Australia is not an island: Contemporary art futures across the Archipelago – Curator John Mateer

Australia, far from being the insular outpost of a defunct empire, is an archipelago of cities alive with cultural connectivity, argues curator John Mateer.

From 31 August to 13 October 2013, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in western Australia held “In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art”, an exhibition exploring the cultural proximity of Australia and nations of the Indian Ocean. In his essay “Australia is not an island” curator John Mateer re-assesses ideas of the region’s art, re-imagining Australia not as an isolated landmass, but as an archipelago of cities culturally connected to the wider world.

‘In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art’, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, exhibition view, 2013. Foreground – Rodney Glick. Background – PUNKASILA. Copyright the artists. Photo by Aaron Bradbrook.

The Indian Ocean edge: Proximity and confidence

Curated after I spent some time London in 2012, the exhibition “In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art” was intended to reveal the extent of commonalities between the practices and themes of artists from Australia and a small number of other countries on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean.

PUNKASILA, ‘Sukhoi’ (Plane Crash), 2012. Image courtesy the artists and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney.

For about twenty years now Australian organisations have put effort into building a sense of proximity between Australia and countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, but seldom has curation really looked into the works of artists from the related countries and tried to understand how artists like Simryn Gill, Hossein Valamanesh or Punkasila operate with a deep sense of sociability typical of this zone and its deep history. Even in the case of a well-known artist like Gill, her use of mobility as a strategy against colonial history has seldom been articulated as an Indian Ocean technique. It brings to mind Sugata Bose’s wonderful book “A Hundred Horizons: the Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire” which, among other things, speaks of the idea of circular migration, which allows individuals to migrate without severing contact with their homeland.

“In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art” was designed to articulate the idea of proximity and the confidence closeness requires by focusing on three themes: the horizon line, the portrait and collaboration. The artists were:

Max Pam, 'Reporting Madagascar', 2003 from 'In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art', Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, exhibition view, 2013. Photo by Aaron Bradbrook.

Max Pam, ‘Reporting Madagascar’, 2003 from “In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art”, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, exhibition view, 2013. Photo by Aaron Bradbrook.

In parallel to the exhibition, the catalogue contained a substantial essay titled “My Tone of Uncertainty”. Its focus was the relationship between confidence and economics in global contemporary art. And the symposium “The Ambiguity of our Geography” brought together the Australia-based artists Hossein Valamanesh and Danias Kesminas of the Yogyakarta group, Punkasila with the Malaysian video artist Hayati Mokhtar and the London-based Singaporean performance artist Lynn Lu. Lu, with her young baby, presented a moving performance on the afternoon following the symposium. Where the extended essay spoke of the pressures of art centres on the contextualisation of contemporary art, the artists discussed the subject of their work and mobility. As with the exhibition, the aim of this was to open up a dialogue with artists across the countries of this part of the Indian Ocean region.

Hossein Valamanesh, 'Guardian', 2010, bronze and granite. Image courtesy the artist and Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.

Hossein Valamanesh, ‘Guardian’, 2010, bronze and granite. Image courtesy the artist and Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.

Lynn Lu, Untitled performance documentation, 2013. Photo by Leon Ewing

In my address, which inaugurated the symposium accompanying “In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art“, I revisited an essay I wrote a number of years ago. In the essay “Australia is not an Island,” I ironically proposed a reorientation of Australia, not by turning it around or by towing it to the Northern Hemisphere as was once controversially suggested by a conservative politician, but rather, that by turning it inside out, by seeing the landmass as an archipelago of cities which connect with the other cities of this part of the world it is possible to have a better sense of the social and cultural reality we already inhabit.

Excerpt from “Australia is not an island”

Hayati Mokhtar and Dain-Iskandar Said, 'Near Intervisible Lines', 2006 from 'In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art', Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, exhibition view, 2013. Photo by Aaron Bradbrook.

