May 2013, Cocos Islands, Australia. Local residents find 28 empty life jackets washed ashore across several beaches. Perhaps at first this seems run of the mill. The Australian government is quick, after all, to remind us things wash ashore on these islands all the time. But there is something inescapably unsettling about the jackets. Something terribly foreboding in their emptiness, their mute appearance on our land.
At the 2014 Adelaide Biennial ‘Dark Heart’, Australian sculptor Alex Seton has presented a major new work: 28 marble life jackets, strewn across the darkened gallery floor. This collection, titled ‘Someone died trying to have a like mine’, refers directly to the 28 life jackets found on the shores of the Cocos. It was my great pleasure to assist Alex in his studio during production of the works, and to experience their development over several months.
‘No man is an island, entire of itself’1
The Cocos Islands are a small Australian territory consisting of two atolls and 27 coral islands, inhabited by a total of 596 people. At their highest, they sit a mere five metres above sea level, enjoying a pleasant climate almost year round thanks to southeast trade winds and moderate rainfall. Collectively, they occupy just over 14 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean southwest of Christmas Island, about 1200km from Jakarta and 3000km from Perth. This position is politically and economically strategic for its proximity to Indian Ocean and South China Sea shipping lanes, and has afforded the small islands a somewhat colourful history.
The first recorded European visitor to the islands was Captain John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish merchant seaman who stopped briefly in 1814. Two years later he returned to the island with his family, and after a feud with an Englishman named Alexander Hare, settled there. Hare had taken up residence on the Cocos after purportedly finding his life as a governor in Borneo to be too ‘civilised’. When Clunies-Ross returned with his wife, two children and mother-in-law, Hare was living with a harem of 40 Malay women. Clunies-Ross and his crew reclaimed the island, establishing his family in a feudal-style rule that would last more than a century.
It was not until the 1970s that the Australian government turned their attention to the Cocos Islands and their strange dynastic rule. Most likely due to their strategic placement, Australia forced the sale of the islands back to the government in 1978 for a little over six million dollars, allowing the Clunies-Ross’ to retain nothing but their home, Oceania House. Five years later this property was also revoked, in an action later ruled by the High Court as unlawful, and the Clunies-Ross family were removed from the islands entirely. Not satisfied with having revoked the islands from Clunies-Ross’ control, the government went on to embargo the family’s shipping company, contributing to their eventual bankruptcy and relocation to Perth.
‘Islands represent a microcosm of the universe … a mingling of universality and particularity’.2
There is an allegorical flavour to the history of the Cocos Islands, which can be read as a synecdoche to mainland Australia’s own history of colonisation and policies of at times unlawful exclusion. As the Cocos Islands have long been a site of paradisiac dreaming, so has greater Australia taken on the mythology of a peaceful and secure life for many thousands of asylum seekers around the world. Each year, a (statistically quite small) number of these asylum seekers attempt to reach Australia by boat, a journey with often tragic results.
Alex Seton’s marble life jackets evoke not only the particularity of those washed up on the Cocos Islands, though they do include subtle markers of that event. They also pull us into a more universal revelry, driven home by the title Someone died trying to have a life like mine. In this string of words is wrapped up the entirety of the work’s psychic impact: the stark fact that not only these 28 lost at sea, but many more before and after them, gave their lives hoping to reach the safety and security we enjoy daily. Seton credits ‘Dark Heart’ curator Nick Mitzevich with identifying the title, which the artist had scrawled across one of his many whiteboards and which happened to catch Mitzevich’s eye during a studio visit, and it is a credit indeed.
Whether these lives are given at sea or in deplorable offshore processing centres, our nation’s unwillingness to offer protection to those who seek asylum on our shores is resulting in the loss of human life. On this, Seton is unequivocal:
For possibly the first time in his laudable career there is no humour embedded in Seton’s marble forms. There is none of his signature cheekiness, the playful disregard for the history and weightiness of the stone. Someone died trying to have a life like mine is deadly serious. While the artist grimaces at the suggestion that this work is evidence of a practice ‘matured’, there is an undeniable gravitas to it, an earnestness free from the puns and witticisms that have characterised past work. These sculptures memorialise, and more than that they admonish our apathy and our government’s lies, sitting in silent judgement of our collective failure to act.
