The Elephant Show

There is a gulf that exists between you and I. I’ll never understand you, and you’ll never understand me. This gulf is at its widest here, between myself and the lady in front of me; her wide-brimmed felt hat limp as a dead fish to the point where it must cut off her peripherals. Her connection to the world is a makeshift antenna comprised of an aluminium selfie stick adorned with an iPhone, she probes around the seating area with it and senses an empty seat behind me. She is one variation on the rising Chinese middle-class I constantly hear about from my corner of the world in Sydney.

Perhaps it’s foolish of me to judge anyone sitting alongside me, here in a small showground in Chiang Mai, we all look stupid. Broken speakers announce in off-kilter English to take our seats, we oblige. A train of elephants file into the ring before us, the crowd buzzes, and abruptly this hum of excitement is gashed open as ‘Gangnam Style’ is squeezed through the speakers. The Elephant Show is about to begin.

All I’d read prepared me to meet somewhat of an equal in Indian Elephants, the type most commonly found in Thailand. They’re revered for their intelligence, their ability to remember experiences and friends. They’re supposedly very playful creatures, spurting water in the air to mimic rain just like we used to as children with the backyard hose in summer.  Their eyes are supposedly inquisitive and empathetic, but here in this stadium they are wildly blank; their milky golden colour washed of any comprehension. Pupils dilate as the instructor, brandishing a bullhook that resembles an oversized medieval dental tool, drags the beast before us. He strikes it with the hook and quietly it sits, staring at the fourth wall of the animal kingdom.

Now lined up to present themselves, the lead trainer diverts our gaze from left to right, introducing us to the elephants. Like the madame of a brothel, he struts as the crowd inspects the wares, and then issues the command to dance.

Each elephant begins their own routine, seemingly designed to fit the quirks of each individual beast. The shortest sticks its ass out, the tallest stands on two legs, the fattest thrusts the air with its hips and the thinnest wriggles its body and trunk. The crude, clunky choreography makes a mechatronic display of the blank-eyed dancers as if we’d all just put two dollars into a ride at the town fair. The keepers are quiet, with their heads down, staring at their rubber thongs, sweat-stained shirts pasted to meagre frames.

The elephant built Thailand, as it did much of Southeast Asia, ‘Chang Thai’ is what elephants are called in Thailand, they carried materials for construction and were used to wage war. The Chang Thai is ubiquitous in Thailand, plastered in every free space not yet taken by an image of the king or advertisements. Chang Thai is supposedly revered as the kernel of Thai prosperity. Chang Thai on flags, Chang Thai on beer, but Chang Thai looks different here; their royalty diminished as they are prodded with cold metal in order to keep up with the rhythm.

From stage right a hellish contraption is wheeled into the fray: a tricycle of crude steel, with large pedals designed to strap in the hoofs of its rider. The most confident one is called forth, and slowly and methodically straps itself in. I wonder, as the bike runs laps around the show at surprising speed if the rider is aware that not many elephants learn to ride a bike. One wonders if there is any use teaching such a superfluous, complicated skill to a creature more than intelligent enough to master it under such cruel circumstances. The crowd goes wild, I’m struck on the head by the selfie stick in the heat of it, the handlers don’t reciprocate the excitement.

Dismount. Silence thickens the air. Volunteers are called upon, but no one yields. For the next part of the show, a handler will take their place. He lays belly down on a towel placed at the largest elephants feet. This trick is called ‘elephant massage,’ and as gingerly as possible, the creature begins to press on the trainer’s back. Like a house slave, shaving his master’s throat, all watch on in angst to see if our elephant will give a traditional Thai massage, and place his entire weight on the client.

But he doesn’t. He retreats back into servitude to the applause of a wild audience. The handlers saddle up, bullhook in hand, and parade around. The audience gives money to the elephants who pass it up to their riders with their trunk. I make eye contact with a handler, he looks as hungry as his steed does. Guilt money is money nonetheless, and he takes it with a stern nod to thank me. His dark skin pokes through the holes in his clothes as he turns to the next patron, eagerly awaiting the chance to give him some money.

