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No Man Is An Island

May 2013, Cocos Islands, Australia. Local residents discover 28 empty life jackets washed ashore throughout several beaches. Perhaps at first this appears run of the mill. The Australian government is quick, in any case, to remind us issues wash ashore on these islands on a regular basis. But there’s one thing inescapably unsettling concerning the jackets. One thing terribly foreboding of their emptiness, their mute look on our land.

At the 2014 Adelaide Biennial ‘Dark Heart’, Australian sculptor Alex Seton has presented a serious new work: 28 marble life jackets, strewn throughout the darkened gallery flooring. This assortment, titled ‘Someone died trying to have a like mine’, refers on to the 28 life jackets discovered on the shores of the Cocos. It was my nice pleasure to assist Alex in his studio during manufacturing of the works, and to experience their improvement over a number of months.

Alex Seton, Somebody died attempting to have a life like mine, 2014.
‘No man is an island, whole of itself’1

The Cocos Islands are a small Australian territory consisting of two atolls and 27 coral islands, inhabited by a complete of 596 individuals. At their highest, they sit a mere five metres above sea degree, having fun with a pleasant climate almost year spherical due 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 shipping lanes, and has afforded the small islands a somewhat 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 together with his household, 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 spouse, two kids and mom-in-law, Hare was living with a harem of forty Malay ladies. Clunies-Ross and his crew reclaimed the island, establishing his household in a feudal-type rule that would last more than a century.

It was not till the 1970s that the Australian authorities turned their consideration to the Cocos Islands and their unusual dynastic rule. bomber jacket stone island Most probably on account of their strategic placement, Australia pressured the sale of the islands back to the federal government in 1978 for slightly over six million dollars, permitting the Clunies-Ross’ to retain nothing but their house, Oceania Home. 5 years later this property was also revoked, in an motion later ruled by the Excessive Court as unlawful, and the Clunies-Ross household were faraway from the islands solely. Not happy with having revoked the islands from Clunies-Ross’ management, the government went on to embargo the family’s transport firm, contributing to their eventual bankruptcy and relocation to Perth.

‘Islands symbolize a microcosm of the universe … a mingling of universality and particularity’.2

There may be an allegorical flavour to the history of the Cocos Islands, which might be read as a synecdoche to mainland Australia’s personal historical past of colonisation and insurance policies of at times unlawful exclusion. As the Cocos Islands have lengthy been a site of paradisiac dreaming, so has better Australia taken on the mythology of a peaceful and secure life for a lot of 1000’s of asylum seekers all over the world. Each year, a (statistically quite small) quantity of those asylum seekers try to reach Australia by boat, a journey with usually tragic outcomes.

Alex Seton’s marble life jackets evoke not only the particularity of these washed up on the Cocos Islands, though they do embrace delicate markers of that event. In addition they pull us right into a extra common revelry, driven house by the title Somebody died making an attempt to have a life like mine. In this string of words is wrapped up the entirety of the work’s psychic impression: the stark fact that not solely these 28 lost at sea, however many more earlier than and after them, gave their lives hoping to reach the security and safety we take pleasure in daily. Seton credit ‘Dark Heart’ curator Nick Mitzevich with identifying the title, which the artist had scrawled throughout one in all his many whiteboards and which happened to catch Mitzevich’s eye throughout a studio go to, and it is a credit indeed.

Whether or not these lives are given at sea or in deplorable offshore processing centres, our nation’s unwillingness to supply safety to those that seek asylum on our shores is resulting within the lack of human life. On this, Seton is unequivocal:

For possibly the first 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. Somebody died attempting to have a life like mine is deadly serious. While the artist grimaces on the suggestion that this work is evidence of a practice ‘matured’, there’s an undeniable gravitas to it, an earnestness free from the puns and witticisms that have characterised previous work. These sculptures memorialise, and greater 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 yet another in a long and deeply shameful historical past of our nation’s engagement with asylum seekers. In response to the information of the discovery, the Australian government swiftly and impassively released an announcement 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 tip of the matter – no try and seek for the missing our 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 indeed been a boat detected, and that no motion had been taken to forestall the deaths of its passengers.

