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Might 2013, Cocos Islands, Australia. Native residents find 28 empty life jackets washed ashore throughout a number of beaches. Maybe at first this appears run of the mill. The Australian authorities is quick, in spite of everything, to remind us issues wash ashore on these islands all the time. However there may be one thing inescapably unsettling about the jackets. One thing terribly foreboding in their emptiness, their mute appearance on our land.

At the 2014 Adelaide Biennial ‘Dark Heart’, Australian sculptor Alex Seton has presented a significant new work: 28 marble life jackets, strewn across the darkened gallery flooring. This collection, titled ‘Someone died attempting to have a like mine’, refers directly to the 28 life jackets found on the shores of the Cocos. It was my nice pleasure to assist Alex in his studio throughout production of the works, and to experience their improvement over a number of months.

Alex Seton, Someone died making an attempt to have a life like mine, 2014.
‘No man is an island, complete of itself’1

The Cocos Islands are a small Australian territory consisting of two atolls and 27 coral islands, inhabited by a complete of 596 folks. At their highest, they sit a mere 5 metres above sea level, having fun with a pleasant climate almost 12 months spherical because of southeast trade winds and average rainfall. Collectively, they occupy just over 14 sq. kilometres of the Indian Ocean southwest of Christmas Island, about 1200km from Jakarta and 3000km from Perth. This place is politically and economically strategic for its proximity to Indian Ocean and South China Sea shipping lanes, and has afforded the small islands a considerably colourful historical past.

The first recorded European visitor to the islands was Captain John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish service provider seaman who stopped briefly in 1814. Two years later he returned to the island along with his household, and after a feud with an Englishman named Alexander Hare, settled there. Hare had taken up residence on the Cocos after purportedly discovering his life as a governor in Borneo to be too ‘civilised’. When Clunies-Ross returned with his spouse, two kids and mother-in-legislation, Hare was residing with a harem of forty Malay girls. Clunies-Ross and his crew reclaimed the island, establishing his household in a feudal-fashion rule that will last more than a century.

It was not until the 1970s that the Australian authorities turned their consideration to the Cocos Islands and their unusual dynastic rule. Most likely resulting from their strategic placement, Australia compelled the sale of the islands back to the federal government in 1978 for somewhat over six million dollars, permitting the Clunies-Ross’ to retain nothing however their dwelling, Oceania Home. 5 years later this property was additionally revoked, in an motion later dominated by the Excessive Court docket as unlawful, and the Clunies-Ross family had been faraway from the islands totally. Not satisfied with having revoked the islands from Clunies-Ross’ control, the federal government went on to embargo the family’s shipping company, contributing to their eventual bankruptcy and relocation to Perth.

‘Islands signify a microcosm of the universe … a mingling of universality and particularity’.2

There may be an allegorical flavour to the historical past of the Cocos Islands, which may be learn as a synecdoche to mainland Australia’s personal history of colonisation and insurance policies of at occasions unlawful exclusion. As the Cocos Islands have lengthy been a site of paradisiac dreaming, so has greater Australia taken on the mythology of a peaceful and safe life for many hundreds of asylum seekers around the globe. Every year, a (statistically quite small) number of those asylum seekers attempt to achieve Australia by boat, a journey with often tragic outcomes.

Alex Seton’s marble life jackets evoke not only the particularity of those washed up on the Cocos Islands, though they do include subtle markers of that occasion. Additionally they pull us right into a extra common revelry, pushed house by the title Someone died trying to have a life like mine. On this string of phrases is wrapped up the entirety of the work’s psychic impression: the stark undeniable fact that not solely these 28 misplaced at sea, but many extra before and after them, gave their lives hoping to succeed in the security and safety we enjoy every day. Seton credit ‘Dark Heart’ curator Nick Mitzevich with identifying the title, which the artist had scrawled across one of his many whiteboards and which occurred to catch Mitzevich’s eye throughout a studio visit, and it’s a credit score certainly.

Whether or not these lives are stone island junior muts given at sea or in deplorable offshore processing centres, our nation’s unwillingness to supply safety to those who search asylum on our shores is resulting within the lack of human life. On this, Seton is unequivocal:

For presumably the primary time in his laudable profession there isn’t any humour embedded in Seton’s marble varieties. There may be none of his signature cheekiness, the playful disregard for the history and weightiness of the stone. Someone died making an attempt to have a life like mine is deadly severe. Whereas the artist grimaces on the suggestion that this work is proof of a observe ‘matured’, there is an undeniable gravitas to it, an earnestness free from the puns and witticisms that have characterised previous work. These sculptures memorialise, and more than that they admonish our apathy and our government’s lies, sitting in silent judgement of our collective failure to act.

