After ten years in my bent body I was starting to get used to it. The days seemed to be getting longer and the urge to productivity slowly settled like snow in the night; one morning I woke up and thought “Now what?” Clearly there was going to be next to nothing for me as an actor. In the early 70s one didn’t see too many disabled people circulating in public places. Even today, in 2009, when I’m out and about in my wheelchair, I’m a curiosity; a fascination for kiddies and drunks who can’t quite believe their eyes. With the exception of Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles, stories about or including the disabled were unheard of. Plays or films with disabled characters even rarer. I wasn’t that impressed with my acting skills anyway, so the idea of pursuing acting as a career had little appeal. Sure most actors get type caste, but a wheelchair is as uncompromising a bit of business as you could hope to invent. And you’d think most stories about victims of injury would require a good part of the film or play to represent the ‘before’ phase, to give contrast to the tragedy or heroism at the heart of the tale – obviously I’d be unconvincing as the ‘before’ character. So acting was out. As a schoolboy I’d been naturally attracted to the visual arts. It was in the genes. A paternal uncle had been something of an artist, although the knowledge of this had nothing to do with my enthusiasm for art. I just loved making pictures. I won a prize in primary school for some banal little painting of a rural scene. I suspect it was one of those prizes handed out to all participants…a small, two-toned copper plate as I recall. The weight of the heavy brown paper and string parcel it came in signified serious substance. The multiple coloured stamps revealed the exotic Indian location of the competition. And it was a beautiful little plate. My love for making visual art persisted after school as I continued to produce some pretty ordinary paintings with no motivation other than the sheer pleasure of doing them. So why not formalise my interest, develop the skills? I lined up for the National Art School in Sydney. Housed in Darlinghurst’s old gaol with its high, convict built sandstone walls blackening with modern age pollution, the school shared the historic venue with a cooking school and a couple of other industrial technologies. White hatted apprentices from the cooking school could regularly be seen lugging impressive lumps of bloodless cow cadaver to the table of culinary science for tactical dissection. The place wept tortured narratives from its crumbling surfaces. Recent renovations had failed to silence the inaudible moans echoing from mortar still rich with the blood and sweat of Australia’s shallow British origins. The school’s policy of employing only practicing artists as teachers produced an atmosphere well conducive to questioning. Each artist had his or her own view of the world of art; how it operated, who was important, why they were…all the interesting questions which of course had multiple correct answers. It seemed to me to be an exquisite atmosphere for learning. Aside from a diligent focus on the doing and the making possibly neglecting the theory of it all, there didn’t seem to be any ideological lean, although as an uneducated amateur I doubt I would have recognised one even had one existed. For the next couple of years I scumbled about at art school, drawing, painting, etching, a bit of sculpture, and a glance at art history, the whole concept repackaged by the pedant whose gig it was to file before his students’ eyes the sequence of things. His dedication, and he was a dedicated man, was to discredit the belief that art was evolutionary. That one art movement came from another. Modern art standing on the shoulders of past giants. I think I understood his idea – he called it an art ‘survey’ as opposed to an art history which had a much more linear connotation – for him the latter narrative somehow diminished the capacity for an artist (himself) to discover an entirely unique and private vision out of the raw stuff of his unprimed imagination. A romantic idea, yes, but one I wasn’t unsympathetic to. The man himself was something else and here I found no sympathy but rather an easy and natural repugnance to his didactic delivery such that I found it impossible to tolerate his classes and finally abandoned them, finishing off the course requirements at a later date under another teacher. The fact that I’d known the man previously – he’d been a manager of the In Shop, fashion popster mens clothes shop I’d worked in 1968– I don’t think prejudiced my view of him. Sure he was a little bloke, suffering the humiliations of being small, overcompensating to buggery, but instinctively you felt he and his ideas had to be re-proportioned. I’m not so big myself so maybe I recognised my own pathetic efforts to claim power and authority and resented him for it. Maybe. I rang G. de Groen up not so long ago remembering his special vision of art history. I thought he might have documented the thesis which might have been useful in my studies at the time. He hadn’t. We had a little conversation, enough to reveal the man’s bitter