Upside down/right way up: Historiography of contemporary ‘Australian’ art

Helen Hughes


The historiography of Australian art has, from the very first attempts, been vexed by the notion of ‘Australia’. Like a parasite, this name, which is a metonym for a powerful ideology, has lodged itself in the belly of the task, and it has niggled at and otherwise irritated all attempts to construct a national art history ever since it was attached to the landmass it now denotes. The term ‘Australia’ has vexed Australian art history because, as Paul Foss noted observantly in 1981, ‘the whole of Australia is pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people’. (1) Richard Bell put it more succinctly, as only an artist could, when his 2008 painting Judgement Day (Bell’s Theorem) declared, ‘Australian art does not exist’. 

‘Australia’ was invented before it was ‘discovered’. As both Bernard Smith and Ian McLean have clearly charted, it had existed for millennia as a concept – a dream or perhaps even a nightmare – in the philosophies, geophraphies and mythologies of various ancient Greek, Roman and early Christian cultures in the northern hemisphere. (2) Here, it existed well before Europeans crossed the equator, sailed south through the Indian and Pacific oceans, and set foot on the southern land. Ptolemy conceived of this landmass as terra incognita (a hypothetical unknown land); Romans called it terra Australis nondum cognita (Southern land not yet known) or, more fantastically, the Antipodes (meaning, literally, to have opposite feet). These terms emerged out of the belief that the known landmass of the northern hemisphere must be balanced by an equal but unknown landmass in the South. Some projected onto the continent the idea of utopia, whereas others (particularly, McLean notes, in Christian cosmology of the late medieval and early Renaissance period), (3) a type of dystopia. These binary opposite positions, and the entire spectrum of fantasy between them, were united by conjecture.

Bernard Smith, in his analysis of European scientific and artistic production in Australia and the surrounding region from 1768 to 1850, demonstrated that even after British arrival, invasion and colonisation, Europeans could scarcely but visualise this land, its people, flora and fauna as a derivation, deformation or mashup of that which already existed in Europe. Thus, a 1797 engraving of Femme du Cap de Diemen by Jacques Louis Copia after Jean Piron is filtered through a Venus de Medici cookie cutter, and a platypus is described in an 1817 ‘History of New South Wales’ as ‘about the size of a rabbit, with the eyes, colour and skin of a mole, and the bill and webfeet of a duck’. (4) As Peter Beilharz, a great Australian scholar of antipodality, has summarised: ‘European perception of the Pacific was culture-bound … ways of knowing were relative’. (5)

The reduction of the vast landmass known as ‘Australia’ into a single word radically delimits the possibility of an art history of this continent. Indeed, Anthony Gardner, in a polemic named after Bell’s painting, refers to ‘Australia’ as merely ‘the weak geographic coincidence of living on an enormous landmass’. (6) Borrowing a favourite pejorative of former prime minister John Howard, Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson have instead developed a history of ‘unAustralian’ art, which is an attempt to create a new historiographic method for conceptualising both the notion of ‘Australia’ and the stakes or limitations of a national art history. Their meticulous and exhaustive research into 20th-century artistic thoroughfare between Australia and the rest of the world reveals that Australians impacted major artistic movements internationally (for instance, Anne Dangar’s and Grace Crowley’s roles in the development of cubism through their work with André Lhote in Paris in the mid-1920s), just as artists and thinkers from the rest of the world impacted on the development of an Australian ‘national’ art. (7) Butler and Donaldson’s approach exploits the paradox of a nation-state founded by colonial and penal migrants, one whose shoreline boundaries were constitutively transgressed. Revealing of its politics, perhaps, their historiographic approach performs a type of deterritorialisation or undoing of its own national borders precisely at a moment when the Australian government militarises these very borders to defend itself from so-called maritime arrivals.  

The reduction of the landmass known as ‘Australia’ into a single word allows for a national art history to sprout while, in the same breath, disavowing the fact that this land is not now, and has not for several tens of thousands of years been, a nation. Rather it is, as every acknowledgement of Country spoken at any public event reminds us, composed of many nations, each with its own languages, laws, customs and beliefs. (8) Before the much-historicised contact following January 1788, the culture of this land was marked by cosmopolitanism: it was common to speak multiple languages, to travel and trade, and not just within the borders of the continent but beyond them too. The exchange between the Yolngu of North-Eastern Arnhem Land and the Macassans from the Kingdom of Gowa (now southern Sulawesi, Indonesia), particularly through trepanging (fishing for sea cucumber) trade, serves as a known prehistory to the European myth of first contact. (9) Histories of contact with broader Java, as well as with the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and French, among others, are more commonplace now too. This is evidenced in Nick Brodie’s recent book 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings, which is both a prehistory of ‘Australia’ and a prehistory of globalisation, beginning in 1606 (with the near miss of the continent by Spanish maritime explorers de Torres and de Quiros, who sailed between north Australia and New Guinea). (10) Despite frequent description (by, primarily, Europeans) as distant, alienating and isolated, the landmass now called ‘Australia’ has always been – both internally and externally – multinational, multicultural and cosmopolitan. Put another way, as Ian McLean does, Indigenous Australian art has always been ‘post-national’. (11)

