I QUITE LIKED living on the periphery when I was growing up in Tasmania and I quite like living on the periphery now. Where once the centre towards which I yearned included everywhere beyond the edges of my island state, these days that centre is firmly, and far more simply, London. Now, my peripheral position is the beautiful rural region of the Cotswolds: home to celebrities, politicians, musicians, royals and aristocrats, and stars of the art, film and fashion worlds.
With my artist husband and our two children, I live in an 'Area of Outstanding Beauty', in a tiny village owned by one of the great and ancient estates; we are only twenty miles west of Oxford, between Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire and Bath in Somerset. We live in a lush and fertile landscape, rich in pagan burial mounds, Roman roads and ruins, medieval houses, Norman churches, castles, palaces, thatched cottages and Georgian manors, nineteenth century farms and mills, and air bases built in World War II that are now used for missions into Afghanistan and Iraq, because it is impossible to forget that this is a country still at war.
It is an area that is alive, wealthy, healthy and soulful. It is, however, still regarded as peripheral by Londoners and most of England – a safe and romantic place to send your children to boarding school. The Cotswolds are England's dream, that idyllic weekend destination you run to when you need to escape the pressures of living in the 'real' world of London and the City. But it is also possible to own a serious business here, because it is where you find Londoners on the weekends, when they are relaxed and open and with time to engage.
I have a small contemporary art gallery in the North Cotswolds and, rather than try to appeal to all the tourists who flood the Cotswolds villages looking for monotonous watercolours of thatched cottages, mill streams and golden stoned towns, I sell art to Londoners. Except I meet and engage with them here in Moreton-in-Marsh, when they hop off the train from their city lives, on the weekends.
They are not all weekenders, of course; many now live and bring up their children in the villages and manor houses surrounding the gallery. But my clients do mostly seem to have a London outlook and so a main concern of our business is to overcome the perception that just because we are not in London, does not mean that we are parochial or that we are not of London. Living and working on the periphery without being parochial requires a particular kind of strategic living and these days the lessons I learnt during my life in Tasmania stand me in excellent stead.
I WAS A child of the 'cultural classes' as they emerged in Tasmania through the 1970s and 1980s. Born in 1969, I was thirteen when my father and most of the staff and students from the newly established Tasmanian School of Art crowded onto buses and drove west to get arrested in the fight to save the Franklin River from being dammed. I remember my fury at not being allowed to join them.
Most of the people we knew at this time were artists, writers and musicians, many were newly immigrated from Europe and America; they were drawn to Tasmania because it was outside their known world and possessed a freedom and opportunity as a result. These new Tasmanians were in search of a utopia, where their passionate creativity and determination to create a new world could be put to good use in the protection of Tasmania's forests, rivers and wild landscapes.
With plenty of funding on tap from the Whitlam Government and a growing distaste for the corruption and greed of the old guard politicians and industrialists, the very real conflation between the arts and political environmentalism happened in Tasmania in earnest in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Tasmanian School of Art grew out of this richly fertilised ground.
The valuable and significant political wins of the environmental movement and the parallel rise of the Tasmanian School of Art and its associated art community led, inevitably, to a growing and justifiable sense of global importance in the minds of many of the participants through the 1980s and '90s.
I sat and listened to the stories told by those many immigrant artists from Europe and America, to their memories of the ravaged landscapes they had left behind and their plans to protect the innocence of Tasmania and build a world anew. I was aware that in the imaginings and minds of the adults surrounding me there was a conviction that Tasmania had been posited as an equivalent place to Paris in the early twentieth century, or New York after the rise of Nazism in Europe – places of artistic refuge and freedom, places to escape to the periphery and simultaneously focus on the centre.
IN A FUNNY way, Tasmania became a kind of centre too; a destination, a promised land – both because of its place outside the rest of the world but also because of the times. The capacity for Tasmanian politics to be so freely revolutionised by this group of intelligent, passionate, global and creative people was quite remarkable.
Along with this sense of global importance and aesthetic superiority, a niggling doubt persisted, a doubt borne of a sense of inferiority and anxiety arising from the fact that the island of Tasmania remained, unarguably, on the physical limits and extremities of the world.
Difficult to reach, expensive to access, Tasmania is, and has always been, largely ignored by the traditional centres of the world except when it might appear to be of use – for strategic or resource reasons. Tasmania remains, despite the protestations and intermittent outrage of its cultural classes, firmly located on the periphery, and out of sight and mind for the population of most of the world.
To be perfectly frank, now that I am living in the so-called centre of the world, I realise that, apart from having worse mobile phone reception in the Cotswolds than on Cradle Mountain, I am so busy just surviving and my everyday world is so full of strife, beauty, politics, upheaval and issues of its own, that I have no energy, no interest and no reason to follow what is happening at the far-flung edges of the world. Wherever they might be.
