Essay

Clean, orderly and laminex coloured

WHAT DOES AUSTRALIA look like? In the 1950s a school-aged Hilary McPhee, in an essay on what Australia would be like in 2000, foresaw it as ‘clean and orderly and laminex coloured – and everyone had an abundance of leisure'. McPhee was Chair of the Australia Council in 1995 when she recalled her schoolgirl crystal ball-gazing. It was part of a speech in which she canvassed how Australia could best develop its own multimedia publishing industry.

‘The transition from present to future was never going to be an easy one,' McPhee said. Email was uncommon at the time she made the speech, except in arcane research settings; mobile phones were barely out of the province of the early adopters; online content was still mostly conceived in terms of CD-ROMs. Global media conglomerates were about to swamp Australia's tiny pockets of production, went the generalised fear, and Australia wasn't ready to compete.

In retrospect, Australian coped just about as well (or badly) with the digital revolution's cultural onslaught as it has with previous waves of innovation. What turns out to be the really interesting question is the one McPhee evoked in passing – speculation about what Australia would look like this century.

In 2008 do we know what Australia looks like? Is it laminex coloured and, if not, what colour is it? The old philosophy riddle – if a tree falls in a forest with no one around to hear it, did it happen? – is relevant. Does the world see us as we are today and, if not, are we really that way at all?

 

CHANGES IN THE way Australia has been portrayed since white settlement emerge in the National Gallery of Australia exhibition ‘Ocean to Outback'. The soft blues and greens of depictions in the nineteenth century gave way to the blue-and-gold pastoral tradition opened up by Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton in the late 1880s – ‘golden pastures, misty blue distances and clear blue skies'. Early twentieth century modernism saw flashes of clean, bright colour before Russell Drysdale, towards the end of World War II, triggered what Ron Radford describes as ‘a general reddening' of Australian landscape art.

Drysdale had gone into far western New South Wales in 1944 for the Sydney Morning Herald to illustrate the effects of the then-devastating drought. ‘His dried up earth suggested that man had lost control of the land – nature had fought back and taken back,' writes Radford. Sidney Nolan, who travelled extensively in central Australia in 1949 and 1950, made a similar shift in his palette. In 1952, like Drysdale before him, Nolan documented the drought for a newspaper, travelling through rural Queensland for the Courier-Mail.

Australia, projected by Drysdale, was hot, red, isolated, desolate and subtly threatening. Drysdale's ‘The Drover's Wife' (1945) – standing, staring, a waiting-for -Godot figure in a melancholy landscape where the potential for life had dried up, literally – was imprinted onto the subconscious of a couple of generations of Australians. It cohabits in Australians' minds with Nolan's ‘Carcass' paintings where the skeletons of animals stalked and stripped by death are suspended in Australia's own formaldehyde of heat and dust. Nolan also conveyed the massive scale and majesty of the interior – in ‘Inland Australia' (1950) for example, and ‘Durack Range' (1950) – but they did not match the psychological impact of the ‘Carcass' paintings which paralleled and reinforced the powerful psychological imprint made by Drysdale's desolate images.

The ‘general reddening' of the landscape was not just about what Drysdale and Nolan saw. Artist Alison Alder notes, for example, that a contemporary critic reviewing Drysdale's ‘Sofala' (1947) – painted in winter in a town so cold it sometime snows – remarked on its ‘stifling air, red with dust'.

Drysdale's ubiquitous red was not so much about the weather as a landscape deeply, intrinsically inhospitable to the point of being just this side of uninhabitable. His reds are the ground in which the deep, utter alienation of the figures in it are rooted. He was the visual poet of that passive, all encompassing despair that endless heat and drought induces. Drysdale's images locked so absolutely onto the cultural synapses of post-war Australians that it was as though their brains had been specifically waiting for them. Yet it was Nolan who most powerfully projected this take on Australia to the outside world.

Nolan struck gold when the eye of visiting British art historian Kenneth Clark was taken by his ‘Abandoned mine' in the 1949 Wynne Prize exhibition. Clark sought Nolan out in Sydney, bought one of his paintings and offered to help him get into a London gallery. The promise of Clark's help was the collateral on which Nolan built his successful expatriation to England in the 1950s.

