Type
Fiction
Category
Fiction

The Sublime Composition

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this document contains descriptions of people who have since passed away.

 

Artist statement: The Sublime Composition

We [had daily] met frequently with instances of natives receiving from us all they could want on one day, [and of their then throwing dust at us the next] yet approaching us on the next with the most [diabolical] unequivocal demonstrations of enmity and hostility. Indeed it seemed impossible in any manner to conciliate these [human infernal degenerate tribes specimens of our race – Now at length – as our last chance of safety and means of defence – the Darling for the first time echoed with the fire of musketry for the first time and certainly the sublime composition never thundered in a juster cause.] people, when united in a body. We wanted nothing, asked for nothing; on the contrary we gave them presents of articles the most desirable to them; and yet they beset us as [if we had been] keenly and with as little remorse as wild beasts seek their prey. It was [pleasant] a consolation however under such unpleasant circumstances to have men on [whom] whose courage, at least, I could depend, for numbers might now be expected to come against us; [but we are prepared to meet whatever comes] and it was necessary that we should be prepared to meet them in whatever force they appeared. On the return of the men in the evening they reported that, notwithstanding all their exertions, the bullock could not be got up from the mud.i

 

Diary entry from colonial surveyor Sir Thomas Mitchell, the evening of 11 July 1835, after Mitchell’s party shot at least three Traditional Owners killing at least one woman and her child on the banks of the river currently known as the Darling just north of the town currently known as Menindee in the region currently known as New South Wales in the continent currently known as Australia.

 

Black: Sir Thomas Mitchell’s publicly published version of his diary.

Red: original diary content edited out of the published version.

Black: material added to published version that was not in the original diary.

Red: Material written in the original diary but crossed out in original.

Unclear: unreadable in the original diary.

lex talionis

 

Maria’s suicide and the white men all dead in the pool. The pool empty of water like the empty river, death floating in a puddle of the non-flowing Darling. 14 years since that first installation – the pool, the tomahawk, the rotting carp: Honest Vulcan watching over it all with his cameras for eyes.

Now – beside the Broken Hill The Driver and Not Quite A Nurse find Crashman skewed on the dead beat asphalt chocked up full of glass and plastic wedged under his eye lids. It’s about the wrongful dead in need of revenging – a recalibration in the harmonics of surface tension. Not that Crashman is dead yet, or the wronged party for that matter, but a lot of wrongful in the air.

Another one watches from a distance. Their resonant frequency vibrates with the tall slag-heap in the centre of town. They know them as Swedenborg – darknet artmaker following the lead of the incomparable Maria Cunningham. That’s not their real name, of course – Swedenborg – but the one they named themselves when the Journal of Dreams opened at that page:

[April 17–18]

[136] Hideous dreams: how the executioner roasted the head he had struck off; and laid one roast head after the other in an empty oven that never got full. It was said that it was his meat. He was a great big woman; smiled; had a little girl with him.ii

‘He was a great big woman.’ How Swedenborg loved that. Greatest Surrealist text before Surrealism they thought – hallucinatory inspiration for William Blake they learnt – material for their first darknet artwork: ‘The Roasting’ – you can imagine – morgue, heads, oven, abandoned building with a saw-tooth roof. And my name? Don’t worry about me, I am just the first-person about to speak some but they are not real people because I am not one and this is writing.

Swedenborg says, ‘Shut up with all your talk of real. All your voicings are just regurgitations of the institutional memory mainstream or not quite mainstream or a bit further away from mainstream and the further you go the less real you can make them – none being real to begin with – so quiet, we’re setting the table for roasting.’

‘But … I am decolonising.’

‘Not this again, still all this centering? Don’t you know you can’t decolonise by filling space with your own white voice? So, just shut up! Listen. Leave some room white man settler occupier squatter profiteer’ and we are quiet then, just for a second.

Into that quiet floods Maria Cunningham with Children of the Smoke – that first darknet live-stream installation through the camera-eyes of Honest Vulcan – white tomahawked deaths filling the empty pool, green leaves covering the dead river’s rotting carp, Maria speaking Mitchell’s diarised voice – the published one, the edited one. And after listening some more we hear his pencil scratchings on the banks of the Darling; original diary speaking its ‘angel’ talk, ‘deliverance’, no ‘juster cause’ and ‘victory’ in its ‘finest trim’. And we know then the subject of our next installation – a re-roasting of Mitchell, this artmaking striking the keynote of ‘the sublime composition’.

