My Kind of Soldier
Australia’s “Rum Rebellion” had almost nothing to do with rum. On the 26th of January 1808, exactly twenty years after the foundation of the Colony, Australia had its first and only successful military coup. While spirits had a part to play in the theatre, what drove the New South Wales Corp into the bedroom of Governor William Bligh was far more personal and therefore more complicated.
William Bligh was appointed to harness the commercial activities of the New South Wales Corps, especially their trade in spirits. Two particular targets of Bligh’s were the wool pioneer John Macarthur, who Bligh dubbed ‘the Arch Fiend’, and Commanding Officer of the Corps, George Johnston. It was thought that the Corps’ seemingly monopolised market in spirits, not as a product but as an ad-hoc currency, was in effect a kleptocracy.
After some clashes in the early court system, none of which involving alcohol and most involving town planning, Bligh took Macarthur to task on an incident involving one of Macarthur’s trading ships in a civil case, eventually asking for Macarthur’s arrest. When the jury of six Corps Officers refused to recognise the court, Bligh threatened to charge them with treason. On hearing this, Johnston assembled and led over three hundred of his men, in full dress and formation, to the Governor’s residence, where, if certain accounts are to be believed, Bligh was found hiding under his bed.
Bligh was unarmed and, with his personal guard suborned, unprotected. Why then would the full complement of the 102nd regiment of the British army (including bannermen and regimental band) be required to depose him? Surely such a public display was spectacle first and junta second. It was, in part, a message. The lesson – don’t threaten the boys.
The strong personalities of the main players aside, each of those soldiers marching up Bridge Street in 1808 was caught in a series of social complications – proudly wearing the uniform and carrying the arms given to them to protect the establishment they were set to destabilise. This was a time when honour was everything; men would instantly be compelled to duel at the smallest slight. Were they swept up in esprit de corps? Were they keen to defend their six brothers-at-arms? Or were they still drunk from the rare regimental celebrations held in the proceeding days? A telling point: while Johnston led his men with sword raised in one hand, his other arm was in a sling, he having fallen out of his carriage, blind drunk the night before.
Bulls on Parade
The name “Rum Rebellion” is a misnomer, invented fifty years after the event by a prohibitionist campaigning for a teetotaller society. Its persistence as a popular term might have something to do with its alliterative, cheery nature. Two hundred years later another, similarly named, parade of rebellious pageantry storms the streets of Sydney and other cities in Australia.
“Mad Monday”, as it has been come to be known, is the tradition dating back to 1996 associated with football codes of celebrating the end of a season with drinking, costumes and pranks. Most codes play weekend games, so in the last pre-final round of the season, the Sunday night ladder separates those who will “play on” from those who will “play up”. Often beginning early on Monday morning, teams whose seasons are over for the year roam the streets from pub to pub, hollerin’ and roughhousin’, increasingly being followed by press photographers. For these photographers and the general public they are easy to spot. Like Johnstone’s NSW Corp they are dressed in full regalia – Hawaiian shirts, superhero costumes and women’s undergarments have featured strongly. Geelong’s Matthew Scarlett and Parramatta’s Nathan Hindmarsh were known to put elaborate effort into their costumes; Brendan Fevola, famously, was not (all were known for prodigious alcohol intake).
This behaviour, of course, is not isolated to professionalathletes. Out there, in the back blocks, the boys are tying one on, either to celebrate the end of their reserve-grade seasons or just the end of the working week. Binge drinking is certainly not a new phenomenon in Australia, the earliest bush labourers established the long standing custom of “work and burst”: a drunken spree in town following weeks of work in isolated, harsh environments, perhaps the earliest ancestor of Fly In-Fly Out and Wet Mess drinking cultures.
This kind of ritualised drinking and smoking, piss-ups and Mad Mondays, are – at the parallel levels of the social and the physiological – contradictory. Alcohol (like cannabis, and whatever else your mate might have picked up on the way over from work) effects the pleasure centres of the brain individually and almost immediately. Therefore whatever the motivation (recreation, self-therapy, escape), the practice is essentially onanistic: self-pleasure at its most direct. But while drugs are self-gratifying mechanisms, paradoxically, for a proper piss-up we need other people around us participating. The solipsist needs the social context.
Reckless (Don’t Be So)
The artist Benjamin Crowley has assembled a regimen of rum cans in this show, Fangin’. The precarious work, 220 Something Rum Cans, is composed as a truncated pyramid. It’s a baller move, but not without precedent: a precursor to the consistently problematic field now called relational aesthetics, the artist Tom Marioni established in 1970 his stance that “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art”. Earlier still, Jasper Johns, in response to a slight on his art dealer Leo Castelli by his colleague Willem de Kooning, produced his Painted Bronze (Beer Cans) in 1960. The lion’s share of the material was “generated” by friends, housemates and the artist himself. Bundy and coke has prevailed against the 2008 alcopops tax, and an ugly public association between the beverage and acts of aggression and violence. In Crowley’s work the assembled cans stand tall, literally, proudly in formation, resplendent in their matching uniforms stamped in emblems and official seals.
