In order to write I have closed the door and louvres and turned the air-con on high. I have shut out the barking dog and the heat. I don’t like air-con but it gives me a rest from the effort of letting Darwin in. Sometimes it is just too close for comfort.
Like many, my move up here four and a half years ago was as much a getting away from as a coming to. A break up, a desire for change and distance and the lure of the tropical fringe. I ran slap bang into my flawed and fearful self of course. In many ways I have the particularities of Darwin to thank for this. Sometimes I feel like a fish on hot concrete. At others, when I am breast-stroking my laps beneath an unbelievable sunset or watching another flock of birds drop in from the Arctic, I am thankful for the inescapable presence of nature which living here challenges you to embrace. This piece is about what it has been like for one Anglo artist to try being creative in this small, sticky town on the edge of everywhere. It is about humidity and dissolution, nature and architecture: art and weather.
The irony of my flight to the tropics is that the need for distance was undermined by its climate. Darwin is the most unprivate of places. Too humid for clothing and walls, one lives half outside, half dressed and often half packed, and fecund nature moves in. I have never had my domestic airwaves so congested with the lives of other sentient beings: if it is not the car hoons, tree loppers or televisions, it is the fig birds or the bats. I remember the night of a party in a block of flats I lived in when the bonking frogs outdid the sound system. I can’t believe how peaceful it is to sleep at night down south.
Heat dissolves things and humidity makes them stick. All is interwoven, inextricable, moistly intimate. Notwithstanding the air con bunker, which unfortunately seems to be the suburban future of Darwin, there is no getting away from it. One slows down, lets go, opens up, as coolly as possible. The result can be a fruitful but often uncomfortable unravelling in life and studio. It is one thing to articulate interconnectedness and another to live with mould on your leather goods. I yearn to be curled up in an armchair, a slight chill at my back and a mug of tea to warm me, quietly lost in a book about exotic frontiers. My creative self has discovered a need for snugness, dependence on an illusion that the real world is within reach, but outside: proximate. I am realising a connection between reverie and borders. Blame it on my Gaelic blood.
As a unique site of influence, Darwin’s edginess, restless movement of people and in-your-face cultural difference, have been written about by myself and numerous others: for example, “The tyranny of distance or ... On being an emerging artist in Darwin” by Cath Bowdler, Edge: The Liminal Zone by Sylvia Kleinert and Julie Roberts and “Four Artists: The Territory Years” by Anne Ooms. In 2002, Peter Adsett and I curated Undone, an exhibition of five artists living here at the time. The works of Bill Davies, Malcolm Mauchline, Julie Milton, Bridget O’Brien and Elle Parsonson (two of whom and Peter have since left) were chosen because they encapsulated a downward pull: to decay and formlessness, a process of undoing, which we saw as a profound component of being and art-making here. In the catalogue essay, I referenced Formless: A User’s Guide by Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois, which tracked those compulsions in twentieth century art towards entropy, disorder and baseness. “In Darwin however” I said, “formlessness is not so much a conscious, cultural operation as a physical and political reality. It simply happens.”
Wonderfully devolved art bubbles up from the tropical stew, just as promising art careers dissolve into it. For two years, while still a student, Bill Davies dipped a broom in buckets of black ink, swept it over large rolls of paper and draped them down walls and over floors to form immaculately resolved installations in several exhibitions. These delicate, monumental drawing-sculptures, crumpled and tearing under their own weight, could be the basis for a promising professional practice. Since leaving art school, Bill has prioritised his sign-writing business. This is a common tale. A lot of promising non-Indigenous work is done by people who come for the experience and will inevitably leave, or for whom creativity is absorbed in a Top End life style and doesn’t develop with sufficient rigour to be sustained as an engaged, contemporary practice.
