A Robust Vulnerability—
In Raquel Ormella’s Return to the beginning 2013, an array of blue and white stars cascades down the wall. This little constellation of falling stars is held together by blue ladders that hang from the bottom of a thinly edged rectangular space. Looking closely, in the top left corner of the border surrounding
this hollowed-out space, we see blue, then white, then red – traces of a Union Jack. We know it well, and the particular shade of blue that surrounds it. Then, in the white stars below, we might recognise the seven-pointed Commonwealth star, and the five stars of the Southern Cross, upended.
This delicate structure reconfigures a familiar readymade – a nylon Australian flag. Through careful labour, Ormella has excised the stars from their usual positions, scattering them out into a parallel universe where they now exist amongst other stars. Extracted from their place in the flag, they are released not only from their geographical specificity, but also their years of symbolic service to the nation.
A smaller amended flag sits to the left. Here, a web of letters jostled into the space surrounding the Union Jack spells out ‘RETURN TO THE BEGINNING’. In the same year that Ormella created this work, she also paired her scattered stars with the declaration of a ‘NEW CONSTELLATION’. In this second work, small holes incised into each letter sparkle against the dark blue, bringing more stars to this reimagined night sky.
The conceptual driver of these works is the space Ormella constructs above the hanging stars. She gives us the boundary of the flag’s edges but the space within becomes a void. This radical emptying out of a highly symbolic space offers up an existential blank slate. The Australian flag, a blue ensign recognising British settlement and Federation through the Union Jack and Commonwealth star, privileges a colonial narrative that has led to devastation and dispossession for its Indigenous people. The Southern Cross, a geographical marker and emblem of the Eureka flag flown by defiant gold miners at the Eureka Stockade in 1854, has been co-opted into the ugly nationalism asserted by Cronulla rioters and Australia Day partiers.1 What if we dismantled the existing constructs and imagined a nation built by means other than these? What if we abandoned the idea of nation altogether? Whose dreams might be realised in this imaginative, utopic space of possibility?
To make these works, Ormella has performed myriad small acts of rebellion, using the red-hot end of a stick of incense to burn the flags’ nylon fabric apart. The artist describes this as akin to a teenager burning cigarette holes in a curtain.2 Performed on the flag, however, the burning becomes iconoclastic. Despite attempts to amend flag desecration laws, burning the Australian flag is not a federal offence.3 Even so, Ormella’s undoing and reconfiguring of the flag using this method lend an air of protest to its poetry, as she prods and pokes at that which is deemed stable, symbolic and true.
1. The Eureka Stockade at Eureka, Victoria, (now in Ballarat) was a rebellion against what local gold miners considered to be unfair licensing laws. Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s 2017 film We don’t need a map examines Australia’s relationship to the Southern Cross from multiple perspectives.
2. The artist in conversation with the author, 30 March 2018. The author warmly thanks Raquel Ormella for her generous discussion of this body of work in the development of this essay.
3. Recent bills seeking amendments to legally protect the Australian flag from being burned have been proposed by then deputy prime minister John Anderson (2003) and the National Party’s George Christensen (2016) following incidents of flag burning as protest.
Wealth for toil #1 2014, is a big, sparkly show pony: an Australian flag drenched in ribbons and gold, with a hint of baggy-green-cap myrtle green. It asserts the ‘GOLDEN PROMISES’ of Australian sport’s green and gold, and the attendant tally of medals won over decades of sporting prowess, an achievement tightly bound to the nation’s psyche. The gloss of such promises has been recently corroded by the
fall from grace of members of the Australian cricket team following a ball-tampering incident in South Africa. Disgraced team captain Steve Smith broke down during a press conference when asked what he would say to the children who look up to him, the followers of his dream. Wealth for toil #1 seems a perfect flag to wave in this time of increasing lack of faith in that which the nation once held dear. Despite its hubristic assertions, it performs a beautiful entropy, with the lower half of the work unravelling at the seams. Its promises, and the foundations upon which they are constructed, break apart thread by thread.
This disintegrating cheerleader also gives us pause to reflect upon other nation-forming histories. Its title is gleaned from a line in the national anthem that directly connects the nation’s riches to the bounties gained from the land: ‘we’ve golden soil and wealth for toil’. The line speaks to the mid 19th-century
gold rush, to pastoral opportunity and rewards for hard work. But exactly who is enabled by this heady opportunity for prosperity?