resentments of the ‘art world’ and its petty political ways had survived the three decades or so since I knew him. Not wanting to make a club of it, I thanked him and left him to his lonely rural retreat from whence he continues to produce marvellous little Morandi inspired coloured gems of abstract design, occasionally seen gracing the walls of a small Brisbane gallery. At the end of the two year spell at the National Art School, at the time known as the less glam East Sydney Tech, I felt like some more of the same - I applied to do a one year Post Graduate Diploma at what was about to become the University of NSW art school. Name changing of NSW tertiary institutions was rampant in the mid 80s with plenty of opportunity for the politically active to get animated – but aside from a brief secondment into the student union as it sought support for a worthy campaign I preferred to concentrate on doing the art rather than the politics of the art. This was a marvellous year, working in a collective studio, supervised by professional practicing artists who were unfailingly fun to argue with. The painting tutors weren’t my favourite artists so far as their work was concerned – and this can be important because an artist’s aesthetics invariably determine the level of his/her critique - but in printmaking I found Rose, a dedicated teacher, and the medium of etching which transcended simply making pictures or construing images. It released the inner technician. What a surprise to find such solid pleasure in the mechanics of producing an edition of etchings. The 19th Century technology could be manipulated so simply and precisely the results rarely failed to satisfy my hunger for making quality objects. All that expensive cotton-rag paper, heavy and fibrous yet smooth and sophisticated, the decaled edges discreetly indicating the hand-made quality of the paper. And the way the black ink pressed from a zinc plate would sit proud on the paper, creating an impression of an image of such high resolution that at times an etched print could appear almost sculptural. The etchings of the Australian artist George Baldessin are spectacular examples of the printmakers art, so immediate, so concentrated, so stark, so simple. The medium also is ideally suited for the kind of drawing I have always favoured where the essential elements of the seen world are present but the details and combinations are abstracted, flattened, twisted, permitting the image to carry subtle signs of inner, unseen realities. Thanks largely to the Cubists. The high level of accidental effects in etching can produce outcomes which, even if you could imagine them, you’d never be able to consciously create. The artist as spectator, receiver. Watching the surface to see what was happening, and then replying. The language of signs. This license encourages manipulation of perceived reality allowing perhaps that as humans we do our best to put all the bits and pieces we notice in our world into an imagined coherence; a digestible meal which then invites our advance to tomorrow where we may discover the imagined world lines up with the one we remember from yesterday. Imagination and memory. The raw essence of an artist’s work. Towards the end of my Grad Dip year there was a request for anyone at the school to submit an application to show at a new gallery for emerging artists opening in Canberra. The gallery owner evidently was a former National Gallery man and so would bring the heavy guns of the national art scene to his venture. I was offered the opening show. My first solo exhibition. Exciting moment. I put together a collection of work mostly done in the previous year at art school and consisting of paintings, drawings, works on paper and some etchings. The show was well received, selling out about half the show; one of the major pictures was bought by the art critic of The Canberra Times. That’s encouraging I thought, the art critic buys a painting. Back in Sydney after the show I took a studio in a once-upon-time wool warehouse in inner city Glebe. This massive building, now gutted and recycling, was occupied by sundry businesses – carpetsellers, car detailing, whatever, and a painting studio run by a woman who sold her art from the gallery front. She also used her entrepreneurial skills getting others to mass-produce pallid slap dash paintings for furniture shops. At the back was a space which she sub-let to me. I worked on a series of large and technically convoluted oil paintings for a year or so until the business of living on the other side of the harbour bridge and commuting in increasingly dense traffic got to me. My ability to network the gallery circuit was unimpressive and unsurprisingly, fruitless; my studio gallery owner and her boy-friend occasionally bought pictures from me, encouraging me to keep at it. If people who knew me bought my paintings, so I reasoned, it was only a matter of getting to know more people and my client list would expand. But not all things in life are reasonable. So after a year or so of commuting through an increasingly irascible traffic over the Harbour Bridge to the studio, I decided to cut out. It was 1988, the bicentenary was nigh, two hundred years