Lest we remember

Australian public art whitewashes our uncomfortable past, writes Matilda Surtees.

One morning, earlier this year, I accidently wandered into a graveyard. I was in Berlin, looking for a Starbucks, but instead I found the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

It stands in the centre of the city, embedded between the iconic Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz; Berlin likes to keep its history visible.

A visitor quickly finds themselves ten metres deep into a sombre cross-hatch of stelae, grey concrete slabs, which reach higher over you the further into the memorial you pass. The ground there is uneven and undulating. The space is designed to provoke unease.

This memorial may be the most prominent, but there are others: countless museums studded through the city’s public spaces dedicated to one of the two regimes that have blighted Germany. I visited many of them – not usually by accident. Other markers of memory are less formal. “Guilt” is scrawled across many of the graffitied walls in stark capital letters. When I saw them, I read them as little tags of remembrance and acknowledgement – and I thought of home.

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It’s no secret that we are engaged in ongoing debate over our past and its relationship with Indigenous history. The ‘History Wars’ have been a social battleground and a political football for almost two decades. During the last federal election, Education Minister Christopher Pyne warned that a “confidence-sapping ‘black armband’ view of our history” had threatened to “take hold”. Now in office, he has instigated a school curriculum review, the results of which are expected in June.

Despite the fervour and divisiveness of the debate, our visual landscape of history remains remarkably homogenous. There are almost no public memorials that commemorate Aboriginal massacres, no vast civic monuments that stand testament to an unacknowledged war.

Our public space is not barren of history. It is only bereft of a particular type. Somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 memorials are dedicated to offshore wars and fallen soldiers.

It’s not just the memorials. Public art, another vital element of the spatial framing of history and society, privileges a story of discovery and settlement. Our own city centre is occupied by statues of early explorers, navigators, and governors: Captain Cook in Hyde Park, Arthur Phillip in the Botanical Gardens, and Sir Richard Bourke and Matthew Flinders outside Mitchell Library.

With 43 other artists, Mundine created Aboriginal Memorial for the 1988 Biennale, in memory of Aboriginal lives lost and taken since white settlement. Now displayed in the National Gallery of Australia, it is one of only two artworks in the public space that specifically commemorate Aboriginal massacres.

The other is Fiona Foley’s Witnessing to Silence, which stands outside the Brisbane Magistrates Court. Itlists 90 known massacre sites in Queensland. To ensure the work came to fruition, Foley told its commissioners it was dedicated to sites affected by flood and fire. “I had to be very subversive about it,” Foley has said. “Most people don’t want to acknowledge these things took place.”

Foley receives due recognition for insistently “trying to write Aboriginal people back into the landscape.” However, when I speak to her, she points out that she is “just pricking the surface with three or four public art works”. The statement, like her monuments, sits starkly against the thousands of war memorials dispersed through the nation’s public spaces.

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Among the sites I visited in Berlin was the house of German parliament itself, the Reichstag. I actually went twice; the idea of a building that had stood through every historical period since the German Empire appealed to me.

Each time, by taking the most direct route, I passed the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. It’s literally across the road from the Reichstag. Sitting outside an official, high-traffic building, it has a position of prominence and significance; a parallel positioning, albeit reduced, was what Foley fought to claim for Witnessing to Silence when she lied in order to ensure it was installed outside an Australian public court.

In the Reichstag itself, I walked upwards to the glass dome that sits atop the building. It’s open for tours, popular enough to require booking in advance. I took the tour with an audio-guide. A thin-voiced recording verbally mapped the Berlin skyline for me as I slowly paced the spiralled walkway of the dome. It plotted out where the Wall once stood, before telling me to turn right and look out over Tiergarten. Through a thick crop of trees, stripped to their skeletons by the winter, I glimpsed the Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial as the recording dispassionately listed the appropriate facts and dates.

Blessed with the keen mind of a history student, I succeeded in forgetting most of them by the time I descended to the foyer again. What lingered was a sense of envy, and of foreignness, both inspired by observing another instance of the marriage of geography and memory in Berlin, unequivocally supported by the state.

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In an address, last September, from the Director of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), former Liberal leader Dr Brendan Nelson declared that “a people that neither knows and nor, more importantly, understands its history, in my view, is dangerous.”

When asked about frontier violence from the press, Nelson acknowledges there is a “story that needs to be told,” but maintains that his is “not the institution to tell that story”.

