Curatorial briefing notes by Phillip Morrissey

In an inversion of the normal practice where text follows object I've been asked to write something which will be responded to by 12 crafts people undertaking work for an exhibition titled Turn the Soil. A majority of these craftspeople are likely to be children of Australians born in other countries and are ideally situated to reconsider constructions of Australian national identity. While celebratory and utopic approaches to the exhibition theme are important I've chosen to write against this, at least on this occasion, and perhaps I can summarise the thesis of this essay by recalling a statement of Deleuze and Guattari that we don't lack communication - we lack resistance to the present.

The invasion of Australia: I realise something is happening when I read these words again, offered without qualification, in another post-C essay. An intellectual--two steps ahead of the community--at least in the area of naming. Australia wasn't settled--it was invaded. 'Not by me' is the epistemological ground of this statement--part of an enlightened academic rhetoric which intersects with ressentiment Aboriginal politics and Federal government race discourse. The underlying supposition being that White Australia will change when educated (or taunted with evidence of its racism) enough. (As Stephen Muecke once wrote, the process is undoubtedly a slow one and has been going on for two hundred years.)

This intersection is one defining feature of a politically correct (sacralised is a term I'd prefer) rhetoric in Aboriginal/White relations which circulates through media conduits. Given the normalising and sanctimonious requirements of this rhetoric it leads to the perverse honour of the abject-object, someone who represents publicly what others only think, say in private, or don't think at all. Such extremes of abjectivity are not imaginable without television, radio and print media's need for moral narratives. It needs be: there must be--a media Damiens. Someone on whom the vengeance of the invisible sovereign can be visited. And who allows us; as spectators at a public execution, those complex, and possibly illicit, readings and identifications.

'Australia', which was once officially racialist, is in the process of changing its spots and becoming a republic, and when it becomes one this narrative will continue, and there will be a politically correct Aboriginal presence (maybe an Aboriginal President) at that inaugural ceremony, where the land is rededicated, the nation reborn and a new national subjectivity confirmed: 'The land was ours before we were the lands...' But if moving to a republichood means the development of a new national subjectivity including a refiguring of Aboriginal-White relations then the narrative is consistently subject to low level disruption by sections of a White community which plainly is disdainful or antagonistic toward Aboriginals qua Aborigines. If we can borrow Laclau's concept of 'suturing,' the consensus of acceptable public voices is never enough to disguise this fissure between public discourse and community.

As the republican caravan moves on, a stanza from an anonymous (and racist) colonial ballad called The Old Bullock Dray haunts me. I keep seeing a drayful of republicans, setting off to town to get a wife/republic at all costs while roaring the following verse:

Oh! the shearing is all over, and the wool is coming down,
And I mean to get a wife, boys, when I go down to town.
Everything that's got two legs presents itself to view.
From the little paddy-melon to the bucking kangaroo.

But other than the comical image of movement The Old Bullock Dray is inimical in project and process to the republican program. The ballad concludes with lines about the production of a race of Australian natives, the consequent redundancy of immigration and Aboriginal/White coupling. The suggestion that the colonial is going to town to get a White wife is ironised though it's only in last stanza that the Aboriginal 'wife' is affirmed as the wife, and in spite of the social overlay of racism the relationship is presented as reciprocal. The ballad deserves consideration precisely because it links racial ambivalence, individual desire and pragmatism to social change. A social good is created from subjective desire rather than through preachments in favour of the just reconciliatory-republican society.

But if I can return to the theme of the exhibition I'm conscious of the crushing profundity of soil and landscape as metonyms for nation. Turn the Soil... cultures that plough, that furrow the materiality of earth. A peasant working the soil - an originary point, evoking notions of volk, heimlicht and the intuition: possession begins in that primeval act of turning the soil, as the pacific counterpart to taking another people's land: the sword becoming a ploughshare. The following citations represent different aspects of this investment in land:


For Aboriginal people the ground and its rhythms provide an enduring expression of powerful spiritual forces which are recognised and experienced, sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly, through the movement and structure of the earth.


In that room Giuseppe Corbera Duke of Salina had scourged himself alone, in sight of his God and it must have seemed to him that the drops of his own blood were about to rain down on the land and redeem it; in his holy exaltation it must have seemed that only through this expiatory baptism could that earth really become his...


Settlement in a new, unknown, uncultivated country is equivalent to an act of Creation. When the Scandinavian colonists took possession of Iceland, (Landnama,) and began to cultivate it, they regarded this act neither as an original undertaking nor as human and profane work. Their enterprise was for them only the repetition of a primordial act: the transformation of chaos into cosmos by the divine act of Creation.

This sort of rhetoric is inherently unstable. (I stress that I'm referring to the representation rather than the integrity of any intention.) To choose an obvious historical example, the Nazis manipulated the interrelatedness of art, spirit and nation creating. In the 1930's Kurt Karl Eberlein, a Nazi art historian wrote:

Artists have the landscape in their hearts, because they contemplated, because their soul becomes landscape and their landscape becomes soul. German art is homeland and homesickness...[E]ither one speaks German and then the soul speaks, or one speaks an alien tongue, a cosmopolitan, fashionable Esperanto language and then the soul speaks no more

Against an over-reading of soil I suggest there are two counter responses. The personal: some of us find the land a bit overpowering, given our simple desire to live on top, and be buried under it, with no inclination to rape the earth nor get in the Oedipal sack with it. And the geo-economic--the contemporary project of nation creation has an element of strategic and illusionary localism. A republican rabbit is about to be pulled from the magician's hat. Illusionary within the reality of global capitalism and 'free trade' and strategic in the sense that it is a strategy which favours the illusion. If we are going to follow this idea of fetishised dirt through we need an exit point and that is provided by the Nazi political philosopher Carl Schmitt.

Schmitt suggested that the history of peoples is the history of taking land (landnahme) and that every real landnahme produces a new nomos. A pre-State order of society is therefore land based. Order grows from the use of soil. But what is the status of soil today? In a world of global capitalism the invader, situated at an economic centre, doesn't need to touch the ground of the invaded. If we think back to the Gulf War why go all the way with Iraq if the issue is economic? And if we consider Native Title legislation, what sort of land is coming back to Aboriginal communities? The land which is returning is ambivalent in its potential just as the rhetoric which creates a nation. It's ambivalent because it is impossible to think of Aboriginal land outside the determination of an Australian nation itself determined by global economics.

To return to my original brief, craft which is often read as an anonymous 'spirit of the age'/'genius of the race' production, can be a marker of difference and recalcitrance--objects outside the complicities of the legislative-bureaucratic nation producing technology. Or the 'blare of moral loudmouths.' (Did I say that?) It's time to shut up and be as silent as death: silent as dirt--'no ideas but in things.'

Copyright 1995 Philip Morrissey