Phantom Thread, Love, Confrontation

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest explores love and the pain we must endure for it

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As the candle flickers, a pair of pursed lips politely opens the door for a hesitant smile. Phantom Thread opens with a premonition: those whom we vow to go to the grave with will always have been our most demanding companions.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest project is about love. It is true to the trope; beautiful, chaotic, ambivalent, yet the trope is put under the knife so that something informative emerges, and its two main characters: Reynolds and Alma, are subjected to the very same knife.

Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker for the post-war aristocracy of England is a man cocooned by his web of habits. He lives with precision and is willing to sacrifice a great many things for this; he forgoes spontaneity, he forgoes love. He repeats his routine every day, slowly treading a path, stamping out things that would grow in place of his meticulously arranged schedule. Reynolds is the head of a well-resourced house, and like many rich boys is privy to spitting the dummy the moment things veer from expectations.

Alma is the counterpoint to this. She is introduced in a hotel breakfast, literally stumbling into the frame. She takes his order, he commands her, we see that she is malleable, Reynolds asks her to dinner.

 

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The malleable Alma, perhaps the films best performance by an incredible Vicky Krieps

To be malleable is important for Paul Thomas Anderson, for the most part of the movie we will see Reynolds so greedily shape Alma into several shapes, yet recoil in horror the moment she attempts to reciprocate this. This is the core of the film, it is not a film about romance. It is a film about love, and for Anderson, love is a violent, invasive, testing phenomenon. What is presented to us is not a bourgeois fairytale, but two sculptors carving deep into each other in order to craft something beautiful and immortal.

 

We are introduced, with a screech and a thud, to Cyril, the strong-headed sister of Reynolds. Immediately it appears that she is a female competitor for Reynolds attention. However, as the film develops we gain the sense that she is an externalisation of Reynolds, she affirms his behaviours. Her role isn’t static though, she shifts and challenges both him and Alma; perhaps this is what he refers to in calling her “my old so-and-so.”

Both Alma and Reynolds have respective turning points, at which they surrender themselves to the will of their partner and do something that conflicts with their core values. For Alma, this happens early in the film, as she strips the pitiful, drunk and depressed Barbara Rose of her coveted Woodcock dress. From here on out, recognising that she has made her sacrifice for the pair, she expects the gesture to be reciprocated.

 

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Reynolds is both commanding and pathetic

She tries to force Reynolds into this twice, firstly through surprising him with dinner, to which he responds aggressively like a child, upset and cornered. He lambasts her for cooking his asparagus in butter rather than olive oil, insults her, childishly encircles her with stupid questions: “have you got a gun? Are you here to kill me?”. The dinner ends in tears. Alma moves to coercion.

 

She poisons him, grinding up toxic field mushrooms and scattering them into his tea. The effect is debilitating. Gravely ill, Reynolds becomes unable to work. His social web, his habits, everything that tethers him to this world as Reynolds Woodcock is broken down. Near death, he is able to see the care his family bestow him. He is able to see in Alma a carer (despite unknowingly succumbing to her poison) and is able to rebuild life having relinquished his obsessive control over it. Here Reynolds is finally malleable, able to be bent into a shape that better fits the two.

He recovers and immediately marries Alma. But before he asks for her hand he says something very important: “A house that never changes is a dead house.” This is the central thesis of the film, that the opposite of this aggravating process of change is stagnation.

Cyril represents a medium between Reynolds childish urges and his role as an actor within a social web, and in a way, is a water diviner for the love that grows between the pair. As Alma challenges him and asserts her place within the house, Cyril’ds receptiveness towards her shifts. As Alma becomes more brazen, Cyril’s position as a source of consensus begins to turn against Reynolds. In one scene towards the end we see her authority as she responds to an attack from her brother:  “Don’t pick a fight with me, you won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it will be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?”

