The psychic space of the horror stretch

George Alexander

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland

Ross Gibson
Seven Versions of an Australian Badland,
University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2002
ISBN: 0702233498

Seven Versions of an Australian Badland is a creative non-fiction that’s easy to read, and painful to think about. The book is a mixed platter, that superimposes 7 takes on the collective badlands of the colonial psyche generated by the jagged road from Rockhampton to Mackay in Central Queensland, known as ‘The Horror Stretch.’ Queensland’s mixture of sunny availability and dark desperation provides a telling backdrop. It’s both an advertiser’s daydream and a sinkhole where unassimilable events of white settler history congeal like fat in a pan.

No stonehearted sociologist, Gibson throws together the skill of the historian, the forensic detail of the crime reporter, the narrative hooks of the filmmaker and the rich resources and dark wonder of childhood memory. The analysis of this historical crime scene joins a growing body of work that could be labelled psychogeography, a form of study that makes a Möbius strip of fact and myth, real and unreal, place and the unconscious. What Iain Sinclair does for London in Lights Out for the Territory, Gibson does for the blitzed out brigalow country of Central Queensland. The visible country or city could be the object of sociological enquiry: population shifts, consumption patterns, and economic reconstructions. Much of psychogeography addresses the invisible and to understand it requires a suspension of the literal and routine. To advance on it requires the imagination, rather than surveyor’s poles or trigonometric equations.

For example, Germany’s psychogeography might be found in Anselm Kiefer’s paintings in which eighteenth century optimism is buried in lead and sand and propellers, where the landscapes are set alight, and the letters of the German past burn back to ground zero in order to make ‘Germanness’ available again to the post-World War II imagination.

To this genre you could add the images found in Tracey Moffatt’s Up in the Sky series. Overqualified as protest art, there’s something powerful in these distantly lyrical photos set in the rural hinterlands of Australia—the submerged narrative of the Stolen Generation told sideways, like wisps of songs on a desert wind. Then there’s Gordon Bennett’s Inland Sea. The mismatched representational categories of the Indigenous and non-indigenous territories colliding to expose the hauntedness widely sensed in the pictorial spaces of Australia’s image field.

Likewise beneath the sparkling facades of bank lobbies and tizzed-up heritage sites, lie Juan Davila’s infernal portraits of corporate and sexual follies, or Adam Cullen’s ringbarking of conventional painting where no material is too dumb (marker pens, biros, aerosol cans), no image too mean (a tree stump, a pair of underpants), and no notion too fucked up (an extraterrestrial black being sodomised by a clownish member of the Ku Klux Klan with a ‘spiritual petrol bowser’) to be beyond further debasement on canvas.

But here, written in a prose to savour, Gibson picks apart the bones of Capricornia where local landmarks include names like the Styx River, Charon Point, Grave Gully and the Berserkers Range. While it’s pitilessly there as a physical place, it’s also this floating thing in the unconscious. It’s both mileage on the odometer and a nightmarish idea. It can be seen with the eyes as well as the hackles of the neck.

Brisbane-born, Gibson begins by evoking childhood memories of holiday trips through the terrain staring from the car’s rear-window: “Each time the road bent at a special angle, the slanted sun showed me columns of steam twisting up, man-sized in pursuit of the car. Five or six of them stalking us for a few heartbeats…” At the blurred edges of consciousness you dream a little bit of the road, and this bit of scrubby floodplain remains a haunted place, a site where white man’s hubris has grown way out of hand. In trying to figure out why, Gibson’s “quest becomes an inquest.”

With each of the 7 ‘versions’ Gibson uncovers buried historical layers. Violently gutted by colonialism, and scorched by successive generations of settlers and migrants, this malevolent landscape conjures Old Testament ferocities. (“Static seared the preacher’s voice occasionally as the transmission bounced and scrambled off the distant ridges.”) The grotesque extremes of climate—convulsive cyclones, apocalyptic floods and droughts—seem to be the meteorological correlative of the greed, brutal homicides, nonchalant racism, suspicion and betrayal that boils away there. There are dead bodies everywhere, not least the 1869 massacre of an estimated 300 Aborigines in the so-called Goulbolba dispersal.

