Deep time: Nuclear monuments and Aboriginal art

Harry J. Wedge, Walkabout, 2006, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Gabrielle Pizzi
Harry J. Wedge, Walkabout, 2006, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Gabrielle Pizzi

Artists in the United States have been appointed to design warning markers for nuclear waste dumps. These underground caverns, packed with high grade radioactive waste, will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. They have proposed giant monuments: massive concrete structures, surrounded by rings of monoliths inscribed with the signs of death. Of course, such warnings have never worked before.

Profiteers, archaeologists and the merely curious have dug up anything that remains of ancient civilisations in recent years. Even structures built to be difficult to get to or to avoid attention, such as monasteries in high mountain passes and underground cities of stone, have been fodder for scholars and tourists alike. Yet these visitors do not always understand what they see. The human condition changes over the centuries, so that what was recognisable is no longer so. Monuments that have survived even just a few thousand years, such as the great stone circle at Avebury in England, remain little it at all understood today.

This impossible task of designing for eternity, or at least for a few tens of thousands of years, may soon fall to Australian artists. Impoverished Aboriginal communities are being offered tens of millions of dollars in exchange for land to bury nuclear waste. While present proposals only want to bring medium- and low-level waste to the desert (the detritus of hospitals and research facilities), Australia is the favoured site for an international nuclear waste dump.

The nuclear industry is plagued by increasing stocks of high-level waste, temporarily stored in concrete bunkers next to power stations. Pangea Resources made a high profile study of the world’s best geological sites, and chose Australia for both its physical and political stability. They envisage specially built ships docking at a specially built port, to unload 2–3,000 tonnes of material into the country every year. The West Australian Nationals leader Brendon Grylls supports the plan, and since becoming part of the Coalition Government of that state has been visiting local councils to discuss possible sites.

One of the proposed locations is down the road from Yuendumu, one of the art capitals of the Northern Territory. Its artists have had much experience working with vast durations of time. The subjects of their paintings are often those natural processes that have endured at least as long as radioactive decay. The eminent Shorty Jangala Robertson would make a good consultant, for his paintings are often about the precious water that shifts under the desert to feed a variety of plants, lizards and insects, as well as the human community itself. Robertson is conscious of these underground processes, making their invisibility visible.

Yet the painting genre that has distinguished Yuendumu artists over the last twenty-five years is far from monumental. For the monument generally belongs to the order of civilisations, empires and nation states. Monuments are designed to symbolise the operation of power, conceived by ruling classes who are anxious not to be forgotten, or at the very least to appease the gods that lie in wait for them after their death. Painting on canvas, bark and paper has, by contrast, proliferated in the desert in recent years.

The art of remote Australian communities lends itself to these media precisely because of this mobility, as the nomadic sensibility de-territorialises itself in the dynamic aesthetic demanded by capitalism to serve the global art market. This commodification of Aboriginal culture proved a necessary strategy for artists after European colonisers failed to recognise the land itself as a monumental sign of civilisation.

Like Muslims passing through the pagan ruins of Petra in the nineteenth century, white Australia simply couldn’t see the country that was singing with spirit. The fragility of Aboriginal cultural production, scratched into sand and rock, also gave the erroneous impression that the people themselves were impermanent, likely to be swept away by European colonisation. Aboriginal art became a necessary strategy for cultural (and actual) survival.

Failing to see any imposing architectural structures rising out of the plains, the explorer Baldwin Spencer chose to regard the culture that he encountered in Central Australia as the remnant of a former, greater time. Spencer’s interest in this people mourned what he regarded as their inevitable demise. He adapted Frank Gillen’s term, the “Dreamtime”, to describe the great, supernatural forces that the Arrernte people believed had first shaped the country, in a time before time.

The concept was appropriate to a Western imagination that also wanted to recreate the land in its own image. The upheavals that Australian modernity brought to the continent represent a second Dreamtime, bringing the devastations of grazing, agriculture, mining, urbanisation and a multitude of racist practices to Aboriginal country. The colonisers became the very shape-shifting spirits of the Dreamtime that they imagined Aboriginal people to worship.

