In Defence of a Desecration

Article for Meanjin Quarterly


A couple of weeks ago, I drove to Windsor in western Sydney to visit a crime scene.

The scene was at a monument to Lachlan Macquarie, the fifth Governor of NSW, who gave the small township its name on his first tour of the colony. The crime, on this particular day, was graffiti. On February 13, the statue was painted red, covered with anti-colonial statements, an Aboriginal flag and the label ‘Murderer’.

Hawkesbury Police Local Area Command had appealed to the public via Facebook in an effort to shame the graffiti artists and to appeal for leads. Chief Inspector Garry Sims vowed to “investigate until those responsible were caught”, stating that “this memorial is a tribute to [Macquarie’s] leading role and influence between 1810 and 1821”. Within a day, Police had removed the post, citing a growing number of racist comments in the feed. However, many commenters had also identified Macquarie as a “genocidal maniac” and “war criminal”, and criticised police for editorialising on the incident.

Photographs of the graffitied monument had revealed a provocative and visually striking image. However, much of the graffiti had been removed by Hawkesbury Council the morning after. On my visit, the monument smelt of turpentine but was still blushing red; a crime scene in partial cleanup. While circumnavigating the monument with my camera, a police car slowed to a crawl beside the park.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie has long been celebrated as a renaissance man and humanitarian. But, despite the assertions of police, Macquarie’s enduring historical status is questionable. 

On 8 May, 1816, for example, Macquarie ordered that Aboriginal inhabitants:

“ …surrender themselves… as Prisoners of War. If they refuse to do so, make the least show of resistance, or attempt to run away from you, you will fire upon and compel them to surrender… Such Natives as happen to be killed on such occasions, if grown up men, are to be hanged up on trees in conspicuous situations, to strike the Survivors with the greater terror… Such Women and Children as may happen to be killed are to be interred wherever they may happen to fall….”

By his own account, Macquarie planned and ordered the massacre, torture and incarceration of Aboriginal people, and the abduction of Aboriginal children. At the Appin Massacre in 1816, children, women, warriors and the elderly were surprised in their homes at night; shot, decapitated and hung from trees, or driven “in despair over a precipice”.

In comments to the Hawkesbury Gazette, Barry Corr, an Indigenous man, historian and Windsor resident, said:

“Coming to terms with the horror and the implications of the 1794-1824 Frontier War is something the Hawkesbury community has consistently failed to do.”

In identifying his victims as ‘Prisoners of War’, Macquarie contradicts his own attempt to reframe a military campaign of dispossession as mere ‘conflict’ and ‘settlement’. These semantics are perpetuated today as orthodoxy, enshrined in the colonial monuments and rituals that continue to occupy and define Australian public space. In ‘Prisoners of War’, Macquarie acknowledges the lie of Terra Nullius. Far from being an empty continent, Australia was home to a strong, dissenting population, ultimately subdued through a program of institutionalised brutality.

In the graffitied statue, we are presented with a perfect cultural intersection; two forms of public art, diametric in their opposition, competing for determination of both civic space and historical record. The original artwork is sanctioned, staid and steeped in colonial mores; the updated sculpture is gestural, spontaneous, contemporary. And illegal.

Crucially, the graffiti artists have not damaged or concealed the memorial, they have appropriated it, made it their own. The monument remains intact, but its meaning has been inverted. It was the act of appropriation that first caught my attention. It is one thing to smash symbols of oppression; quite another to recruit them.

Having viewed the memorial, I visited Elissa Blair, curator of Hawkesbury Regional Gallery in Windsor, who is reluctant to label the act of graffiti as art. I suggest that, on terms of both artistic merit and political acuity, the statue itself is not above criticism. Blair lowers her voice: “Don’t say that too loud around here”.

Commissioned in 1994 to commemorate the impending Bicentenary (celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet) Windor’s Macquarie is represented at a concrete dais in military regalia, perched above the viewer in foppish contraposto. The statue’s slight and disproportionate body emphasises a conspicuously oversized sword. 

If the sculptor hoped to convey an attitude of gravity and forbearance, he has unwittingly portrayed a figure of vacant condescension. The figure is surrounded by a pastiche of mosaic, celebrating a pastoral landscape of felled trees and grazing sheep. Surrounding this, a brickwork arrangement attempts to activate the authoritative tropes of classicism. In short, this public artwork is ripe for both parody and contemporary artistic appropriation.

No less than eight plaques have accumulated around the statue, attempting to establish an unblemished timeline of Macquarie’s grand influence, supported by quotes from the Governor’s own journal. Despite the damning evidence, this monument makes no attempt to detach itself from the historical record. Its pretence to being an accurate record serves only to highlight its deliberate omissions.