I turn around, the lady behind me has put her phone away for this special occasion. She is jubilant. My Auntie comes up to me, ecstatic. “Elephant!” she cries, with the little grasp of English she commands. She gestures to her heart in a show of love for the Chang Thai.

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Look! The Job Isn’t Done Yet.

There are two kinds of people, those that can extrapolate from incomplete data… the Joke goes. There is an allure to adages and phrasings that require additional information, as we go about our lives based on patterns, the most human moments seem to evade what is expected to come next.

Phoricity is a linguistic term that denotes speech in which the listener must search elsewhere for information. The above joke explicitly illustrates this, but its practical effect is much more subtle:

“Oh look, it’s a snail.”

“Oh look, it’s that snail”

Snails are hardly ever that important, but you get the idea. When broken down, each word is a sign placed within a complex ecosystem of interacting contexts and meanings, which is why “That” is so important. A good speaker directs others with clear signage or alludes elsewhere with deliberate vagueness. A joke, a lyric, poem or tale requires deliberate clarification and obfuscation, things must be hidden in order to be revealed later.

When broken down, the skills required for speech, truly captivating and clear speech; mirrors that of an artist. One uses symbols to convey meaning, and form: lines, colours, textures;  can be used to reveal and describe the subject, or to make the viewer question what they’re seeing. Phoricity, it would seem, is the key to any good art.

The negation of this sees the listener (or viewer) as the key here, one’s success as a speaker involves co-operating with the listener to convey a suggestion, it is the listener who must produce the content and feelings himself. My writing of a story depends on you, your interpretation, the colours and textures of your imagination are what breathes life into anything that’s been shown to you, for you provide its history, it’s context.

And so we must look at speech, writing, and art as tools for meaning. Robert C. Solomon, an American professor of philosophy discusses Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger in which the protagonist, devoid of any thought or introspection, works as a blank canvas. He neither thinks nor feels, opting to leave that up to the reader. Solomon describes students interpretation of the blank character over the years: at times he is the epitome of cool, disinterested and on his own course through life. Recently students claim to find his lack of consideration a symptom of cowardice and emptiness. Meanings change over time, and as an artworks interpreters change so too does the artwork, what is the old adage? A man never sets foot in the same river twice?

I sat down with my friend Brad Teodoruk to discuss this at length. Brad’s a practising artist whom I’d previously written The Chinese Have A Saying about. His paintings demand to be viewed, not necessarily because one is bound to love them, but because without an audience they are simply incomplete.

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Diego’s Fish

He sat across from me and said blatantly, “when people come up to me and tell me what they see in each painting. That is the artwork, that’s when the work is finished.” The job isn’t done until it is finished with the human gaze. We recalled our respective educations as teenagers, if they hadn’t taught us the importance of the plate of fish present in Diego Velasquez’ Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618), we’d have been none the wiser. Christian symbolism simply doesn’t hold the same impact today as it did in theocratic Spain.

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Pearl Of The Indian Ocean, 2017

Motifs appear in Teodoruk’s work, many topical tropes visit the canvas from time to time: exotic birds, leopards, bananas, palm trees. These aren’t painted from direct observations, on the contrary, they’re all figures of imagination. Brad’s process mimics ours as a viewer, his source material is a turn of phrase, a passage from a book, brochure or scrapping; which is then projected onto the canvas. In Pearl Of The Indian Ocean (2017) Ancient symbolism, Wild Cats and Islander girls reminiscent of Gauguin’s Tahitian natives give the space form, and layered colour reminds us that this is a deliberate departure from reality.Text is an integral part of Brad’s work, many of his paintings are inseparable from their title as this provides the necessary context for the viewer. However, context doesn’t necessarily dictate form, that would be no fun; instead, the viewer needs to question

