Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Geopolitical Underground: Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, Mining, and the Sacred

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Geopolitical Underground: Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, Mining, and the Sacred

Article excerpt

IN A 2006 ARTICLE in the Australian which appeared under one of Tracey Moffatt's images from her 1998 photographic exhibition, "Up in the Sky," Marcia Langton began by recalling two events of that year that had rekindled her interest in "the complicated relationship, ranging from the brutally and pragmatically financial to the highly emotional that Australians have had with the mining industry":

And they framed the question of how we will understand the new boom and the way mining is still changing Australia.

In April, the media broadcast every detail of the Beaconsfield mine tragedy in Tasmania, from the impact of the death of Larry Knight on the community to the emotion and heroism of the tense and laboriously slow 14-day rescue of Todd Russell and Brant Webb. As if I had read about them in a novel, I now have an odd imaginary relationship with a small Tasmanian mining town and the two fortunate men rescued from its mine.

The previous month [March] I was struck by the death of artist and sculptor Pro Hart. A miner in his youth, Hart lived most of his life in the mining city of Broken Hill in far western NSW, where he painted the people and streetscapes, the landscapes and the mines. Long ignored by urban art industry elites as merely a naïve artist, Hart struck a chord with ordinary Australians, especially the mining folk who were his subjects. After his death, the print and broadcast media provided tributes to his life that repeatedly reminded us of the irony that 1he National Gallery of Australia does not own a single work by Australia's most popular artist.'

Langton recalls Moffatt's images of the "obliquely referenced" Broken Hill landscapes - "no romance under the big western skies [...] only discontented souls, treeless gullies, the highway, storm drains and corrugated-iron shacks" - in connection with her experience of the mediatized Beaconsfield drama and the news of Pro Hart's death. Her article speculates on the aesthetic and social contradictions she perceives in these two events and that have their resonances in her own history of growing up as an Aboriginal person in southern Queensland, and in her knowledge of the history of mining in Australia. The tensions run deep. Moffatt's photographs, "acute [studies] of the edges of an imagined mining landscape and society," were in fact commissioned by New York's Dia Art Foundation and therefore circulate within a globalized contemporary art world, which includes the internationally oriented Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney, where the series was first exhibited. The "Up in the Sky" series is highly allusive and technically innovative photographic work, including the image that heads the Australian article of a "beefed-up Amazonian chick swinging a mallet on top of a bumt-out car." While overall the impact of Moffatt's series for Langton is "apocalyptic and banal," she also recognizes the "mise en scène" as "undeniably Australian, [...] the desiccated inland, hinting at history and the new global citizens" of a resource-industriesdriven economy. All the same, as Langton feels, Moffatt's work is as distant as possible on the spectrum of Australian cultural expression from the work of tiie "non-urban and naïve" Pro Hart, however much they both might reference the landscape of Broken Hill. Back in 1989, Langton had played a leading role in Moffatt's "rural tragedy" Night Cries, her short film that, like "Up in the Sky," is in dialogue with international media history and avant-garde image-making.2 So Langton clearly feels implicated in the "urban art industry elites" that have spumed Pro Hart just as she feels that the experience of the Beaconsfield miners, as miners, is "alien."

Motivated by such contemporary contradictions, "dualities" she calls them, Langton ranges widely across Australian literature, historiography, film, and art - from Fred Williams's Conzinc Riotinto commissions (the Pilbara and western Cape York landscapes), to Geoffrey Blarney's history of the gold rushes (and S. …

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