...this European self has never been self-sufficient: it has always learned, borrowed, or stolen from elsewhere. We need to...to think of images, certainly, but to understand the process of their being made as negotiated – and It has long sometimes contested – in various ways.
– Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire,
Felix Driver and Lucians Martins [i]
AUSTRALIANS are known to be a nation of travellers. Hyper-aware of inhabiting the space of the ‘antipodes' in relation to Britain and Europe, the nation emerged into nationhood with the understanding that the country's identity would be formed in relation to those cultures that were more familiar and which, regrettably, expensively, time-demandingly, lay north of the equator.
The notion of being ‘antipodean' in Australia has arisen from mythology more than geography; a more precise explanation of the term connotes a relationship between two points rather than any particular fixed point on the globe, and yet from Pliny to the present the idea of being ‘opposite' to the cultures and geographies of Europe has persistently attached itself to the landmass of Australia. We have come to think of ourselves as the antipodes.
In order to establish a sense of difference about what ‘here' might mean while at the same time maintaining a familiarity with the ‘there' that lay at the opposite antipodes of Europe, a certain coming-and-going was essential; a benchmarking of checklists from which a separate but conjoined sense of place could be coaxed into being. A home-away-from-home. A little bit of Europe in the Pacific. And despite the terrors and expenses of long-distance travel back to Europe, the long-distance gaze back to what seemed to be ‘knowable' appeared to be a lot less dangerous than attempts to look afresh at possible synergies within the broader geographical context of the surrounding region, in order to think more carefully of other possible ways of establishing knowledge about what the country might already have been, before it was dragged, uninvited, into ‘history'. The waters and islands that surrounded this antipodean centrepoint appeared to be much more threatening, for the region has been aligned with monsters, curiousness and the unknowable from Greek times to the present.[ii] Better to set sail and brave the winds and tides on a course that takes you round the earth's curve, towards knowable Europe, as quickly as possible.
Plenty has already been written about this – and from Bernard Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific(1985)[iii] to Paul Carter's The Road to Botany Bay (1987)[iv], much of it has been deeply and sustainingly provocative. Yet it's probably a good time to take stock of the extent to which real changes in our understanding of Australian identity might have shifted since the eruption of these critical interrogations, speculating the extent to which the country is a by-product of northern-hemisphere ideas about culture, nature and identity.
IT HAS LONG been said that non-Indigenous Australians have maintained a fear of the centre and the edges – a dread of coming to terms with the Indigenous core of the country and of the Asia-Pacific region in which it sprawls, according to the description on one Korean map, like a ‘giant pancake'. Any attempts to become more familiar with those cultures and countries that share our hemisphere have taken place relatively recently in terms of the non-Indigenous settlement or invasion of the country.
There are one or two examples of reprobate artists who either landed here via currents from the Asian north, like Ian Fairweather, or who left these shorelines in search of the heady intoxicants of ever more humid climates, like Donald Friend to Bali, but non-Indigenous travel tales of searches for cultural redemption, on the whole, follow the pilgrimage back to the old countries in the northern hemisphere.
Accounts of Australia's Indigenous to-ing and fro-ing are less well-known, but they depended on intimate knowledge of the currents that ran along the northern coastline of the country and that joined it together with all those scatterings of smaller islands across the Pacific that lend the region its infinite cultural richness. We have learned that the trade in species like bêche-de-mer brought indigenous Australians into contact with other cultures of the Pacific for centuries; that around campfire feasts stories and dance steps would be traded, and with them knowledge of customs and codes from countries far removed from their own. Some reports estimate that Makassan sea traders brought ideas and images to thousands of kilometres of the northern Australian coastline from as early as the fifteenth century.
From there tales, images and artefacts of cultural exchange travelled far south, just as the impact of exchange would have, in turn, travelled north. There are tales in Yolngu culture about a race of people known as the Baijini. Pre-Makassan, they were also traders from elsewhere, but different in a number of ways; they built stone houses, grew rice, and travelled accompanied by women, unlike the Makassarese fishermen. Opinions differ about these people – sometimes interpreted as part of Yolngu mythology, other ethnographic interpretations have argued that they were the descendants of South-East Asian Bajau or, ‘sea gypsies'.