We’ll go back to the source. We’ll be the first. We’ll make our reputation! But Swedenborg’s head shakes: You know Baker’s already written about this, don’t you? O – you didn’t know. And Sturt before him! That must be a disappointment to your posturing white ego tripping.

Here it is: Baker has been here already, but so much retelling in his own white voice.iii And Sturt too, to his wifeiv and again to Her Majesty’s Governmentv – two different versions there. We understand, we love our multiple white voice too – plotting the many angles of truth. So no, not even nearly the first.

And we are quiet again – listening some more to Mitchell triangulating his own bloody existence and we feel it then, as Maria felt, the overwhelming need to kill him and all his white friends one art installation at a time. It’s not about reconciliation, it’s simpler than that – lex talionis – as simple as the white man’s mind perhaps, without nuance. As simple as the kind of ‘enraged’ ‘faithless’ ‘drubbing’ eradication Mitchell Highway man first white surveyor through remote NSW killer dreamed of that afternoon in an elbow of the then fast flowing Darling.

The vicinity of the river [here to our camp] was an advantage to us here which the ground, for several stages on, would not afford; for in case of need it enabled all our men to be at hand. [for defence, as occasion required. It seemed therefore desirable in our own safety since we were unjustifiably unfortunately now on such terms with the natives, to give them such a drubbing as they would [reason] might teach them to behave better to white strangers in the future. My men were in the finest trim for fighting enraged at the treatment we had met with from these faithless savages – and I much doubt whither any should have escaped had they been bold enough ventured to attack us.]vi

So Swedenborg is collecting white man art material on the dead beat asphalt – a Mitchell man stand in. We’ll put the ‘rifle’ back in his hand, put the bit back in where they shoot the wounded woman with the ‘child’ a second time to really kill them. And then the sub/text of rape and tomahawking that perhaps Mitchell didn’t know about – perhaps – or just didn’t commit to writing – or have we found some hauntings?

It now turned out that the tea-kettle which Jones carried had been the sole cause of the [fight] quarrel. As he was ascending the riverbank with the water, Thomas Jones (the sailor) being stationed on the bank, covering the other with his pistol as was usual and necessary on this journey; king Peter, [whom I had given presents and shown particular civility] who had come along the bank with several other natives, met him when halfway up, and smilingly took hold of the pot, as if meaning to assist him in carrying it up; but on reaching the top of the bank he, [laughing] in the same jocose way, held it fast, until a gin said something to him, [which induced him to] upon which he relinquished the pot and seized the kettle with his left hand, and at the same time grasping his waddy or club in his right he [instantly] immediately struck Joseph Jones senseless to the ground by a violent blow on the forehead. On seeing this the [other] sailor Jones [discharged his pistol at King P shot] fired and wounded, in the thigh or groin, [K]ing Peter, [in the thigh or groin so that he] who thereupon dropped his club, reeled over the bank, [and swimming] swam across the river, and scrambled up the opposite side …

One man who stood covered by a tree quivered his spear ready to throw and Jones on firing at him missed him. His next shot was [fired] discharged amongst the mob, and most unfortunately wounded [unfortunately] the gin [the female] already mentioned; who, with a child fastened to her back, [also] slid down the bank, and lay, apparently dying, with her legs in the water. Just at this time the supports arrived, which the fellow behind the tree observing, passed from it to the river, [and was fired at by King – but he managed to get into the water] and was swimming across when Charles King shot him in the breast and he immediately went down. These people swim differently from Europeans; generally back foremost and nearly upright as if treading the water. [As the gin lay on the water edge a native got into a hollow tree on the other bank suppose and was seemed encouraging her to take the water – Woods fired at his legs on which he went quickly up the bank but it is believed he was unhurt. They then shot the woman to my great pain and regret; but the men justified the actions in palliation assured me she had been the chief instigator cause of the fray.] On the arrival of our three men [coming up] from the camp the rest of the tribe took to the river and were fired at in crossing, but without [many, or] much [if] or any effect. … [As the] When the men returned up the river they perceived that the [child] body of the gin [and the child] had been taken across [the river] and dragged up the opposite bank.vii

