Tell any cliché bound Brit that you’re writing about Australian culture and back comes the stock joke about the article being very short. Fosters, Neighbours and Rolf Harris don’t amount to an over laden cultural table. They see a country, a whole continent, with a fearsome, outdoorsy, anti-artistic machismo, the only place in the world where even women slap you on the back. People talk about Australia as if it is insensitivity writ large, as if it is still a nation of brutish convicts rejected by a more refined Europe.
But it’s a foolish, superior response to a culture that even in only the last few years has produced a raft of internationally successful work and artists who exemplify an original and wholly Australian aesthetic. There are the household names, Blanchette, Rush and Kidman who, with their fresh republicanism, come from the improvisational and accessible tradition of the Company B at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, which also produced the adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel Cloudstreet to international acclaim and a triumphant run in London last year. Also in Sydney Baz Luhrmann, the opera and film director, has founded his own studio, Bazmark producing not just films but music and more opera. Perhaps there will be more taking Shakespeare and doing with it, like he did with Romeo & Juliet, something so untrammelled by tradition, reverence or convention that Kenneth Branagh will again be unable even to touch it with his corduroy jacket. There is evidence too that not only are Australians not feeling compelled to Hollywood, but with the appointment of the great American opera and theatre director Peter Sellars as Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival the traffic is beginning to go the other way. Sellars said in his inaugural speech “America is a culture of distraction. In Australia there is a society under construction. It is a culture of focus.”
A second generation of world-class novelists, including Tim Winton and David Malouf, has followed the Nobel Prize winning Patrick White, whose rediscovery of his Australia ness in the fifties released three great world novels on the Australian identity, including Riders in The Chariot and Voss. And when the cultural world gathered alongside the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 Australia in a characteristic move sent not an opera star (they could have sent Sutherland), not a Swiftian satirist (the Dame to end all Dames, Edna), not actors or dancers but instead a Circus. And this September at Sadler’s Wells Londoners will again be able to see just how precisely Circus Oz are a true emblem of Australian culture in the way they have taken the Far Eastern art of Circus and reinvented it in the European tradition. Australia is where European skills collided with a far away land, where the convicts met the Aborigines. And that is a contradiction still unresolved. Australia is still a social experiment and as Tim Winton says “We may look pink but we’re not European.” Australia has only been an independent country for a hundred years. And this month in London sees the celebration of that in the Heads Up Festival, marking the centenary of the Australian Constitution Act, which created the Commonwealth of Australia.
Despite its potential significance, Heads Up turns out to be an oddly programmed event. It includes, at the Australian High Commission, an old exhibition by the painter Arthur Boyd called “Exile of the Imagination”, which was touring anyway, and, more illuminatingly, at the National Portrait Gallery, Polly Borland’s photos of Australian ex-pats in Britain. Borland’s clever photos demonstrate not least that during the culturally cringing post war years when Menzies was Conservative Prime Minister of Australia just how many serious talents, like Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James, the banker and diplomat Sir Kit McMahon, the publisher Carmen Callil, John Pilger, Sir Charles Mackerras the current Vice Chancellor of Cambridge Professor Sir Alec Broers and many more left what McMahon calls “the crude intrusive populism” of Australia for the much more outward looking world stage of London.
Heads Up scores highest with a series of literary events displaying world class writing talent, including naturally Winton and Malouf and also some notable Aboriginal theatre, evidence, particularly with “Stolen” at the Tricycle Theatre, of an increasingly visible new strand of Australian artistic life. This originally improvised piece is a deeply emotional yet almost wistful telling of the young lives of five children, part of the umpteenth generation of Aboriginals who, from the early twentieth century not much over a hundred years after they were first turned into trespassers in their own land, were routinely and forcibly removed from their birth families.
In something of a brutal contrast, the exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute called Australia Dreaming is breathtaking for the flagrant presence, as highly visible co-sponsors, of apparently reformed Rio Tinto Zinc, offering themselves as the new “respecters of Aboriginal culture and rights”. Perhaps like convicts, RTZ should be given a second chance, but donating only a million Australian dollars or so to an Aboriginal Foundation seems to be little more than emptying out the small change in their pocket.
However the presence of a large amount of Aboriginal art in the overall programme is an articulate tribute to the moral core of the Aboriginal case and a calculated slap in the face from the artistic community for the current Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. They are incensed at his obdurate refusal to make amends to the Aborigines and to say, in the words of Geoffrey Robinson QC the ex-pat Australian Human Rights Lawyer “sorry and thank you”, and thus draw to a positive close the process of Reconciliation. The theatre director Neil Armfield, the adaptor of the novel Cloudstreet, merely describes Howard succinctly as a “blind mole”. And Charlie Perkins, the Aboriginal Commissioner lampoons Howard for reneging on his original promise when elected to carry through the process of reconciliation, by calling him “the only man who has ever walked the wrong way down the road to Damascus.”
The meeting of the ancient Australia and the youthfulness of the new Europeans is precisely the mix that both causes the current unease over the process of reconciliation and also the freshness that makes Australian culture what Winton calls “a work in progress”. Malouf, perhaps chancing his arm a little intellectually, even points out that watching Neighbours you do get the sense “that it is an experiment in different people trying to work out how to live together in this vast place.” And going further in trying to explain this experimental nature and essential playfulness of the antipodean experience recently Malouf turned the idea of the convict on its head. He pointed out in the Boyer lectures (the Australian equivalent of the Reith Lectures) that the original criminals were not just rejects “but men and women given an opportunity to take hold of their lives and remake themselves.” They were given a second chance in a new place. Even Darwin, no fan of Australia, wrote that “as a means of making men honest, of converting vagabonds the most useless in one hemisphere into active citizens in another, giving birth to a new and splendid country it has succeeded to a degree perhaps unparalleled in history”. He may have meant people like the great forger Ferdinand Meurat, transported from Dublin in 1802, but who in a nice colonial irony subsequently became the Chief engraver for the newly established Bank of New South Wales.
This need to survive and adapt put paid to any remaining tugging of Australian forelocks either to each other or to the canons of European culture and the Judeo Christian tradition. Rob Alder, the London based painter and designer, makes the point that the first Europeans “exported only the cultural basics and then we just improvised the rest. We make do with what we’ve got. It’s no coincidence that to an Australian farmer and mechanic the most versatile engineering tool is sixteen gauge fencing wire. You can use it for everything, which is a kind of metaphor. What Australians do best is to make do with what is there.” What white Australians are now trying to do in the process of Reconciliation is to understand not so much the Aborigine culture but their relationship to the profound age of the land.
Notwithstanding the difficulties of this process, the Director of the Sydney Festival, Leo Schofield, maintains that Australian culture is currently “in a fantastic state” citing “a remarkable rate of new plays opening”. Although Michael Lynch, his counterpart at the Opera House, where in May nearly quarter of a million people assembled to walk over the Harbour Bridge to demand reconciliation, still emphasizes that despite that strength “there is a gaping hole in the national psyche.” After the key land rights judgement in the case of Mabo in 1992 the country is no longer living the lie that the country was empty when the Europeans arrived, but still, even if the ordinary Aussie Joe feels no urgency about it, artists regard Reconciliation as one of the most fundamental issues to tackle. The Heads Up Festival comes at a time when the Australian constitution is in flux. But still, with its slightly odd programme it is trying to celebrate a new Australia but in the face of an attempted imposition of an old one by its Premier. At least we are celebrating something, says Winton, “In the old days a celebration of Australian culture would have been called ‘Heads Down’. Culturally we used to eat our young.”