of European colonisation was about to be celebrated by some and mourned by others. Having an entirely un-contrived empathy for the latter group, it seemed like a good opportunity to go to Central Australia and work and live. Get to the heart of the matter, widely rumoured to lie somewhere distantly west of the Blue Mountains. *** This long time whitish boy had read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, had even lived for nine years in the central African country featured in the novel, recreating long and leisurely on its gargantuan, water-hyacinth infested river in the days before colonialism realised its rank and foul aroma. A journey to Central Australia represented a kind of home-coming to a mythic centre-self from which modern western culture, choosing rather to lock its people into a numbing cycle of palliative consumerism, alienated its mesmerised members. The sun was up, the sky was blue, the four-wheels-driving Toyota waited at the curb outside, chocked to the vents with stuff for this venture to the Interior. Sixty litres of water in three containers sat nicely in their custom made housing in the back (even in mythic places thirst can kill); a metal box filled with rice, dahl, dates, nuts, honey sat next to another containing the artist’s materials stored in a meticulously designed rear of the mid-wheel-base Landcruiser. His easel hinged ingeniously to the ceiling of the cab completed the packing and equiping arrangements.  First though he paid a visit to an old girlfriend recently moved to the salubrious hills south of Sydney where she was renovating an old guest house, complete with a challenging, not to say rough, golf course and a three-horse stable. It was here one evening, out for a reconnoitre of the landscape, he watched in awe as a flock of black cockatoos, their tails tipped with a flash of crimson, decimated the upper quarter of a dozen pine trees. Relentless rip and plunder for maybe twenty minutes left that small part of the forest sad, bedraggled and forlorn as the mighty black birds and their fluting whistle faded into the darkening evening sky.  "You're not going out there without a dog are you?" she said, apparently a bit aghast at my proposed journey to Central Australia. "I know someone who's got one they don't need…"  "No. No, really, I don't want to lug a dog around with me."  "But you'll get lonely out there in the desert."  "I don’t think so. Anyway there's bound to be other animals out there who'd run a mile if they smelt a dog…and they're always bloody yapping; then you've gotta feed the mongrels; I won’t have a gun - that means tinned dog food 'cause you can't in all conscience just feed them that dried stuff. They like meat. Then what do you do with the tins?"  Two days later he rolled into Centennial Park, named in commemoration of the first one hundred years of European settlement, to give the dog a run and a drink. It was a big park with a good number of other canine lovers serving their four legged best friends. The attractive white socked dog he’d been unsuccessful in refusing had one blue eye and one brown eye, was a kind of Kelpie blue merle Border Collie cross and he loved to run. He took off over a small hill seeking out the enticements no doubt flooding in through his nose. After about half an hour the dog hadn't come back and the none-too-distraught dog-owner wandered around all over the park in search of his future best friend. Gone. Vanished. All that remained was a mass of the dog's grey and black hairs in the back of the truck, and a slightly musty smell that hung limply in the air. It took him five minutes to beat out the hairs from the dog's blanket. The smell took a few more days to fade and by that time he was well on his way to Lake Cargellico in western New South Wales. Over the hills and far away. He didn't know what had happened to the dog.  This place seemed like the edge of the centre, the heart's fringe. He'd driven all day in a compressive heat across the One-Tree plain. He'd seen it out there, the tree - solitary and dignified in its insignificance in a landscape as flat as flat ever gets for three hundred and sixty degrees. Nothing there, no bush, no animal, no house, shed, shack, ruin. Just the one tree. And the heat… warping the eyes, vapouring in through the ears to cook a man's brain. No aircon in the truck, just the thump of the turbo diesel banging away, adding its heat to the air.  At the end of the plain a small town loomed up from the flat ahead; a creek, some shade and the prospect of cool water was enticement enough for him to pull over. He switched off the engine and waited for a few minutes for his body to settle down from the vibrations of the diesel motor; the silence, only lightly parted by the distant screech of a gallah soothed his aching body as he contemplated the shallow water in the billabong. Not much there, but he had to get into it. From the window the scene looked extremely alluring. He stripped off his boots and clothes, opened the door and stepped down into the cool muddy fringe of the creek (he’d had to imagine the cool part, his feet having no feelings of their own); stepping deeper into the balm of this small oasis he lay down in its still waters, gently shaded from the ultra violence of the blazing sun. Later, relieved and getting back into the truck, he noticed a red stream of blood snaking out over brown mud. Just under the surface of the mud a broken bottle had sharpened the scene, bleeding him, painlessly, his fresh blood giving notice of his presence to an imagined earth spirit, of his intention; to enter this land. The moment of romance was thick and primitive as he penetrated towards the Mystery Heart. In the town he made his way to a caravan park, found a tap and dressed the wound.  