Shaking to Powder: A Response to The image is not nothing

By Maddee Clark

 

 

Australia Does Not Exist (1)

 

During 2020, a replica of the Endeavour is going to perform a re-enactment of a circumnavigation of Australia that never happened, in memorial of the 250-year anniversary of a ‘discovery’ that never was. This circumnavigation is an antagonistic and violent performance, which I like to compare to the tradition of the Olympic Torch Relay, begun by Hitler in the lead up to the 1936 summer Olympic games in Nazi Germany. In the torch relay, the Olympic torch is lit in Greece, and then carried and passed in relay from person to person on a journey to the host city in that year. The Nazi propaganda film Olympia (1938) by Leni Riefenstahl shows a blonde haired, blue eyed German athlete emerging from the ruins at Olympia in Greece bearing a torch which has been on a relay across Europe, eventually making its way to the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Though this relay was never part of the original games, after the Berlin games it has made its way into the broader mythology of the Olympics; continuing till today.

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James Nguyen

Pure Water (After Mike Parr), 2018

2nd Version, still image

 https://vimeo.com/280122320

 

It was important to the Nazis that this fictionalised relay between Greece and Germany, cement their contribution into international sporting memory. The torch relay was necessary to generate a fictionalised ethnic and cultural continuity between their own ideals of Aryan whiteness and ancient Greece, considered in white culture to be the original seat of civilisation and intelligence, as well as athletic performance. The journey undertaken by the Olympic torch served to make this connection both physical and linear. Performative journeys like these are important for the maintenance of white supremacist myths about country, nationhood, and history.

 

$50 million of Australian and NSW Governments’ funding has been committed to support celebrations of the 250th anniversary of an event that never happened. This includes an extensive programme of artistic and creative work that responds to, comments, on or celebrates the re-enactment. This funding has been distributed widely. Some of our friends will benefit from it. 

 

What is it that the replica Endeavour will circumnavigate?

 

Australia and Apocalypse: the map precedes the territory

 

Everyone’s prepping.

What does the Australian ‘apocalypse’ look like? In January 2020, the streets go quiet. Photographs of bushfire circulate. Friends chastise me for not wearing a P2 mask in the smoke. Social media posts are geotagged in ‘HELL’. Anger and helplessness peaks, then dissipates. People fight. Dust storms kick up a lot of ‘bad energy’ and sling it around. People voraciously fundraise.

 

The idea of the apocalypse is everywhere.

 

Apocalypse theory helps me make sense of what’s happening. Roslyn Weaver writes the following on the relationship of apocalypse writing and fantasy to processes of mapping:

 

“European speculation about terra australis incognita had already established Australia as a place of apocalypse prior to colonisation, variously as a utopian new world…or a dystopian space of judgment and suffering…An apocalyptic dialectic therefore emerges between utopian visions of a land of promise…and a dystopian lens that sees the antipodean land mass as the end of the world both geographically and psychologically” (2)

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James Nguyen

Between Suns”, 2018 

Installation view at Cement Fondu

photography by Anna Kucera

 

This is how I understand Weaver’s delirious philosophical commentary on representations of the apocalypse. Apocalypse is a fantasy which Europe has been having about Australia since before colonisation, before circumnavigation, before first contact. It is a fantasy which Europeans have been having since before they arrived here, and one they are still having. It is a fantasy which is reaching a kind of climax. Apocalypse is not an event, but a system of relations the European mind has with ‘Australia’ — imagining the land to be at once a place of salvation and bounty, as well as a hellish punishment. Weaver draws on Baudrillard, who writes in Simulacra that:

 

‘The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory…that engenders the territory…today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the map.’ (3)

 

Meaning; maps themselves aren’t real, but rather are functions of the apocalyptic relation Weaver outlines between white people and Aboriginal country. Map making does not seek to describe reality, it imagines it. The function of the circumnavigation is to establish not the truth of a place, but to obscure it. It is the function of the circumnavigation to perform the duties of what Weaver terms apocalyptic mapping, to construct the hyperreal.

 

Some are prepping more quietly than others.

 

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James Nguyen

 Pure Water (After Mike Parr), 2018

2nd Version, still image

 https://vimeo.com/280122320

Mapping Memorial

 

A Yugambeh burial ground in Broadbeach, just south of Surfer’s Paradise, was excavated by archaeologist Laila Haglund-Calley from the University of Queensland in the 1960s. The burial ground itself is an important site, carefully maintained and looked after by the Yugambeh people for many generations, both before and after colonisation came to southeast Queensland. It is a type of ‘memorial’ to the dead, if memorial is an appropriate word to use here (are all memorials politically loaded?).