Local Hawkesbury Councillor Nathan Zamprogno positioned himself at the frontline of this debate, using Facebook to decry the ‘wanton vandalism’ to the memorial, recalling the “sense of community pride that prevailed on the day it was opened”, calling for the introduction of CCTV surveillance at the memorial site and concluding that “someone, somewhere in our community knows who did this. Report them today”. 

Using the label ‘wanton’, the Councillor implies that the graffiti was unprovoked, unreasoned and expressive of no agenda. This seems consistent with local reportage of the incident; the overt politics of the graffiti is unacknowledged. 

The Daily Telegraph, for example, reported only that the monument was “damaged with paint” and that “strong words” were painted. These words were then cropped from its accompanying photograph.

While sitting in McQuade Park contemplating Macquarie’s statue, I sent the Councillor a message. He was eager to discuss Macquarie’s legacy at length. He believes that, judged even by contemporary standards, Macquarie had a “liberal and generous attitude”. Contradicting Macquarie’s own exacting record of events, he dismisses the Governor’s violence as the necessary “capture of Aboriginal bandits”.

Asked for his opinion on the graffiti artists, the Councillor says: “I regard them as enemies of our society, I would call for their punishment to be severe, and if they were not born in Australia, I would, if it were in my power, send them back where they came from.” Thus, entrenched colonialism is effortlessly and illogically conflated with a fear of immigration. It is difficult to imagine a more complete and horrible irony.

As a political figure and, through his blog, as a self-styled public intellectual, Zamprogno actively engages with cultural identity in the Hawkesbury region. Strongly denying the existence of both the Stolen Generation and of genocidal policies in Australian history, he promotes the celebration of Australia’s “mostly British” foundations. The Councillor also finds an impressionable audience for these views in his role as a local school teacher.

Zamprogno, echoing both the local Police and media, insists that the graffiti be described as ‘desecration’. Deploying the lofty didactic of sacredness and profanity is nothing new, nor is it accidental. Monuments are designed to lend a quasi-religious impermeability to our false and propagandistic origin story. Our deference to these monuments, and our participation in the attendant ritual of Australia Day, compounds our complicity in the narrative and ensures its perpetuation.

Leaving Windsor, I drove out of Lachlan Court shopping centre, past the Macquarie Arms Hotel, turning into Macquarie street, passing Macquarie Kindergarten as I reach the highway, where a sign reminds me that I have visited ‘A Macquarie Town’. 

Macquarie is also immortalised in the naming of a bank, a university, a library, a lake and countless civic spaces across Australia. A new statue of Governor Macquarie was unveiled in Sydney’s Hyde Park as recently as 2013.

It is difficult to ignore the intent of nomenclature. In naming streets, parks, institutions and public spaces, we are daily obliged to invoke the pervasive emblems of a historical mythology, to reaffirm its fictions. In this way, our false narrative is embedded as a national doctrine, whereby dissent constitutes heresy.

The conflict between the Macquarie monument and its graffitied revision is not a conflict of aesthetics, but of agency. Graffiti is an imposition upon the social infrastructure of a particular place. A memorial to the legacy of Lachlan Macquarie, therefore, is itself an act of graffiti writ large. 

Monuments are the glib and artless ‘tags’ of Colonialism, imposed upon the unceded territories and existing histories of Aboriginal nations. They are illegitimate, and deserving of outrage.

Guardian

Paul Daley, writing for The Guardian:

...Asked if he feels his 2016 Australia Day message might have been unduly provocative to proud Australians, Chun says: "Of course you're asking about those 'reasonable' and good natured Australians who aren't necessarily bigoted or particularly invested in white privilege, but simply have a proud and wholesome love of Australia Day. Well, that's not a tenable position. Intellectually, there is no such thing as 'sitting on the fence'. To claim neutrality is to cast a firm vote for the status quo. In this case, the status quo is a deliberate annual reassertion of colonialism. Australia Day can be enjoyed with vulgar complicity or contrived ignorance, but the ritual is fraudulent and completely indefensible."...

NDD Update

It has now been 2 weeks since the senseless and overwrought reaction to my ‘Australia Day’ blackboard began. The media frenzy has abated, but the personal attacks - written, verbal and physical - have not.

This week, I replaced the glass window of my shopfront, as it had been smashed during the night. My staff opened the door at 7am to serve my regular coffee crowd. I spent the day cleaning broken beer bottles and glass from every corner of my studio.

Threats and abuse continue in the form of calls, texts and emails. My staff have been threatened from the curb. Customers have been ‘warned’ not to attend my espresso bar. Eggs and flour have been thrown over my shopfront.

I was pushed into a corner one evening by two local men who explained that “white people fighted and died for this country”.

