Monument to Memory: Woomera in Australian contemporary art 

Veronica Tello, 2008
Art Monthly Australia, Issue 208

‘Welcome to Australia.’ There is a lack of warmth in your voice when you say it; in fact, you don’t really mean it. What you mean to say is: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’

The title of Rosemary Laing’s photograph, welcome to Australia (2004), which depicts the Immigration and Reception Centre (IRPC) in Woomera, is sarcastic and misleading. And, by being so, it reveals similar qualities that are inherent in the title given to the Woomera building, the IRPC. ‘Immigration’, ‘Reception’ and ‘Processing’ are more fittingly represented by the following terms: refugee, interrogation and detention. With this train of thought, the acronym for the Woomera building under analyses is RIDC: Refugee Interrogation and Detention Centre. welcome to Australia then, is better read as ‘what the hell are you doing here’? Indeed, being down under is being topsy-turvy.

Laing’s welcome to Australia portrays the Woomera IRPC in its surrounding landscape of red and golden earth and sand. The crosshatching patterns of the gates and the cloud of barbed wire that hovers above fuzz the simple white and cube-shaped dwellings in which the refugees slept and lived. The IRPC is the sole focus but it is positioned at a fair distance from the frame. There are no signs of voices and bodies: no riots or detainees. Laing’s image is desolate and quiet – by the time she went to Woomera, the detention centre had already been shut down and the refugees transferred to the Baxter IRPC. As such, unlike the sarcastic volume of the work’s title, the aesthetic of welcome to Australia is almost silent, an aesthetic of absence.

In this sense, welcome to Australia frames the void and dysfunctional Woomera IRPC as a monument to memory. Not like the official monuments that get erected in order to honour someone or an event, but rather like the random or unofficial monuments that become so through the passing of time or an event. I am thinking here of monuments such as those set up by friends or family of people who have died in road incidents: a bunch of flowers and a note about the person who has passed away on a traffic light post, for example. Monuments are, as noted by Belgian artist and writer Laurent Liefooghe, ‘impossible necessities’ – an effect caused by their problematic indication of the end of a debate, the commemoration or glorification of an event, either or both of which condition the community. The monument that is the defunct Woomera IRPC, as it is rendered in welcome to Australia, is at the beginning of its future disintegration, whether that be physical or political, or both. As an unofficial monument and a sign of historical reality, the Woomera IRPC signifies the mistreatment of refugees, the dark side of migration, and the inevitable persistence of this issue and effect on our society. By charting the beginning of the aforementioned processes of ongoing debate and its potential end and resolution, Laing’s work embeds itself in a type of documentary art practice.

Artists such as Laing document history in a way that doesn’t prioritise dates and facts but, rather, experience and effect. With this in mind, I use the term ‘documentary’ not in its traditional sense; it is not so much about ‘evidence’ as it is about referencing an event and taking human documents and stories as primary sources for research and knowledge. There is a will to voice the marginalised factions of society. This type of documentary practice is better elucidated by considering the work of the Berlin-based artist Dierk Schmidt, and his treatment of the drowning of the boat Siev-X, which occurred in the waters between Australia and Indonesia on 19 October 2001. The boat carried 397 refugees, 44 of whom survived. That is a body count of 353. Despite the immensity of this tragedy, media reports were fragmentary at best and fear-mongering at worst. In large part, this was a result of the ban on media access to detention centres and also, the ban imposed on the media by former defence minister Peter Reith to not exhibit images that could ‘humanise or personalise’ asylum seekers. In view of this censorship at the time of the Siev-X drowning, Schmidt was prompted to reconsider the function of history painting, and to ask: is a politically engaged mode of history painting possible?

In order to grapple with this question, Schmidt considered German artist and writer Peter Weiss and his novel, Ästhetik des Widerstand (The Aesthetics of Resistance) (1981). Set in Germany during the 1930s and ‘40s, the novel dramatises anti-fascist resistance and explores this mode of being in an intensely repressive system. To instruct a visual imagining of ‘the aesthetics of resistance’, Weiss utilises two works from the genre of history painting: Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) and Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) – branding the former an operative aesthetic and the latter an idealistic aesthetic. Idealistic aesthetics tend to embody an idealised view of reality while operative aesthetics function as socially and politically relevant discourse that attempts to intervene in social reality. For example, The Raft of the Medusa, regarded the first French history painting to respond to a current event, depicted the drowning of the French frigate Medusa. Here, 144 lives were lost, and a public rage ensued because of the French government’s inadequate rescue effort and the subsequent tragedy. As such, Géricault’s painting is operative because it generates empathy for those that died in the accident and also, records and aids a memory of the event. It is in such functional capacities that Weiss and Schmidt see history painting as having the potential to be political. However, this type of politics seems to occur on an ontological rather than a concrete level, though that is not to say that the idealistic cannot affect the operative aesthetic.