The British art world embraced Nolan on the basis of his paintings of the outback, drought and the series of history paintings (through the 1950s ‘Burke and Wills', the second ‘Kelly' series, ‘Mrs Fraser' and ‘Gallipoli'). The Australian landscape was always a key player. While others had their successes here and there, Nolan was the only twentieth century Australian artist to really make the big time in a foreign market.

As such it was his vision of Australia that cut through and made its mark on an international audience. And when Nolan expanded beyond his antipodean sources, drawing on classical mythology, painting other continents, he was smacked sharply on the nose for it. The turning point was the ‘Leda and the Swan' series exhibited at London's Matthieson Gallery in 1960. The outback palette was gone, replaced by a menacing dark, liquorice green with flashes of red, yellow, blue and white.

According to Nolan, ‘the inner influential intellectuals' in London didn't like ‘this strange dark green' and turned on him, led by Herbert Read. Then the Australians stuck the boot in, too, he reflected, looking back on it a couple of decades later:

Well, my work has been misunderstood since I painted the ‘Leda and the Swan' series ... The African exhibitions worried them too. And then the Australians started damning me, as well. They gave me up! A younger Australian artist, Imants Tillers, wrote something like, ‘We are tired of being ruled by those tyrants abroad. They have been irrelevant for two generations.' So there were bad reviews in England and they were reinforced in Australia: people out there started to say the English critics were right. But this has been a great benefit to me: it leaves me free. I am a loose cannon ... I can work as I did as a boy knowing that nobody cares.

There are three things to be said about Nolan's experience. Whatever the rambunctiousness of succeeding generations of Australian artists, none has yet cut through with imagery to displace that Drysdale and Nolan imprinted deeply, and still lingering in the Australian psyche. Yet to be Australian is not to be the sum of those images.

Nolan's reputation in Britain slid following the ‘Leda and the Swan' exhibition due to an alleged decline in the quality of his work. Whether its quality declined is an issue that cannot be settled here and is in any case irrelevant to the other element at play: Nolan was punished by the British critics for straying from his previously popular antipodean subject matter.

 

NOLAN'S CRITICAL FATE in Britain seems emblematic of a general fate with which Australians are lumbered – that outsiders manacle us to their narrow, but keenly felt perception of our natural environment. The manacles may be fur-lined at times but still bite. It is manifest in culture high and low.

‘I sat down at my computer to write the first page from The Road From Coorain after the three hundredth time some American told me how much they loved the movie Crocodile Dundee,' Jill Ker Conway, for example, said in 1995. ‘I couldn't stand it one minute longer.'

‘Kangaroos are at home on the hills of Kangaroo Ridge, as are wombats and wallabies,' goes one of the two breakout quotes in Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine's cover story on Australia in late 2007.

Travelling in the US late last year I felt subject to a reverse anthropomorphism. When travelling, it is better to feel loved than hated. But after warm, gooey sentiments repeatedly flowed when it emerged I am Australian, I felt like marking my forehead: ‘I am a Wallace, not a wallaby.' Other examples abound. The wider world has locked us into a virtual Nolan painting circa 1955, with embroidery at the edges courtesy of Paul Hogan's films of the 1980s. The trail out of this impasse is unclear.

 

DOES AUSTRALIA STILL look like that? Did it ever look that way? Drysdale and Nolan both experienced the outback as outsiders, just passing through. They were white and they were urban. Alison Alder is a contemporary Australian artist who, like them, is white and urban but two generations younger; she was born in 1958, the year Nolan painted his ‘Gallipoli' series. Unlike them, when she went out back, she stayed for a long time. ‘I came to live in Inland Australia with an outdated vision of what I would see,' says Alder.

I looked for the bleached bones of Nolan's carcasses, the distorted shapes of Drysdale's corrugated iron, country that was empty and isolated, lonely townships. I discovered that the visual repository of outback images I had in my head was way out of date, and apart from the monumental contribution of Aboriginal artists, hadn't been updated from a whitefella perspective for over fifty years.