Still others have suggested that the Baijini were former Australian Indigenous peoples who had returned from their sojourns through South-East Asia with traders to bring new customs and knowledge back to their country. Regardless of the particularities of the truth, the history of interaction of Indigenous Australians with South-East Asian cultures transformed oral histories, rock and bark imagery, performative expressions and genetic legacies.
WE CONSTRUCT AN idea of our world through a variety of ways that include imagination and experience, memory and learning and longing. Early trade with communities from South-East Asia dealt in goods that included tobacco, alcohol and rice as well as knives and cloth: aspects of the agricultural/cultural interface on which identity and difference are founded. From this mesh, interwoven from the patterns of growing and hunting and searching and digging and delving and fabricating, the lower-heartbeat of energy provides a baseline for music and dance and performance and imagery. And from these, the kinds of artefacts we choose to offer as exchange or gifts to those from other cultures tell us about our own desires regarding how we wish to be seen.
Since the long centuries of engagement with Indigenous Australians and those beyond the Wallace Line, travelling and trade has continued, despite non-Indigenous government attempts to prevent it, curtail it and control it since Federation. Driven by fear of competition from workers and immigrants other than British, the Immigration Restriction Act was one of the first policies of the new Australian government. The tenets of the White Australia Policy continued to be gradually tightened right up to Australia's involvement in World War II; but in its wake the post-war program of immigration brought large numbers of new visitors from other shores, and a successive dismantling of the policies continued until the watershed moment that came when the Migration Act of 1966 was passed under the Liberal Government of Harold Holt.
In the changing global demographic that washed ashore during the years following the Vietnam War, refugees as well as migrants were accepted into the country, and along with them a growing sense of the other realities that lay so close to our own shoreline, and so far from those of Europe. Yet these changes, as well as the steady growth in numbers of young Australians launching on a ‘hippie trail' that began in Bali, made its way up into South-East Asia and across to India during the seventies, did little to break down the long and closely-fostered fears of most Australians about the cultures within the region that remained largely unknown. Travel, for the most part, continued to be focused on Europe.
Arguably, it was not until Paul Keating's term as prime minister between 1991 and 1996 that the surrounding region appeared to take shape in the mind of most Australians as an economic and political viability. Keating's statement that no other country in the world was more important to Australia than Indonesia, and his initiation of the annual leaders' meetings of APEC – the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum – was a strong step in turning around the legacy of Australia's fear of the region. The bilateral links Keating's government established with Australia's regional neighbours provided an imprimatur that granted ordinary Australians a sense that the region could provide a travel destination that seemed much less terrifyingly ‘other', now that government sanctions had been established. An added bonus lay in the fact that along with all this emotional and governmental safety-netting for travellers, the region still managed to offer the old appeal of the tropics to the in-built European consciousness: as a zone offering fantasies that were foils to ‘all that is modest, civilised, cultivated'.[v]
THE INDONESIAN ISLAND that lies closest to Australia is Bali, a place Europeans first came into contact with in 1585 with the arrival of Portuguese sailors. Soon after, initially through its East India Company, Dutch control was established. But Hinduism, the ‘great engulfer', had had no difficulty in accepting and merging foreign influences – by the time the Europeans had arrived, the local animism of the island had metamorphosed into a form recognised as Hindu Dharma, and the combined spirits of local deities, ancestor spirits, gods, demigods and a smattering of heroes from Buddhism were more than enough to ward off any possibility of colonial homogenisation. By the 1930s the work of visiting anthropologists and artists had recreated the island as a magic paradise in western minds, and from that time the steady trickle of tourists gradually continued to the point where today it is internationally recognised as the island holiday destination only second to the islands of Greece.
