By Patrick Sutczak
Finding myself in another tunnel and once again finding myself having to stop.
The idea of a tunnel acting as a thoroughfare across Cockatoo Island (I assume to save time) is proving problematic in that very intention. For now, these are gallery spaces, sites of artistic installation, and sites of interventions. I could also say they are sites of reflection. I am the token tourist on Sydney's Gloucester Street who could be seen stopping every five meters to photograph the original terrace housing – or to peer into the excavations beneath the YHA accommodation, and actually enjoy it. There is something about history that captivates me, and certainly the endevours to unearth it, preserve it, and more importantly to learn from it. A captivation shared by many, but not enough. But those structures are the solid things, the remnants still here – the kind of relics that can be cordoned off, dusted down, chipped away at and displayed - things of permanent exhibition. What if history is oral, migratory, or is testament to an assimilationist – how might we engage with that? Biennale artist Jonathon Jones raises his hand…
Warrane, or Sydney Harbour, is the site of one of the most important historical meetings – the collision between the British Empire and the Eora, representatives of the world’s oldest living culture. Some 220 years ago, this encounter marked the start of Australia’s ongoing colonisation, a process that attempts to raze Aboriginal culture. Yet within this reign of terror, intelligence, strength and flexibility all persevere, and these qualities have come to define many of our Aboriginal leaders: Woollarawarre Bennelong (c1764–1813), a Wongal man from the southern shores of Sydney Harbour, emerges from Sydney’s history as a brilliant leader, diplomat, and visionary. Bennelong was first forcibly kidnapped in 1789 under the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814), then sought a new life within his rapidly changing world. He astutely assimilated the new power structure into his own, referring to Phillip as ‘father’ and developing a deep relationship that saw Bennelong and his family dine nightly with the governor. In 1790, Phillip constructed Bennelong a stone home on the point that today still bears his name. In 1792, he and his kinsman, Yemmerrawannie (c.1775–1794), became the first Aboriginal people to visit England. Bennelong shaped Aboriginal identity. His astute and charismatic nature found new ways of operating within a colonial paradigm and paved the way for future generations.
- Jonathon Jones
Artist Statement from the 18th Biennale of Sydney website (http://bos18.com/artist?id=63)
I can’t help but think that Jones is one of many who identifies with the terror that Woollarawarre Bennelong must have realised at the time of violent colonisation, yet assesses it with intellect and calm while remaining a voice for history and the malleable future. In fact, more than a voice – a creative visionary that remains true to his heritage – a contemporary advocate for the keeping of stories. Stories like the annual feast of the long-finned eels that proved to be the reason for a gathering of celebration and fill. The migration of the uncaught would spawn and fill the surrounding estuaries for the next year. This of course, is sustainability – and smarts.
The migrating eels are represented above me in the tunnel as bright flouroescent tubes, weaving their way from entry to exit, from harbour to coast – a map of their journey illuminating my passage form one point to the next reminding me of their importance of longevity; food as energy, light as direction, system as nature. An illuminating experience indeed and one that connects with the visceral in terms of ritual behaviour brought about by the necessity of food.
A feast is about the company, the dialogue, the exchange of narrative, of stories and of friendship - the need to eat, the need to survive, the need to connect – a celebration of animal, a celebration of human. And this, I feel, is what Jones is trying to tell me with his work - the history of Cockatoo Island, the gathering of the feast of eels, the power of communion and companionship, nurture and nature; of Sydney Harbour or Warrane, and those who knew her very differently.
Not unlike Woollarawarre Bennelong, Jones is shaping Aboriginal identity by relishing in his lineage, creatively exploring his ancestry in multi-cultural Australia, and visually telling his stories to the delight of many.
As I emerge from the tunnel, another welcome surprise. Another Jonathon Jones – untitled (oysters & tea cups). Sensational.