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A reader of Foucault might say that white Australia, with its anxieties and racisms, emerged out of the relationship of incarceration to the ocean. As prisons and asylums were built beside the continent’s oceans, bays and rivers, walls and water were coupled into a terminal psyche. The ships of the First Fleet were the first such walls, holding the labour force of the future colony within. Ashore, these wooden prisons were duplicated in stone. This relationship of water to imprisonment has not changed much today, as the central controversy of Australian nationalism is over refugees. As recently as December 2010, refugees have drowned after crashing into the rocks around Christmas Island, the detention centre there has burned into spectacular flame, and there has been a new policy to deport arrivals over the sea to Malaysia. This drama is the drama of colonisation all over again, as people who are unwelcome in their own countries find themselves incarcerated in another land.
Activists have been pointing out the continuity between the colonisation of Australia and its refugee crisis since policies of indefinite detention became big news in the 1990s. Artists, too, have intervened, by draping flags over their faces à la Magritte and sewing up lips in a bloody duplication of some of the asylum seekers’ own protest actions.1 Lily Hibberd’s Benevolent Asylum springs from this history of an Australian art that is critical of anti-refugee nationalism. The quality of Hibberd’s installation lies in its making the historical continuity between colonial Australia and contemporary incarceration visible on a series of television screens. These screens are scattered amidst a rubble of paper, scaffolding and boat sails in the main space of the Fremantle Arts Centre, a building that was itself once an asylum.
After Foucault’s famous thesis, the asylum and prison serve to define the identities of those who remain outside after those locked within. So that when Hibberd’s camera stalks white-cloaked psychiatrists outside the neo-classical walls of a French asylum, we are unsure of whether they are figures of good or evil, as their patients remain invisible and silent. On another television screen, tour guides debate the psychology of visitors playing with a pillory at a local Fremantle attraction. Replacing the prison guards of old, they appear to have become guards of another kind. Such slippages have to do with the disjunction between the footage and its subtitles, and between screens that show institutions in France and Australia.
The walls are also propped with cues to interpretation: prison plans, documents of incarceration, the covers of R.D. Laing’s Divided Self (1960) and Foucault’s own Discipline and Punish (1977). Through the process of wandering between these references and the glow of so many televisions, while dodging ropes and other props cluttered about the space, Hibberd builds a sense of friction between the great freedom of oceans and rivers and the abject conditions of colonial, criminal and medical imprisonment.
What Hibberd adds to the televisual debate over refugees is a literary sensibility, a poetic rather than a simply political dimension to images of nation, ocean and incarceration. Amidst the toughness of colonial buildings, the strangeness of tourism and the benevolence of medicine, arises a greater phenomenology of coastlines and riverbanks. By situating the historical moment and the national psyche in scenes of geography and architecture, Hibberd alludes to its redemption. In converting the worst aspects of Australia’s history and identity into a spatial reverie, she points to the potential for refunctioning national anxieties.
The dangers of such redemptive narratives lie, however, in the return of the repressed that they choose to relate. In Western Australia, colonial spaces have assumed the status of tourist attractions, covering over the violence of their histories. New Norcia was once a home for stolen Aboriginal children, while Rottnest Island was a horror prison for Aboriginal men. Today, they are sites of historic interest and drunken recreation. Suffering has become spectacle, and the danger of Hibberd’s narrative lies in redeeming the unredeemable, by returning to those very sites and stories that have propped up the most foul nationalisms. How much can the brutality of the past serve the construction of a postcolonial nationalism? As prisoners look out at the ocean they forget their imprisonment, just as Australia looking back upon its colonial origins forgets that today it is a very different kind of monster. Today, television has taken the place of the ocean that the colonials knew so well, and refugees who cross its screen stand for the freedoms that Australians imagine they enjoy. In mixing up images of today with buildings of the past, Hibberd points both forward and back into the phenomenology of national identity, that is both problem and speculation.
Lily Hibberd, Benevolent Asylum, 2011. Installation detail. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre.
1. See boat-people.org and Mike Parr’s Close the Concentration Camps, 2002.