Almost 200 years after Géricault painted The Raft of the Medusa, Schmidt presented a number of related paintings with images on Siev-X. (It should be noted that like many other people, Schmidt conflates the Siev-X drowning with a separate incident known as ‘the children overboard’. These two occurrences are commonly thought to be the same event because they happened at around the same time.) Schmidt‘s works on Siev-X are titled Liberty (2001-2002), Ruddock overboard (2003), Prime Minister John Howard speaking, about the children overboard affair (2002), Not a sea scape (2003) and Xenophon-Schiffsbruchszene, gewidmet 350 ertrunkenen Asylsuchenden im indischen Ozean (Xenophobic-Shipwreck scene, dedicated to 350 asylum seekers drowned in the Indian Ocean) (2001-2002). Key to Schmidt’s practice is the use of visual and textual references of the event, in this instance to Siev-X, to make language and image come into a dialogue and also, to simultaneously show multiple and related images. In Schmidt’s abovementioned works, the images and the titles mutually operate to critique the treatment of refugees in Australia yet, more importantly, they offer a means to remember, to archive the lives that were lost, and they highlight the circumstances under which this happened – in direct opposition to the Reith’s censorship. An operative aesthetic is thus at work in Schmidt’s portrayal of the Siev-X drowning, as with Géricault’s depiction of Medusa. Both artists aim to document an event in order to portray tragedy and evoke empathy. Schmidt’s historical paintings are, like Laing’s photograph, located within documentary practice. They document historical reality in a style that is at the same time creative and humanitarian. In turn, Schmidt and Laing’s works contribute to the genealogy of recent history and they do so while the historical moment is still alive, giving them the potential to create a politicised art.

On 10 October, 2001, nearing the 10 November election, then Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock made a statement that a group of asylum seekers had thrown children overboard ‘in a clearly planned and premeditated’ attempt to try and force their way into Australia. Ruddock even claimed that he had ‘evidence’ of this – photographs and statements – all of which, after suspicion and interrogation, turned out to be false. It was a vicious ploy to demonise asylum seekers, and to glorify the Howard government’s handling of ‘intruders’ for an election based on ‘border protection’. The former federal Coalition government (and supportive journalists) effectively constructed a narrative of refugees that has marred the country’s perception of immigrants, and had a demonstrable effect on its racial relations. ‘Evidence’, as it was yielded by Ruddock, functioned only as evidence in the sense that it exhibited a tendency for prejudice and racism in both the Australian government and many of its citizens. After all, the 2001 election saw the emphatic return of the Howard government.

Mathieu Gallois’s work, Containment (2006), functions as a portal to the void of empathy created by Reith, Ruddock and Howard. The work is a sculptural installation constructed of cyclone fencing, galvanised pipe and razor wire. Containment aims to create an architectonic space that provokes us into imagining living in containment – in a detention centre or, quite literally, a cage. Once you are in the work, it feels like it takes a lot longer to go through it than what you initially think just by looking at it. It is repetitive: you keep making the same motion and seeing the same thing, which is the next wire gate. Containment tries to make a point about the frustration of the ongoing rejection of applications for asylum, the accompanying tedious legal processes and also, the monotony and hopelessness of being imprisoned without an end in sight. Also, you can’t exit Containment the way you came in. This may give you the feeling of being propelled through the work, by the work, making you feel a loss of agency.

Empathy is also in focus in the work of the revered artist, and Chilean refugee-cum-Australian citizen, Juan Davila. Davila’s Woomera series, titled Disappointment (2001-2002), is a series of silkscreens that represent scenes ubiquitously imagined as ‘the refugee experience’. One of the works in the series, Adrift (2002), presents an embracing couple lying horizontally on a small fishing boat. On top of the couple’s bodies is a damaged wind-sail. The boat drifts past the Woomera IRPC and an official-looking figure who stands vigilantly at the edge of water, waiting. Although only on a small wooden boat with no covering, the couple appears to be hiding as well as giving each other comfort: fear and protection are simultaneously felt. In an artist’s statement, Davila explains that by creating scenes which refugees were experiencing, such as being lost in the desert after escaping from Woomera (see Lost, 2002), or being lost at sea on an ill-equipped boat, he aimed to create empathy in Australian spectators. Davila depicts these scenes with Anglo-Saxon/white-skinned people, instead of dark-skinned people, as refugees. The theory is simple: Australian citizens would never allow the treatment bestowed upon those seeking asylum if they were white. The sentiment and its motivation were timely considering the unfair treatment of refugees in the Australian media during the peak of the refugee issue. In light of Davila’s stated intentions, Disappointment places people with white skin at the centre of spectatorship, and confronts them with prejudice – ‘You are racist’. For this reason, Disappointment has an operative aesthetic: it attempts to intervene the effect of draconian immigration laws that supported and maintained the detention of refugees in Australia. Davila’s series comes off as being crudely didactic, but perhaps necessarily so.

When a discourse about border control and illegal immigration is pervasive, such as it has been in the recent past, fear and irrational prejudice stunt empathy. Artworks such as those by Laing, Schmidt, Gallois and Davila serve as a springboard to counteract this. In the long run, these same artworks present a vehicle for memory and history to ensure the persistence of a democratic debate, even for those who aren’t official citizens. And, it is in this way that the works discussed here can been viewed as documentary, or as affective representations rather than ‘evidence’.

Veronica Tello is a curator and writer based in Melbourne. She is currently completing an MA (research) on documentary based art practices and politics.

Image captions:

Rosemary Laing, welcome to Australia, 2004, Type C photograph. Courtesy Rosemary Laing and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), The Raft of Medusa, 1819, oil on canvas. Courtesy Louvre Museum, Paris. © Photo RMN, Paris.

Juan Davila, Adrift, 2002, silkscreen. Courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art. © Juan Davila.

Mathieu Gallois, Containment (side view and detail), 2006, cyclone fencing, galvanised pipe, razor wire, 19 spring-loaded and galvanised pipe and cyclone mess gates with cement footings. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Georgia Carins.


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