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Historian Henry Reynolds has been a vocal advocate to the contrary, pressing in recent months for an Aboriginal memorial to be included in the AWM. Reynolds’ recently published Forgotten War argues that frontier violence constituted the longest and most significant war in our history.

“If we are going to talk about wars, the important war was the war in Australia,” he tells me.

Reynolds, in his measured articulation, tells me that it leaves a fundamental contradiction in our national sense of self. “You can’t say that war is essential to the history of our nation, then say ‘you black fellas don’t belong here.’ It’s just not sustainable,” he says.

When I ask him about his advocacy, he gives me the impression that it’s not the particulars that matter to him, but the act itself. He simply replies, “I have no idea,” when I enquire if he has thought about a timeframe for the memorial he’s been agitating for. The pomp and spectacle surrounding the centenary of ANZAC Day emphasises the national importance of our military experience: narrative and identity is intertwined around it. The digger became the prototypical national character in the 20th century, subsuming the legend of the bushman. Secular, ‘national’ values of egalitarianism and mateship are both defined and made transcendent in stories of blood and battle.

In such a culture, the AWM has become the embodied heart of national memory. Its significance has ascended to border on mythological, its role as in national myth-making – both expression and propagation – prompting Reynolds to describe it as the national pantheon.

Dr. Nelson’s perfunctory comments last September serve to close, rather than open discussion. His words were an unwilling twitch of recognition, one that made it clear he sees black stories as somebody else’s problem.

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In the lead up to the centenary of Gallipoli in 2015, four 7-metre high bullets and three fallen ones, made out of marble and metal, will be installed in Hyde Park to coincide with this anniversary. They will be part of a memorial commissioned by the City of Sydney and designed by Tony Albert, a Brisbane artist and Indigenous man, to specifically commemorate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen.

The memorial is not for those killed in the ‘Forgotten War’. It will commemorate those who fought on distant soil, in service rather than resistance. Mundine tells me that it’s “a way of incorporating or folding Aboriginal people into the state”. Of course, colonial monument or not, the memorial is a century overdue.

I ask Albert whether he thinks this delayed rectification is a sign of change. He reflects on my question, before thoughtfully replying that he sees it as “an opportunity, especially as a catalyst.”

“After a public event or talk, people want to come to me and share family stories – these oral histories that haven’t been written about, particularly involved in ANZAC, which white mainstream Australians hold dear to them. It’s all a step forward in recognising historical truth,” he says.

Albert’s insight cuts straight to the importance of memorialisation. Effective memorials are not symbolic or static. Memorials should work as catalysts; they need to inspire, not complete, memory. There is a danger inherent in monument-building and memorialisation. The process can be viewed as close-ended: the project emerges, fetishised, as a site of remembrance,rather than an expression of it. It is a process of discourse and feedback, renewing and reconstituting national memory indefinitely.

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In Germany, standing in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I had wondered about the mind of a nation that under a different state and in a different time had hosted the Holocaust. What went through the collective mind as they built this monument to the six million?

“We suspected it would be a place where Germans would come to dutifully unshoulder their memorial burden … a hermetically sealed vault for the ghosts of Germany’s past,” says Dr James Young, in his essay ‘Germany’s Holocaust Memorial Problem – And Mine’. A Jewish-American academic involved in overseeing the construction of the Memorial, Young has written extensively about the process.

His misgivings were eventually reconciled, in part by Germany’s persistent commitment to inscribing its history in the public landscape. No other nation, he wrote, has “attempted to make such a crime perpetrated in its name part of its national identity”.

The GDR, too, is part of this highly visible German history. In Berlin, parts of the wall are left intact, with one section, 1.3 kilometres long, becoming the Eastside Gallery; the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park is also a cemetery to 5000 soldiers; the famous ampelmännchen crossing men still signal ‘go’ on traffic lights in the East; the ‘death strip’ was not built over and erased, but turned into popular Mauer Park.

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However, the Germans have had to grapple with upheavals that are totally absent from the Australian experience. There have been abrupt ruptures between periods of German history and governance, the state flicking quickly between monarchy, democracy, fascism and totalitarianism within the past century. When the state ruptures, the nation is forced to navigate and renegotiate its national identity, and rephrase the terms in which its narrative is couched.

This deliberate, intentional and inward evaluation of history and character is unknown to Australia. We have never had the continuity of our state interrupted in a comparable manner, and never had our atrocities brought forward so openly.

And so we have drifted along, through frontier violence to silence – and we have come, in the past decades, to a tense period that has been defined by unprecedented debate over our history and anxiety over our identity.