Deeper and deeper into Place untroubled by modern man and his nefarious inventions he travelled, in his nefarious machine, the thin band of bitumen; spending nights on the roof of his truck, on a lilo, pressed on by stars twinkling millions of years per moment, the wind still, respecting the night's secret inventions dreaming across landscapes of unfenced imaginings. Then, one day, parched and dazed, swamped by the weight of lonely distance, around a bend and days away from humanity he came upon a pub. Out there. For no apparent reason - no railway line, no town, no river, just a pub - a squat utilitarian besser block and tin thing; outside, an assortment of cranky bent cars and utes, disconsolate and flat in the glare of the noon-day sun. They might have been horses, but they were exhausted hybrid ragtag Ford- Holden machines most apparently only on the road thanks to some canny bush-mechanics. He parked his fat-tyred truckette in the shade of a pepper tree and stepped into the bar, his two walking sticks and mechanical gait attracting only very brief sideways glances from a few drinkers barely discernible in the shadowed interior of the bar.  There were twenty, maybe thirty people in that dark shelter. The hum of human voices was a comfort to his brain. But thirst drove him to the bar, nodding that quaint, chin-led half head to the right Australian nod to a couple of drinkers as he called for a schooner of whatever they had on tap. When the chill had rested into his belly and the bitter sweet beer had done its slaking he turned to the people to take it all in. There was a lot of noisy conversation, not untypical of pub crowds anywhere in Australia. He didn't seem to notice that apart from the barman, he was the only whitefella there. What he did notice was that he didn't understand a word any one was saying. Nobody was speaking English. He'd lived in many lands where people hadn't spoken English, nothing unusual in that. But this was Australia, his birthplace, his parent's birthplace, his grandparent's birthplace; as far as he knew one of the most monolingual, possibly the most monolingual continent on earth. And here was some other language being spoken. He had no idea what it was, had no name for it. He was completely stunned. In the land of his birth, at the heart of his country, people spoke some other language. He realised at that moment he was a stranger to this place, an alien, an import. It was like walking in through what you thought was your front door but a whole bunch of unknown people were living there and had obviously been there for quite some time.  He might have drawn some comfort from the dog. But the dog apparently had had a different destiny.  He decided he would learn this language. He didn’t know what it was but it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. Some of the sounds he recognised from the smattering of Congolese he’d learned as a child. His Lingala consisted of only single phrases really, and mostly the kind of graceless phrases kids usually learn first, like, Yo na kozaleh mabeleh mooneneh mooneneh, and having voiced this vulgarity all within earshot, except perhaps for the Congolese woman across the street, would collapse into a state of irretrievable rigor humorous. And then there’s the retroflexive ‘r’ sounds commonly associated with Indian language systems. Logic suggested to him the Aborigines and their dogs would have first strolled here across the land bridge forty, maybe fifty, sixty thousand years ago with the language of their place of origin – India. Finally it was the delivery of the sounds which struck him most particularly. The words came out as if fired from a machine gun. Not understanding the content sharpened his sense of the style of this language. And he remembered his time in India where he’d seen many an old man sitting on his heels in the dust, naked but for a loin cloth, who looked like he could have been a direct ancestor to the Australian Aborigine.  Sometime later he drove into Alice Springs between its sentinel hills spread like two great thighs, inviting portal to the Central Australian city. After the huge and lonely distances travelled to get there his lightly dancing heart took in the familiar sights he’d have expected to find in pretty much any Australian city with its shopping malls and office buildings, art galleries, pubs, supermarkets, parks – and people – here after the vast emptiness surrounding the town there seemed to be so many of them. He noticed the parks with their lush green irrigated grass were well-populated with Aboriginal families, women mostly and their young children, passing the time of day in small groups, lying in the sheltering shade established in well-maintained public spaces.  