Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Agentle­man, as Os­car Wilde is sup­posed to have said, is some­one who never hurts an­other per­son’s feel­ings un­in­ten­tion­ally. One would like to think it was in this sort of spirit that Un­known Land is pre­ceded by a warn­ing that vis­i­tors may find some of the ti­tles and an­no­ta­tions of two cen­turies ago lack­ing in tact by con­tem­po­rary stan­dards; one would hope it was not out of fear of the newly in­vented crime of giv­ing of­fence.

The prospect of hurt feel­ings be­ing trans­formed by lit­i­ga­tion into a lu­cra­tive cash pay­out has re­cently evap­o­rated in the pro­foundly im­plau­si­ble Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy case, but this pa­per’s car­toon­ist Bill Leak has faced de­mands to prove his in­no­cence of an in­her­ently neb­u­lous charge. This is an ex­tremely dis­turb­ing devel­op­ment, with se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions, as many peo­ple re­alise, for artists, writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als, and in­deed for a demo­cratic so­ci­ety.

The foun­da­tion of our le­gal sys­tem, after all, is the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence. If I claim you as­saulted or de­frauded me, the bur­den of proof is on me, not on you. Here, though, it seems, as in ac­cu­sa­tions of heresy or witch­craft, that the bur­den of proof has been re­versed: it is now ap­par­ently enough for me to claim you of­fended me and it is up to you to prove you did not, or per­haps that you did not in­tend to, or that it was for a greater good. Or of course you could suc­cumb to the im­plicit blackmail and of­fer me a cash set­tle­ment to go away and drop the charge.

What is very clear in both these cases, even be­yond the prin­ci­ple of the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence, is that be­ing of­fended is too sub­jec­tive a mat­ter to be dealt with by the law. As­sault, fraud and other charges are ca­pa­ble of proof; of­fence is not. It is self-de­fined and, as we have seen, can be ex­ag­ger­ated, hys­ter­i­cal, friv­o­lous or an out­right scam. There must be laws against in­cite­ments to ha­tred and vi­o­lence, but they should have noth­ing to do with per­sonal claims of be­ing of­fended or af­fronted be­cause these are clearly an in­vi­ta­tion to abuse.

Once in­side, the Art Gallery of West­ern Aus­tralia’s ex­hi­bi­tion of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing view of the first decades of the Swan River Colony, as the site of what is now Perth was orig­i­nally called, and of the var­i­ous other set­tle­ments in the early his­tory of the west. Perth was not the first colo­nial out­post in the re­gion: King Ge­orge’s Sound, in the south of the state, had been vis­ited by ships from Syd­ney Town from the end of the 18th cen­tury, and in 1826 the colony of NSW es­tab­lished a set­tle­ment there, after re­peated vis­its by French sea­far­ers had raised the prospect that France might seek to es­tab­lish its own colony.

Fi­nally, in 1829, the colony of Swan River was of­fi­cially pro­claimed, and in­tended, like South Aus­tralia later (pro­claimed 1836), to be a free set­tle­ment with­out con­victs, al­though 20 years later the set­tlers found them­selves obliged to ask for con­victs to pro­vide a labour force. Ini­tially though, the idea of a free colony of hon­est set­tlers was an im­por­tant at­trac­tion. The new Un­known Land Art Gallery of West­ern Aus­tralia, Perth. Un­til Jan­uary 30. ter­ri­tory was to be a land of op­por­tu­nity, un­bur­dened by a her­itage of vice and crime.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is largely made up of small works, of­ten draw­ings and wa­ter­colours, largely by am­a­teur or semi-am­a­teur colo­nial artists. Melissa Harp­ley, the gallery’s cu­ra­tor of his­tor­i­cal and mod­ern art, clearly has done much valu­able work in as­sem­bling and dis­play­ing this im­por­tant ma­te­rial, al­though un­for­tu­nately it is nearly im­pos­si­ble to look at these sub­tle works prop­erly be­cause of the chat­ter of a re­lent­less taped voiceover through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion.

One of the eas­ier pieces to read even un­der these dif­fi­cult con­di­tions is Ge­orge Pitt Mori­son’s paint­ing of the foun­da­tion of the new colony. The pic­ture was painted in 1929 to mark the cen­te­nary of the orig­i­nal event and, al­though hardly a great work of art, it is a mem­o­rable image, partly be­cause of its quirky el­e­ments: as the gover­nor pro­claims the foun­da­tion of the new colony, the young woman on the right read­ies an axe to strike the first sym­bolic blow in cut­ting down the tree next to her;

An ex­ten­sive view of Perth, West­ern Aus­tralia with a group of na­tives in the fore­ground (c 1846) by Ge­orge Nash, left; Sketch of Perth and Melville Wa­ters with Mount El­iza from the main street of Perth, West­ern Aus­tralia (1839) by Charles Wit­tenoom

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