Living by the Sword in the Late Oil Age /or, Greater Love hath No Man – 2010
Finalist in the 2011 Gallipoli Art Prize
The concept of two alternative titles which suggest diametrically opposed readings has always intrigued me. The first title has a socially critical bite; it critiques and lays bare the consequences of Australia’s involvement in the oil wars as part of the “coalition of the willing”, while the second adheres to the official jingoistic government and media line.
- When I first arrived in Australia I was surprised to discover that Australia had been involved in America’s disastrous Vietnam War and had lost over six hundred soldiers killed and many thousands more permanently damaged in varying degrees. Even though they were all there by choice it was incomprehensible to me how Australia could conceive of this commitment. I came to learn that the bodies of the dead were all brought back to Australia and landed at the Richmond airbase in NSW. I used to drive past the airbase often during the nineties and the thought of those bodies being unloaded off the C130’s was with me on every occasion.Having being conscripted into the South African Air Force in 1971 added to my comprehension of what might actually unfold upon the bodies arrival, the full dress (dawn or dusk) parade, the coffin bearing detail and perhaps even martial musical accompaniment. To demonstrate how little we have learnt from the past we have again repeated our earlier follies in the ‘naughties’ and ‘teens’. The highly politicised burial ceremonies are accompanied by platitudinous referrals to the “highest price paid” and “the supreme sacrifice for one’s country”. Almost every dead serviceman has been honoured as a national hero. This shameless expediency has a distant echo in the death cult practised extensively in Nazi Germany.
- The image is of an individual’s supreme sacrifice in service to country. The arrested stillness of the moment during the traditional (funereal) slow march becomes eternal; the body repatriated from ”over there” to home soil and a soldier’s grave. The atmosphere is intensified by the metaphoric ambiguity of dawn or dusk, of the traditional rising of the setting of the sun. The image of the rising sun is of particular significance as the prominent traditional symbolic device worn by the Australian military.
Two powerful iconic signifiers are juxtaposed. The national Australian flag is draped over the coffin which establishes the gravitas of the occasion. This is offset by the capricious and easy going “she’ll be right” kangaroo decal on side of the RAAF Hercules C130 transport. Individual military sacrifice underpins our national identity and the “mateship’ of the Anzac spirit is closely linked to notions of the Australian way of life.