The fact that travel to the island is comparatively cost-effective made it particularly attractive to Australians, especially those flying from Perth or from the north, and the Hindu-animist culture presented an option that appeared a good deal ‘softer' and more approachable to Australians than the Islamic culture that dominates the rest of Indonesia.
And yet it has proved to be a difficult region for ordinary Australians to gain emotional access to. Despite the plethora of cultural manifestations the island is renowned for – the performances, dances, rituals, music and visual art forms that are part of every aspect of daily life in Bali – most Australians need more than a scopic experience to conjure a sense of shared connections.
Infuriatingly (for Australians), the region fails to offer that lynch-pin of shared sporting goals that members of this nation love to hold on to as the tail that will catchee-monkey in terms of jumping across feared cultural divides to establish friendships.
To ordinary Australians it seems unfathomable that popular sports like football, swimming, rugby, Aussie rules and cricket raise little interest in Indonesia. The one exception has been, perhaps, the sport of surfing, where planeloads of Aussie surfers have contributed to establishing new patterns of travel and exchange, and in turn have developed highly successful economic exchanges along the way. To a large extent the Australian surfing fraternity has been responsible for establishing and fostering the Balinese surfing fraternity– even the lifeguards manning the surfing beaches wear the gold and red caps so familiar on Australian beaches – and the brand-names of Australian-created surfing or surf lifestyle products line the tourist-choked streets of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and well beyond.
But it could be argued that surfing is a sport that originally grew more from a sense of shared values and a particular kind of lifestyle than from codes and rules, and that the success of this sport in establishing social and economic ties within the region may have had more to do with the fact that it emerged as an activity linked to notions of the exotic tropics rather than any latent associations with the more ‘play up and play the game' ethos of fair play that runs beneath most sporting codes.
And yet, since the heady days of the beginning of surfing culture in Australia, since the days when it was a sport associated with youth, long hair, empty beaches and a more or less ‘alternative' lifestyle, the sport has now assumed a branding that is far more inclusive, almost to the point of being ubiquitously accepted across class alliances, codes and cultures in Australia. It has become a sign of Australian-ness, along with beer, nightclubs and, on the frayed edges, an unsettling spirit of jingoistic hubris that flared up into its most ugly manifestation during the 2005 Cronulla riots. Whether the riots had anything to do with a surfing culture per se is not as important as the fact that the accoutrements associated with these sentiments are those of the beach, the surf – that zone that Australians have come to think of being as symbolic of an idea of home as a footy match.
The steady stream of tourist traffic from Australia to the beaches of Bali has contributed to a popular, if erroneous idea, among some Australians that Bali is Australia's backyard. But any time spent in certain streets around the Kuta-Legian strip both challenges as well as extends that assumption. It is as though the mutated inheritors of Australian surf-culture – the accoutrements of a particular stylistic code (T-shirts, boardies, thongs, towels with Australian flags) have been interbred with a certain idea of Balinese beachiness (tie-dyed fabric, plaited hair, nail extensions, brand-name stubbie holders, Bintang brand clothing and accessories) to create a modified postmodern version of tropical utopian elsewhere that at times borders on the apocalyptic. The bars are full of Australian beer labels, the restaurants advertise ‘an Australian menu', vendors peddle Australian newspapers, and hawkers use Aussie lingo with convincingly (Balinese inflected) Aussie accents to get attention.