So, the ‘sole cause’ of the ‘fight’ – that ‘tea-kettle’ – no not ‘fight’, let’s just call it a ‘quarrel’. But not over land or invasion or the theft of water from the river, no none of that is relevant. The quarrel’s ‘chief instigator cause’ was that woman who said ‘something’. Something? She did say something. We’re not sure what, but she said it and got shot and then shot again just to make sure – and what of the ‘child’? What ‘child’ he says? I didn’t see any ‘child’ in the final version, I was too busy observing the way they swim.

And so we think this horrific enough (O ‘my great pain and regret’!) but Baker tells us other things. Says even Mitchell’s original diary doesn’t speak the whole story – fancy that – but only because he was lied to – those convicts! Baker tells us ‘there is good reason to suspect they lied’viii – those convicts! – ’nothing else can explain Mitchell’s evidence, recorded at the time’.ix Nothing else? Nothing like the preservation of one’s own skin? Nothing like a limit reached of what should be preserved for posterity – even in pencil, even for him?

But eyewitness testimony is carried nine years in the mouth of a local boy, Topar, now 20, speaking to Sturt. Showing him the ground, the tree, the bank, the grave. Now Sturt writing to his wife a letter she is opening after its long journey her eyes travelling the lines that speak of the quarrel’s ‘chief instigator cause’, that woman – it goes like this: The convict ‘… endeavoured to throw the woman down, and on her resisting, he drew a pistol from his belt, and shot her in the thigh, and then effected his purpose. After which he took out his tomahawk, and with it killed both the woman and the child.’x

All this white echoing across the Darling, all this retelling but we are not done yet. In his official report none of the letter’s detail, none of that, let’s just say, what can we say? Let’s make it an occasion: ‘… [Topar] was a boy of eight when Sir Thomas Mitchell visited the neighbourhood, and, with his mother, was present at the unfortunate misunderstanding between his men and the natives on that occasion”.xi

Yes, let’s just leave it at that, Mitchell nods – I didn’t know the whole story anyway, he says, I was too busy beckoning to vir gins’ (to go back). What signal do you make to beckon ‘vir gins’ to go back? Sounds confusing and it’s clear they were all confused – ’for firing on’? or taking ‘prisoner’? These being the only choices on hand to ‘The’ men who become ‘Our’ men again in the published version after the ‘vir gins’ and their ‘affections’ had been edited out.

[The] Our men beckoned to [these women] them to go back and, no [men] other natives appearing, we resumed our march. [That these gins were vir gins was perhaps doubtful enough but it was evident they had calculated that the company of any kind of gins would have been sufficiently acceptable to us – some of the men were for firing on them, others for taking them prisoner. I directed the men to beckon to them to go back or cease following us – but unfortunately our gestures to express this means with them precisely the reverse … finding they did not retire, cause to ask me what they were to do – I told them to turn their backs towards them at the same time…] The gins however were not to be driven from [the] their object[s of their affections] so [suddenly] easily…it appeared that [they] these poor creatures had passed the night, a cold one too, in the scrub near our camp without fire or water, and that they had preceded us in the morning.xii

So he turns his back – but back he comes 10 months and 14 days later as if drawn by temptation to ‘Eve’. Here his eye ‘dwelt’, but no that’s not quite it, he writes ‘lingered’ and then when he publishes he writes ‘looked’. For what his eye is dwelling-lingering-looking on is a young naked ‘girl’ (‘so far from black’) – (better write ‘female’ instead for the public) – daughter of the ‘chief instigator cause’, ‘first offending mother’, woman who said ‘something’ something like ‘No!’ and got herself murdered. Mitchell is three days from killing even more Traditional Owners but first sometime beside the fire:

In the group before me were pointed out two [There were two] daughters of the gin which had been killed, [who were fine looking girls and were pointed out sitting in the group there before me and] also a little boy, a son. The girls [were] exactly [like] resembled each other and reminded me of the mother. The youngest was the handsomest [girl] female I [have] had ever seen amongst the natives. She was so far from black that the red colour was very apparent in her cheeks. She sat before me in a corner of the group, nearly in the attitude of Mr. Bailey’s fine statue of Eve at the fountain; [but unlike her first offending mother quite] and apparently equally unconscious that she was [entirely] naked. As [my eye dwelt lingered upon her for a moment the brother of the dead chief] I looked upon her for a moment, while deeply regretting the fate of her mother …

Arr the ‘deeply regretting’ but not at the time, only later for the typeset public. And let’s cut out the ‘first offending mother’ haunting the scene – let’s not bring that up again: Eve, the quarrel’s ‘chief instigator cause’, tempting the convict Adam down by the river on the banks of this Eden?

Anyway, as usual Mitchell’s nowhere near the action, too busy lingering – taking all those angles with his theodolite, measuring all those distances with his chains, taking ‘steady aim’ and murdering (at least) seven Traditional Owners – the ‘whole’ party that is, not ‘My’ party not ‘my rifle’ – anyway, they started without me, I ‘got down’ there late.

By the time I had also got down, the whole [My] party lined the riverbank, [almost as soon and kept up a well-directed fire which …] not without effect[as we] afterwards … [ascertained] informed that seven had been [were] shot in [swimming across] crossing the river, and among them the [loquacious and forward] fellow [with] in the cloak, who at Benanee appeared to be the chief. [ … I took steady aim with my rifle at one man near the opposite side, who instantly dived – but he reached the opposite bank apparently with unclear difficulty – Some excellent shots were fired by the men – the Doctor hit a man who had swum across and had first got his full length above the river bank … Two gins other females had also been seen at first swimming, a child between them – but I searched the river bank – at a place much lower down and could not ascertain what befell them.

Wither from habit or for more additional security these natives swam so deep on that occasion that I could scarcely at first persuade myself that the surfacing black specks I saw at first from our position on the water were the heads of human beings – most of them appeared to swim backwards keeping their eyes upon us and so each on seeing a flash instantaneously they instantly dived – a remarkable instance of their sagacity considering how little they had seen know of firearms before that occasion. What struck me most was the expression of some of the faces I saw in the water – no supplicating look – no appeal to sympathy was to be seen or heard but countenances apparently placid and composed as on ordinary occasions – told that these savages were themselves strangers to any sentiments of sympathy or mercy, and therefore could not appeal to feelings of which they were strangers had no conception. Such alas, is man in the wilds of Australia.

As the thundering of the musquetry awoke the echoes of the Murray the scene must have been terrible to them, and they were conscious how well as they were that must have been that they had themselves brought that thunder about their own heads – ] Much as I regretted the necessity for firing upon these savages, [I shall ever remember this day of deliverance and of victory, a day in which the manifest wisdom and goodness of God deserved the especial gratitude of man.] and little as the men might have been justifiable under other circumstances for firing upon any body of men without orders, I could not blame them much on this occasion; for the result was the permanent deliverance of the party from imminent danger.xiii

O that regret again. O the erasure, even in the original, as he rubs out the pencilled phrase describing the man he fired on, moving ‘apparently unclear with difficulty’ – so faint now it can barely be seen describing one of the killed? But O the ‘necessity’ and of course the sport of it, the ‘excellent shots’ that were ‘fired’ at ‘black specks’ with ‘composed’ faces incapable of ‘sympathy’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘feelings’ (which ‘savages’ is he speaking about?); and what of the two women with the child between them – ’what befell them’? – ’alas’, ‘the wilds’ the ‘deliverance’, the ‘victory’, the ‘manifest wisdom and goodness of God’ and his white men – but let’s edit a lot of that out of the public version, especially the bit about the ‘steady aim’ and the man’s ‘difficulty’ – we better, however, remind the reader that all those men were firing ‘without orders’ from me.