Why did this conversation occur? Hadn’t the marriage solidified all the progress the pair have made? Anderson makes it clear that something key is yet to be done. This manipulation was not offered up like Alma’s was, it was forced upon Reynolds. As the marriage slowly begins to deteriorate, we understand that this needs to occur.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou writes of a ‘two-scene’ the view of the world unique to couples that have endured together both time and experience. We begin alone, both with our own preconceptions of the world, and as we get to know another as we know ourselves we begin to change, it is as if we destroy the old person and replace it with one that exists alongside another. In the two scene, one views the world from their own perspective, and from the perspective of a halve in a unit. This is an extraordinary, uniquely human experience, but it requires the relinquishing of complete independence, it requires the relearning of modes of living. This can be extremely painful (Badiou describes it as a destruction of the former self), and Anderson uses the act of consuming poison to reflect this consummation of the two-scene.

…..

Across the fading darkness stands Alma, holding a mushroom as the candlelight licks her shoulders. The pan hisses and the air is thick with butter and egg. A wry smile, a creased brow, a shiver, a tightened jaw. On the table, an omelet is placed neatly. Reynolds is given silence, a cue to let him know that he is about to make an important decision.

The knife screeches against the porcelain plate, and from it, one single bite of omelet is procured. Almas gaze forces Reynolds’ hand, he takes the bite. There is a mutual understanding that this bite signifies a desire to be shaped, to have no control, to rely on trust.

Almas lips part: “I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open, with only me to help. And then I want you strong again.”

When the first bite of poison has been swallowed, they share a smile. The first of many from hereon.

Bill Snow Wanted Better

Why do we create? Why do we make art, conversation, make children? Since humanity began recording its thoughts the general consensus seems pretty reasonable: once we depart, we hope there will be something of us that remains. We want to die for something, even if it happens centuries after the fact. Bill Snow was an excellent Australian, an artist and an organiser that saw his change.

He died last Thursday on the 8th, capping off a life of demanding a better world for his fellow Australians, and, in many ways, telling those who denied that to fuck off. Bill Snow was instrumental in the founding of B.U.G.A. U.P. (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) which can only be described as the most uncompromising art collective Australia, and maybe the world has ever seen.

Every billboard promoting Cigarettes and Alcohol became a canvas. BUGA UP consisted of anyone with a can of spray-paint and the boldness to use it. The formula was simple: the billboard was manipulated, so its promotional message was turned against itself, and any necessary witty remarks were added. Finally, it was signed: B.U.G.A. U.P.

 

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The Chinese Banner, Street art for an ‘adventurous’ private collector

Isn’t that just Graffiti? Fair question. The discussion between where art ends and graffiti begins is a labyrinth, but considering Sotheby’s has been selling street art for decades (Obey founder and ‘street artist’ Shepard Fairey’s Chinese Banner is set to sell for something between AUD$32,000-$50,000), I’m tempted to say it qualifies.

 

Another more persuasive reason is that Bill Snow’s collective used techniques that came to define contemporary art, particularly in their use of razor-sharp wit, appropriation, and an invasion of the public gaze. In Rothmans: Licenced Killers, 1980(?) All of these techniques are on display. The brand name is modified (This lives on today with the less tasteful removal of the ‘S’ in Red Rooster stores across Australia) Dollar signs are layered over the goods in question, whether it be cigarette packets, beer cans or coke bottles. To the viewer, the fetish marketers imbue their products with is removed.

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Rothmans: Licenced Killers (1980?) Spraypaint on Private Property

In marketing, employees do everything deliberately; the result is an image with multiple messages encoded into it. Bill knew this, he knew the messages were defunct, and he had messages of his own that required no subtlety. BUGA UP become the Fred Hollows of truth, but their surgeries were invasive, and they cured Bullshit.

The result of these artists was concrete, BUGA UP had drawn an ethical line for the public to hold companies and politicians to. Australia responded by leading the world in Tobacco control reforms, only last year the World Health Organisation praised Australia for its global leadership in the field, officially declaring Australia the country of ‘Best Practice.’ Our children are raised in a unique environment in which legislation confirms the value our nation places on their lives.

What makes BUGA UP so unique isn’t so much what they are, but what they are not. They are not identifiable, their work is not for sale, and it is never private. BUGA UP most closely resembles Anonymous: organically collaborative nodes within an anarchic system. We know who Bill is because he was amongst six people who ran their mouth into a Gaol cell. One BUGA UP artists advice: “Go directly to gaol. Do not pass the buck. Do not pay $200” which was the average fine for billboard vandalism. Billy himself relished the opportunity to go to the slammer; it was a great chance to raise awareness within the prison community!

