James Newitt: Working with the trouble

James Newitt My Secession Party, 2011, Tasmania, as part of Iteration: Again. Photo: Hannah Olding and Fred Assenheimer

I picture James Newitt in exile, in a state of isolation. On this occasion, he has withdrawn to a small, handmade islet (a raft) that for a time was to be found floating in Tasmania’s Derwent River, so close to the shore that we could watch him doing nothing out there. Newitt invited an audience to witness his off‑shore departure and wave him goodbye for My Secession Party (2011). His leaving started as a rumour that swelled into a party as he boarded his handmade floating home. 

To wave a descendant of the colonising classes off as he abandons Australia is a joy to behold. This act of decolonisation (a reversal of the arrival of the white man) provides some kind of light relief, a putative autonomy for those left behind, but also perhaps a sense of abandonment to once again go forth in search of new horizons. Part of me wants to leave too as a utopian role‑reversal—tipping this migrant nation and some of the accompanying alienation on its head. But amidst that celebratory tone secession carries a disturbing finality as implicit in the act of turning one’s back is the refusal to listen or take part in further negotiations. Reversing colonialism, when not so palpably absurd, might cause people to pick up their roots and travel back to those places of their ancestry, to physically and metaphorically re‑engage in the frontierism Vivien Ziherl has proposed in the various iterations of the Frontier Imaginaries project. Just so, Newitt’s proposed departure as a white man from these shores overturns the assimilation of the beach “appropriated as a white possession through the performative reiteration of the white male body,” as discussed in Aileen Moreton‑Robinson’s contribution to the project’s e‑flux edition.[1] For those of us, who are non-Indigenous, these reflections are part of a broader postcolonial reimagining. But still there is that hankering, that Newitt gets, to create one’s own island off the edge of the world. 

Newitt has travelled between Tasmania and Lisbon; distant cities in politically differing countries that both grapple with the invasions and retreats of their colonial pasts (and presents). I was living in Lisbon in 2019 when prime minister António Costa of the Portuguese Socialist Party was returned to office for a second term. Portugal feels like the last socialist utopia in Europe, and in that politically fertile ground I was drawn to the unique cultural institution Maumaus, where both James Newitt and I studied as recipients of the Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship (I was there in 2019, and Newitt in 2012). Maumaus hosts a seminar program where artists, philosophers, filmmakers and cultural theorists think together to address their research to urgent political currents. Operating without assessments or attendance requirements and conferring no degrees, Maumaus’s de‑institutionalisation of learning creates conditions for independent thought. That school, and the colourful crumbling city that shelters it, have through time provided a meeting place for artists like Newitt and I to entertain ideas of radical refusal. 

James Newitt Fossil, 2019 Installation view, Carpintarias de S.o L.zaro, Lisbon Courtesy James Newitt. Photos courtesy Eduardo Sousa Ribeiro and Carpintarias de S.o L.zaro

On a rainy day in February last year I walked the intricate pavements from Lisbon centre to Appleton Square, the gallery where Newitt’s installation Delay including the video I Go Further Under had its European debut. The work transported me to a remote island off Tasmania’s south coast—De Witt Island, that cold, inhospitable, scrubby land mass, not the populist ideal of a palm tree paradise—allowing me to enter the story of a young woman, who escaped. This true story, based on an event in the life of Jane Cooper, previously discussed in an extended Artlink review of its first exhibition at Contemporary Art Tasmania[2] does not detail Cooper’s motivations for leaving; but, rather, joins her story at the cusp of her departure and so highlights the historic formation of her character’s enigma on becoming the vehicle for other’s views and fantasies. Newspaper reportage of the time ascribed her leaving to weariness at “the assurance of war, racism, poverty and greed”[3] and in the Melbourne of 1971 it is possible to imagine Cooper feeling powerless amid burgeoning social movements that called attention to the need for urgent change in the world she was set to inherit. It’s not a far stretch to link Cooper’s rejection of the conditions into which she was born, to Greta Thunberg’s courageous defiance of the powerlessness ascribed to children and particularly girls in today’s climate actions. 