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Filthy Animals (Seasons Greetings), 2017

their interpretations. As we know them, the meanings we give symbols and words are only transient, they slide and alter with time. Like Diego’s plate of fish, our general assumptions may someday be irrelevant to everyday folk. And so when we view Filthy Animal (Seasons Greetings) 2017, we are confronted with paradoxical concepts, alluding to Christmas, or to violence depending on what symbols one focuses on. Filthy Animals confronts us with half-finished characters cut and smashed into each other. The text on the canvas points to the title, but is suffocated by colour and line, and imagery like barking dogs that suggest we look elsewhere for meaning. This work is a litmus test for the viewer, Brad tells me one of his biggest inspirations comes from walls layered with graffiti, each layer competes for interest, but together they tell a story of daring, passion, and maybe even stupidity and clumsiness. This work provides us with a similar story. I discovered this painting was worked; and reworked, and the process repeated again and again until it has a story to tell, until it bears some meaning. 

None of this matters to the viewer, and that is an important point. I’ve had the opportunity to peel back the layers and understand the artist’s practice, of course, the work must be deliberate, every true artist is meticulous and purposeful in elements of their practice. But what is of importance are the elements of the work outside of an artist’s control, and nothing is more out of our control than the thoughts and feelings of those with whom we have no connection. For Brad, and very much for myself, Art is about establishing this connection. I know that when a complex, phoric sign is presented to you and I, that our interpretations will differ drastically; what matters arises from investigating how we differ and bridging the gap of what is known, and what is unknown.

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But The Chase Has It’s Poetry, 2017

If there is a work that encapsulates Brad’s philosophy of practice, it must be But The Chase Has Its Poetry 2017. It depicts miserable caricatures of existential despair, even the dog is sad. But it touches on an important philosophical note, that there is no fixed meaning for anything: not in symbols, words, and on a larger scale, nor in life. How does one approach a life with no set meaning? We aren’t toasters, drawing tables or other objects built with a purpose, we must float alongside the symbols of the world and construct a meaning for ourselves. To assume that humans can figure out the perfect way to live, and find a meaning for life is absurd. The painting exemplifies a larger scheme to Brad’s work that suggests it’s futile to place a static meaning upon anything when we live in a world we can actively interrupt and interact with, with no clue as to what effect this will bring. All we can do is try our best, and this in itself is all we need to do. Funnily enough, this is exactly what Albert Camus tries to depict in The Stranger, that nothing exists with any prescribed meaning, but our pursuit of it carries meaning in itself.

Post-modernism and the rejection of set meanings, metanarratives and the like either enrages or stimulates people. The fear and anguish the current Post-Truth world bares naked the true brutality of our differences; the cognitive divide between us has never been more evident. To dismiss this based on fear is to do the world a disservice, reconciling the differences between humans, who each think and feel in wholly unique ways, is a duty that must be done with passion. Perhaps it is small, but Brad creates spaces where this can occur, where this must occur, for the painting itself is merely a screen, the real art lies in our projections onto it.

The Australian Human Rights Story

For a country founded by thieves, we’ve built up an impressive history of emancipation, workers rights and international participation. Particularly we, from our isolated corner in the Antipodes have been one of the leading voices of the fight for inalienable human rights for every citizen of the world. So it’s irritating, to say the least, that a country so historically forward thinking can so often be determined to behave in ways that directly contradict its principles. Australia is the prized greyhound at the head of the pack, until a rabbit skirts the track, and we run off on a tangent.

THE DOC

In 1946 the world was blotted with ashes and rubble, and the veins of political discourse ran with the tears of grieving mothers. From this arose the noblest cause humanity has ever conceived: the pursuit of human rights and their protection from tyranny always. I’m shocked to discover that amidst the superpowers of the world, the faraway Island of Australia led this charge, and DR. H. V. Evatt, the Australian foreign minister, was the voice for our nation’s pursuit of justice.

Alongside an international team, ‘Doc’ Evatt, as he was affectionately known, conceived three documents: the Genocide Convention (Defining the first ‘Crime against Humanity’), the Geneva Convention (The rules for war), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (The UDHR). Together they spearheaded the formation of the United Nations, and in 1948 Doc Evatt was appointed the president of the United Nations General Assembly.