Melbourne-based Quandamooka Nation artist Megan Cope has developed a diverse practice that images the complexity of nationhood on this land. She is recognised for her large-scale cartographic vinyl murals inscribed with their original toponyms, or placenames. One example can be seen in perpetuity on the exterior walls of the Australian Catholic University’s Melbourne campus in Fitzroy; another one climbed the spectacularly tall windows facing onto the Brisbane River at the Gallery of Modern Art for Wierdi/ Birri-Gubba Nation curator Bruce Johnson-McLean’s 2013 exhibition My Country, I Still Call Australia Home. Cope has also staged powerful projections of original toponyms and language groups directly onto Country, as she did with her 2013 Toponymic Interventions on Kulin Nation land. Here, the Woiwurrung words yarra yarra (flowing or running, used to describe the water of the Birrarung/Yarra River) were projected onto a bridge crossing the river.

In 2016 Cope produced a window mural with activist and radio host Robbie Thorpe, a Krautungalung man of the Gunnai Nation, for an exhibition celebrating 40 years of Melbourne community radio station 3CR at Gertrude Contemporary. Titled Makin’ Waves, the mural was a map based on an early drawing that outlined 3CR’s intended broadcast reach, spanning from northern Victoria to northern Tasmania. With Melbourne in the centre of the map, concentric circles containing a number of famous Thorpe-isms radiate outwards, such as ‘“Australia’s” a crime scene, needs investigation’ and ‘white “Australia” has a black history’. Here, and elsewhere, Thorpe’s policy is to demarcate “Australia” with double quotation marks – like the white chalk outlining a dead body or tape cordoning off said crime scene. In an act of decolonial cartography, Cope’s map of the territory is flipped so as to appear upside down to European eyes. Admittedly, as one of the exhibition’s non-Indigenous curators, I could not see Victoria, Tasmania or the Bass Strait anywhere in the preparatory sketches that Cope sent to me – and not for wont of trying. When the station manager at 3CR flipped the sketch to bring the map into my perspective, it was as if the ground shifted underfoot.

For her contribution to Yorta Yorta Nation curator Kimberley Moulton’s State of the Nation exhibition at Counihan Gallery in Melbourne later in 2016, Cope’s work performed a similar manoeuvre. Here, for an exhibition that intended to, in Moulton’s words, ‘challenge the status quo of the singular country called “Australia”’, (12) Cope presented Resistance (2013), an array of racist protest placards – ‘Age of Entitlement’, ‘Love it or Leave’, ‘No Advantage’, ‘The Shady Bunch’, ‘Kick this mob out’ – hanging upside down from the ceiling, like a cluster of bats in a cave. All topsyturvy, they position the bearers of these slogans as antipodeans: Europeans in Australia, maintaining Europe as their reference point and therefore rendering their perspective upside down, inverted, underfoot and, perhaps, ‘beneath contempt’. (13)

This trope of flipping-upside-down has long roots in decolonial artistic practices, in which colonialimperialist viewpoints are denormalised. For Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 2008 Biennale of Sydney, Revolutions: Forms That Turn, Gordon Bennett famously proposed to hang upside down a selection of European landscape and portrait paintings usually located in the Old Courts of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as well as relocate them to the Yiribana Gallery on lower level three. To make room for them there, in turn, Bennett proposed to shift numerous Indigenous artworks from Yiribana up to the colonial wing, also hanging them upside down – knowing full well, however, that many Indigenous paintings (especially those made by an artist or group of artists sitting around a canvas on the ground) can be read from multiple directions and, therefore, do not have a right way up. Bennett further propositioned to intersperse the paintings in the Yiribana Gallery with a suite of his own framed acrylic-on-paper works from the 1993 series Shadow reflections – horizontally symmetrical sketches of generic colonial types (Teacher, Anthropologist, Captain, Settler, Explorer, Bushranger, Settler’s Wife, Professor, Worker, Trooper, Soldier, Scientist, Secretary, Housewife, Artist), each shadowed by their Indigenous ‘other’ (always a bare-chested ‘tribesman’, sometimes with body paint or headband). The Shadow reflections are typically hung with the settler on top and the Indigenous ‘other’ underneath, but for the biennale, they too would be inverted to show the settler as shadow-other – below, underneath, underfoot – to the Indigenous subject. As is well known, Bennett’s plan to flip both sets of paintings was foiled just prior to the exhibition’s opening. But he did manage, in Untitled (Concept for the Art Gallery of New South Wales) (2008), to execute the concept in model-form at 1:22.5 scale, and included miniature figurine viewers walking through the galleries and stopping to look at works. At maquette size, the model is an allegory of unfinished business, and therefore of decolonisation itself. (14)