Unlike many others, I did not find purpose and opportunity via an involvement with Indigenous communities. The truth is that I would put a Glover on my study wall before a Napangardi; not because it is better, but because it better echoes my imaginary self. I really like those old landscape paintings where eucalypts morph into oaks and black figures are arranged in an orderly manner on patches of lawn. I am also seduced by some of the digitalised prints in Therese Ritchie’s latest exhibition, Ship of Fools, discussed in Sylvia Kleinert’s article in this edition. In one of my favourites, a compound home for displaced Indigenous people sits in the hull of a refugee boat floating on the Arafura sea, toward a waterfall. It is pure Magritte, and of this place: the polemic both intrinsic to, and exceeded by, the power of the image. What Glover’s euro-eucalypts and Ritchie’s oceanic waterfall have in common is the need to dream the real, the metaphorical compulsion.
Metaphor is the in-between realm, connector of heaven and earth, ideal and real. It is the home of eros, art and wit. Jung endlessly described its landscape and characters and treated the latter he met there, “as though they were real people”. James Hillman writes, “the key is that as though; the metaphorical, as-if reality, neither literally real (hallucinations or people in the street) nor irreal/unreal (“mere fictions”, projections) which “I” make up as parts of “me”, auto-suggestive illusions. In an “as-if” consciousness they are powers with voice, body, motion and mind, fully felt but wholly imaginary. This is psychic reality ...” The metaphorical imagination is counterposed to representation (a fixing of identity and meaning) and literalism (silence and matter) and is committed to paradox and uncertainty. Not this, not that.
Much of the work done and supported by people who see themselves belonging here seeks rather to capture the artist’s real experience with the region: by documentation, being in and of the land or commitment to environmental and Indigenous political agendas. Catalogues from the ten years of Contemporary Territory exhibitions reflect this. My faith in play and doubt, formed by a more urbane milieu, has struggled to feel honourable. I have not been immune. I have, most significantly, had to embrace the fact that most of the best art done in the Territory is metaphysical, made by artists grounded in communally held spiritual beliefs. I have become more interested in contemplation and compassion as a ground for art practice and less in seductive power. While still at play, my work’s content has become more mystical. In classes I have considered the limits of metastatement and encouraged students to talk the work, as if it were true.
This is Kali, but it is not about my interest in Hindu mythology. In The Five Meanings, for example, I filled a room with black Mean Mother deities and in the recent The Journey of Unspoken Things mountain-scapes named as states of faith and repose and an animated, burning chalice evoke a grail quest. The green slopes and golden cups come from the depths of a Eurocentric imagination and I have discovered, living here, that it lives in European spaces. It likes an attic window, garden fence and forest clearing; corners and closed doors. It needs the real world to be remembered, dreamt of, and involves a continual dialectical movement: enclosed/exposed/enclosed again.
Thinking about this piece, I took another Hillman book off the shelf and opened it at random. “Can in fact there be an ‘unshared environment’?” it posited. He goes on to say that although we must acknowledge absolute interconnectedness, “even the pillow on which I lie breathing as I float into my private midnight dream bears traces of duck down, polyester and cotton and the environments from which this pillow was manufactured, as well as of the traffic of mites sharing the pillow with me”; we need to imagine interiority. Although the “walled garden of isolation refers to no actual reality” it is a “necessary fantasy”. We need the idea of an unshared space in order to confirm our private sense of uniqueness and to hear its call – “the idea ‘unshared’ rests on an image of enclosure, of a private surrounding that affects me alone in a particular way.” And although he claims we do not necessarily need literal seclusion, we do need whatever it takes each individual to give it a supportive home.
It’s night now and another monsoon storm cools down the neighbourhood. I shut off the air-con and open the louvres to let the wind in. The tree frog is back on the edge of the swimming pool. How healing a breeze can be! Images clarify. The rain ceases as suddenly as it began and the frog goes quiet. Water drips from the gutters, the palms, the bougainvillea. Life is sweet and newly present because I've shut it out to write.
- ^ Cath Bowdler, “The tyranny of distance or … On being an emerging artist in Darwin”, Artlink (17:4), pp. 70–71.
- ^ Catalogue essay for exhibition by staff of Art and Design, Charles Darwin University, 2003.
- ^ Eyeline 54, Winter 2004, pp. 41–43.
- ^ Karen Brown Gallery, Darwin, 2004.
- ^ James Hillman, Healing Fiction, Station Hill, NY, 1983, p. 56.
- ^ James Hillman, The Soul's
Anne Oooms is an artist and writer based in Darwin.