Newitt renders Cooper’s dramatic withdrawal from human society through a tactile, non‑verbal filmic space where amplified sonic details and close‑ups draw us into the imagined workings of his subject’s desire. Adjacent to the video, a wall of archives comprised of letters, newspaper reportage and quotes, along with a printed publication, present her story as a dramatised, quasi‑fictional situation constructed by others. It is fascinating to consider the unwanted attention she received (largely from paternal and predatory men), through the offers from those wanting to join in the precarious freedom she had achieved. The accompanying excerpts from Deleuze’s “Desert Islands”, Thomas Moore’s “Utopia”, the novels of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Henry David Thoreau leave me wondering what different utopias might arise amidst the urgent dreams of the less powerful and the oppressed. Reference is made to Cooper having kept a diary and included are statements that appear to be her words. But the line between her voice and Newitt’s is blurred. The work risks becoming another voice superimposed on this long‑dead, quiet young woman, and Newitt addresses it by writing himself into the picture, describing the author head in hands bemoaning the impossibility of understanding his distant subject.[4] A statement that could have been written by Cooper, but may have been written for her by Newitt reads: 


I will disappear,

from people, 

from images, 

from information.

On an island,

where I will enact my right to laziness,

and to refuse.

I will live outside of time,

with no past and no future. 

I will cease to become an observer.

I will cease to exist.[5] 


It seems unlikely that Cooper intended her leaving as a politically disruptive strategy, and yet her refusal amplified the discontent of others and the structures governing this loosely formed social contract of the society she is trying to flee. As elucidated by Fredric Jameson, this necessity for a formal break, this agency to create a powerful dis‑continuity, to join the movement of radical refusal is enabling as an “intense spiritual concentration and preparation for another stage.”[6] And, as Jameson further attests, such practical–political action can be achieved by a rattling of the bars to the cage without knowing the shape of the future.[7] Just so, the fascination of Newitt’s I Go Further Under lingers in this provocative space of resistance, as a dramatic movement of refusal, and a radical pause, carved out following a precipitant departure, and into which audiences might imagine, rehearse and perform ways of being yet to come.

James Newitt I Go Further Under, 2018 digital video still. Courtesy the artist

Such a space of radical non‑specific potentiality is also created by artist collective Claire Fontaine who sought to attack the economic, emotional, and sexual dimensions within which subjects are imprisoned in calling for a human strike.[8] Human Strike Has Already Begun is a forceful manifesto, driving the dissatisfaction that each protester must nurture within themselves as “a gesture that makes legible the silent political element in everything.”[9] For those wishing to begin such a strike they suggest starting this revolt within one’s own mind and body by adopting behaviours that do not concur with what others tell us about ourselves.[10] Their strike is firmly located as a progression from second wave feminism and they share with Newitt a rejection of embodied capitalism, subsumed into the authority of the state. 

Turning the focus upon himself as a site of refusal, Conundrum (2016) sees Newitt consider withdrawing from society, and particularly work, as an option for his emancipation. Presented as a graphic mapping of possibilities and consequences including “self‑admission to an institution” and “avoidance of public space” or a sly “imperceptibly slow movement out of frame” the work involved the artist’s low-risk action of not being present for his own exhibition opening. I am led to remember others who have refused the institutions of art with more urgency and finality, such as Lygia Clark who abandoned galleries to enter the therapeutic potential of materiality in her own home, or Bas Jan Ader’s ill‑fated sailing trip that marked his disappearance in attempting to cross the Atlantic. A similar collective agency of radical leavings is achieved in Avery Gordon’s The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins, that when placed together form a core of radical thought born out of struggles with authority, as the authors of the documents include deserters, prisoners, pirates and vagabonds that inform the grittier tone and bloody necessity that courses through Gordon’s work. 