The early morning discovery of the life jackets on the distant Cocos Islands was yet one more in a protracted and deeply shameful history of our nation’s engagement with asylum seekers. In response to the news of the discovery, the Australian authorities swiftly and impassively launched a statement that it was unaware of any asylum seeker boats within the region and that it was common for ‘debris’ to scrub ashore from the ocean.4 This considerably chilling characterisation of the jackets as ‘debris’ was the end of the matter – no try and search for the lacking our bodies or investigate the incident was made. Seven months later, nevertheless, a former worker of the Division of Immigration revealed an article contradicting this assertion, revealing that there had indeed been a boat detected, and that no motion had been taken to prevent the deaths of its passengers.

For this, there may be no justification, and on this no humour. Perhaps on this charged and tragic story, Seton has finally encountered a topic worthy of the complete solemnity of marble.

‘In its watery isolation, each island determines a state of mind’6
Within the matter of asylum seekers, it’s our littoral spaces that largely define the collective psyche. Repeatedly, the government’s drained and sinister rhetoric about the boats conjures false photos of our shores under attack, invaded by folks with troubles from which we imagine ourselves removed, besides by virtue of our shared humanity and first world accountability, both of which appear to be conveniently forgotten by these in energy. There is a wierd and troubling disconnectedness at play, a narrative more knowledgeable by murky liminal border areas than human expertise.

Writing on the nature of island experience, J. E. Ritchie paints it as ‘within itself, with all its conflicts, potentially whole’.7 To exist on or as an island is to be complete, to be self-contained. On the centre of this frequently romanticised discourse of the island as a microcosm with its personal registers of that means and sets of relations, however, lies a darkish coronary heart. In posturing island expertise as ‘whole’, we exclude that which is but to come, relegating it to an excess not included in the entire, bounded by horizon on all sides.

Maybe greater than something, our studying of the nationwide response to the asylum seeker issue should be nissological. Nissology, a term coined to explain the examine of ‘islands on their very own terms’8, proposes numerous traits purportedly shared by island states. It could seem a stretch, initially, to think about Australia alongside its smaller and fewer highly effective island consociates. Nonetheless pondering certain aspects of this taxonomy – clearly defined borders; a scarcity of land sources; an ideological boundary that clearly stipulates an ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’; a psychic image informed by narratives of limitation (whether or not materials or socio-cultural); and a serious preoccupation with migration – one can shortly see the extent to which geography can work to tell our national character.

Alex Seton, Somebody died trying to have a life like mine (in progress), January – February 2014.
‘What is this darkness in our nationwide character that we do not readily extend good religion and protection to those that declare the necessity for asylum’, Seton asks with Someone died attempting to have a life like mine. What he has uncovered is our very own coronary heart of darkness, this psychic picture of our land as full, restricted, sheltered only by protectionist coverage and deadly video games at sea. Seen in the sunshine of current occasions, Seton’s work is perhaps the darkest of all Mitzevich’s Dark Hearts – toying with our nissological panic, reminding us of the mortal penalties for those which are ‘outside’ this entire. On this, we’re all complicit. In her recount of working with the Division of Immigration, the previous employee had this to say:

This realisation is seemingly slow to infiltrate our island minds, but is crucial to the integrity of our nation. In motion and inaction, we’re all complicit.

‘This is the widespread air that bathes the globe’10
What makes Someone died making an attempt to have a life like mine so affecting is its invitation to view this divisive problem on a human scale. Eschewing the grand or politicised action (of the type we now have seen lately with the boycott of the Biennale of Sydney over their ties with Transfield, for example), Seton brings the debate back to a spot of humanity and individuality. Every of the 28 jackets has a narrative to tell. Scattered desolately across the gallery flooring, we slowly come to see in them the lives they in the end failed to protect – the mothers and children, young males and boys, pregnant ladies and their hopeful husbands. Whatever your political stance on immigration and asylum, Seton gambles, when confronted with the human consequences of our present policy you can’t stay unmoved.

Someplace on the spectrum between opening our borders and the situation as it stands should lie a more acceptable resolution for the intake and processing of asylum seekers. With out forcing anybody reply down our throats, Seton’s work makes clear the stakes: individuals are dying attempting to have a life like ours. The query that follows is apparent: what are we going to do about it

1. Donne, J. Meditation XVII.
2. Thomas, S. (2007) Littoral Area(s): Liquid Edges of Poetic Risk. Journal of the Canadian Association for Stone Island Jeans Curriculum Studies. Vol 5 Subject 1

3. Artist statement supplied to the creator


6. Beem, E. A. (1992). Casco Bay morning. Island Journal: Maine Island Institute, 86-87.
7. Ritchie. J. E . (1977 ). Cognition of place: The island mind. Ethos, 5 , 187-194.

Eight. McCall, G. (1994). Nissology: A proposal for consideration. Journal of the Pacific Society, 63‐64(17).


10. Whitman, W (1855/2005). Leaves of Grass. Harold Bloom, 47.