Down in the bed of the dry Todd River running along the edge of town, its itinerant Aboriginal population contended with an entirely different aesthetic. Here the overnight camps were littered with the ragtag mess of a disorganised people. The detritus of their alcohol consumption decorated the sandy river bed, patched together with disintegrating mattresses, ragged blankets and burned out fires. The people, mostly men here he noticed, lay in a stupor, half covered, wholly unconscious sleeping off the ravages of a night of alcohol abuse shortly to wake and do it all again. They seemed to him a species of nocturnal men wrapped up blind in their overshadowed spirits. Occasionally, after a torrential storm upcountry the river would rise precipitously and flush out the accumulated filth, simultaneously and tragically carrying away the unfortunates too far gone to know the danger. After the flood the river would once more run dry offering up its bed of comfort and convenience to those dependent on white man’s poisons to numb their discontented and conflicted lives.  His general plan was to find a place out in the bush to set up camp. A billabong with some shade, a bit of water, maybe a creek, a sheltered spot he could put up his tent. But first the site had to be found. In this vast land that didn’t seem him too big an ask. His interest in Indigenous language led him to make some enquiries about which one might be best to learn. He’d heard that before the Europeans occupied the country there’d been in excess of six hundred different languages spoken on the continent. Here in Alice Springs Pitjinjara seemed to be the principle language and the only language for which any documentation could be found. Apparently the English to Pitjinjara dictionary was incomplete but he managed to buy a cassette tape and a word and phrase booklet. The woman who’d helped him said the Pitjinjara people, although originating in the north of South Australia had migrated north to Central Australia and now represented the largest language group here. She told him there were about five thousand active speakers. He took the material away with him and began to go through the elementary lessons one by one. He knew however that to make genuine inroads into acquiring the language he would have to find a community of its speakers and immerse himself in the language culture in the same way he’d learned to speak French and before that Dutch and Indonesian. So he needed to find an Aboriginal community which would have him. The Pitjinjara community had a council office in town. He was told by the white council manager to put his request in writing and it would be delivered to the leaders on their community in due course. The artist made considerable effort to indicate in his application he needed nothing material from the community aside from a campsite anywhere on their lands – all his survival needs he would provide for himself. He explained he was an artist who painted the inner landscape and finally, in what he considered to be his most persuasive argument, he said he wanted to learn to speak the Pitjinjara language. It took the council more than a month to make their reply.  As he drove the three hundred odd kilometres south from Alice to Uluru to wait for his answer he felt confident his application would be approved. So in the meantime he would travel to the tourist Mecca of Australia and inhabit The Rock. The rock some white fella had named Ayer’s Rock. Who was Ayer that he should have naming rights? Unsurprisingly, he was a British administrator living in distant Adelaide, South Australia. Whoever it was who named the rock for this British bureaucrat, it was clearly someone keener to ingratiate himself with the power elite of the day than to speak to the locals and find it already had a name. By 1988 the colonial name still had wide currency among white Australians, but since then the original name of Uluru has gradually replaced its British moniker. Not far away, another group of hills with their distinctive profile had also undergone a name change. Once known as The Olgas, the picturesque group of hills is now returned to its Aboriginal name of Kata Tjuta. The place of many heads.  A feature of Central Australia which was not immediately apparent to him as he travelled was that every bit of land belongs to someone. Sure he’d noticed the odd fence stretching across the country, but in his four-wheel-drive he could have driven off the road and made his own way. But it would have been on private property. The public has access to the national parks but their use of these parks is meticulously monitored by rangers. And no camping anywhere but in designated camping sites. He knew a four wheel drive vehicle could penetrate even highly resistant landscapes, but he’d given no thought to the damage they could do to a delicate desert as he drove a little way off the beaten track to lie down under his truck for a shady snooze. A distant calling voice brought him back to earth; as he opened his eyes he could see the bottom half of a pair of legs standing next to the truck. He