The fact that none of us young Australians are taught this incredible history in our schools ought to be deemed a ‘Crime Against Australia.’ Evatt championed workers rights throughout his political career as a Labor MP, afraid that Australia’s strikingly progressive tradition of upholding the rights of workers could falter; what a tradition it was. Only seven years after the Federation of Australia, in 1908, workers were granted the protection of a basic minimum wage. In Evatt’s time in 1948, Australia, alongside our Antipodean neighbour New Zealand, implemented the 40 hour week before any other country in the world.

Two monolithic hurdles stood in the way of the dream of an international system of protections for individual rights: The Soviet Union, and The United States of America. The former undoubtedly avoiding repercussions for the brutal pulping of its men, women and children in the streets and the Gulag; the latter to shirk responsibilities in its imperial quest for military and economic dominance. Today both countries continue to violate the rights of citizens internationally due to a deliberate watering down of the international treaties that, out of the ashes of the holocaust, were designed to build a new world centred on freedom and safety, one which could hold states accountable for their transgressions.

The post-war Human Rights commissions and treaties were designed to be binding documents and bodies, with the power to criminally charge heads of state and state officials in international courts. The Two powers above, along with a slew of countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Apartheid South Africa fought tooth and nail against these binding clauses, vetoing at any chance they could.

THE LAWYER

The 90’s were a period of acceleration for international justice. The former President of Chile: Augusto Pinochet would be arrested in London in 1998 and trialled before an international court for facilitating illegal arms and drug trades, embezzlement, and crimes against humanity, including horrific charges of Torture. Geoffrey Robertson QC, an Australian Lawyer, was the representative of Human Rights Watch in the proceedings against Pinochet. Robertson alongside the international human rights community would face criticism for the actions taken against Pinochet by notable figures such as George Bush Senior, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger).

Merely one of the 94 counts of torture Pinochet was being charged in London for having ordered involved the rape of a woman by two men and a dog specially trained for the purpose, electric shock to the genitalia and breasts, and the forced consumption of the “human remains of her dead fellow captives.” Take a moment to internalise this point. Men doing what can only be described as the devil’s work can find unlikely support: the Catholic Church? A leader of the free world? More importantly, one must understand that Pinochet would inevitably be released, and spend the next ten years back in Chile under house arrest till his death in 2006, his pleas of ill health would stall any real justice till it was too late.

Robertson, Australia’s most prominent international human rights lawyer, would in the case against Pinochet, head what is often regarded as the most important moment in the history of bringing tyrants to justice since the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi’s. Through Robertson, Australia continues to be a prominent voice in the international stage, in 1990 he founded and jointly headed alongside fellow Queen’s Counsel; Doughty Street Chambers: the world’s most prolific international human rights legal chambers. He has consistently fought for and defended the right of every human to be free from persecution.

THE SHAME

An alternate history in which the world had ratified binding documents would be a very different one to what we live in now. Much of the grease and dirt of unpunished atrocities would have been wiped from the grout between the mosaic tiles of history.

This isn’t to say that Australian history would survive such a Passover unscathed, for we have our disgraces that would place us into the firing line of a world that made an effort to imprison its oppressors. The greatest shame Australia is guilty of is that of the displacement of the stolen generations across history, and the subsequent disinterest in rehabilitating the families our government crippled over a period of just over 65 years (remember the Australian Government is only 117 years old, this was a central policy of the country’s formation).

A more recent embarrassment is Australia’s insistence on continuing Operation Sovereign Borders, while simultaneously being signatories to the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture. Our conduct in this operation, exemplified by the Manus Island horrors, contradict our commitment to these conventions, it contradicts our visionary history of dedication to International human rights, and it contradicts everything Australia’s sons, brothers and fathers were slaughtered and tortured for in the fight against Fascism and Nazism in the 1940’s. After all, this is why we began the journey of establishing international justice.