Hayati Mokhtar and Dain-Iskandar Said, ‘Near Intervisible Lines’, 2006 from “In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art”, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, exhibition view, 2013. Photo by Aaron Bradbrook.

The elusive archipelago

Contrary to common belief, Australia is not an island – it’s an archipelago. We have been encouraged by convention to think of it as the world’s largest island, the world’s flattest and driest continent, but it is, like all archipelagos, an elusive entity: culturally porous and edgeless. The Australian government has recently placed much emphasis on the notion of ‘border-protection’ because it knows that the nation is constituted of only a handful of islands which are approachable from any number of directions, each of the islands – Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Tasmania – engaging in its own internal commerce, as well as, its own outside economy.

It is through more than the act of imagination that Australians keep the notion of Australia-as-an-island alive. Australians keep its borders active by thinking of The Land as the basis of their commonality, by emphasising the importance of the Bush, the Outback, and by exporting art of the land, Aboriginal art. Until fairly recently, that is the late 1970s when the art of the Central Desert came to prominence in the imaginative life of Australians, the Outback was seen to be just as empty and mysterious as the open ocean. Earlier explorers’ accounts of journeying into the interior on camels or ‘ships of the desert’, into what was called the Dead Heart of the continent, often used the metaphor of sailing to articulate the sensation of moving through seemingly identical terrain for interminable lengths of time. Their sense of being ineluctably located in space and time was akin to the experience of sailing into uncharted waters, with the anxieties produced by the feeling of the unknown and the overwhelming presence of the bare elements. That the interior of Australia is almost entirely dry, except for – as in the Nullarbor – underground reservoirs and those waterholes that are like hidden miracles and the desert lakes which are filled by rain on rare occasions, was something they often couldn’t believe. One explorer pushed on into the Central Desert taking with him a whale-boat in which he intended to sail the Inland Sea that he was sure must exist somewhere out there. It had existed, but, unfortunately, many millions of years before his arrival.

Oceanic Australia and the ‘tyranny of distance’

Even though today, now that this interior landscape has been documented, having been mapped and photographed in the tradition of western science, and conjured in the imagination of the wider world as much by Australian cinema, with its frequent emphasis on Romantic landscape, as by the complexity and diversity of the Aboriginal arts, especially Desert painting of the kind exemplified by the Papunya School, it is still possible to have a sense that the gaps between the Australian cities themselves and those chasms between them and the rest of the world are powerfully oceanic. Even in the experience of driving from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia’s two most populous cities which are separated by – in Australian standards – a relatively short distance of about 800 kilometers, it is possible to feel the car slow in its speeding, becoming more like a wind-powered vessel, and those fields which stretch out as far as the eye can see from both sides of the road become like the calm, vast ocean; each stop on the way is then a small island where it is necessary to rest and stock up on supplies of food and fresh water. Maybe this is why Australia has sometimes been referred to as a nation of swimmers and why Australians ‘dominate the world’ in the Olympic swimming-pool.

Christian Thompson, 'Andy' from the series 'The Gates of Tambo', 2004. Image courtesy the artist and Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery, Melbourne.

Christian Thompson, ‘Andy’ from the series ‘The Gates of Tambo’, 2004. Image courtesy the artist and Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery, Melbourne.

In Australia the ‘tyranny of distance’, to use historian Geoffrey Blainey’s famous phrase, is not solely that of the expansive conduit between the colony and its imperial centre but, surprising, is as much the real distance between its own settlements, its various islands. Inhabitants of countries like Indonesia, the Philippines or – a much more compact example – Japan would recognise the strange potentials of the archipelago. Like all island-dwellers aware of their being in an archipelago, Australians of the various islands espouse their own cultural superiority, their suspicion of the inhabitants of the other islands and their jealousy of the wealth of those related, yet distant, small lands. Anyone who has traveled in Australia knows that the inhabitants of the two largest islands, Melbourne and Sydney, are constantly casting aspersions on each other, while those islands from the further-flung reaches of the archipelago, Perth for instance, comfort themselves by stressing the character-building potentials of isolation and the consolation of a pleasurable, if boring, lifestyle.