In recent years, the ‘hi-vis’ clothing of the FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) worker in airports around the country gained symbolic traction. The highly visible presence of hi-vis was compounded by its critical mass in frequent flyer lounges and airport queues:
a neon yellow, orange and blue barometer of the mining boom. This workforce gained near-mythical status for its sheer numbers and much-discussed remuneration. Toilers for the wealth, they were modern-day gold rushers, yet their conditions were often stressful and the schedule of flying in and out often demanding on workers and their families. The greatest wealth continues to reside at the top, with the mining magnates. And now that the mining boom is considered over, it is a matter of debate as to what the next steps will, or should, be for Australia.
At Milani Gallery, Brisbane, in 2016, Ormella exhibited a body of work made from unpicked, pre-worn hi-vis clothing of the kind worn by these workers. The works’ presence in Queensland, a state whose natural resources implicate it in any mining boom and bust, lent them a particularly elegiac air. The glow-in-the-dark, op-art geography of Golden soil #3 2016 pleasingly divides the country into neat slices, but also has a leaky border on its eastern
side. Workers blues #1 2016, urgently shouts ‘FLY IN FLY OUT’ in reflective tape. These words sit atop a nation carved out in blue cotton drill and neon, and are bounded at the bottom by an unevenly cut edge. The bright, celebratory quality that these works have at first glance diminishes quickly into a melancholic reverie on the trials of manual labour and a country divided. A deeper melancholy pervades Wealth for toil #5 2017–18, a companion piece to Wealth for toil #1. Made from hessian and incorporating ground-up ash, this work utters a phrase that has, since Biblical times, been understood as an expression of repentance, sadness and regret.
As the national anthem so quaintly puts it, Australia is also a continent ‘girt by sea’, its border defined by its coastal edge. Yet recent negotiations between East Timor and Australia regarding the maritime border at the Timor Gap and its attendant gas fields, and the history of Papua New Guinea as a dependent territory until 1975, reveal more complex notions of where Australia’s territory begins and ends. Australia has also historically laid sovereign claim to its Antarctic Territory, an area that is nearly 80 per cent of the size of Australia.4 The prospect of Australia mining this continent has also been periodically raised. In Settler economies #1 and #2 2017, constructed from workwear, Ormella brings the matter of Antarctica to our attention. The first of these works records the names of countries that have a stake in Antarctica, along with the names of bases and ice shelves. The second takes the form of a larger map that positions the vast Antarctic continent in its geographical relation to its neighbours – Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America.
This dense, layered cacophony is tightly held within a 180 x 180 cm space. Familiar names come to the fore, depending on one’s relationship to language and geography. All of this wryly brings forth the uniquely complex, historically contested arrangements between nations on this southern continent, while also revealing the legacy of colonial histories through the naming of territories – a distinctly masculine endeavour.
Such matters have limited traction in the national psyche, however, when compared to the ongoing politicisation of border protection in relation to asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. In 2012, the Gillard government reopened offshore processing centres for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, the ramifications
of which for those detained there have been painfully documented as a shameful episode in our history. The following year, Ormella made This dream, a work made from Australian, Nauruan and Papua New Guinean flags, each of which was burnt into a cage- like web of lines. These were laid together so that we might read the three phrases the artist spelt out in the fabric left behind: ‘THIS DREAM … ON THE OTHER SIDE … OF THE WORLD’. In doing so, Ormella has brought forth an aching humanity that bleeds across each of the nation states represented here. In contrast to the colonial conquests of Settler economies, these words connect to a multitude of subjects who have lost the power of self-determination. As the flags overlap in the centre of the work, the text becomes difficult to read, its voice painfully obscured.
The creation of Ormella’s works from flags and workwear involves a great deal of labour. In this respect, the works have a dutiful air about them.
A job well done. Time spent wisely. This commitment to the hand, and the work that it can do, is something to admire and delight in. Yet we have seen that there is also a process of unravelling here, an undoing
that is intrinsically tied to the doing: the burning of myriad holes in flags, the unpicking of clothes, the unthreading that follows the threading, the rending apart that accompanies the piecing together. It is this abiding tension – the conceptual and physical ramifications of the artist’s process of simultaneous making and unmaking – that gives these works great complexity and force. There is an emotional register to this, one where robustness sits in tandem with vulnerability. Recognising where we – as a nation, as individuals – might be unravelling, positions us on shaky ground. Ormella’s attention to the frayed edges of our national psyche, its places of shame, ambiguity and failure, suggests that this is exactly where we should be standing. And from here, we might make new and abiding futures.
4. The Antarctic Treaty System brought together nations with a stake in the continent and set aside conflicts over sovereignty claims, asserting the status quo: ‘No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.’ antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/ people-in-antarctica/who-owns-antarctica; accessed 2 April 2018.