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No Man Is An Island

May 2013, Cocos Islands, Australia. Local residents find 28 empty life jackets washed ashore across several beaches. Perhaps at first this seems run of the mill. The Australian government is fast, after all, to remind us things wash ashore on these islands on a regular basis. However there is something inescapably unsettling concerning the jackets. One thing terribly foreboding of their emptiness, their mute look on our land.

At the 2014 Adelaide Biennial ‘Dark Heart’, Australian sculptor Alex Seton has introduced a significant new work: 28 marble life jackets, strewn across the darkened gallery flooring. This collection, titled ‘Someone died trying to have a like mine’, refers directly to the 28 life jackets discovered on the shores of the Cocos. It was my great pleasure to help Alex in his studio during manufacturing of the works, and to expertise their improvement over a number of months.

Alex Seton, Someone died trying 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 total of 596 individuals. At their highest, they sit a mere 5 metres above sea degree, enjoying a nice local weather almost 12 months round due to southeast commerce winds and reasonable 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 position is politically and economically strategic for its proximity to Indian Ocean and South China Sea delivery lanes, and has afforded the small islands a somewhat colourful historical past.

The primary recorded European customer to the islands was Captain John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish merchant seaman who stopped briefly in 1814. Two years later he returned to the island together 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 finding his life as a governor in Borneo to be too ‘civilised’. When Clunies-Ross returned with his spouse, two children and mother-in-legislation, Hare was living with a harem of 40 Malay ladies. Clunies-Ross and his crew reclaimed the island, establishing his household in a feudal-style rule that might final greater than a century.

It was not till the 1970s that the Australian government turned their consideration to the Cocos Islands and their unusual dynastic rule. Almost certainly as a result of their strategic placement, Australia compelled the sale of the islands again to the government in 1978 for a bit of over six million dollars, permitting the Clunies-Ross’ to retain nothing but their residence, Oceania House. Five years later this property was additionally revoked, in an motion later dominated by the Excessive Court as unlawful, and the Clunies-Ross household have been removed from the islands entirely. Not happy with having revoked the islands from Clunies-Ross’ management, the federal government went on to embargo the family’s delivery company, contributing to their eventual bankruptcy and relocation to Perth.

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

There’s an allegorical flavour to the historical past of the Cocos Islands, which can be learn as a synecdoche to mainland Australia’s own history of colonisation and insurance policies of at instances unlawful exclusion. As the Cocos Islands have lengthy been a site of paradisiac dreaming, so has better Australia taken on the mythology of a peaceful and safe life for many hundreds of asylum seekers around the globe. Annually, a (statistically quite small) quantity of those asylum seekers attempt to succeed in Australia by boat, a journey with typically tragic outcomes.

Alex Seton’s marble life jackets evoke not only the particularity of those washed up on the Cocos Islands, though they do embody delicate markers of that occasion. In addition they pull us right into a more common revelry, pushed residence by the title Somebody died attempting to have a life like mine. In this string of words is wrapped up the entirety of the work’s psychic impression: the stark indisputable fact that not solely these 28 misplaced at sea, however many extra earlier than and after them, gave their lives hoping to achieve the safety and security we get pleasure from each day. Seton credit ‘Dark Heart’ curator Nick Mitzevich with identifying the title, which the artist had scrawled throughout one among his many whiteboards and which occurred to catch Mitzevich’s eye throughout a studio visit, and it is a credit score certainly.

Whether these lives are given at sea or in deplorable offshore processing centres, our nation’s unwillingness to offer safety to those who seek asylum on our shores is resulting in the lack of human life. On this, Seton is unequivocal:

For probably the first time in his laudable profession there isn’t a humour embedded in Seton’s marble types. There is none of his signature cheekiness, the playful disregard for the history and weightiness of the stone. Somebody died making an attempt to have a life like mine is deadly critical. While the artist grimaces at the suggestion that this work is proof of a follow ‘matured’, there’s an undeniable gravitas to it, an earnestness free from the puns and witticisms which have characterised past 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 remote Cocos Islands was one more in an extended and deeply shameful historical past of our nation’s engagement with asylum seekers. In response to the information of the discovery, the Australian authorities swiftly and impassively launched a press release that it was unaware of any asylum seeker boats within the region and that it was common for ‘debris’ to clean ashore from the ocean.4 This somewhat chilling characterisation of the jackets as ‘debris’ was the tip of the matter – no try to seek for the lacking our bodies or investigate the incident was made. Seven months later, however, 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 forestall the deaths of its passengers.

