Hours, it took us, to build a fence the width of the gallery, running from wall to wall and topped with two strands of barbed wire that we had stubbornly and stupidly unwound with our bare hands, balancing on ladders, fixing the whole thing into place with industrial staples. Bad for the plasterwork, very bad. Still, we were young, and ambitious, and we had outrage on our side.
It was 2002, the year of a convergence by protesters outside Woomera Detention Centre and a revolt by detainees inside, the combined result of which was a mass escape across the desert, Kokatha country, by many desperate people. I was there. I watched a man carve the word ‘Freedom’ into his chest with razor wire, and the fact of this action – eclipsing the symbolism – I have not been able to clear from my mind.
My friend, he’d been in the desert too, across the Nullarbor, taking photographs, and so we joined his photographs and my words and nicked a traffic sign that said ‘REFUGE ISLAND’ and also a building plaque that said ‘NO TRESPASSING. AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT PROPERTY’ and put them all behind a fence that we built together, inside an art gallery. We called ourselves The Welcoming Committee and we were very young and impatient-to-the-brim with ideas about collectivity and anonymity and art and politics.
My darling friend of a decade, my collaborative foil and kindred spirit and fearless, laughing partner in petty crimes committed in the name of art or for the sake of thwarting larger crimes: he is dead now. He died on Boxing Day 2010, of cancer, aged thirty – still so young, absurdly, cruelly young. His friendship was the compass of my heart. I don’t know how to navigate the world without him.
As he lay dying in a hospital bed in Sydney, where I couldn’t visit because he was too ill, a boat smashed into the rocks off Christmas Island and up to fifty people drowned, though the exact number is not clear. I cannot imagine a lonelier death than drowning at sea; than, in death, losing the only proof of your own existence. No papers, no name, no loved ones to bury you: no burial, even, no body. In death we are all alone, but there is alone and surrounded by love or alone and choking on diesel fuel and salt water and vomit. Like many people in Australia, I watched the news that night, 15 December 2010, watched women and children and men drown in front of my eyes on the television screen, but I couldn’t keep watching, I turned it off. The fact of death was already too visible in my life.
Grief robs you of all ordinary defences. It makes the small negotiations of daily life feel callously mundane: the bus trip and the supermarket and explaining to call centre workers and petty bureaucrats why the bills are unpaid and the forms not lodged. Well, somebody died, a friend died, and it sounds so inadequate, an insult to the dead and to the weight of your love for them. Eight weeks after my friend died, I boarded a plane back to my other life in New York, and cried so hard that an air steward took pity on me and changed my seat. To grieve in a foreign country is wrenching – grief makes even the familiar foreign – but I arrived on a plane with a visa in my passport and money for the taxi into town.
I don’t believe in hierarchies of pain, or at least, I don’t believe that constructing them really helps us as human beings to relate to one another. That said, the material circumstances in which one grieves can and do relate to the hierarchies we live within, however unwillingly. My grief does not diminish when weighed against that of a survivor from the Christmas Island tragedy, but it is qualitatively different: I am not incarcerated, I am not impoverished, I am not wholly without the power to change my circumstances of living. I am not demonised and dehumanised by amoral politicians who consider grief to be fair grist for their mill; who don’t, in fact, consider grief and death for a second, but only the cheap symbolism of grumbling about the funeral costs of paperless non-citizens with brown skin.
It is inconceivable to me that a decade after Tampa the policy of mandatory detention for refugees arriving by boat to Australia remains in place, almost as inconceivable as my friend dying at the elapse of the same decade. He is not here with me to talk and wonder and respond, and the world is short one person of abundant, astonishing gentleness and sympathy. Among the many treasures he left behind as an artist, I rediscovered, a few weeks back, a recorded discussion of some film that he’d shot: scratchy Super8 of a tiny cardboard boat bobbing in the harbour at Woolloomooloo, where the navy ships berth; and a loop of seagulls flying above Bronte Beach. The boat, I listened to him say, was a reminder that nearly all of us have come to Australia from elsewhere, but the birds migrate without borders.