But for all the rhetorical footwork revealing the construction that is ‘Australia’, Australia most certainly does exist. Its contours and edges are impermeable to many, especially the most vulnerable. The turn towards theorising ‘the contemporary’ – the period frequently characterised by an inherently decentred, cosmopolitan, globalised world order, and therefore one in which formerly peripheral Indigenous and Australian art now has a key role to play (15) – may allow us to briefly forget this ugly tension conjoining ‘Australia’ to Australia. In this climate, however ironically, localised, national-type art histories bear a new importance, even urgency. These new histories uncover old borders and land names – or imagine entirely new ones – rather than work with those imposed on and around a landmass by politicians. In so doing, these histories take their cue from artists – such as Cope and Bennett – whose work shows us that, contra to the singular formulation of ‘Australia’, there exist multiple perspectives onto Country.  


(1) Paul Foss, ‘Theatrum nondum cognitorium’, 1981, in Rex Butler (ed.), What is appropriation? An anthology of writings on Australian art in the 1980s and 90s, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1998, p.120.

(2) Ian McLean, White Aborigines: identity politics in Australian art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998, pp.4–13.

(3) ibid., p.12.

(4) James O’Hara, 'History of New South Wales', 1817, in Bernard Smith, European vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969 (1960), p.170.

(5) Peter Beilharz, ‘Bernard Smith: imagining the Antipodes’, 1994, in Thinking the Antipodes: Australian essays, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, 2015, p.185.

(6) Anthony Gardner, ‘Australian art does not exist’, Broadsheet, vol.40, no.2, 2011, p.101.

(7) Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson define ‘unAustralian’ art history as: ‘a history driven not by the desire to reveal art that embodies some inherent national character or the effects of climate, geography or distance on artistic models imported from elsewhere. It does not seek to distinguish some identifiable national art or to show how Australian art is different from that of other countries. Instead of writing a history of some kind of specifically Australian art and how this art might relate to that of other countries, we reverse the perspective and ask how Australian art is like that of other countries and what it might look like when seen from their point of view. We attempt to write an art history that is characterised not by distance and difference but by proximity and similarity. It is to think of a different relationship between Australia and its art and between Australia and the rest of the world … It is the translocal, the international and the global that are ultimately the story of Australian art, and not the local, national or provincial’. Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson, ‘French, floral and female: a history of unAustralian art 1900–1930 (part 1)’, emaj, vol.5, 2010, https://emajartjournal.files.

(8) The unifying term ‘Australia’, Foss suggests, renders unseen a ‘whole multitude of peoples, races, things’; see Foss, op.cit., p.121.

(9) See, for example, Alejandra Duschatzky and Stephanie Holt (eds), Trepang: China and the story of Macassan–Aboriginal trade, Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne, 2011.

(10) Nick Brodie, 1787: the lost chapters of Australia’s beginnings, Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2016. For another fascinating prehistory of globalisation that also focuses on sea trade in the 17th century, see Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The manyheaded hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic, Beacon Press, Boston, 2000.

(11) See the introduction in Ian McLean (ed.), Double desire: transculturation and Indigenous contemporary art, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, 2014.

(12) Kimberley Moulton, ‘State of the nation’, Art Base, accessed 8 November 2016, https:// by-kimberley-moulton.

(13) Emphasis added, ‘underfoot’ and ‘beneath contempt’ are the terms that Alison Broinowski uses to describe antipodeans in her essay, ‘Australians or Antipodeans?,’ Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature, vol.2, no.2, Winter 1988, p.87.

(14) Compare this to the unfinished project exemplified by Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920) as analysed by Svetlana Boym in Architecture of the off-modern, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2008.

(15) See the main example in Terry Smith, What is contemporary art?, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2009.