Since 1990 Alder has lived at least part of each year in the Northern Territory, first at Palumpa Station near Wadeye, but predominantly in Tennant Creek. The outsider became an insider in the several years she lived full-time in Tennant Creek. She put down roots and established relationships with the locals to the point where she was given a skin name. To Aboriginal people there she is Napaljarri.

Alder went to the Territory with a background in the radical poster collectives of the 1980s. After graduating in printmaking from the Canberra School of Art she became a leading figure in Redback Graphix in Sydney. The move north saw Alder, soaked as a child in the imagery of Drysdale and Nolan, think her way forward from it through the prism of her own outback experience. At the same time her art segued from posters to multi-panel mixed media works and installations.

From the outset Alder saw that colour had played a ‘decisive role' in how Nolan and, especially, Drysdale positioned the Australian interior. Drysdale threw away the ‘gentle mauves, blues and yellows of his predecessors' and using varnishes and glazes ‘imbued his paintings with dryness and heat'. It was Drysdale's decisions about colour that determined the outback's ‘flavour' – she argues, ‘evoking trauma and tragedy'. It was the colour of Drysdale's and Nolan's paintings that captured the Australian imagination. Alder cites reviews of the early Drysdale and Nolan exhibitions suggesting that their paintings provided the first glimpse many had ever had into the Australian interior; their audience were rivetted.

But what of now? Alder tells the story of her first visit to Arnhem Land. She was staying with friends at Oenpelli on the edge of the Kakadu escarpment, on the eastern side of the East Alligator River. Late one afternoon she went with her friends to the Gunbalanya Club for a drink. ‘The wet season had only just started and as we were sitting there, the skies opened and a monsoonal downpour thundered down onto the tin roof. All of a sudden a whole dry season's worth of drinking, thousands of Victoria Bitter cans thrown out the back of the club, washed out onto the flood plain – a sea of brilliant red and green.'

Brilliant red and green. Brilliant red and green rubbish.

Drysdale had twigged to the significance and symbolism of rubbish, Alder points out; plenty of it appears in his work. Displacement, marginality, devaluation – refuse is not hard to read. The palette of Drysdale and Nolan is still evident in the red soil and bleach blue sky. But with open eyes, bold new additions to the colours of the interior were obvious to Alder and are deployed in her work. Houses in the town camps are painted brilliant blues, pinks and yellows; the bush is dotted with silver wine cask bladders, discarded road signs, the bright whites and pinks of plastic nappy packaging, and the colours of any Australian car park courtesy of the vehicles dumped on town fringes.

‘I am defensive about the outback town I lived in,' says Alder. ‘I feel the need to both justify the ugliness and sing loud about the beauty ...' She did just this in the mixed media works and installations of her two 2007 shows at Helen Maxwell Gallery in Canberra and Switchback Gallery in Gippsland. And in the pop art tradition where familiar objects and images communicate directly and easily with audiences, Alder waves from out back to Warhol and his Brillo boxes with stacks of VB cartons crafted from MDF. Brilliant red and green rubbish.

 

THE QUESTION OF whether something can exist independently of its perception by another is interesting. We feel we are different from the variously inflected stereotypes of us abroad. But if Americans, for example, conflate Australia and Australians with kangaroos, koalas and wallabies – and we still think of the interior in various shades of hot, dry red despite evidence to the contrary when you actually look – perhaps there is something in each of those propositions.

Alternatively, perhaps the task falls to us to determine what Australia is like, what we are like, to build the tools to convey those things and actually do so rather than passively accept what is projected upon us.

Alison Alder describes mentally approaching life in the Northern Territory thus: ‘My copy of [Mary Durack's]Kings in Grass Castles told me that a life of hardship was awaiting, where I would either become thin and tanned like Lambert's ‘The Squatter's Daughter', with clear blue eyes, gazing over distant plains, or solid and dependable like Drysdale's ‘The Drover's Wife', waiting for something (but what?) with an enduring and stoic patience.'

Alder, of course, is neither ‘the squatter's daughter', nor ‘the drover's wife' and vigorously says so. Yet it is human to look for symbols to identify with; if no suitable ones exist, the field is open for unsuitable, even destructive ones.