And on it goes.

Although clearly united by a tangle of pre-existing hatreds and anxieties, referring to my aggressors as ‘politically motivated’ would be too kind. These aggressors are cultural molecules, not activists. They are the natural outgrowths of Australian history; a history that they frequently cite, but never study.

They seem incapable, also, of recognising the disproportionality of their hatred. As the days wear on, my simple chalked jibe becomes still truer. Those most offended by the blackboard have committed themselves to proving its veracity.

My written response to the media (posted to facebook on January 27) has received over 30,000 likes and 6,976 shares, completely overwhelming the scale of the original hate campaign against my business. This was a welcome surprise.

The messages of support from across the country and the world were diverse and numerous. Many of these have been long and considered. I apologise that it has not yet been possible to respond individually to each. The show of unity, from new friends and old, was so much appreciated. Thankyou.

The blackboard - and my necessary online statement - also became a national media discussion, the subject of separate articles by The Guardian, ABC, SMH, Triple J’s Hack, Huffington Post, 9 News, Crikey, Buzzfeed, Pedestrian TV et al.

Helen Razer and Maurits Zwankhuizen wrote entertaining opinion pieces on the blackboard. The furore was reported nationally across the Fairfax network, most efficiently in parody by the excellent Herald cartoonist, Shakespeare:

Dragging my blackboard into the (relative) sunlight of the mainstream media brought some balance to the discourse, originally fomented by the Facebook network of extreme-right organisations and individuals. Amongst these, the rhetoric is routinely violent, disturbingly explicit, uncensored in its bigotry, unburdened by self-awareness and consistently self-refuting. The authors frequently struggle to arrange a coherent sentence, much less articulate a political locus.

Of course, these ‘patriots’ would be the first to protest should their own freedom of expression be curtailed.

As with prolonged exposure to any toxin, the stress of constant attack is accumulative, and exhausting. Restoring my shopfront after each spate of vandalism has been time-consuming and expensive. Keeping the evidence of physical damages and emotional strain from my young child requires a surge of positivity, increasingly difficult to muster. And, though I dismiss the countless death threats as repulsive hubris, I absorb each word subconsciously.

But then, my personal exposure to this vicious and pervasive cultural toxin has only been 2 short weeks. In our country, there are strong individuals, families and communities who are forced to confront this very same toxin from birth, for a lifetime, through generations. They have my deepest respect.

Far South

exhibition notes by paul lyndon / Nishi Gallery / New Acton / February 2016:

Far South? Of whose north? Surely it’s a question Chun would like us to consider, unless he intends no more than a folksy display of skill. Certainly ‘South’ may be taken as a reference to Bermagui and the Coast, where the artist lives and practices, but Chun is expressing far more than a cardinal point.

That his list of subjects - a wistful child, an artworld luminary in his last days, pumice stones, a corella, a near whited-out landscape - resist a logical through-line, I think, offers a clue.

In Chun’s work, playfulness and seriousness conjoin in a universe of mid-tonal ambiguites. Here, the inauspicious pumice stone forms a landscape, confounding the perception of scale, upending notions of value and discombobulating our embodied sense of gravity: pumice is the stone that floats.

Which way is up, north or south, and who should decide?

Beneath the playful and the unapologetically beautiful elements of his work (beauty is still not quite back in fashion), Chun’s work has always contained a lucid and considered engagement with power and the oppressive. Chun’s fascination with small things (stones, birds, the child, bluebottles) may be read, then, as a celebration of life as we find it, in the human scale, on a beach, as a personal experience.

Thus the dignity invested in the human subject is also in a bird, who returns the viewer’s critical eye with unflinching assuredness. Accordingly, landscapes are not testaments of dominion but personal expressions of place. In Chun’s visual democracy the personal and playful comprehensively take precedence over the large and impersonal. The juggernauts of corporatism, militarism and jingoistic nationalism are of some antithetical far north.

Chun’s distance from such forces recently became evident in the national media storm surrounding his criticism of Australia Day. Hate mail in volumes of thousands, continuing deaths threats and vandalism attacks on Chun’s Bermagui studio have failed to halt his practice. The work for Far South was created during this furore, and can be viewed as a quiet response.

South, wherever it may be, is apparently a place of both reflection and rejuvenation.

Razer / Crikey

Helen Razer, writing for Crikey:

"... Yesterday, on the NSW South Coast, artist and business proprietor Matt Chun met such a fate. For the use of his chalkboard sign, owner of gallery space and cafe Mister Jones, widely held to serve the region’s most potable coffee, is currently facing what news outlets call “outrage”. Perhaps “the idiot reflex of an enfeebled mass” describes it better.