BUT PERHAPS – for me at least – one of the most baffling, perplexing and oddly fascinating products of this zone of exchange are the little booths selling endless renditions of bumper sticker slogans. Clearly ‘designed' by Australians, they are an admixture of several things: attempts to be funny, genuine funniness, quirky mistranslation, disturbing sexual aggression, breathtakingly knuckle-scraping stupidity, rampant homophobia, uncontrolled sexism, racism, bewildering innuendo, swaggering bravado and perplexing commentary. They are invariably long and thin – designed as they are to fit on a car bumper – and in one colour or two at the most, so the design elements are limited. However it is as if these formal restrictions have spurred those undertaking the ‘concept design' of the stickers to new heights. While many of them opt for the lowest rung of the food chain in terms of creativity (and many might argue that this particular ‘food chain' starts at the level of primal ooze) with statements berating those whom we can only imagine are their friends with claims made in high bold capitals like: TOM IS GAY, JARROD IS GAY, BOBBY IS GAY ad nauseam; others strive for challenges like: DON'T FUCK WITH THE FUCKER; LOOK AT MY SHIT and IF YOU DON'T LIKE MY DRIVING EMAIL ME ON GOFUCKYOURSELF.COM.AU. There are many examples of exhortations to avoid weakness, these include: GO TO BUNNINGS, BUY A BAG OF CONCRETE AND TOUGHEN UP or the perplexing GET A SPOON AND EAT MY ASS and TOUGHEN UP PRINCESS. The most tender admissions go as far as statements like I ♥ MOOT; I ♥ COCK and I ♥ MELS' BOOBY'S (sic). The more arcane and racist, but arguably more evocative, included an invitation to: tongue my jap eye.
There are many more, most of them too raw to list here, and they crowd out the little glass booths that line the streets, beside other stickers like the Australian flag, the Southern Cross and Bintang beer ads. And while it may be possible – and even preferable – to dismiss them as lowest-common-denominator evidence of the most crass aspects of cultural exchange, they are nevertheless just that: little reminders of who we are as Australians, what we like to flag about ourselves and how we choose to do that when we're offshore.
The bars and nightclubs of Kuta – the eateries and the lines of people waiting for manis, pedis and sundry hair removals, the lounges decked out for massages, whether surrounded by the subdued lighting and piped music in spas or in the full glare of the sun and the public under umbrellas on the beaches – are the places where we lay ourselves down in submission to the ministrations of others. There may be a sense in which we can think of these zones as being not too far removed from the kinds of zones where Makassaresetrepang fishermen took downtime in between harvesting their product and doing local business with the Indigenous owners of the land. In those times, ethnographers tell us, rice and beer and tobacco provided the basic agricultural exchanges; while the visitors' preferences for home-grown sweet-and-sour seasonings like tamarind are still evident in the trees they planted at their offshore seafood hunting grounds. Beer, rice, cheap tobacco, seafood and local Aussie preferences are staple fare in the beachside zones Australians choose to relax in as a reward for their year's hard work.
Both the passing of time and the sage-like intensity of scholarly attention tend to imbue certain cultural interactions with the starchy weight of ‘historical significance'. But perhaps the first cross-cultural interactions between the original Australians and other people from the region were rich with innuendo, ribaldry, rawness, the messiness of mistranslation and the celebratory gusto of getting in and having a go at interaction, warts and all. On the other hand, perhaps the flotsam and jetsam of artefacts that today take shape in such things as the bumper stickers deserve not even as much as a disgusted or bemused side-glance. And yet there is also a chance that these are cultural artefacts that have emerged through processes of transaction – as images of exchange that have been negotiated in contested territories, and that they may offer us glimpses of who we are in ways that more rarefied, homogenised and sanctioned cultural products cannot. Cultural exchanges and travel to places north of the equator have tended, on the whole, to be mediated by age-old assumptions and expectations. The trade and travel routes are more tightly controlled, the anticipations of what should happen more strictly co-ordinated, and outcomes more structured. The more slap-dash seasonal meanderings into a region that we have increasingly, perhaps misdirectedly, begun to think of as ‘our own' reveal aspects of who we are as Australians in ways that are sometimes surprising, often confronting, but seldom uninteresting.
[i] Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire, Felix Driver & Lucians Martins, Chicago Press, 2005
[ii] cf Faussett, David, Images of the antipodes in the eighteenth century: a study in stereotyping,Cross/Cultures 18
[iii] European Vision and the South Pacific 1768 – 1850: a study in the history of art and ideas, Clarendon Press, 1960
[iv] 1987, University of Minnesota PUB
[v] Driver and Martins, p. 3