Looking outwards: Australia’s island cities and their regional neighbours

These discrepancies, these tensions, if they may be called that, are the consequence of Australia’s extraordinary geography, its vastness and its aridity, and they are also the product of history. Australia is a federation of states that, in terms of their wealth as much as their populations and history of conquest and settlement, differ greatly from one another. For the reason that all of Australia’s major cities are on the coast and, but for Brisbane and Sydney, facing in different directions, their orientations away from their hinterlands and towards the outside world are actually towards quite different parts of the globe. Sydney faces the islands of the Pacific and the United States; Melbourne Zealand and Antarctica; Darwin Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Indonesia; and Perth the Indian Ocean islands and Africa.

In the cultural history of Australia little attention has been given to the nuances of movements between the archipelago of Australia and those of its neighbours due to the socio-political dynamic within which Australian debate usually takes place, that of the relationship between Australia and its influential ally of the moment, whether Britain, the United States or – the ally and market of the future – China. But the reality of everyday life in Australia is that it is cosmopolitan in a particularly Australian way. The inhabitants of the Australian archipelago, just like those other islanders of the Cocos Islands or of the Torres Straits, share a culture that is just as porous and edge-less as the geography they inhabit. Cultural and racial mixing are the natural outcome of this kind of island-culture. Even Australians of an Anglo-Celtic background, who are often maligned in those intellectual, inner-city circles that emphasise the notion of cosmopolitanism and the politics of internationalism, display other traits of the islander, being conformist and cautious in the presence of the strange. How could they not, coming originally from the British Isles, islands which in various places and at different times were raided by the Vikings, invaded by the Romans, menaced by the Germans, colonised by the English and dispersed to the Commonwealth?

PUNKASILA, Kristiantoro Seri Punkasila guitars, 2006 from 'In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art', Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, exhibition view, 2013. Photo by Aaron Bradbrook.

PUNKASILA, Kristiantoro Seri Punkasila guitars, 2006 from “In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art”, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, exhibition view, 2013. Photo by Aaron Bradbrook.

Complicating colonial histories, re-assessing cultural realities

It would be foolish to attempt to deny the powerful influence that British governance has had on the Australian archipelago. This string of islands has, thanks to the Empire, for two hundred years being politically connected as much to Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Fiji as to Britain. Yet to regard the Australian islands simply as a series of late-colonies of an outdated empire, whether that empire is British or – as some optimistic commentators would have – American would be to ignore the economies of the islands, the irradiation of their own networks and the peculiar evolution of the unique island cultures.

For the artists of the Australian archipelago the mistaken belief that Australia is a continent, one enormous island, has the disadvantage that it constantly forces them to talk about their practices as if there were real commonalities that they all shared, as if the art forms of the various islands could be effectively grouped under the one cultural discourse, that of the nation. Australians seldom have the opportunity to talk about themselves as islanders, and yet this is one of the first things that strikes the curious visitor: each island’s isolation from the others. When the visitor asks a Melbournian curator for a list of the ten most interesting artists working in Australia it is usual for the list to contain mainly artists from Melbourne, and the same would be true of Sydney. The other, smaller islands would be slightly different because they would be aware of the cultural exports of their competitors, and so would temper their listing with the names of a few artists from the bigger, more powerful islands. (A survey of this kind was recently conducted by a writer for the French magazine Artpress, and the results bore out the islanders’ prejudices.)