Such was the fate of the barbarians who, a year before, had commenced hostilities [under circumstances the most degrading and disgraceful to human nature – ] by attacking treacherously a small body of strangers, which, had it been [angels] sent [dropped] from heaven, could not have done more [than they did] to minister to their wants than it did then, nor endured more [than they did] for the sake of peace and goodwill. [My] The men had then been compelled [in their own defence] to fire in their own defence [to fire upon them even without my orders] and at the risk of my displeasure.xiv

And when he says ‘the barbarians’, the ‘hostilities’, so ‘treacherously’ he’s talking about that ‘tea-kettle’ again and the ‘chief instigator cause’ that woman who spoke – you remember her – but look what he’s removing again, the bit about ‘degrading and disgraceful’ temptation – just what did he know? He and his murdering ‘angels’ from ‘heaven’ still out crusading – O the ‘displeasure’ – and let’s put a little more distance between myself and the actions of ‘The men’, not ‘My men’, not ‘My’ party, not my ‘steady aim’, not my ‘orders’.

Anyway you get it, enough of Mitchell for now, more in the installation – we’ve our own small body of strangers to gather – an audience just dropped from heaven wondering where to lay down their meat.

‘Mid 20s white male,’ I say into the first-person radio. He’s alone in the slow-burn combustion of all these rotating lights and I’m going to take him.

Crashman has a head wound but I’ve stopped the bleeding. I take some blood and enter it into the system for Swedenborg to check the DNA. My hands carry on the actions of medicine around and inside his body – I know just enough to have satisfied Swedenborg’s darknet call-out for artistic assistants: ‘some medical training an advantage’.

I look towards the centre of town as the glass cube flashes four times in the sky above The Slag. The Driver turns towards me briefly, raising her eyebrows, she’s pumped we finally have one – we’ve been waiting three weeks now.

Through tangled streets. Past clumped houses. I wipe my arms free of blood – wonder how long it will take the cops to track us down. Yet as Maria showed, police make for some of the finest white man art material there is.

The ambulance slows as we approach The Slag. Enters the car park of the abandoned silver refinery. On our right the old mining pit full of iridescent green toxic run-off slumping into water table poisoning the anywhere everywhere. The night sky is blistered by stars. I feel the melody of the spheres as they spin in space, aware of minute fluctuations in tone. I understand that vibration underpins the anything everything.

We open the back of the ambulance. I look at Crashman-Mitchell’s contorted face. The passage of our footsteps is a loud ricochet through thick, light-glazed air. ‘Get a move on,’ shouts Swedenborg, voice reverberating in the cavernous space glancing off the metallic curves of the exactly 1835 teakettles we’ve spent the last three weeks suspending from the roof. ‘We’ve not got long left now to finish Honest Vulcan.’

I store Crashman-Mitchell in a side room with his keep-alive machines. Vital functions, heartbeat and brainwaves patterns fluctuate; amplitudes lift subtly. Corpus callosum a mass of activity radiating from the top of his skull – eyes active beneath the lids, bruised lips mouthing all the words.

Below us Swedenborg manipulates the oxy melding a squat humanoid figure from rusted mining machinery: cogged teeth, crank shaft arms mounted on large chunks of silver slag. The centre piece of Maria’s original installation, Children of the Smoke – a stand-in for Mitchell’s actual blacksmith, Honest Vulcan – wielder of fire, maker of tomahawks.

In uncertain light refracting through the swaying, jangling silver tea-kettles is displayed huge reproductions of Maria’s original artist statement and instructions for restaging the work. These were found in that white death black feather pool pit along with the Deed of Title bequeathing the surrounds to the Local Aboriginal Land Council. The videos of the four live-streamed deaths are harder to come by, but I trust Swedenborg has found a way.

I hover at the edge of the stairs, rereading the words that drew me towards all this in the first place – was anyone ever really going to make it out of this alive?

Artist statement: Children of the Smoke

They repeated all their menaces and expressions of defiance, and as we again proceeded the whole of their woods appeared in flames. I never saw such unfavourable specimens of the aborigines as these children of the smoke, they were so barbarously and implacably hostile and shamelessly dishonest, and so little influenced by reason, that the more they saw of our superior weapons and means of defence the more they showed their hatred and tokens of defiance.xv

Diary entry, Sir Thomas Mitchell; his perception of the reception his exploring party received from Traditional Owners in the area around what is presently known as Wilcannia. June 29, 1835.

lex talionis

Instructions for exhibition: Children of the Smoke

Build a box to die in.