Manus spits in the face of the so-called Australian spirit, with its promises of mateship and a fair go. Within the walls of Manus, the Australian spirit bites the curb, while the lucky country we call home presses down firmly with its boot.

Illegal; Unlawful. These seemingly synonymous words have a distinct meaning under the law. Unlawful denotes something that is not authorised by law, while The law strictly prohibits illegal acts. Australian Law cannot deem Refugees arriving by boat ‘Illegal’ as it contradicts the international law it has signed on to. To deem a maritime arrival illegal is to lie and mislead, our country does not and cannot outlaw the pursuit of refuge by boat. To do so would breach our obligation under international law. This obviously matters not to the Australian government, for new arrivals by boat now, under the updated Operations Sovereign Borders code, “settlement will never be an option for anyone who attempts to come here illegally by boat.” Perhaps Australia here is the ‘illegal’.

We’ve circumvented our obligation to the Australian values of justice and fairness as well. For refugees arriving by Boat, their asylum appeals lie in the hands of the Immigration Assessment Authority, which guarantees “a mechanism of limited review that is efficient, quick, free of bias.” It does not guarantee a review that is ‘just and fair,’ something guaranteed to every other refugee or visa applicant arriving by air. With rights stripped, one must ask if today’s “country shoppers” are simply a substitute for White Australia’s “fauna.”

On Manus, the duration of detention is effectively indefinite, depending on the case, the government is willing to pay for this with your income tax. Papua New Guinea will not issue permanent visas, and considering last year’s Good Friday: when soldiers ran through the detention centre and shot at and threw rocks at officials and asylum seekers over a football field dispute, one can understand not wanting to seek residence in PNG, even if it would allow this.

Our very own list of shame is being produced in the walls of Manus: the molestation of a 3-year-old boy by a security guard; a mass suicide attempt by a group of 6 boys, separated from their parents, all sharing the same razor blade; rape; two refugees have set themselves on fire in protest. All of this horror, occurring as open-ended, mandatory detention grinds at the mental health of the imprisoned, with the only out being to return to the countries fled, many of which have been internationally recognised as having a well-founded fear of their homelands. All of this horror to create a “return-oriented environment”, while pushing with financial incentives for asylum seekers to “Volunteer” to return home. I call this duress.

‘Volunteer’ Eyad (known to officials as EDE 043), fled Australian protection due to kidney stones that the government would not provide treatment for, despite its clear legal obligation to under the Refugee Convention. His payout would be US$2,310, and he would be sent to Daraa, an active war zone near Damascus to reunite with his wife and newborn daughter after fleeing to secure them safe passage to Australia, rather than risk their lives on the boat trip.

Upon his return to his village, which had marked him a dissenter, Eyad was apprehended by Syrian officials, tortured for 20 days and forced to turn over his payout from Australia. In finally reaching his family he finds his house had been recently destroyed and his wife injured by Syrian bombing. His Last communication with ABC’s Lateline was this: “”One day I am expecting myself to be killed or arrested… In Syria, there are two sects. Either you are a killer, or you are the killed person.”

This is what Australia desires many of its responsibilities on Manus to return to, the one place, they have a deep-seated, personal, yet internationally recognised fear of. Their facilities encourage this. The manipulation of the environment at Manus; the deprivation of medical attention; the taking advantage of each Asylum Seeker’s fears are all features of the torture commonly found in military prisons, designed to “outrage upon personal dignity”, as the Convention on Torture calmly puts it.

Is this what the great Australians of past and present envisioned for their country? Is this how Australia treats its subjects? One must ask these questions of the current Liberal government in particular, for they implemented Operation Sovereign Borders to the full extent of its inhumanity, and of the previous Governments that set up the conditions for this monstrous plan.

A curtain of shame, made of the same cloth our Stolen Generation scheme, suffocates the great desire this nation has had for international justice. The Australian spirit that we have come to be so proud of can only survive if we see the dire consequences of our past mistakes, and emulate the righteous vigour of our highest achievers. For if we leave our great legacy as fighters for a better world to die, our government will continue to piss on its grave, as it does today.