The movement they created went beyond art into the territory of activism. ‘How to’ manuals were created instructing would be BUGA’s on the fine art of creating extension poles for spray paint, creating paint bombs made of eggs and how to ‘answer’ a billboard with a spray can. These manuals resemble the files shared amongst revolutionaries during the Arab Spring, even if theirs was the business of mobile controlled drones and signal hacking.

The late art critic John Berger went to his deathbed begging us to drop art as an object, to look for new ways to liberate a canvas so that it could belong to everyone, and not just a few. He cites the fetish of an ‘adventurous collection’ of art cultivated by the ruling class as the genesis of marketing, and of the materialism we know all too well today. Barbara Kruger famously used design to question this consumerism; Supreme uses her font as its logo now. Da Vinci challenged orthodoxy and attempted to blur the line between science and art; his work is now used by Jeff Koons to sell Louis Vuitton handbags.

BUGA UP exists in polar opposition to this. Notoriously, footage of defacement directly related to BUGA UP wasn’t taken until they had gained the critical mass to commit an act of vandalism that was organised as a spectacle, with a personal invitation invited to all of the Sydney Tobacco executives the collective was able to get in contact with. To me, this action recalls what Švejk said to Hitler in Bertolt Brecht’s Schweik in the Second World War:

“You’re all rotten on top and your bottom is gone
And the east is too cold and the Reds are too red
So I simply don’t know whether to pump you with lead
Or take down my pants and shit on your head.”

What Bill would ask now, were he alive, is what comes next? That’s the question on my lips as I look at the work of Scott Marsh, a Sydney boy who is part Sotheby’s, part BUGA. His work sells for healthy prices, but undoubtedly his most valuable efforts have not been produced to be sold. Most recently, his scathing criticism of Bill Shorten in Melbourne titled Two-Face rightly jabs the Labour leader who, in the face of an atrocious Adani debacle and a blatantly cruel offshore processing scheme need only show some principles to win votes, seems unable to do so.

 

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Scott Marsh made a priceless work on the walls of Newtown

 

His murals depicting Tony Abbott over the course of the plebiscite were outright historic. The Happy Ending will outlast the legacy any of Marsh’s paid works will ever create, and it was painted over after only a few days. This is something he should be proud of, intersections between art and politics rarely peak in the way Marsh made them peak in 2017.

Being an artist who is paid nothing for their work is a trope famed for its difficulty, but Bill Snow would ask you consider who your work is made for. BUGA UP is proof that work made for everyone, asking nothing in return, can mean everything for the world of the future. Scott Marsh is talented, but a plethora of us hide in waiting, each with a message bursting from our seams. You and I know very well that today is not a stable day, 2018 is not a stable year, we owe it to each other to make our fears and desires public; and if you’ve got the chops, write them on the walls.

 

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RIP Bill Snow, a great, yet little known Australian

 

How Many Ninas?

The modern woman walks into a time machine, does she go backwards?

Perhaps the story of Nina Simone can answer that question. I find it ironic that Nina Simone is known for her upbeat tunes, delve into her catalogue and you find an open diary, full of anger. Today she is celebrated for her perseverance as a woman in a man’s world. I’d argue that Nina Simone (Eunice Waymon was her real name) was a prototype for our modern woman. We cannot forget that the world of the past gave her no quarter; it broke her.

The issues Nina railed against still continue today in their own forms. Yet the calling out of oppression, the solidarity between oppressed and the public scrutiny (once enough people pay attention) of those who abuse their power in society all came about very recently, and are yet to mature into something we can call commonplace. Nina took a contemporary approach in calling out her oppressors, yet her society shunned her for it and used its resources against her.

“My baby just cares for me” is a jazz standard today, warm and rose-tinted. Undoubtedly there was a lot of love in Nina’s relationship with her husband Andrew Stroud, yet the abuse she suffered by his hands caused irreversible damage to Nina and their daughter Lisa, who had to witness it all. She witnessed her father belt her mother black and blue; she witnessed her father ram her mother’s face into concrete walls, she witnessed her father tell her mother that she’d be better off dead. Nina actively spoke out against her husband: in her song “Blues for Mama” she challenges women in her position, to call out the partners that beat them.