scrambled out as the ranger gave him the lecture about staying on the track. Said uniformed ranger pointed out the heavy tread from the two tonne mid-wheel-base Landcruiser winding over the sand, and demanded the driver smooth it all out, like it was a suburban yard he’d messed up. At the time he thought this was a bit rich, reminded him of the time he’d seen a road sweeper in Switzerland miles from any town, way out in the country. Yeh, well, Swiss attention to neatness didn’t surprise him, but your laid-back Australian wanting to sweep a few tyre tracks off the desert floor…? It didn’t take him long to understand the ranger’s argument. Someone driving along sees some tracks, they think its OK to go that way and before you know it, it’s a road. After that it wouldn’t take long, so the uniform said, for the whole park to be crisscrossed with the tracks of the burgeoning numbers of off-roaders. That evening the chastened artist returned to the official Yulara camping grounds. He found an unpopulated spot on the outer edge of the site and settled down for the night.  The evening became routine. He would set up his small two point gas stove and cook some rice on one burner, the other he used for stir-frying his vegetable sauce. After the meal was cleaned up and the stove packed away, he would climb up on the truck’s roof, stretch onto the lilo and contemplate the stars prickling the black infinity of space. That first night the quiet grew slowly out of the random clatter and scrape of the other campers as they too settled. Then from the almost silent world rose a distant grinding growl which at first he had trouble identifying. It took him awhile to realise the rhythm and beat of the sound lifting over the sand dunes was Yulara’s generator. The mildly distracting engine droned on through the night, soundtrack for a desert life. The hum of the generator didn’t distract the dingoes from their nocturnal foraging. Fearless they were, skulking through the campsite, sometimes standing on their back legs to check out the top of his card table for grub. Thieves in the night. He imagined the dingoes would not have been nearly so forthcoming if his erstwhile dog hadn’t found another owner.  His days became routine. Waiting. For permission. Early in the morning he’d drive from the campsite in Yulara to Uluru following the shiny black bitumen road. This road circumnavigated the big rock, usually at a considerable distance, except for where the buses dropped their loads of day-tripping tourists. It was from here the official walkways, complete with their interpretive signs, began. After the first day he’d exhausted the neatly trimmed interpretive walkways. These extended only a short distance from the coach park; he imagined the idea here was to enable multiple short tours, whipping as many paying customers in and out as quickly as the tour operators could manage it. Beyond the carefully tended section representing, at most, five percent of Uluru’s circumference, a rough sandy track roamed on around the entire monolith. One day he decided to do the walk; the journey took him a delightful seven hours before he got back to his truck waiting in the pink evening air.  Every day after that, he would drive back out, park his truck just off the road and walk in to where he could climb up to one of the many small shallow caves pock-marking this lovely place. From there he would contemplate the wide world before him. He was never very high up, but the slight elevation delivered a vast panorama. And on this side of the rock, no tourists. He was invariably alone. Silent in a world which seemed unchanged in millennia.  The apparently random flight of two crows traced crisscrossing echo lines across a crystal sapphire sky. The crows changed direction every few moments in a flight which looked to him like follow-the-leader, but where the leader was yet to be decided. The wind was sentient. So he thought. Speaking in tongues soft and sharp, still and brisk. Settling, then whipping up dissent, turning and turning again, lifting wisps of dried grass to spiral in the wilful air. And all the while the heat baked down its tension on the flat dry earth stretching uninterrupted to the horizon. So he waited, listening, gently showered on by flakes of ancient rock dislodged by the eddying air. After some hours sitting still, a thin mask of dusted rock camouflaging his humanness, rendering him as a facsimile of the earth’s timeless being. His mind though still, strained for some preternatural sign, a whisper, a spear of light, some sense of something there couched near about his shallow cave. He held his gaze in the peripheral, and shimmering, he turned his head still feeling for the uncertain presence. Moving in and then not. Being and then - not being. While beyond, on the hot air, an ideation called him to look without looking, see without seeing, breathe without breath.  As he collected himself for the walk back to his truck he knew whatever spirit, whatever instance of being was there or was not there, it was shy beyond measure and could only be known as dream, evanescent and subtle, unavailable to memory. 
No Man’s Land
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