Elsewhere, the video High Art features a single cannabis leaf, gently cycling through an array of colours on a deep black background. The work stands as a savvy new media upgrade of the eight dollar flags at Off Ya Tree, a brilliantly values-neutral mandala. This leaf might have been a counter-cultural image in more analogue era, emblematic of a principled stance on rights and the body. By 2013, however, the image has been digitally mediated and intermediated, re-tweeted and re-blogged ad nauseum (often by the least likely of suspects). As a result it has been rendered, alongside its attendant #kush #dank and #420blazeit, almost meaningless. But despite its ubiquitous appearance in popular culture and social media, it still appears very, very, out of place in a well-appointed home in an affluent section of New Farm.
Similarly, a domestic space (with fans fitted to the ceiling) has no use nor want for a flat-pack import pedestal fan, let alone a woozy, loud and staggering unit. Yet Wobble Fan persists, like a swaying eavesdropper at the bar. In its blurred “vision” is the video work 1st Class. The artist, with the pose of Jesus Christ and the peace of Buddha, floats endlessly on a lilo in a swallow pool. Expended beer bottles litter the tiled surface. The circular frame is blurred at the periphery, the artist literally passes in and out of blackness. He wears pluggers, cutoffs and a bright tropical shirt not unlike those popular with Mad Monday troopers, and like the off season revellers he is acutely aware of his performance and surveillance, but shows no interest in his audience – blissed out, his cup runneth over,
observed but uncaring.
Crowley yawns from his floating platform, and according to researchers at New York’s State University, there is a 40-60% chance that the viewer will as well. When we see, hear, or think about someone yawning a neurological trigger can cause ourselves to yawn. This is what is known as contagious yawning, and has been observed not only in humans but in primates and canines1. According to Ronald Baenninger, who has studied yawning at Temple University in Philadelphia, the phenomena makes evolutionary sense: contagious yawning may have helped our prehistoric ancestors in coordinating times of activity and rest, a way of syncing watches in a land before time. “It’s important that all group members be ready to do the same thing at the same time,” Baenninger says. Compare this to Happy Hour at the local, or to Jason Akermanis’ defence of Mad Monday: “Some footballers will tell you that Mad Monday is a necessary part of the season, that to not have one would not properly allow a line to be drawn on the season just completed.”i
So, viewer, if it’s important for social groups to do be ready to do the same thing simultaneously, is it now time to get lit up? At the time of this essay’s publication, Fangin’ is exhibiting in the dead of a cruel grey winter. The artist floats dislocated in space and time: poolside in the wrong season, pulling cones in the wrong suburb, listening to pub rock and repping bogan culture in the wrong decade.
Except of course, this ‘wrongness’ is entirely arbitrary. Australia uses terms and ideas like “the bogan” to quarantine representations of national culture that embarrass or threaten us. It’s a way of corralling ideas and ways of being, sealing the ‘other’ away. These containers are intrinsically imaginary and rarely effective. Containers and vessels are a recurring motif of Fangin’, being emptied and filled – bottles, cans, pools, chop bowls and bongs. Similarly, the meanings of these vessels become fluid through the appropriative treatment of the artist. In 1st Class the artists’s body, yawning deeply, fills and empties itself, a living vessel – Crowley complicates the idea that symbols of the body, class and value are fixed and inviolable.
This challenge to traditional symbolism, hilariously, requires no qualification from the viewer – an unseen Joe Cocker constantly reaffirms the work, a looping soundtrack to the show repeating endlessly, “you are so beautiful… to me”. With one deft, ridiculous and charming gesture the very concept of an aesthetic debate is entirely undermined. To view his work and laugh, smile and/or yawn is to experience a contact high. The buzz is complicated – heavy riffs on agency/passivity, contemporary art’s relationship to ideals of the past, and the parallel pop culture industry of its present. It will take time for these dubious substances to be metabolised.
By Danny Ford
Courtesy of Inhouse ARI
1.Platek, S. M., Critton, S. R., Myers, T. E. & Gallup, G. G. Jr. Contagious yawning: the role of selfawareness and mental state attribution. Cognitive Brain Research, 17, 223 – 227, (2003).
i. Stevens, M. (2009, September 2). Herald Sun. Retrieved from Jason Akermanis mounts staunch defence of Mad Monday