“Get your nerves together,
And set the record straight.
Let the whole damn world know
That it wasn’t you that caused this bit of fate”

Nina’s society had no room for these challenges, alluded to throughout the song where she states how women ‘acting like a man’ are dismissed. Her public figure had no power over a society that deemed it okay to suppress the wife and the mother.

Famously, Nina was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement, songs like ‘Why?(The King Of Love Is Dead)’ and ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ channel the political energy and are tied to the events in history. After releasing Mississippi Goddamn, a response to the Bombing of a black church in Alabama (Only 3 years ago Dylann Roof opened fire on a black church in Charleston, killing 9 people, all black), and in particular the assassination of civil rights figure and Veteran Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith.

Interestingly, Beckwith was a member of the White Citizen’s Council, which now goes under the name of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Dylann Roof references the council’s website in his manifesto as crucial to his actions: “There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief.” (taken from The Last Rhodesian, Roof’s website).Journalist Anne Coulter, Fox News regular and author of “In Trump We Trust” openly defended the site which claims to “oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people” (taken from the CoCC statement of values) and sells bumper stickers that say “BAN MUSLIMS NOT GUNS.” Mississippi still has representatives that are members, and many testimonies featured on the website are from former senators and congressmen, goddamn.

Australia has its fair share of racists, yet our brand of conservative politics is yet to parallel the States. For one we never introduced systemic slavery, and never had Klansmen down under (I have no doubts the ghosts of our traditional custodians would have stories against these words), James Cook wrote of his admiration for Aboriginal culture, and Arthur Phillip famously declared the first law of Australia: “there shall be no slavery in a free land.” Yet our history is filled with shameful moments. Had Nina Simone attempted to flee to Australia, she’d have been told to go home, for the White Australia Policy which declined non-white immigrants entry was not fully dismantled till 1973. Had she made it she’d have a whole new set of racial anxieties to deal with in seeing the forced separation and relocation of the stolen generations.

Last year our Conservative politics took a bad turn. Pauline Hanson’s party had hitherto been the only right populist party, yet now with the introduction of the Australian Conservatives, we must contend with an uglier, silent, more American style of politics. One Nation’s party manifesto is surprisingly soft, despite its open hate for Muslims and its call for a right to firearms. Bernardi’s Conservative Party is Anti-United Nations (an institution which, out of the chaos of WW2, we were instrumental in building), it is Anti-government and rejects any structural assistance to those in need, it is Anti-Human Rights. It believes in the supremacy of Christianity and its values (reflect on how American ‘Christians’ are all too murky on what these values really are) it believes in the supremacy of Western Culture, and it is gaining traction in Australia very quickly.

What is the antithesis of oppression? What happens when the boot is forced off the neck? Nina sings for it, she dreams of it: a new way of seeing, with no fear. Freedom. The other side of her catalogue is filled with songs of longing for freedom, and persevering through a bitter struggle to reach it. In ‘I Ain’t Got No – I Got Life’ this is exemplified. After we hear a list of things that were taken away, or never given (ain’t got no culture, ain’t got no faith, ain’t got no money, ain’t got no love), we’re invited to ask what the point of it is. The answer provides one of the best twists in music history (seriously, check out this live version, listen out for the two-minute mark):

“I’ve got my life, I’ve got Freedom,
I’ve got my life, and I’m gonna keep it.
I’ve got life, and nobody can take it away from me”

The cries today against those who speak out echo Nina’s opponents of the period. These were opponents of the rights of women, the rights of black people and the rights of the poor. These opponents held power in Nina’s society, their advantage over her was not personal; it was systemic.

Each of the conservative parties in Australia propose policies that rail against ‘alternative lifestyles’, yet we must remember that for Nina’s time, to live free from brutal violence at the hands of your Husband, to escape poverty, and to live free as a black person in America, or an Aboriginal in Australia were demands considered ‘alternative’. This begs the question: how many Ninas are here amongst us? How many of us fight for the freedom of ourselves and others, against systemic odds stacked against us?