Build a cube frame and stretch it in white linin, like it’s a coffin. Make a small cut at one corner of the cube big enough for an adult person to crawl in.

Make yourself an Honest Vulcan.

In the centre of the cube place a humanoid figure built from recycled material. In a container of green leaves and black feathers make a small fire. In the space place one rotting carp. Mount a 360-degree camera on Vulcan’s head, streaming to the darknet.

Project all that death you’ve been hiding.

On each wall of the box (from outside) project one of the Children of the Smoke 1–4 videos (they will be visible from inside in reverse). Videos must have amplified sound. The louder the better.

Get in that box of Death.

Four audience members enter the box at one time, barefoot. Videos are projected until everyone shown on screen is dead.

Repeat until you are shutdown.
Change location.
Repeat until you are shutdown.
Repeat.

The Driver’s feverish with excitement as we descend the stairs: ‘We’ll get to kill the bullocks now – Swedenborg will have to send the meat bus out to collect the audience soon.’

The sharp scent of iron and ozone wafts up on clouds of flumes illuminated by the movement of Swedenborg’s 3480-degree torch. Beside them a large cube of stretched linin delineating a soon-to-be performance space glowing white-hot furnace in the torchlight. 1,835 teakettles shifting on their strings generate the keynote of ‘the sublime composition’ – charging the cube with retribution vibrations setting the slag heap humming – a place primed for a revenging – deep centre of nowhere and no return.

*‘The Sublime Composition’ is an extract from a work in progress, the poetic novella Children of the Smoke.

 
 

    1.  

 

i Black text: (Published Journal) The Project Gutenberg EBook of Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, Vol 1 (of 2), by Thomas Mitchell. Release Date: 27 July 2004, p. 233.

Blue text: (Original Journal) C 52: Sir Thomas Mitchell Journal and report of an expedition to explore the course of the Darling River, 1835, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, p. File no: FL8690140.

ii Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams 1743–1744, trans: JJG Wilkinson. Swedenborg Foundation, Inc. New York, NY pp. 43–44.

iii Baker, D The Civilised Surveyor: Thomas Mitchell and the Australian Aborigines, Melbourne University Press 1997, p. 92.

iv Journal of the Central Australia expedition 1844–1834–1825 by Charles Sturt, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Jill Waterhouse, Caliban Books, London, 1984, pp. 38–39.

v Narrative of an expedition into Central Australia, performed under the authority of Her Majesty’s government, during the years 1844, 5, and 6: together with a notice of the province of South Australia in 1847 by Charles Sturt, p. 140.

vi Black text: Ibid, p. 236/Blue text: Ibid, p. File no: FL8690142.

vii Black text: Ibid, p. 232/ Blue text: Ibid, p. File no: FL8690139.

viii Baker 1997 op. cit., p. 93.

ix Ibid, p. 95.

x Sturt Journal of the Central Australia expedition op. cit., pp. 38–39.

xi Sturt Narrative of an expedition op. cit., p. 140.

xii Black text: Mitchell Three Expeditions (Vol 1) op. cit., p. 236.

Blue text: Mitchell Journal and report op. cit., p. File no: FL8690143.

xiii Black: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, Vol 2 (of 2), by Thomas Mitchell. Release Date: July 27, 2004, p. 98.

Blue: C54: Sir Thomas Mitchell Journal of an expedition to the Rivers Darling and Murray, 16 March–13 August 1836. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, pp. File no: FL4315082 – FL4315083.

xiv Black text: Ibid, p. 98/ Blue text: Ibid, p. File no: FL4315083.

xv Black text: Mitchell Three Expeditions (Vol 1) op. cit., p. 213.

 

 

 

 

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Gareth Sion Jenkins is a writer, artist and researcher. He spent his doctorate exploring the schizophrenic writing and artmaking of Anthony Mannix. He is the editor and designer of The Toy of the Spirit (Puncher & Wattmann), the first book-length publication of Anthony’s collected writings. Gareth’s first full-length collection of poetry, Recipes for the Disaster, was published this year by Five Islands Press.

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