 

JILL KERR CONWAY more than a decade ago called on Australians to acknowledge the power of symbols and develop new, appropriate ones for the coming republic. In speech to the Sydney Institute in 1995, Conway made a compelling case for this task. It is a piece of thinking to which we urgently need to return.

Conway first sketched out the icons ‘Marianne' in France and ‘Columbia' in the US, embodiments of their respective republics.

‘If you gave up loyalty to an hereditary monarchy,' she posed, ‘and you gave up any notion of religious establishment, so that there was no religious institution to mediate values between one generation and the next, what would be the basis for a stable republic?' Dealing with this is a threshold task for new regimes, and the creation of ‘Marianne' in the new Republique Francaise and ‘Columbia' in the infant United States of America was a key part of doing so.

Such symbols are not ‘empty fictions' but convey ‘unconscious and inarticulate content' according to Conway. ‘Marianne' and ‘Columbia' embodied the essential spirit of the new republics. Imprinted on the public consciousness, reinforced on coins, in statues and the like, they became a symbolic site of social consensus with cohesive force after drastic dislocations of governance.

Australians kid themselves, Conway said, that a shift to a republic can be achieved in a minimalist fashion, without the hard work of determining the values underpinning it and developing the tools to propagate them. For doubters she included the tale of how ‘Columbia' – a youngish woman in classical drapery, evoking the Roman goddess of liberty – was gradually displaced by the cocky, pugnacious male ‘Uncle Sam', doyen of US military recruiting posters. No need to spell out the change in America's national posture accompanying that shift.

With deft aim, Conway takes issue with the iconography that has filled the vacuum of deliberately created national symbolism in Australia.

In the available symbols of the white British experience, almost all our popular images express anti-civic values, and do so very powerfully. The great heroes who are celebrated in Australian myth (who are white and male) are outlaws. They are Ned Kelly, or they are non-functional or dysfunctional white males who can't bond with anyone – like the Man from Snowy River. They are people who do not respect public authority, and, furthermore, are never reconciled to it in any version of the myth ... Our heroes go right on being dysfunctional, living off by themselves in the bush.

Conway concluded that the myths of Australia's frontier settlement are simply unsuitable as a source of symbols which could express the civic values of a healthy Australian republic.

In the years following her speech the Howard Government sought to make ANZAC the motivating icon of Australian national life: mateship, blood, sacrifice. But Gallipoli fits the frontier myth mould in several respects. The main differences, and they are not material, are that this frontier is offshore and one where failure is formally acknowledged as the objective result. (Alienated Australian men never being far from these stories, it is no surprise that Nolan, a World War II army deserter, was one of the ANZAC legend's major artistic interpreters. The fact of his desertion is not mentioned in the Australian War Memorial's publicly displayed commentary on his ‘Gallipoli' works.)

Ultimately Jill Ker Conway argued that the repetitive celebration in words and images of Australia's dysfunctional white, male frontier myths obscures other positive potential symbols from Australian life: ‘We would have to rework our national story with attention to some kind of redemptive female principle before it could provide the expression of an embodied community with values beyond the isolated and alienated individual.'

Her identification of redemptiveness with femaleness requires caution. Whether at the level of the symbolic or of the real, not all Australian men are alienated and dysfunctional any more than Australian women are all positive, redemptive role models.

However, Conway is dead right that if Australians thought about ‘what is really the basis of an ordered community', the insights could be worthwhile. It is interesting that in France and the US, female symbols of the republic were chosen to contrast the new regimes with the masculine-identified monarchies they replaced.

 

THE DAUNTING TASK OF ‘reworking our national story' with a view to creating a positive symbol of the coming Australian republic could probably not be done by a politician. The political well has been poisoned by the bitterly combative nature of Australian politics. It is logical to look next for such a person to the primary source of Australia's words, images, stories: the arts community.

More problems. Hilary McPhee, when she was musing way back when, gave a vivid outline of the arts world's own special poison. The arts community was ‘riddled with rage and revenge' she said from her vantage point of Australia Council chief: ‘The lack of generosity here seems to me to be unique. It has more in common with a provincial town than a serious nation. It's almost certainly symptomatic of something else. Artists and intellectuals deep in their bones seem to me to wish each other ill. Only rarely do you meet one who delights in another's success.'