Each of us here presents a node within this system that determines how the Nina’s of our time will have their questions answered. Blues for Mama calls us to action, not only to call out wife beaters but to call for something much more. She says it perfectly:

“Ain’t nobody perfect, cause ain’t nobody free,
Hey Mama, tell me, what you gonna do?”

The Greatest Horror Ever Written

In this story the monsters are plutonium, and whoever pushes the button first

Australians are great at writing horror; the Babadook had the entire northern hemisphere checking under the bed. Wolf Creek made backpackers think twice, and the classic drop bear story particularly terrifies Americans for some reason. Japan has excellent horror, as do the Americans; Brittain boasts the birth of Gothic Fiction, and French horror is some of the most shocking in existence.

The most terrifying horror story is yet to be completed though, and it’s an international collaboration. It started when 0.7 grams (the sip of water I just took weighed more) of uranium was sent into full fission over the city of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945. It turned that city to ash, along with its children and women, and their beloved pets, and their favourite spot in the park where their families had picknicked over generations.

A few days later they did the same to Nagasaki.

The world lived in varying degrees of fear and tension from thereon; the bomb became a spectre: unseen yet present. America made many, and Russia did too, and in the cold war they set the standard for Nuclear Holocaust etiquette; it’s still in place today. It’s called “Mutually Assured Destruction”, and for each country now possessing nuclear weapons, it is the best and only strategy for defence.

The result of this is a hard truth often disregarded, that nuclear war effectively assures the destruction of civilisation as we know it. No vampire, no axe murderer, nor bunyip or chupacabra could ever haunt my dreams the same way minuscule amounts of plutonium can.

Since the 90’s we’ve turned a blind eye to the greatest monster ever conjured up by humans, and so many people forget (or like me, grew up unaware of) the power of a nuclear bomb. I write now to fill this gap.

Marx once said that history occurs first as tragedy, then as farce. And now, in a surreal twist, a twitter conflict between two incompetent world leaders, both of whom are deranged, now means that each of us has to come to terms with this fact.

There are more than 15,000 nuclear weapons today, nine countries hold them. The USA and Russia jointly have 1,800 active and ready to launch at all times. Each of these can vaporise cities. They vary in size and capacity, but even the smallest of these if detonated in any major city in the world can kill 100,000 people at a minimum and create a higher amount of burn victims than the all of the hospitals in the world combined would have the capacity to treat. Most of these are insecurely stored, particularly in Russia, but the USA can hardly boast, their nuclear program only stopped running on floppy discs last year.

Kevin Rudd recently suggested we invest heavily in a missile defence shield. Many people believe these will keep Australia safe; this is somewhat correct. But missile defence is flawed: William J. Perry, secretary of defence under Bill Clinton, negotiator to the maniacal regime in North Korea stated that “the belief that our country can defend itself against a large-scale nuclear attack is a fantasy.” In an interview he gave at U.C. Berkeley, he not only discredited any ability to defeat a large scale attack but also emphasised the possibility of missiles slipping through defence shields.

Should a barrage of nuclear weapons be sent our way from Pyongyang (after all, Kim Jong Un did tell Julie Bishop back in April ‘17 that her “reckless tongue-lashing” would be responsible for our destruction), and one single, 300 kiloton nuclear missile slip through the cracks of a hypothetical shield and sail into Sydney Harbour, this is what it could look like.

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William J. Perry states that the most significant nuclear danger would be blundering into a nuclear situation, whether that means ground war in Korea, or allowing war between Pakistan and India to occur again (both possess nuclear arms) or inciting conflict with China. Here’s what Sydney would look like should China use their standard 5 Megaton missile systems against it.

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Let’s unpack this starting from the centre:

fireballThe yellow radius represents the size of the fireball the explosion will produce, where temperatures have been measured to read hotter than the surface of the sun. 10.6 Square Kilometers of Sydney will be instantly vaporised. Long before we can even settle the debate as to which is the oldest, Australia’s first pub will disintegrate into radioactive dust that will enter the stratosphere and fall somewhere on the eastern coast, as far up as Yamba and Byron bay.