On Monday, Chun had notified customers that his store would be open for yesterday’s public holiday with the chalked words, “Yes, we’re open on national dickhead day”. Apparently, this was too much for those with the now widespread affliction of humour intolerance and a tiny cafe in a tiny town was the subject of a very many very abusive Facebook posts.

Sections of the cultural right were quick to distribute a picture of this sign and it seems that groups including the Canberra chapter of Reclaim Australia exhorted their followers to contact the business and leave “feedback”. The suggestion box of the internet is currently full to overflowing.

To date, Chun, described to press as a “non-conformist” by Bermagui’s Chamber of Commerce president, has not apologised. Good.

It’s relatively easy — for me at least — to be stubbornly on Chun’s side. I happen to both despise Australia Day and enjoy good coffee prepared by “non-conformists” with chalkboards ..."

(Read the full article here)

National Dickhead Day

While cleaning up my little espresso bar on January 25, I placed a blackboard in my window, on a whim. It has since received a lot of attention. The blackboard read ‘Yes, we’re open on National Dickhead Day’.

A member of my community photographed the sign and posted it online. It’s hard to quantify the reach of the blackboard on Facebook, but a newspaper report early yesterday quoted an instance of 7,000 ‘likes’ for the photo, 2000 comments and a further 4,000 shares. Facebook activity was primarily fuelled by the pages of several hard-right political organisations, advocating various forms of retaliation. Several hate pages were also set up specifically to target my business. From here, the photo was picked up by local and then national news agencies. Needless to say, this was all quite surprising. I’ve learned much about social media, and much about Australia.

Over the last days, messages have been cascading through my email account, containing unprintable abuse and describing group plans for physical attacks. My voicemail account has mercifully reached capacity and I’ve long stopped listening to the graphic and explicit death threats. These messages have been much more chilling than the thousands posted online.

The provocative blackboard seems innocuous now, entirely disproportionate to the scale of the hatred. Indeed, taken on face value, the blackboard was possibly the most Australian thing that one could write about ‘Australia Day’, in a country that claims to be proud of its ‘larrikin’ irreverence and self-effacing humour. However, in the few moments that it was displayed, the sign lifted a rock from under which so many interesting things have crawled.

The scope of the hatred has surpassed any meaning that could reasonably be inferred in my simple chalked jibe. Over the past days, my espresso bar has been used as proxy for Indigenous Australians, Islam, refugees, homosexuality, class, Asia, immigration and much more. The bloodthirsty outrage, white anxiety and bitter intolerance was not a necessary response to the blackboard. For two days the blackboard has simply been a convenient repository.

The individual who took the original photo of my blackboard, sparking the internet furore, has displayed his own political views on his ute for many years. These views have been both racially and sexually offensive. By comparison with my blackboard, they are presented in stronger and more explicit language. No national internet firestorm has ensued.

By contrast, my blackboard’s message was addressed to no one in particular. Arguably, it offended those who experienced a moment of self-recognition. As these individuals continue to over-react, the sign only becomes truer. The shoe clearly fit, and they wore it.

Many of the online comments gloated over what they saw as my inevitable loss of business and the demise of my espresso bar. These groups and individuals threatened vandalism, arson, murder, mass violence and also threatened those who chose not to boycott. Mainstream media have also been curious about the effect that such overwhelming social media hatred might have on a small business.

On ‘Australia Day’ morning, the door locks to my business had been drilled out and the windows glued shut. Yet, we opened for trade.

It was our biggest ‘Australia Day’ crowd on record. Many people travelled from as far as Batemans Bay in the North and Merimbula in the South to drink a coffee and have a laugh. Among these supporters, we were particularly happy to welcome esteemed members from some strong, local, and largely marginalised communities.

For those who haven’t visited my shopfront, it is primarily an open creative studio. I work as a professional artist, which keeps me pretty busy. The espresso bar is a side project, attached to my studio, because I love coffee. I have never gauged its success by the size of my customer base. The diverse and tolerant nature of the crowd is much more important to me. And if the space can be used to irritate the humorless or jingoistic members of my community, I find that very hard to resist.

I was not intending to create a social media frenzy, publicity stunt or national debate. The blackboard was written light-heartedly, and only displayed for 15 minutes.

That said, I am not trying to dilute the sentiment. ‘Australia Day’ is a singular atrocity. Celebrating January 26 at best trivialises - and at worst glorifies - the invasion of this continent, declaration of terra nullius, massacre and attempted genocide of its 30,000 year old indigenous population. It is a day spent revelling in the mindless perpetuation of old myths and the clumsy fabrication of new ones. It is no accident that ‘Australia Day’ has been so effectively co-opted by an extremist minority as a thinly veiled anniversary of white privilege.

Original facebook post