Future, past, present
The box is surprisingly heavy when I lift it onto the table in front of me. It has been closed a long time and the tape that seals it is brittle and yellow with age. Printed on the side is an illustration of a woman wearing a bikini, sitting back on her heels. The box once contained celery and she holds up a stalk of it as she smiles. Now she is the guardian of more mysterious contents: across the top of the box the word AUSTRALIA has been scrawled in marker pen.
Australia is a recent name for an ancient land, coming into use after Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of the continent in 1801–03. Flinders believed the name Australia to be ‘agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth’. (1) Already, the word indicated more than a landmass. It joined a collection, a colonial world system, where naming and mapping were acts of power and violence.
Peeling back the tape, I open the box. Inside is a jumble of objects. Miscellaneous things, the kind that might be found together on an op-shop shelf, or packed away in a cupboard to be dealt with another time. Everything inside is on the cusp of usefulness: a Glomesh handbag, an envelope of black-and-white photographs, a VHS tape of the nineties film Pretty Woman, a souvenir program for World Expo 88. On top of these objects is a postcard that shows a steam train wreathed in gusts of vapour. I turn it over to read the message. In the same script as the lettering on the box are three words: Future, past, present.
The sequence is uncomfortable. I have an urge to rearrange the words, set them out chronologically. But the order is clear on the card in front of me. Future, past, present. The words spark against each other as they meddle with time.
The National 2019: New Australian Art at Carriageworks brings together artworks that move between timescales to animate history and knowledge. As we engage with them in the present moment, we feel concurrently the energies of past and future. Art has this power: to animate and distort time, to shake up our sense of it. Within the logic of the artwork, time can be compressed, or folded back on itself, or disparate threads of time can be woven together.
Time is a notoriously difficult concept to define. As you try to define it, you describe something else – a system of measurement, a pattern or a cycle – but not time itself. In searching for a definition it is hard to avoid circling back to the word, unable to find a way to take it apart. As a concept we perceive through our experiences and knowledge, time can be easier to think of in terms of scale, of the many times that exist simultaneously.
The 1968 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames illustrates relative size by showing a journey through space, moving up then down in scale by powers of ten. There’s a feeling of vertigo as we track from a view of the universe down to a proton inside a carbon atom inside a human hand. But there’s also a sense of containment; that all these scales exist inside the other. We can think of timescales similarly, nesting inside each other from grand to minute. There’s the geological time of the planet, spanning billions of years, that surrounds us in the present as topography and atmosphere. There’s ancestral time, the legacy we carry from generation to generation, which we remember through our practices and stories. Most immediate of all is our own lifetime, the duration of our individual existences.
Our lifetimes hold further times within them, divided up by the calendar. But within our everyday routines is a time that is less fixed. It exists in the space of our thoughts and dreams, where there is endless potential for time to stretch. A memory sits beside an observation, beside a hope for something good or different to happen, and thus we move between time streams, experiencing intricate connections between past, present and future.
A similar process occurs on a national scale, for the nation is also a complex collection of times. Officially, national time is presented as a linear progression: Australia’s past, Australia now, Australia’s future. But what if this order was disrupted and decolonised, so the past and future were not neat categories found either side of the present? In challenging the colonial perspective, the author Alexis Wright has described how for her as an Aboriginal writer, and for Aboriginal people, ‘All times are important to us. No time has ended and all worlds are possible’. (2)
From this way of thinking comes an energy that drives change as it challenges colonial notions of nation and the social and political inequalities that arise from it. Artists who work with narratives of history and identity harness this sense of potential, as they engage art’s ability to stretch and fold time, to make worlds possible.
I set the postcard to the side and reach into the box. It has been packed neatly, the miscellaneous contents given order by their careful arrangement. The first object I take out is the souvenir program for Expo 88, a glossy booklet with an image of a monorail train on the cover. This international exhibition of culture and technology, held in Brisbane over six months in 1988, aimed for the spectacular. It transformed the city, physically and culturally, with its combination of what historian Jackie Ryan describes as ‘cultural precinct, theme park, travelogue, shopping mall and rock concert’. (3)
For all its extravagance, Expo 88 took place against a troubled political backdrop. Joh Bjelke-Petersen had resigned as Queensland’s Premier the year before, but the repressive legacy of his police state continued. On a national level, bicentenary commemorations were as much a divisive as cohesive force. If the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 could be considered the birth of nation, it was equally an invasion that dispossessed the world’s oldest continuing culture of their ancestral lands.