The early morning discovery of the life jackets on the remote Cocos Islands was yet another in a long and deeply shameful history of our nation’s engagement with asylum seekers. In response to the news of the discovery, the Australian government swiftly and impassively released a statement that it was unaware of any asylum seeker boats in the region and that it was common for ‘debris’ to wash ashore from the ocean.4 This somewhat chilling characterisation of the jackets as ‘debris’ was the end of the matter – no attempt to search for the missing bodies or investigate the incident was made. Seven months later, however, a former employee of the Department of Immigration published an article contradicting this statement, revealing that there had indeed been a boat detected, and that no action had been taken to prevent the deaths of its passengers.
For this, there can be no justification, and in this no humour. Perhaps in this charged and tragic story, Seton has at last encountered a subject worthy of the full solemnity of marble.
‘In its watery isolation, every island determines a state of mind’6
In the matter of asylum seekers, it is our littoral spaces that largely define the collective psyche. Again and again, the government’s tired and sinister rhetoric about the boats conjures false images of our shores under attack, invaded by people with troubles from which we imagine ourselves removed, except by virtue of our shared humanity and first world responsibility, both of which seem to be conveniently forgotten by those in power. There is a strange and troubling disconnectedness at play, a narrative more informed by murky liminal border spaces than human experience.
Writing on the nature of island experience, J. E. Ritchie paints it as ‘within itself, with all its conflicts, potentially whole’.7 To exist on or as an island is to be complete, to be self-contained. At the centre of this frequently romanticised discourse of the island as a microcosm with its own registers of meaning and sets of relations, however, lies a dark heart. In posturing island experience as ‘whole’, we exclude that which is yet to come, relegating it to an excess not included in the whole, bounded by horizon on all sides.
Perhaps more than anything, our reading of the national response to the asylum seeker issue should be nissological. Nissology, a term coined to describe the study of ‘islands on their own terms’8, proposes a number of characteristics purportedly shared by island states. It may seem a stretch, initially, to consider Australia alongside its smaller and less powerful island consociates. However pondering certain aspects of this taxonomy – clearly defined borders; a scarcity of land resources; an ideological boundary that clearly stipulates an ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’; a psychic image informed by narratives of limitation (whether material or socio-cultural); and a major preoccupation with migration – one can quickly see the extent to which geography can work to inform our national character.
‘What is this darkness in our national character that we do not readily extend good faith and protection to those who claim the need for asylum’, Seton asks with Someone died trying to have a life like mine. What he has uncovered is our very own heart of darkness, this psychic image of our land as complete, limited, sheltered only by protectionist policy and deadly games at sea. Seen in the light of recent events, Seton’s work is perhaps the darkest of all Mitzevich’s Dark Hearts – toying with our nissological panic, reminding us of the mortal consequences for those that are ‘outside’ this whole. In this, we are all complicit. In her recount of working with the Department of Immigration, the former employee had this to say:
This realisation is seemingly slow to infiltrate our island minds, but is critical to the integrity of our nation. In action and inaction, we are all complicit.
‘This is the common air that bathes the globe’10
What makes Someone died trying to have a life like mine so affecting is its invitation to view this divisive issue on a human scale. Eschewing the grand or politicised action (of the kind we have seen recently with the boycott of the Biennale of Sydney over their ties with Transfield, for example), Seton brings the debate back to a place of humanity and individuality. Each of the 28 jackets has a story to tell. Scattered desolately across the gallery floor, we slowly come to see in them the lives they ultimately failed to protect – the mothers and children, young men and boys, pregnant women and their hopeful husbands. Whatever your political stance on immigration and asylum, Seton gambles, when confronted with the human consequences of our current policy you cannot remain unmoved.
Somewhere on the spectrum between opening our borders and the situation as it stands must lie a more acceptable solution for the intake and processing of asylum seekers. Without forcing any one answer down our throats, Seton’s work makes clear the stakes: people are dying trying to have a life like ours. The question that follows is obvious: what are we going to do about it?
1. Donne, J. Meditation XVII.
2. Thomas, S. (2007) Littoral Space(s): Liquid Edges of Poetic Possibility. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies. Vol 5 Issue 1
3. Artist statement provided to the author
6. Beem, E. A. (1992). Casco Bay morning. Island Journal: Maine Island Institute, 86–87.
7. Ritchie. J. E . (1977 ). Cognition of place: The island mind. Ethos, 5 , 187–194.
8. McCall, G. (1994). Nissology: A proposal for consideration. Journal of the Pacific Society, 63‐64(17).
10. Whitman, W (1855/2005). Leaves of Grass. Harold Bloom, 47.
Kate Britton is a Sydney-based writer and curator. Her current curatorial concerns are centralised around queer theory and practice, and the dialogue between writing, text...