25 August - 11 September 2010
Homeland is an application of Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory to the Australian continent. Schama explores the landscapes of Europe, Britain and America as cultural artefacts, the projections of the personal and historical memories of their nations.
The project was initiated by an Australia Council grant in 2008 which funded 12 months for studio research. Applying the modelto Australia is a process that explores the layers of cultural identity, uncovering the connections that relate history to belief. In Europe, Britain and America Schama’s study revealed a complex mesh of associations between art, literature, cultural traditions and the historical past. In Australia historical memory is controversial, especially in relation to the land and if we have single, distinctive national characteristic is ambivalence towards our own identity. Homelanddeveloped along two paths of exploration: personal and Australian identity.
The original model forwas a map of recurring dreams which had emerged during my second year at art college. The concept of the map formed the basis of previous work, Call Signs, a landscape which became increasingly detailed over the five years of the project. I started writing down my dreams when I was 13 and many of the dreams around my home relate to periods from my childhood. Dreams in the surrounding streets interconnect naturally, but others are fictitious places which have formed permanent relationships or conduits with other locations. The map has developed into a complex of districts which are formed not so much around geographic boundaries as emotional memories. Some clearly relate to childhood:
- Hidden path. This way leads to our primary school.
- At the bottom of the garden is a wooden gate. It’s so overgrown it’s almost invisible. I really want to go through.
- On the other side of the gate is a long, straight, country lane. The path is rutted by tyres and the potholes are filled with rain, but I’ve never seen any cars coming this way. It’s a long walk. On my left is a dense pine forest. The trees are very tall and it’s dark in there. The lane is quite boggy. I have to watch where I step. I love coming here.
Others have more adult preoccupations:
- There’s a lift to the next floor. It’s an office block, cheap space: marble tiles and woodgrain. Sometimes there is an exhibition up here somewhere. It’s easy to go in the wrong door. The businesses are things like travel agencies, private language tuition and function rooms for stressful meetings. Someone sells art but I think it’s dodgy. There’s only ever a couple of staff around and they don’t like me coming in. You wonder why they bother. I try not to let my footsteps echo.
- A small office. I often go inside. I don’t know what kind of business they run here.
- It’s evening in the church. A marquee has been set up: a polling booth? I probably should vote but I’m on my way home.
This exhibition Homeland #1 contains 12 maps and is the first in the series which I expect will eventually contain approximately 40 maps.
Paradoxical connections make representing themap difficult but the Homeland system, something like a street directory, links by cross-references, showing the conduits between districts with the Key acting as a guide.
Landscape painting is political as well as personal. The genre is a claim to cultural ownership and its strategies, when not indigenous, are colonial, as Bernard Smith explained in European Vision and the South Pacific:
The European control of the world required a landscape practice that could first survey and describe, then evoke in new settlers an emotional engagement with the land that they had alienated from its aboriginal occupants.1
Australia was established through two acts of possession: one by Captain Cook in 1770 which claimed the east coast and the other by Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788 which established the colony of New South Wales. The judgement on the Mabo native title claim in 1992 found that native title was not extinguished by Phillip’s act of ‘settlement’ but Cook’s original claim to possession was not examined because, as Justices Deane and Gaudron explained, the point was moot:
Under the British law of 1788, the Crown had the power to extend its sovereignty to territory over which it had not previously exercised sovereignty. The Crown’s exercise of this power to establish a new colony by ‘settlement’ was an act of state, a matter more of international politics and law than British (or Australian) law. The validity of this act of state – and any expropriation of property or extinguishment of rights which it caused – cannot be challenged in British or Australian courts. This court must accept that the whole of the territory designated in Captain Arthur Phillip’s commissions was validly established as a ‘settled’ British colony.2
The British colonisation of Australia is unlikely to be challenged in an international court of law and so our continued possession is assured but Australian cultural legitimacy remains permanently in question. The concept of White Australia, even in contemporary use post the White Australia Policy, is an identity based on race not treaty. Homeland draws on an alternative, pre-colonial landscape tradition practiced by Cook, Banks, the botanical artist Sydney Parkinson and the Tahitian Tupaia who joined the voyage on a diplomatic mission to Britain and acted as their interpreter and pilot to New Zealand. The materials in Homeland are based on a nineteenth-century Polynesian sailing chart and the continuing research centres around a small number of collaborative charts and maps developed according to a hybrid Polynesian-British system on the Endeavour.
Anne Salmond explains in The Trial of the Cannibal Doghow during the three years of the voyage the Endeavour expedition evolved its own culture. The relationships that can be deduced from the journals of Cook, Banks and Parkinson are overt in the hours of collaboration which produced these maps and in particular in a rough sketch of the Society Islands which the evidence suggests was drawn by Tupaia. The islands are arranged in his style, not geographically but by sailing time and the Tahitian names are crammed in Joseph Banks’ handwriting around its coastline while the peak of Bora bora is illustrated with a drawing by Sydney Parkinson.
The landscape tradition practiced in the Homeland model is a system rather than a vision of Australian identity which operates at the point of intersection in the Pacific between a colonial heritage and Aboriginal sovereignty. In Homeland’s personal landscape identity is a mass of shifting constellations or emotional districts, rather than a single assimilated vision of Self: a series of emotional adaptations from the past, in communication but not in conformity. The points of paradox, at which two perceptions converge – the points of cross-reference between districts – give the system its resilience and reflect the values of personal and cultural identity.
Harriet Parsons - 2010
1. Smith, Bernard, European Vision and the South Pacific, 2nd Ed., Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989, p. ix.
2. Butt, Peter, Eagleson, Robert, Mabo: what the High Court said, Federation Press, Sydney, 1993, pp. 28.