Symbols of nation attempted to create a sense of unity. At Expo 88 the entrance to the Australian pavilion was decorated by a sculpture designed by Ken Done. Colourful 6-metre-tall letters spelled out AUSTRALIA: a bright red A, the sun smiling out from the U, the S a snake of pink and blue, the T a palm tree, and on through exuberant stripes, spots and stars for the rest of the letters. After Expo 88 was over and the pavilions began to be dismantled, the sculpture was moved to the grounds of a school in the north of Brisbane. Here, over decades of wear and weather, the bright colours of the letters faded to pale, greyish tones, their edges rough and rusting. With the physical decay came the sense that the optimistic 1988 version of Australia had faded too. As the sculpture became a relic amid the trees, on the outskirts of the city, so too did thoughts of an uncomplicated national unity.
Until 2018 the AUSTRALIA sculpture languished in a field at the school’s entrance, as cows grazed around the letters and traffic on the adjacent Bruce Highway on-ramp rushed by. Then, with the 30th anniversary of Expo 88 approaching, a plan was devised to move the sculpture to a local museum for restoration. The letters were plucked out of their position, hoisted up by a crane and onto a truck, one by one. Australia became Australi, Austral, Austra – until it was completely dismantled.
In its disassembled state, the faded sculpture that once symbolised national hopes is an object of the past but also of potential. This decayed and fractured state is one of limbo: the sculpture is neither completely functional nor completely useless. Its greatest force is as a symbol. This is the force that is also strongly present in artistic practices that rework objects from material and media cultures. Our contemporary historical moment is one of revealing and redressing past injustices, acknowledging and listening to the voices of those whose stories have been suppressed. By scrutinising and reinterpreting material culture – icons, archives, ephemera – there is potential for alternative stories to be revealed and for these voices to emerge.
The artists in the exhibition at Carriageworks who reimagine objects from material culture or media, do so in an act of renegotiation. At the entrance to Carriageworks is a sculpture by Sam Cranstoun in the style of the Expo 88 AUSTRALIA, spelling out UTOPIA. It is a word that embodies a contradiction; literally meaning ‘no place’, it nevertheless stands for a perfect world. Utopias are dream places, born of the desires of the eras in which they were devised, but they also stand apart from their contexts and enable reflection. Utopia (2019) sends us into a space where we can reflect on dreams and desires.
With the box unpacked and the objects released, it is if they have returned to life. The Glomesh purse, with its chain-mail skin, rests on the table. Liberated from the envelope, the people captured in the black-and-white photographs look out with all the immediacy of that living moment, decades before. On the plastic cover of the VHS tape, a scratch over Julia Roberts’ face gives her a grimace rather than a smile, as if she is fed up with the pretence.
Within acts of scrutiny is the potential for transformation, even for objects of the recent past that might seem irrelevant, their energies spent. In Time Binds, a study of queer temporalities, Elizabeth Freeman writes of the potential of being ‘interested in the tail end of things, willing to be bathed in the fading light of whatever has been declared useless’. (4) Queer time operates in counterpoint to a linear, national sense of time, giving attention to the objects and ideas that exist on the margins of the contemporary moment. Artists working with these objects and ideas, Freeman writes, can bring the past into a ‘meaningful and transformative relation with the present’. (5)
The categories given to objects of the recent past – retro, vintage, kitsch – can make it more difficult to read their symbolic power. Not yet old enough to have left living memory, such objects can seem more like the detritus of an age recently surpassed than vitally connected to contemporary concerns. To be attracted to such objects is often regarded as a yearning for a past time, as looking back rather than thinking forward. Although they can be used as a connection to an imagined, idealised past, these objects equally can be subverted or rearranged to lead us into an alternative present or future.
This idea is examined by the scholar Svetlana Boym in her study The Future of Nostalgia. She describes nostalgia existing in restorative and reflective forms. Restorative nostalgia drives nationalism and conservatism by seeking to reinstate an imagined lost past, reducing potential narratives and times ‘to a single plot’.6 Reflective nostalgia, however, works against myths of wholeness, acknowledging remembrance to be imperfect and allowing the ideas and objects of past times to be reworked and reimagined. Whereas restoration seeks to fill gaps in memory, reflection opens these gaps to investigation. This process of reflective reinterpretation can be expanded beyond the framework of nostalgia, to a way of engaging with historical objects and narratives in general, bringing them into the present and using them to conceive of the future.
Inside the concept of nation, in its gaps, margins and counter-narratives, art speaks into the future and its possibilities. We can’t understand who we are without knowing where we’ve come from, but the past isn’t something static. Its objects, stories and ideas can be pulled apart and re-formed in the present. At the entrance to The National 2019 at Carriageworks, we can step through into UTOPIA and witness its promises and potentials for reshaping our ideas of what art, and nation, can be.
(1) Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, vol.1, Project Gutenberg Australia, 1814, retrieved 9 October 2018, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00049.html.
(2) Alexis Wright, ‘Politics of writing’, Southerly, vol.62, no.2, 2002, p.20.
(3) Jackie Ryan, We’ll Show the World: Expo 88, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2018, p.2.
(4) Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010, p.xiii.
(5) ibid., p. Xvi.
(6) Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, New York, 2001, p.43.