And therein lies the rub. Because I remember all too keenly how, when I used to live on the edge of the world, on its periphery, how much time I seemed to have to read, to listen, to take notice and absorb the debates, the intellectual discussions, the serious matters of the world. How I seemed to spend days and weeks in a state of intense absorption and then more days and weeks in a state of quiet process, making, creating, fusing and inventing new ways of seeing, new ways of saying, new ways of constructing my own original and singular vision of the world. In other words, I had time to really make art, to write, to sing, to think, to dream, to be on the outside looking in.
MY GRANDFATHER WAS a New Zealand Pathfinder flying for the RAF in World War II. The pilot of a Lancaster plane and captain of a crew of three Englishmen, two Australians and a Scotsman, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying thirty-two sorties and not losing anyone. One of the most remarkable coincidences of my life is that I established a gallery in Moreton-in-Marsh and then learnt some months later that my grandfather was for a period stationed at the Old Fire College (originally an airbase) less than a mile from my front door. My late landlord, the ironmonger in the next shop to mine, fondly remembered the handsome New Zealand fly-boys riding their bikes up and down the High Street on their days off and causing all sorts of strife.
Like a Pathfinder Bomber, when you live on the periphery you race out across the sky towards the centre (a movable metaphor for whatever is the place you would be if you had the resources and inclination to be there instead of where you are). You navigate a course already planned and charted from home, where your dreaming and imagining of life in the centre has fuelled a narrative of yourself in relation to the world and your traversing of it.
Like a Pathfinder, you tend to scan the landscape from above, mentally tracking routes and passages to achieve your goal. You learn to live 'in motion' and 'home' becomes a place of stillness and peace, a walled garden filled with children that is kept firmly on a human, private, personal plane.
Living becomes migratory, transient, and working becomes split into the internal, emotional and mental stages (at home) and the execution and delivery (tracking night skies across foreign fields). In effect, you become your own agent and learn to live in two modes – in a state of movement as you move into and retreat from the centre, and in a state of stillness on the periphery, where there is time to look and listen and think and reflect – to create the product that your agent-self then strides out to offer up to the world.
Without the impediments of stumbling over the politics, rules and 'what should be done' as you fly in towards your target, you are free to take aim, fire off a flare to light your way and then hurriedly beat a path back to where you belong. Get the hell out of there before anyone has noticed and can take you out. It's a short, sharp, surprise attack – designed for maximum impact and fast escape. You retreat to rest, regroup, research, plan and prepare for the next strike.
Growing up in Tasmania, learning to live strategically from a position of outside, while simultaneously living with the sense that the purpose of one's life and work was of global significance, that it mattered, that it was equal to or at least derived from a place of centre, led me to pursue a life that – for better or worse – became modelled on a Pathfinder bomber.
AT SOME POINT in Tasmania in the early- to mid-2000s, I believe there was a shift. Where, once, Tasmanian artists had seemed to live in a state of movement between their position on the periphery and their travels to the centre, things all seemed to become very stuck. Where, once, there seemed to be a mutual or collective dream in a future Tasmania that was a beacon of freedom in the wider world, now there seemed to be the politics of greed and the need to shore up one's own place and protect the party line.
It was as if the victories over old-style industrialism by new-era aesthetic environmentalism meant that being an artist in Tasmania was no longer about being involved in a fight for cultural and political change, or exploration of social power or questioning economic paradigms and utopian visions – being an artist in Tasmania now meant maintaining the status quo, adhering to the institutional, politically correct view and being a 'Tasmanian artist'. It was as if the time for imagining (the image period) had ended and a new period of interpretation (the textual phase) had begun.
I believed in and wanted to protect the freedom to think and act and create – the freedom to imagine for myself – more than I believed in Tas-mania, and that is why I had to leave.
It is a very hard position that I now find myself in: my heart is still Tasmanian and it is a place that has shaped my way of living in and relating to the world. It is the landscape of Tasmania and its imagining and construction; it is the artists who have felt, drawn, painted, written and known its many truths and histories and memories, that have fed and formed me since childhood and that have constructed who I am.
But Tasmania is not the only beautiful place on earth. It is not the only place in the world where people really care about their environment or their community or what they believe in. Moving to a new place on the periphery, that simultaneously sits within the centre of the world, has taught me that issues are not nearly so black and white as they sometimes appear to be when you are standing on the outside looking in.
Moving away from Tasmania has taught me how much I have gained from growing up with a peripheral vision and the capacity to see from the outside looking in.
Viva Michel Foucault!
Viva Andre Breton!
Viva the ship of fools and the perpetual state of the passage!