We have reached an uneasy acknowledgement that the bloodless narrative was a lie. Increasingly, and perhaps unwillingly, we have accepted that our history has been stained by violence and abuse towards Aboriginal people. But the parameters of our memory narrow in practice: this seems to be what Mundine is referring to when, at one point in our conversation, he refers to non-Indigenous Australia as executing “a slight of hand”.

Our acknowledgement remains bizarrely lopsided, as if it were an awkward formality rather than a reality that, if acknowledged, would fundamentally change the national narrative. Nelson’s address, with its simultaneous acknowledgement and disavowal, exemplifies this.

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Foley draws a direct line between the current state of race relations and our cultural amnesia: “What we tend to have is people wanting to bury their heads in the sand and not talk about the deaths, a frontier war spanning 140 years. I think that’s why we have the type of race relations we do today, we haven’t dealt with it and so we’re stuck.”

When I talk to Albert about his work, I raise the tension between acknowledgements and actualities. Albert is both diplomatic and positive throughout the conversation, but he is perhaps most critical when he telling me “there hasn’t been a significant change since the Apology. The idea of sorry just being a word is still very relevant.”

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“It may well be that Aboriginal people say, ‘We may be part of the state but we are not part of your nation.’ And we would like to have a war memorial of our own,” Reynolds tells me.

Reynolds’ emphasis on autonomy and initiative echoes something Mundine had told me in our earlier conversation. “When the Aboriginal Memorial was installed and opened, I said that Aboriginal memorials were only made when we were on the front foot, when we are in recovery, not in retreat.”

I blundered my response to Mundine that day, asking him if he was saying that he thought Australia was in recovery. “No,” he replied sharply, “I think Aboriginal people are.” It’s an important distinction. Non-Indigenous Australians have not been forced to go through a recovery from the ‘Forgotten War’, having been kept unscathed through both power and denial.

“There’ll be a lot of guilt and hurt that comes along with understanding the massacres that happened here, but that comes along with understanding,” Albert says. He is reassuringly optimistic about the potential outcome, telling me he doesn’t think it divides people “at all,” but rather “gives an opportunity for healing and understanding of real history.”

Young’s work has noted that in Germany public art has been a crucial supplement to official memorialisation. Often expressing a personal and particular engagement with history, they writes that public artworks “allow the void to remain palpable, but unredeemed”.

Considering Foley’s forced subversion, it seems perhaps Australians are yet to come to this understanding. Mundine, too, recounted difficulties in getting his art into spaces of public visibility. A proposal to carve an engraving he has designed, The Song of Bennelong and Pemulwuy, prominently into the rock-face adjacent to the Sydney Opera House has received statements of support from the Opera House management, the Metropolitan Land Council and City of Sydney MP Tanya Plibersek, among others. But Mundine first made this proposal two decades ago, and still no one has committed to the funding which he estimates at a meagre $250,000.

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We have also yet to commit to the sort of pedagogical public institutions that are so plentiful in Germany. The Topography of Terror, the Stasi Museum, the DDR Museum, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the Jewish Museum are all public institutions dedicated to a difficult history, and they do the work of integrating this history into national identity. In the DDR Museum, I rubbed my fingers over coarse polyester dresses and grimaced at the feel. Next to the dresses a panel explained that nearly everyone wore clothes made of such material due to the scarcity of non-synthetic fabrics in the DDR. Such details accompany the representation of events of tremendous, and tragic, significance in these museums, providing nuance and depth to the historical record.

Meanwhile, in Australia we have no dedicated museum for the atrocities committed. The agitation of chiefly right-wing figures resulted in a review of the National Museum of Australia in 2003, which concluded there were “certainly some elements in the exhibitions that… create the effect of characterising the Europeans as unwelcome invaders”. The displays were subsequently changed.

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In this context Foley’s recent suggestion, made on a public discussion panel, that Australia should have an Aboriginal holocaust museum is a sharp departure from the mainstream. It shouldn’t be.

2015 will be the centenary anniversary of Gallipoli; one hundred years since what has been considered a national coming of age. It is the pledge to keep lost lives bright in our memory. ANZAC Day should rightly humble us.

It is no slur upon our past, nor upon those we honour, to question if we approach this national milestone with the character we might have hoped for when a fledgling national identity began to emerge in Australia a century ago.

For as long as we fail to accord the Aboriginal lives taken and scarred in this country with equal dignity and magnitude to those given in our service offshore, we mark ourselves as a nation not yet come to maturity.