So Australian politicians and Australian artists (broadly speaking) are of a piece: this is initially surprising but, on reflection, predictable. We are products of the same society – the one with the toxic default national iconography.

But maybe things are changing, or have changed and we just have not noticed. Two recent National Gallery of Australia exhibitions suggest this might be so – the National Indigenous Art Triennial ‘Culture Warriors‘ show at the NGA in Canberra, and ‘Andy & Oz: Parallel Visions' at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Indigenous artists that in Drysdale's wake the outback is a hundred different shades of red. Take works like ‘Kuru Ala' (2007), for example, and ‘Ngura Mankurpa' (2006) of Pitjantjatjara artist Maringka Baker in Culture Warriors. ‘Where some see the desert as barren, Baker paints it green,' notes Graeme Marshall, ‘...seeing life and soul beyond the obvious'. Many of the show's thirty artists tackle headlong issues of nationalism, culture, history and citizenship that curator Brenda Croft notes correctly lie at the heart of the ‘Culture Wars/History Wars' kicked along by John Howard during his prime ministership.

‘Andy and Oz' showcases fifty years of antipodean pop art via the work of nine Australians interleaved with relevant Warhol works. Everyone, including the Warhol Museum staff, was stunned with the final hang. The breakout nature of many of the Australian works was obvious, even against great works by one of the twentieth century's most influential artists.

The unusual collaboration between the NGA and the Warhol Museum resulted in a startlingly rare event: the exhibition of contemporary Australian art at a major international museum. With the exception of contemporary Indigenous art exhibited at places like Quai Branley in Paris, the Tate Gallery in London during the 1960s is the last time anyone can recall this happening.

Artist Christian Thompson is common to the two exhibitions. Thompson bends gender and racial boundaries, traverses traditional and contemporary artistic preoccupations and takes it right up to iconic American artists like Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman. The sophisticated intellectual engagement evident in Thompson's work – its wit, warmth, intelligence and humanity – give one hope. There is a way forward and people capable of taking us there.

So why is it that to come across Thompson's work is a surprise? Why is it that it takes aesthetic decisions by two NGA curators, Deborah Hart and Deborah Croft, to bring it to our attention? And that's only if we are habitués of art museums.

Could it be because inside Australia there is an unseeingness every bit as rigid and unyielding as the blindness we ascribe to outsiders – ‘foreigners' – who seem only to be able to see Australians in terms of their perceptions of our natural environment? Perhaps we need to look further, wider, deeper into Australia ourselves. Perhaps we all need to open our eyes, look, and think about what is in front of us instead of settling for the received story.

As Hilary McPhee said a decade ago, the transition from present to future was never going to be an easy one.

The crystal ball-gazing she did as a schoolgirl in the 1950s about what life would be like in the 2000s turned out to be partly right. Australia is clean and orderly – at least in art museums. ‘Laminex coloured'? Truer than you might think. Walking through ‘Culture Warriors' there was not a single colour on the paint chart not used somewhere by someone. Drysdale's ‘general reddening' has been well and truly painted over. The question is, what is next.

It took an outside/insider – expatriate Australian Jill Ker Conway – to point out that Australia is a society which could choose to get away from the destructive imagery of ‘conquering the wilderness (and the native people in the process)' and found a polity on an ‘enlarged notion' of who we are, why we're here and what we're about.

Australia would have to define its own view of the political and cultural lessons of the past; the tradition about which to shape understanding of the cultural strengths and weaknesses. That could only be effectively done in relation to our inheritance not just from Great Britain but from the Greeks, from Western Europe and from other Asian societies. But such an educational effort would be interesting, challenging and intellectually very exciting. It would be costly and citizens would have to be willing to pay for it. Australians have never really been willing to pay for first-rate general education, but perhaps the new concern with national identity might change priorities.

Conway pointed this big arrow towards a better future a dozen years ago. Any momentum for taking up the challenge shuddered to a stop the following year with the Howard Government's election. That's no excuse to put it off indefinitely.

The US had to go through the same process and has not always got it right, Conway said at the time: ‘But when they did succeed they produced an effervescence in modern culture that influenced modernism in the whole world.' She believed that could happen here. I agree. Let's get on with it.

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