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No Man Is An Island

May 2013, Cocos Islands, Australia. Local residents find 28 empty life jackets washed ashore across a number Stone Island Clothes UK of beaches. Perhaps at first this appears run of the mill. The Australian authorities is fast, in any case, 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.

On 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 flooring. This collection, titled ‘Someone died attempting to have a like mine’, refers directly to the 28 life jackets discovered on the shores of the Cocos. It was my great pleasure to help Alex in his studio during production of the works, and to experience their development over several months.

Alex Seton, Someone died attempting to have a life like mine, 2014.
‘No man is an island, complete 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 individuals. At their highest, they sit a mere 5 metres above sea level, having fun with a pleasant climate almost 12 months round thanks to southeast trade winds and average rainfall. Collectively, they occupy just over 14 sq. kilometres of the Indian Ocean southwest of Christmas Island, about 1200km from Jakarta and 3000km from Perth. This place is politically and economically strategic for its proximity to Indian Ocean and South China Sea transport lanes, and has afforded the small islands a considerably colourful historical past.

The primary 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 along 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 along with his wife, two kids and mother-in-legislation, Hare was dwelling with a harem of 40 Malay girls. Clunies-Ross and his crew reclaimed the island, establishing his family in a feudal-style rule that would final greater than a century.

It was not till the 1970s that the Australian government turned their consideration to the Cocos Islands and their strange dynastic rule. Almost certainly as a result of their strategic placement, Australia compelled the sale of the islands again to the federal government in 1978 for just a little over six million dollars, allowing the Clunies-Ross’ to retain nothing but their dwelling, Oceania House. Five years later this property was also revoked, in an action later ruled by the High Court docket as unlawful, and the Clunies-Ross family had been faraway from the islands completely. Not glad with having revoked the islands from Clunies-Ross’ management, the government went on to embargo the family’s shipping company, contributing to their eventual bankruptcy and relocation to Perth.

‘Islands characterize a microcosm of the universe … a stone island zip tops mingling of universality and particularity’.2

There may be an allegorical flavour to the history of the Cocos Islands, which may 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 higher Australia taken on the mythology of a peaceful and safe life for many 1000’s of asylum seekers all over 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 solely the particularity of those washed up on the Cocos Islands, although they do embody delicate markers of that occasion. Additionally they 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 incontrovertible fact that not solely these 28 lost at sea, however many more earlier than and after them, gave their lives hoping to achieve the safety and safety we get pleasure from day by day. Seton credits ‘Dark Heart’ curator Nick Mitzevich with identifying the title, which the artist had scrawled across certainly one of his many whiteboards and which occurred to catch Mitzevich’s eye during a studio visit, and it is a credit score certainly.

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 presumably the primary time in his laudable career there isn’t a 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 critical. While the artist grimaces on the suggestion that this work is evidence of a follow ‘matured’, there may be 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 distant Cocos Islands was one more in an extended and deeply shameful historical past of our nation’s engagement with asylum seekers. In response to the information of the discovery, the Australian authorities swiftly and impassively released a press release that it was unaware of any asylum seeker boats within the area and that it was frequent for ‘debris’ to scrub ashore from the ocean.Four This considerably chilling characterisation of the jackets as ‘debris’ was the tip of the matter – no try and search for the missing bodies or examine the incident was made. Seven months later, nevertheless, a former worker of the Division of Immigration printed an article contradicting this assertion, revealing that there had certainly been a ship detected, and that no motion had been taken to forestall the deaths of its passengers.

For this, there could be no justification, and in this no humour. Maybe on this charged and tragic story, Seton has finally encountered a topic worthy of the complete solemnity of marble.

‘In its watery isolation, each island determines a state of mind’6
Within the matter of asylum seekers, it is our littoral areas that largely define the collective psyche. Repeatedly, the government’s drained and sinister rhetoric concerning the boats conjures false photos of our shores beneath assault, invaded by folks with troubles from which we think about ourselves eliminated, besides by virtue of our shared humanity and first world accountability, both of which seem to be conveniently forgotten by those in power. There may be a wierd and troubling disconnectedness at play, a narrative extra knowledgeable by murky liminal border areas than human expertise.

Writing on the character of island expertise, J. E. Ritchie paints it as ‘within itself, with all its conflicts, doubtlessly whole’.7 To exist on or as an island is to be complete, to be self-contained. At the centre of this continuously romanticised discourse of the island as a microcosm with its personal registers of that means and units of relations, nevertheless, lies a darkish coronary 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 greater than something, our studying of the nationwide response to the asylum seeker situation needs to be nissological. Nissology, a term coined to describe the study of ‘islands on their own terms’8, proposes numerous characteristics purportedly shared by island states. It could appear a stretch, initially, to contemplate Australia alongside its smaller and fewer powerful island consociates. However pondering certain facets 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 or not material or socio-cultural); and a serious preoccupation with migration – one can rapidly see the extent to which geography can work to inform our national character.

Alex Seton, Someone died trying to have a life like mine (in progress), January – February 2014.
‘What is this darkness in our nationwide character that we do not readily lengthen good religion and protection to those that 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 video games at sea. Seen in the light of current events, Seton’s work is maybe the darkest of all Mitzevich’s Dark Hearts – toying with our nissological panic, reminding us of the mortal consequences for those which are ‘outside’ this complete. In this, we are all complicit. In her recount of working with the Department of Immigration, the previous employee had this to say:

This realisation is seemingly gradual 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 Somebody died attempting to have a life like mine so affecting is its invitation to view this divisive problem 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 controversy again to a spot of humanity and individuality. Every 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. No matter your political stance on immigration and asylum, Seton gambles, when confronted with the human penalties of our present policy you can not 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. With out forcing anyone reply down our throats, Seton’s work makes clear the stakes: persons are dying making an attempt 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 Area(s): Liquid Edges of Poetic Chance. Journal of the Canadian Affiliation for Curriculum Research. Vol 5 Problem 1

three. Artist assertion offered to the creator


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 thoughts. Ethos, 5 , 187-194.

Eight. McCall, G. (1994). Nissology: A proposal for consideration. Journal of the Pacific Society, 63‐64(17).

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10. Whitman, W (1855/2005). Leaves of Grass. Harold Bloom, forty seven.

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