Gibson’s account reminds us that the way we explain ourselves, our favourite story, is a passion play where the European confronts the ‘savage’ in the desert. Injun, outlaw, black, heathen, infidel. Hence the appeal of the classic Western: Who makes the law? What is the order? Where is the frontier? Who are the good guys? We like to conjure the celebrated and enlightened gentlemen of the colonies solemnly composing a constitution and a nation (Sir Robert Garran, Henry Parkes) in Canberra. When really it was the rogues, the adventurers, missionaries, landboomers, traders, hunters and Aborigine-fighters—like Frederick Wheeler who Gibson anatomises in this book—who killed and were killed until they mastered the bush or desert. The blacks always personifying the demonic aspects of the wilderness in the white imagination.

Along the way Gibson trawls documents and oral histories and traces acts of random desperation in a spooky echo chamber: Disappearing hitchhikers. Travellers shot by the roadside in their sleeping bags. A missing 14-year-old girl. A couple of English holidaymakers shot at by snipers. A 26-year-old Aboriginal woman sexually assaulted, murdered and dumped in the Fitzroy River. A man found slumped, still seatbelted, in the front seat of his Toyota Celica shot dead through the head with a .22 calibre rifle. Two weeks later his wife, also shot through the head, is found in a creek, bloated and sun-broiled.

“Rootlessness and poverty-stricken itinerancy; the imposition of imported law; the geography of vastness, deluge, heat and erosion; the rural culture of firearms; the mind-altering pressures of isolation; nervous, nocturnal predation.” More than a report card on vexing societal malaise, and more than just a roadmap to his own neuroses, Gibson’s investigation is a stairwell to the basement in the Australian psyche. The urge to explain and explore those feelings shaped by the apprehension of the darkness in that basement counters our New World tendency to forget and numb out. Even though we tear through The Horror Stretch in our shiny dentless cars, it remains a metaphysical antiplace where memory is boundless and a sense of loss never quite disappears. Gibson revisits the unremembered dead in the basement in order to learn from them.

Death creates problems for society. On the one hand we need to push the dead away. On the other, we need to keep them alive. Conventionally we console ourselves with a hundredweight of Victorian statuary and bad calendar mottos. At the level of the national psyche though, there needs to be reparation if we are to grow beyond the trauma. The abnegations (the Prime Minister’s inability to apologise to our Indigenous populations) deny information about ourselves, our own arcane culture: savage nobles at the heart of whiteness. Many other cultures seem to have useful ways of dealing with the afterlife. On which point, Paolo Portoghesi notes, “It is the loss of memory, not the cult of memory that will make us prisoners of the past.”

Again some contemporary examples reveal the strange homoeopathy of dealing with the afterlife: Ramangining artist Jimmy Wululu’s entry for a recent Biennale of Sydney was plain white sand for cleansing rituals after the death of a member of the community. The sand is sung over, danced on and destroyed at the end of the ceremony. Ximena Zomosa marked the absence of her dead mother with oversized skirts and furniture outlined in human hair. Colombian-born Doris Salcedo’s Altrabiliaros marked the absence of the disappeared in their family member’s donation of a shoe put in an altar and covered with translucent animal skin held to the plaster by surgical sutures. Here wounding and healing are one.

When asked whom he wrote for, the German playwright Heiner Müller claimed he wrote for the dead. The dead are in the majority. It is probably unwise to mention this to the marketing departments of our publishers or gallery dealers or theatre boards. But the figures are persuasive. Number of human beings = 6 billion. Number of human beings ever alive = 100 billion. Writing for the dead is writing for the majority.

The dead are all around. Dead times and places return to life; the dead walk again. Gibson’s Seven Versions… is a riveting read, and another way of learning from, listening and writing to the dead. It’s a book that reminds us that artists and writers can’t change the world. They can give you an inkling of how and why and where things might change. They tell us how, by creating the imaginative space—the space of desire—we can reclaim in psychic terms what we’ve done to ourselves in the West.

Ross Gibson is currently Research Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Technology Sydney. He has curated the Remembrance program (Mar 21-Aug 31) for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image where he was Creative Director until 2002.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 4

© George Alexander; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003