That there is such a reluctance to admit to the reality of the archipelago is unfortunate because the richness of Australia resides in the cultural differences between the islands. This is also true in the case of those sea-peoples known by the deceptively unifying term of The Aboriginies. Their art, too, while it isn’t focused on the major Australian islands, is amazing in its stylistic and geographical diversity. The differences between the practices of the various islands also reveals other discrepancies – for instance, the economic impoverishment but South-East Asian-orientation of Darwin, as opposed to the material extravagance and First World-orientation of Sydney. By keeping the myth of Australia-as-Island alive the islanders avoid acknowledging their own relation to the flux of migration, cultural exchange and commerce that is essential to their homelands. Few artists prominent in the Australian Canon take these issues as the subject of their work. Increasingly those artists who do are drawing their audiences’ attention to the dynamics of the archipelago’s cultures. Among them, Simryn Gill, an artist born in Singapore, resident in Malaysia, then in London and now in Sydney, is a perfect example of the contemporary Australian islander’s sensibility, being both local and mobile. In the art theorising of the 1980s the term ‘nomad’ was used far too loosely. Australian islanders, aware of the symbolic significance and actual material culture of The Aborigines, understand perhaps better than most that nomadism is provisional, and is produced by the relationship between necessity and opportunity.

Islands in a globalising world

But the islanders’ possessiveness towards their own cultural products and exports is, ironically, a mirror-image of the latest, post-postmodernist metamorphosis of islander culture which is named Globalisation. Under the regime of globalisation the world becomes an archipelago, or sets of archipelagos, which are connected by various logics that are sometimes commensurate, sometimes not. The islander logic which connects Sydney, Venice, Berlin (First World art capitals) isn’t the same that connects Havana, Sao Paulo and Dakar (Third World biennale cities), nor is it the logic that links London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, those islands of centralised transnational commerce.

The islander mentality exists in all of those places but due to the new currents of globalisation, the flow of capital needn’t parallel the flow of culture. America was, of course, the first modern example of the denuding of the direct correspondence between locality and culture. When the Paris-focused modern art movement was relocated to New York after the Second World War the notion that art was a natural outcome of the logic of an island’s culture was irrevocably interrupted. Post-war International Modernism seemed to represent an art free of the constraints of local meaning. That was, as art historians of the past two decades have been discovering, a self-deception as great as the belief that Australia is one island. After all Manhattan, until recently the centre of the international art world, is an island too, an island that during the era of colonial expansionism was ‘exchanged’ by the Dutch for the important spice island of Ran, what is now an almost forgotten island in the West of today’s Indonesia.

Hayati Mokhtar and Dain-Iskandar Said, 'Near Intervisible Lines', 2006, 4 channel video (still). Image courtesy the artists.

Hayati Mokhtar and Dain-Iskandar Said, ‘Near Intervisible Lines’, 2006, 4 channel video (still). Image courtesy the artists.

The importance of recognising the reality that Australia is an archipelago is, as might be expected, metaphoric. To see Australia as a string of islands is to notice the particularities of each island and also to see that each of the islands is in a different relationship with the outside world – Perth feels closer to Singapore than Adelaide, Darwin is literally closer to East Timor than it is to any other Australian city, etc. But there is another implication of the notion of Australia as archipelago.

Art as magical cargo, means of diplomacy and survival skill

If Australia is appreciated as a network of islands, the colonial metaphor for acculturation, that is the ‘development’ of The Land with all its attendant technologies of picturing the landscape, clearing the bush, dispossessing the natives, can be replaced with another, more ethical set of metaphors, a collection of terms more in keeping with the actuality of current experience in this region. Those metaphors would be those of travel: art as magical and commercial cargo, culture as the trading of information and values, galleries as airports or trade-fairs, the practice of the artist as a means of diplomacy and as a technique of survival after marooning or shipwreck.

In ‘the wake’ of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, it is clear that Australians have been made more aware than ever before that they are definitely connected to this region due to the ocean. It is in the possibility of this new metaphoric of the island and travel, a rhetoric which reveals genuine histories, that we will see the possibility of opening the borders of the Australian islands not only to Asia but to all the other islands of the world.

John Mateer


John Mateer’s essay “Australia is not an island” was originally published in full by Australian magazine Meanjin, Vol 6 No 1, in 2006.

Related Topics: Australian art, lectures and talks, specialist contributions, Asia expands, the nation in art

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