Of an altogether different order, but occupying a similar survivalist mentality in our negotiation of primary relationships that particularly speaks to the pressures of confinement experienced globally during the COVID‑19 pandemic, Newitt’s most recent video work Fossil (2019) uncannily prepares us for this kind of island. It is conceived within a cavernous concrete room (not unlike a bunker), seemingly cut off from the outside world and inhabited by two men locked in a caring (if sometimes violent and co‑dependant) relationship. As an instance of this, the younger man (apparently in control) repeats “how are you today” until it becomes emptied of meaning while sheets are smoothed down and days turn over in a lost sense of time that seems to pool rather than pass. An adaption of a book of the same title from the Lost Rocks series produced for A Published Event,[11] the text was written by Newitt eight years after caring for his mother who suffered a cerebral aneurysm. The video, commissioned for exhibition in The National 2019 and later shown in Lisbon at Carpintarias de São Lázaro, was presented in the same building where Fossil was filmed, the brutalist architecture appearing to replace nature’s foil in Newitt’s earlier works. 

In Fossil, the dissolution of the digital image is an apparent metaphor for psychic and mental disorder. At one point the older man’s head floats free from its shoulders, making a strong link to that anti‑rationalist, headless being known as Acéphale often considered by Georges Bataille. Newitt’s 2016 work To Attempt to Become Other, Secretly or Not follows such a body as it moves through a darkened space, pauses now and then to poke and prod at its own holes and crevices with fresh delight. In Bataille’s hands the Acéphale was the name for a secret society and short-lived, anti-fascist journal that followed that willingly decapitated body in its escape from rationality. Eventually the society was itself to disappear into history, as none of its members were willing to speak of its activities amidst rumours of human sacrifice.[12]

Fossil is hard to watch at times as it wrestles with the damage, and an extreme, slow aesthetic of restraint. As in earlier works, void‑like spaces of potential are created, but in later approaches it is the mind (rather than the moving body) that flees into forgetting or irrationality. Avital Ronell, who has written a book on stupidity, considers the concurrence of the poet’s courage and the ability to welcome “dumbness” where failures of cognition open up a space in which one is “capable of hearing the alien unsaid.”[13] In a similar way, Avital’s wonderfully construed vacancy resembles that present in Fossil. 

In a crucial way, this is Newitt’s most bare, tender and vulnerable work to date in its raw portrayal of the relations between two people challenged by circumstances. In my view, it is also in Fossil that Newitt’s more personal reflection on lived experience gains ground, enabling a more complex and thorough engagement with this restless, radical alterity.


  1. ^ Aileen Moreton‑Robinson, Bodies That Matter on the Beach, e‑flux Journal No. 90, April 2018
  2. ^ Seán Kelly, review of James Newitt: Delay, Contemporary Art Tasmania, Artlink, 07 July 2018
  3. ^ Tom Tiede, Chicago Daily Herald, 8 December 1971
  4. ^ James Newitt, Delay, 2019, catalogue published by Contemporary Art Tasmania
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Fredric Jameson, The Utopian Enclave in ‘Archaeologies of the Future’. 2004. London and New York: Verso. p. 168
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Claire Fontaine, Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writing, 2013, Mute Publishing, p. 29
  9. ^ Fontaine, p. 32
  10. ^ Fontaine, p. 29
  11. ^ James Newitt (eds. Justy Phillips and Margaret Woodward), Lost Rocks: Fossil, A Published Event, Hobart, 2018
  12. ^ Robert Lebel & Isabelle Waldberg (eds), Encyclopaedia Acephalica, 1995, London: Atlas Press (from introduction by Alistair Brotchie, pp. 14–15
  13. ^ Avital Ronell, Stupidity, 2002, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, p. 6

Sasha Grbich is an independent artist and writer who teaches at the Adelaide Central School of Art were she also coordinates their BVA and Honours degrees.