The Australians - PhMuseum

The Australians

Matthew Thorne

2018 - Ongoing

Adelaide, South Australia, Australia; Northern Territory, Australia; Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia; Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

The Australians is an ongoing, long term project.

A few years ago I was working my way through a junkyard in outer Melbourne looking for interesting bits of discarded life. Buried amounts the shit-heaps, I found a copy of an old book called THE AUSTRALIANS.

The book was published in 1960, and as far as I can find, it is still completely out of print. (Not the book of the same name by John Hirst - something far stranger). As I thumbed through the pages I found a fascinating but very shielded photographic and anthropological document of Australia as it was then.

It was beautiful as a document of the time. But it was also filled with an inevitable racism, British-imported notion of class, an unrealistic post-war humanist idealism, an awkward appeal to a new Americano-Australian reality (both in reader, and in ourselves), and an unhealthy obsession with the kitch and quirky.

At its core, it all felt so far from the Australia (and the Australians) that I knew. It felt familiar, but also completely Alien. Not just in how Australia had changed since these photos were taken, but also in how it had been depicted. It was an image of an Australia-cum-Disneyland. A world that was yes, part sensible hardworking Colonialism, but also overwhelmed by fun and filled with Jumbucks, Dancing Indigenous Mystics, 60’s retro-futurist white collar lives, black-fellas in drovers clothes, and sheep shearers aplenty.

While these subjects are unequivocally real and 'Australian', they felt approached in a way that missed the underlying melancholic, mystical nature of Australia’s spirit. They missed the grit, and the dreaming. And how those two things dance together throughout Australia’s history (both pre, and post Colonial).

In some unique way the Australian land works on the people that live in it. In our country, we do not work on the land, it works on us. The Aboriginal dreaming stories I have learnt talk of this secret nature of Australia. Land and story are together as one. The land is the dreaming, is the story, is the people, and is the history. It’s all there in our land; past, present, and future. And no matter what you do to the land it always holds the ultimate power over you.

Australia (both its people and its land) has a unique, old magic. I’ve witnessed it myself how thin the fabric is between one world and the next as you drive straight-shot across the wide open plains at the wandering twilight hours. I’ve watched the edges of the horizon bend into bright-flashed green as the sun set. Like two fat gods had sat at either end of the line and weighed the very fabric of the universe down with their bodies. I’ve watched the ghost pull up from the mountains, and dance around in half-twilight shadow. The stars blinking on and off out across bone dry salt flat. It’s hard to deny that it’s not all real that magic there. But the curse of our Colonial history hangs heavy over that magic and beauty. It clouds it, shifting it into a darker and more stilted frame.

How that cursed magic, the magic of the land and the nature of the people all interweave, that is the spiritual material these photos hope to be in communion with. How we struggle to understand the spirits of an alien world. How we attempt to make our own myths in a mythic land that is not our own. Myths that we continue to refuse access to our souls. Myths and magic that we continue to deny even exist (alongside our denial of the Aboriginal culture and peoples who they belong to).

Up until finding that book, I had always been interested in single communities or subjects as whole works. I had never considered a longer format work that had some intention to be both a specific photograph as art, and also a broader documentary-art that could stand together as a unique work about Australia and Australians. That changed after I read the book.

I felt I wanted to contribute something of that language about Australia, so I started this project. A photographic work that could depict something of what Australia was today. In an honest, but also magical way. In a manner that was connected to Robert Frank’s THE AMERICANS, August Sanders’ ANTLITZ DER ZEIT, Trent Parke’s MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, and Michael Lesy’s WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP.

A work that was also influenced by the mystical (and political) intonations of Gordon Bennet, Tracy Moffat & Russel Drysdale’s depictions of an Australiana that was somehow both real and entirely unreal. A dream / and a reality. Not an attempt at any kind of observational documentary realism as with Lewis W. Hines approach in his AMERICA AT WORK series, but with something that transcended the real, imbuing it with a heightened language that is closer in nature to the language of the South American Magical Realists (particularly Juan Rulfo’s PEDRO PARAMO).

A language of truth found in untruth about this country (my country) and its people (my people).

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