For this, there could be no justification, and on this no humour. Perhaps in this charged and tragic story, Seton has ultimately encountered a subject worthy of the total solemnity of marble.

‘In its watery isolation, every island determines a state of mind’6
In the matter of asylum seekers, it’s our littoral areas that largely define the collective psyche. Many times, the government’s tired and sinister rhetoric concerning the boats conjures false pictures of our shores underneath attack, invaded by folks with troubles from which we imagine ourselves removed, besides by advantage of our shared humanity and first world duty, both of which appear to be conveniently forgotten by those in power. There may be an odd and troubling disconnectedness at play, a narrative extra knowledgeable by murky liminal border areas than human expertise.

Writing on the nature 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 full, to be self-contained. At the centre of this incessantly romanticised discourse of the island as a microcosm with its own registers of which means and units of relations, nevertheless, lies a darkish coronary heart. In posturing island expertise as ‘whole’, we exclude that which is yet to come back, relegating it to an excess not included in the whole, bounded by horizon on all sides.

Maybe greater than something, our reading of the nationwide response to the asylum seeker difficulty must be nissological. Nissology, a time period coined to explain the examine of ‘islands on their own terms’8, proposes quite a lot of traits purportedly shared by island states. It could seem a stretch, initially, to contemplate Australia alongside its smaller and less powerful island consociates. Nonetheless pondering sure elements of this taxonomy – clearly outlined borders; a scarcity of land resources; an ideological boundary that clearly stipulates an ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’; a psychic picture knowledgeable by narratives of limitation (whether materials or socio-cultural); and a major preoccupation with migration – one can shortly see the extent to which geography can work to inform our nationwide character.

Alex Seton, Someone died making an attempt to have a life like mine (in progress), January – February 2014.
‘What is that this darkness in our national character that we do not readily prolong good religion and protection to those who claim the necessity for asylum’, Seton asks with Somebody died attempting to have a life like mine. What he has uncovered is our very personal heart of darkness, this psychic image of our land as full, restricted, sheltered solely by protectionist coverage and deadly games at sea. Seen in the light of recent events, Seton’s work is maybe the darkest of all Mitzevich’s Darkish Hearts – toying with our nissological panic, reminding us of the mortal penalties for these that are ‘outside’ this complete. On this, we’re all complicit. In her recount of working with the Division of Immigration, the previous employee had this to say:

This realisation is seemingly gradual to infiltrate our island minds, however is vital to the integrity of our nation. In action and inaction, we are all complicit.

‘This is the frequent air that bathes the globe’10
What makes Somebody died making an attempt to have a life like mine so affecting is its invitation to view this divisive situation on a human scale. Eschewing the grand or politicised motion (of the type we have now seen not too long ago with the boycott of the Biennale of Sydney over their ties with Transfield, for instance), Seton brings the talk again to a place of humanity and individuality. Each of the 28 jackets has a story to tell. Scattered desolately throughout the gallery flooring, we slowly come to see in them the lives they in the end failed to guard – the mothers and youngsters, young men and boys, pregnant girls and their hopeful husbands. No matter your political stance on immigration and asylum, Seton gambles, when confronted with the human penalties of our current policy you can not stay unmoved.

Someplace on the spectrum between opening our borders and the scenario as it stands should lie a more acceptable solution for the intake and processing of asylum seekers. With out forcing anybody reply down our throats, Seton’s work makes clear the stakes: persons are dying trying to have a life like ours. The query that follows is apparent: what are we going to do about it

1. Donne, J. Meditation XVII.
2. Thomas, S. (2007) Littoral Space(s): Liquid Edges of Poetic Chance. Journal of the Canadian Affiliation for Stone Island Jeans Curriculum Studies. Vol 5 Problem 1

3. Artist statement offered to the writer


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.

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.

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