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill of 2006, and the Northern Territory interventions of 2007 and 2008, have opened the door for further exploitation of this monumental country. The result is that Aboriginal artists are caught up in a new Dreamtime era of destruction and creation. The nuclear waste dump will only be the most high profile of many developments on Aboriginal land. The monument that adorns it will be the most expensive, largest and most enduring of Aboriginal artworks to come out of this Dreamtime. If an equivalent dump being planned in the Yucca Mountain in the US is anything to go by, its budget will be immense, with a view to asserting in stone a moral authority where none prevails.

Such is the character of a mythical time, in which laws are made rather than obeyed. This was the case in Ancient Greece, which as Nietzsche pointed out to classical scholars, was not some ideal democracy. It was also a violent and brutish society, packed with conspiracy and betrayal, and ruled by violent gods that today take the form of governments and their nuclear power stations, industry and its demands for precious metals and minerals, multinational corporations and their lightning investment decisions, and remote Aboriginal artists themselves, who are charged with the vitality of tens of thousands of years of culture.

The problem with employing artists from remote communities to design such a monument to nuclear poison is that their work is typically beautiful. The lines of Robertson’s paintings are like liquid becoming steady. They are seductive rather than repulsive. It may well be that such a project would need to turn to the documenters of devastation on the Australian frontier, such as Harry Wedge or Gordon Bennett, to truly turn the citizens of the future away. Wedge paints some of the problems in remote Australia. His depictions of people chained at the neck point as much to the reality of police violence, substance abuse and self-harm as to the chains employed by the militant colonists of the nineteenth century.

Could Wedge, as the producer of perhaps the most devastating images in Australian art, be charged with building a monument that would repulse people for at least ten thousand years? Certainly, it would be difficult to imagine a human culture that would not be repulsed by such imagery. And yet Wedge, like many other contemporary social realists of the third and fourth worlds, is documenting the conditions of life in Australia for many people. Like artists from remote country, he makes that which is invisible to mainstream Australia visible, although this is not a natural or sacred beauty, but figures of garish colour that scream in pain.

Bennett, under the alias of John Citizen, has parodied the situation of Aboriginal art in a series of “interiors” that paint the furniture and walls of domestic Australia. Aboriginality is simply and literally a part of the fabric of this space, its patterns and paintings flattened out into the banality of interior design. The naturalisms of remote Aboriginal Australia, their variations of brown and orange, turn in the post-historical spaces of suburbia into an image of pre-historic Aboriginality.

After the achievement of utopia, the Australian dream becomes real, the Dreamtime persists in two dimensions, decorating the domestic unconscious. Is “John Citizen” monumentalising Aboriginality here, on the walls of otherwise indifferent spaces? Aboriginality is just one part of the infinite regress of interior design, one component to the greater puzzle of modernity, that fits together in a neat system of planar modulation. The visibility of Aboriginality turns into invisibility: the construction of race played out in an easy schema of colour and line.

It is through a pair of contradictions, created by the idea of Aboriginality, that it is possible to look forward to an ongoing Dreamtime modernity. The first contradiction is between the value of country and the value of money, between spiritual and economic ideals. This plays itself out in the search for a location to put an international nuclear waste dump, in which Aboriginal country turns into economic opportunity, and back into the spiritual as an immense monument to death haunts the future, becoming a part of its set of mythologies.

A second contradiction is between the monumental form and the commodity form. The monumental is the timeless movement of water under Robertson’s country, which becomes the commodity-form of canvas painting. Yet as works of Aboriginal art, these canvases become monumental once more, as they decorate the post-historical interiors of suburbia. Aboriginality becomes a way of visualising that which has become invisible, that which is seen only so that it can be relegated to the ahistorical arena of design. Plans to put a radioactive dump somewhere in remote Australia – somewhere that could be anywhere for the rest of Australia – testify to the ongoing power of the terra nullius myth. It betrays the hypocritical idea of an Aboriginality that is both there and not there.

Robertson’s Dreaming of water and Wedge’s depictions of racist violence remain unreal to suburban life. Australia looks without seeing the monumental content of Aboriginal art, proving just how difficult it would be to design something that could actually be seen by our remote descendants living in deep time, tens of thousands of years in the future.