For this, there will be no justification, and on this no humour. Maybe on this charged and tragic story, Seton has at last encountered a subject worthy of the total solemnity of marble.

‘In its watery isolation, each island determines a state of mind’6
In the matter of asylum seekers, it’s our littoral spaces that largely define the collective psyche. Time and again, the government’s drained and sinister rhetoric concerning the boats conjures false images of our shores under attack, invaded by folks with troubles from which we think about 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 an odd and troubling disconnectedness at play, a narrative more informed by murky liminal border areas than human experience.

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 full, to be self-contained. On the centre of this continuously romanticised discourse of the island as a microcosm with its own registers of which means and sets of relations, however, lies a darkish coronary heart. In posturing island expertise as ‘whole’, we exclude that which is yet to come, relegating it to an excess not included in the entire, bounded by horizon on all sides.

Perhaps greater than something, our reading of the national response to the asylum seeker issue should be nissological. Nissology, a term coined to explain the study of ‘islands on their very own terms’8, proposes quite a few traits purportedly shared by island states. It could appear a stretch, initially, to consider Australia alongside its smaller and less powerful island consociates. Nevertheless pondering sure features of this taxonomy – clearly outlined borders; a scarcity of land resources; an ideological boundary that clearly stipulates an ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’; a psychic picture informed by narratives of limitation (whether material or socio-cultural); and a serious preoccupation with migration – one can rapidly see the extent to which geography can work to inform our national character.

Alex Seton, Someone died making an attempt to have a life like mine (in progress), January – February 2014.
‘What is this darkness in our national character that we don’t readily prolong good faith stone island tinto jacket and safety to those who claim the need for asylum’, Seton asks with Somebody died trying to have a life like mine. What he has uncovered is our very personal heart of darkness, this psychic image of our land as complete, limited, sheltered solely by protectionist policy and deadly games at sea. Seen in the light of current occasions, Seton’s work is probably the darkest of all Mitzevich’s Darkish Hearts – toying with our nissological panic, reminding us of the mortal consequences for these which can be ‘outside’ this whole. In this, we’re all complicit. In her recount of working with the Division of Immigration, the former employee had this to say:

This realisation is seemingly sluggish to infiltrate our island minds, however is vital to the integrity of our nation. In action and inaction, we are all complicit.

‘This is the common air that bathes the globe’10
What makes Somebody died trying to have a life like mine so affecting is its invitation to view this divisive challenge on a human scale. Eschewing the grand or politicised motion (of the sort now we have seen recently with the boycott of the Biennale of Sydney over their ties with Transfield, for instance), Seton brings the controversy again to a place of humanity and individuality. Each of the 28 jackets has a story to tell. Scattered desolately throughout the gallery ground, we slowly come to see in them the lives they finally failed to guard – the mothers and youngsters, younger men and boys, pregnant girls and their hopeful husbands. No matter your political stance on immigration and asylum, Seton gambles, when confronted with the human penalties of our current coverage you cannot remain unmoved.

Somewhere on the spectrum between opening our borders and the scenario because it stands must lie a extra acceptable solution for the intake and processing of asylum seekers. Without forcing any one reply down our throats, Seton’s work makes clear the stakes: people are dying attempting to have a life like ours. The question that follows is obvious: what are we going to do about it

1. Donne, J. Meditation XVII.
2. Thomas, S. (2007) Littoral Area(s): Liquid Edges of Poetic Possibility. Journal of the Canadian Affiliation for Stone Island Jeans Curriculum Research. Vol 5 Issue 1

3. Artist assertion offered to the author


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 thoughts. 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, forty seven.