blue zonePerhaps you just saved for a ridiculously overpriced apartment in Strathfield, don’t stress the enormous debt you just incurred. Strathfield’s buildings, like most buildings within the blue zone, will crumble from the shock waves, especially if they’re built by Meriton. You will most likely die instantly from the shock within this area, if not the heat from the blast is effectively guaranteed to kill you and your landlord. With most cars now destroyed and their drivers dead, the roads would be clogged, emergency services would have a tough time reaching any survivors, although Parramatta road would still effectively be the same to drive on.

big dongaThe third zone represents the area in which you have a 100% chance of getting 3rd-degree burns via thermal radiation if you are outside or otherwise exposed. The very same force responsible for overheating your pizza in the microwave so thoroughly damages your skin that the nerves are destroyed; this means that, should you survive this, you can wander the ruins of your former hometown numb to the tissue damage that just permanently disfigured you, surveying the carnage. There are many, many eyewitness reports from Hiroshima by Hibakusha (this is the Japanese term for survivors who had to experience the cruel bombings and face the aftermath) of the living dead patrolling the streets of ash detached from the world, their minds unable to comprehend what just happened.

Some may survive with horrific scarring after several surgeries. Famously a group of 25 schoolgirls survived the Hiroshima nightmare, and after extensive operations were known to the world as the Hiroshima Maidens. Many of these girls flew to the USA for surgeries and were heralded by the media as “grateful” for their opportunity to have rudimentary facial reconstructions, so that they may one day be “fit for marriage”. One of the maidens, Tomoko Nakabayashi, died on the operating table during a minor procedure; an American headline covering this read: “Beauty Hunt Fatal – Hiroshima Maiden Dies In Surgery.”

Now is probably a good time to mention that most of this chaos happens within the space of minutes, the blast waves create winds that can travel near the speed of sound, at estimates of nearly 1000km/h. In the hypothetical Chinese Nuclear attack, the 24Km space between Lakemba and Manly would be flattened within 40 seconds, along with Concord Hospital, our best centre for treating burn victims. The shock waves from the blast can rupture eardrums, lungs, and entire abdomens, as well as creating severe internal haemorrhaging. Alongside this, any sand within the fireball’s radius is melted into glass from the heat and sent outwards. Most window panes are violently shattered when exposed to pressure and wind like this, with lacerations the result of flying shards of glass carried by winds several times stronger than the largest hurricanes ever recorded.

Nuclear weapons are designed to explode several kilometres above ground, but if one detonates on the ground, the aftermath is much worse. Tonnes of radioactive dust, the remains of what was Sydney Cove, the vibrant inner city strips, the bar where you met your wife, all of this is sent up into the atmosphere and into the stratosphere after being fused with radioactive compounds such as Strontium-90. Here it travels for kilometres settling over eastern New South Wales, where the Pacific Highway from Wyong to Byron will be littered with cancerous, radioactive fallout. The ashes of the Botanical Gardens, the NSW Art Gallery, its collection of masterpieces from Australian visionaries, and the already dead King’s Cross will render some of the world’s most beautiful coastland uninhabitable for decades to come. Now atomised, we will float inland to Maitland and the Hunter Valley where the farmland responsible for some of Australia’s best dairy and Wine will be contaminated with radioactivity potentially damaging to chromosomes and blood compositions for generations to come.

 

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A map of where the Fallout is dispersed, carrying on as far north as Byron Bay

 

Sydney is now nothing; all our memories are carcinogenic particles scattered across a broken country. All the beer is vapour, and Australia may not have enough bulldozers to clear the rubble that remains. The carbon and soot collect in the atmosphere and creates clouds that begin to rain black drops the size of Marbles (The New Yorker reported this exact thing in 1946) all over the greater Sydney area.

As the rain falls and washes away the last remains of a naive Australia of the past, we will recognise that this, all of this, was from one single bomb, of which there are still over 15,000 more. The annihilation of Sydney is but one hypothetical chapter in the most horrifying narrative that we humans have ever produced. You, the reader, must fathom that when J. Robert Oppenheimer invented and witnessed what his bomb was capable of, his invocation of Vishnu: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” this was not an exaggeration. We have sleepwalked into a situation where insane politicians from 9 different nations (and growing) can murder entire cities in their beds.

Should we continue to support the warmongering leaders, just as our government has always done, we will be forced to confront a shell of a world where life can be choked out in an instant, with nothing but black rain to wash away our mistakes.

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.

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.