 

Haglund-Calley’s master’s thesis was written about the excavation. It is clear to the archaeologists that this site is not a hurried mass grave, used to bury the victims of a frontier era massacre on the beach, but a well looked after gravesite, frequently returned to. It plays a part in social and collective processes of grief.

 

As I read, I wonder how it feels to research other people’s collective memory. Haglund-Calley’s thesis on the burial site containing the skeletal remains of our ancestors, doesn’t mention Yugambeh people, but provides extensive and distressing clinical detail about the burial sites, positions of bones, ages of those buried and possible relationships between them. The archaeologist’s voice describes the orientation and positioning of relatives in the soil, their ages, genders, and likely causes of death. She speculates about the cultural significance of the different types of burials. There are pictures included, all numbered. Haglund-Calley notes that some of the graves in this particular graveyard had been dug more recently with a shovel, indicating that they had occurred in the last hundred years. Despite this, she treats the site as if it is a curiosity of an ancient and long lost civilisation.

 

For the living Yugambeh community, knowledge of this excavation is psychologically disturbing. Being that this excavation predated much of the current cultural heritage protocols that Aboriginal people have advocated for over the last few decades, protocols which can be used to protect our significant sites, the gravesite was unprotected from white looting at the time. The site clearly functioned as a memorial site for many generations to bury and honour those who had passed on alongside their relations, as an identifiable site for mourning and remembering.

 

In one particularly destabilising passage, Haglund-Calley describes what she sees as the most dangerous physical threats to the site. She notes the invasion of curious locals looting the place once it has been fenced off by the archaeologists, passing tourists looking for hidden treasures, and the continual threat of developments in the area, which bring heavy machinery, trucks, and traffic increasing year after year;

 

The road running just west of the dune, only twelve to thirteen meters away, is now being used by a large number of heavy trucks which thunder past at great speed. Every time this happens the whole dune vibrates noticeably. Since many of the burials were very fragile and already cracking because of root penetration and chemical processes, any that are left in the ground are simply shaking to powder. (4)

 

Reading this is disorienting.

 

I go to Broadbeach and walk around, I have a drink, see the casino, Pacific Fair, and the beachfront. Development towers around me. I walk around the ghost town of Surfer’s Paradise. The remains of our ancestors were reinterred in 1988, with the help of Haglund-Calley, in Kombumerri park, very near to where they had been taken, and several decades after being stolen and held by the University of Queensland. It is difficult to think about how many other Aboriginal groups have had to suffer through similar experiences, who have not been able to reclaim their grieving places in the same way.

In her 2013 memoir White Beech white feminist Germaine Greer, having just purchased land in the Gold Coast area, laments the hidden ecological violence of the place. She learns from talking to some of the local farmers that 2,3,5-T, one of the two chemical components of Agent Orange, was used to clear forest in southeast Queensland.(5) She sets about in a misguided attempt to rewild the parcel of land she’s bought, rejecting the idea that any living community might have claim to it or knowledge of it.

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James Nguyen and Nguyen Thi Kim Nhung

location images

from filming Pure Water (After Mike Parr), 2018

 

It has been debated whether War was a feature of Aboriginal precolonial life. Colonisers find it comforting to think that Aboriginal people lived with a degree of violent conflict that could be equated with what they have done here since first contact. Understanding that 2,4,5-T was used in southeast Queensland prompts one to realise, however, that war in settler terms meant war against country as much as against people. Beyond the harm caused by the removal of the ancestral remains in the Gold Coast, I am distracted by these other, slower types of destruction. The vibrations of traffic, the presence of trucks, the building of highways, 2,4,5-T. The constant development of the real estate boom, shaking bones to powder.

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James Nguyen 

“Between Suns,” 2018,

Installation view at Cement Fondu

photography by Anna Kucera

 

I want to know how to memorialise this harm.

 

1. Taken from DRMNGNOW, Australia Does Not Exist, Youtube, 21 January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKtt5QBpaKQ last accessed 02 March 2020.

2. Roslyn Weaver, Apocalypse in Australian fiction and film: a critical study, McFarland &Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2011, pp. 21-23.

3. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, Sheila Faria Glaser (trans.), The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1994, p. 1.

4. Laila Haglund-Calley, The Relation Between the Broadbeach Burials and the Cultures of Eastern Australia, M.A. Thesis, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, 1969, p.9.

5. 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a synthetic auxin, is a chlorophenyl acetic acid herbicide used to defoliate broad-leafed plants and is one of the two chemical components of Agent Orange a powerful herbicide used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops.