived of citizenship (Agamben, 1998, 132). At the behest of an obviously racist ideology, based on the notion of pure blood and white supremacy, legislation was passed through architecture, in itself unstable and fluid, to become law. More insidiously, the legislation implants a prevailing cultural orthodoxy, one that went largely unchallenged until Albert Namatjira’s intervention into the field of art and representation in the 1950s.
In a piece addressing Peter Hill’s concept, Adrian Heathcote, in his essay, The Rise and Rise of Superfictions, makes the point that ‘from the very beginning of our species, fictions have been threatening to break out of their confines’ (Heathcote, 1995: 32-33). Fictions, too, have been kept in elaborate framing devices, turned out in myths, rhetoric and legislation, often as ineffable truths. Yes, there is a truth to the treatment of light and space in Streeton’s work, but there are also myths, which according to Heathcote ‘are fictions that infuse themselves into the texture of everyday life, stiffening it against the formlessness and ambiguity of experience’ (Heathcote, 2000: 33).
Image 6: An Australian Native with a Stranger’s Eyes, 2010, Oil on luaun pine, 72x46cm
In Australian art history the Impressionist’s works and techniques loom large, as do the myths they perpetuated. Largest of which was that Australia was a young, fledgling country populated by stoic, melancholy, European pioneers working the harsh land, playing in the cultivated fields and rivers and sometimes getting lost in the bush. The paintings, shown in the galleries of the large coastal cities, depicted another world; a world constructed along the same lines as Jorge Louis Borges’Tlon. Borges shows how believable frameworks, such as the encyclopedia, supported by proof artifacts turn fiction into reality. The excursions of the Impressionists, presented in the cities, were artifacts from an alternative territory. Blind to the suffering of the original occupants of the landscape they depicted, the Impressionists impressed upon the viewer a mostly idyllic vision of Australia, but not a real one. They present the viewer with a heterotopia, something Australia has always been. In this light, what is a photograph of Uluru, but a representation of an ‘Othe’r world? A world we do not live in. A country we do not inhabit. It might be a super-fiction, when tied to a non-Aboriginal identity.
Dislocated by a Legislated Superfiction
At the base of Uluru lies the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu, like Coranderrk, a biopolitical space used as much for its backdrop as its squalid living conditions when it was occupied by the military in July 2007. In the lead up to a Federal Election in November of that year the Howard Government seized on the report, Little Children are Sacred (Northern Territory Board of Inquiry, 2007), to declare a national emergency. The report found high levels of child abuse, in Northern Territory Indigenous Communities, caused, in part, by a failing education system, alcoholism and the breakdown of traditional family and cultural values. Howard’s intervention was framed by a seven point plan which included suspending welfare payments, bans on alcohol and pornography, the scrapping of the permit system, and extra police to enforce the plan (Act Now, 2008). The army was rolled out to complete the picture. There was only one group of people targeted – literally, Australia’s interiorized other – and they were again differentiated by their skin colour and most effectively, for those at home in the coastal cities, by their abject spatial circumstances. Agamben sees this suspension of the law as a dislocation:
In all these cases, an apparently innocuous space actually delimits a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign (Agamben, 1998, 174).
Agamben suggests here that the arms of the state will act out its biopolitical wants, no matter how questionable, even at home, if a ‘state of exception’ is what it takes to sanction them. He calls this a ‘dislocating localisation that exceeds’ determinate space ‘into which every form of life and every rule can be virtually taken’. He argues that space is no longer necessary to ordering our ‘forms of life’, there are black holes everywhere and any one of us is liable to be dragged into one. Agamben articulates this as the Western individual’s modern day, underlying, fear. The ‘camp’, where all normal rules and protocols are suspended, is a ‘dislocating localization’ able to be applied to islands, zoos and desert communities, and most distressingly, to home . Under Agamben’s conception of a dislocated localization, home becomes a foreign territory, not just for those stuck on islands or in desert communities, but for all of those who identify as non-Indigenous Australians.
Image 7: Razorback Nostalgia, 2010, Oil on imported luaun pine, 40.7 x 46cm
The Australian Impressionists manufactured a national identity as much as they contributed to the absenting of the Indigenous identity in the Australian landscape. Their impressions were reflective of their culture, but where exactly did the Aboriginal subject go? They went missing in Australian art for about 60 years while the white subject made themselves comfortable in other peoples’ space through legislation like the Half Caste Act, among other things. The Impressionists contributed to the myth that Australia was a landscape ripe for taming, because it was wild and empty, and yet it was not. In my latest series of works I build on Agamben’s conception of a delocalized localization and render the landscape from the perspective of someone to come, an absence not yet grasped, out of place and out of time. The subjects are emplaced, like those of the Impressionists, in spaces that are not theirs. Some of my re-appropriations of Impressionist works, such as Razorback Nostalgia, make the figures disappear from the environment in which they have grown comfortable. Where the figures once were there now is vacant space, the veneer of imported luaun pine wood paneling.
My work combines many of the conceptual and material features of the artists and theorists mentioned above, including the Australian Impressionists. The Room That Was, The Mnemonia Room and other spaces I have constructed in recent years lure the viewer into an interior of associations while setting that viewer up as a subject of the piece for those outside the work. The paintings seduce the viewer with their familiarity. All the works present the viewer/subject with the possibility that they may be rendered absent, dislocated from their homely foundations, or indeed could be somebody else entirely. She/he could be a person seeking asylum; they could be trapped in the legislated superfiction of Coranderrk; indeed they might already be other, delocalised from the space they call home. The works intervene in the assured representations society creates for itself and others by corrupting some of the conventional, biopolitical, architectures in which identity emerges. For me, super-fictions has become more than a methodology, it is a concept that represents the impossibility of truth, because truth is always mediated in frameworks we cannot trust.
Image 8: Evening Rapture, 2009, Oil on imported luaun pine, 50.8cm x 76.4cm
1. I use the term rendition with reference to Naomi Klein’s research into electroshock and other interrogation techniques used on psychiatric patients at McGill University in the 1950s, and then adapted to prisoners in the War on Terror, in Gauntanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison. Klein interviews people involved in the original experiments, which were intended to erase the subject’s memory, so that she/he becomes a clean-slate and can be rebuilt anew. Klein’s overarching theory is that these ‘shock and awe’ techniques, applied at a micro-level on an individual subject, have also been used at a macro-level on whole nations – Iraq, being a case in point (Klein, 2007: 25-48, 333).
2. Astromonk is the figure in the spy-hole; she/he is an embodiment of every body. A combination of an astronaut, a monk and a monkey I have used she/he as a character in my work since 2005. Astromonk is the marginalised, malleable Other.
3. I have rebutted this outmoded view elsewhere arguing that the discourse of citizenship in Australia mirrors this principle where asylum seekers and those people seeking citizenship (including the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira) must go through certain rites of passage in order to become Australian, including stays in detention centres in the middle of the ocean or desert, background tests, English language tests and general knowledge tests on Australian history. They must mimic the gait of the occupier.
4. As witnessed during the last years of the Third Reich. The dimension in which the ‘extermination’ of a group of people took place was ‘neither religion nor law, but biopolitics’ (Agamben, 1998, 114).
5. I submit that those people with profound mental and/or physical disabilties as well as those in a vegetative state also rest in this indeterminate category, where they are invested with human qualities and kept alive by artificial means. The ‘neomort and the overcomatose person’ is found in the Jewsish body, where in legislation, the ‘non-human’ was separated from the human within the one body (Agamben, 2004, 35-38).
6. Tom Robert’s work, An Australian Native (1888), depicting a young woman in her sartorial splendour, demonstrates in its title the need for the Australian Impressionists to make themselves, those they painted and their audience feel at home. Roberts, around the same time painted a real Australian native, with a disembodied head, entitled Aboriginal Head – Charlie Turner (1892). An art critic from the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that the value of the work would appreciate considerably over time, given the ‘gradual disappearance from our midst of the original possessors of the soil’ (Lane, 2007, 187).
7. Agamben sees the emergence of the camp as a fundament of modern biopolitics, where refugees and sundry others are produced, as Jews were in the concentration camps. He concludes his argument stating: ‘Only a politics that will have learned to take the fundamental biopolitical fracture of the west into account will be able to stop this oscillation’ – of the neo-liberal project that seeks to eliminate poverty through development ‘not only produces within itself the people it’ excludes but also transforms the people of the Third World into a population defined only in terms of its ‘bare life’ or biological existence – and to put an end to this civil war that divides the peoples and the cities of the earth’ (Agamben, 1998, 180).
8. Guantanamo Bay’s transformation into a detention facility is a literal example of this suspension. No habeas corpus and the suspension of the Geneva Convention in the treatment of enemy combatants – it existed in a legal black-hole, and on that reason was opened where it was, in a legally indeterminate space. See Klein (2007).
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Agamben, Giorgio (2004). The Open: Man and Animal, tr. Attell, Kevin (Stanford University Press).
Agamben, Giorgio (2005). State of Exception, tr. Attell, Kevin (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).
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Engberg, Juliana (2005). ‘The Island of Dr Morton’ in Callum Morton, Babylonia (Melbourne: Australian Centre for Contemporary Art).
Foucault, Michel (1998). ‘Different Spaces’ in ed. Faubion, James D., tr. Hurley, Robert, and others, Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology The New Press).
Heathcote, Adrian (1995). ‘The Rise and Rise of Superfictions’, black + white, 11 February 1995, pp. 32-33, cited in Hill (2000).
Hill, Peter (2000). Superfictions: the creation of fictional situations in international contemporary art practice, submitted as a unpublished PhD thesis (Melbourne: RMIT).
Klein, Naomi (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Camberwell: Penguin Group).
Lane, Terence (2007). Australian Impressionism (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria).
Langton, Marcia and Perkins, Rachael (eds.) (2008). First Australians (Parkville: Miegunyyah Press).
Lucy, Niall (2004). A Derrida Dictionary (Victoria: Blackwell Publishing).
McLean, Ian (1998). White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Tofts, Darren (2003). ‘The World Will Be Tlon: Mapping the Fantastic onto the Real’, Postmodern Cultures, Volume 13, Number 2, 2003 [accessed 02.09.2003].
Trumble, Angus (1892). Sydney Morning Herald, 2 September, cited in, Lane, Terence (2007).