Sunday, April 29, 2018

Cockatoo Island, New South Wales

The old dry dock

The Sydney Biennale did much more for me than open doors to new and exciting works, but this year, I was thrilled to discover Cockatoo Island. Not being a Sydneysider, I don’t know if this is a place that the locals have visited, are at all the time, or are already tired of.
The Old Gaol

The island has a fascinating history from the colonial to the industrial. In the 1840s it was used as a prison for repeat offender convicts—the promise of shark infested waters surrounding Cockatoo Island removed all need for high security fences and the like. The convicts were put to work building more prisons, and quarrying the sumptuous Sydney yellow sandstone for use in buildings that were going up at the time around the city. Today it’s possible to wander through the prison buildings just as they were when abandoned around 1870. Most striking about this phase of the island’s history is that the walls of the buildings are intact, some even complete with graffiti. However, today, the gorgeous sandstone walls don’t begin to capture the harsh conditions of living inside them. Although I didn’t see them, there are apparently isolation cells under the barracks that are now covered in moss and grime where the repeat offenders were cast when they committed yet more misdemeanors. Maybe these spaces have held onto the injustice of imprisonment, but above ground, the golden stone glowed under crystal blue skies on the early autumn day that I was there.

While prisoners were being used as slaves, on another part of the island, a dry dock was being built: it’s still possible to see where the sandstone cliff was blasted to excavate the site that would become tailor made for ship building and repair. And then in the early 1900s, the powerhouse was completed to keep pace with the development of shipbuilding, as it shifted from wooden to steel vessels. The dockyards then swung into gear during the war years when the island was used to construct aircraft, naval boats, before all building operations ceased in 1991. And so, Cockatoo Island was home to the best and the worst of Australia’s history.

Art or Industry?

In spite of its history, the revitalization of Cockatoo Island is impressive. It’s a difficult and undulating history to memorialize, but the Biennale encouraged visitors to see the industrial structures themselves as artworks, and thus, to look differently at the penal and industrial history. Rather than giving long explanations of what used to take place in various spaces or bemoaning the brutality of these activities, visitors are invited to wander around the buildings, noticing the machinery, walls, floors and remnants of the past. Thus, the past is integrated into the present and kept alive rather than the present replacing the past, or worse, creating a memorialization that asks visitors to look back to a long distant past. The journey around the island offers a discovery that unfolds as visitors engage in activities that are already in their present.

I was on Cockatoo Island for the biennale, but there are other activities – from concerts, and exhibitions, to cultural festivals, camping sleepovers, maritime activities, through places to stay on vacation. That is, a wide range of activities invite a broad public to explore the island and its history. This is, I think, a bringing together of art and industry, art and history to embrace and extend public knowledge of the past, and engage all of these various players in the present.

Of course, what’s missing from Cockatoo Island —somewhat surprisingly given Australia’s conscientious naming of the rightful owners of the land on every public occasion—is the aboriginal history. The island is thought to have been used as a fishing base for the Eora people who built bark canoes from the red gum trees that once covered the island. Isn’t that interesting? The one history that is nowhere to be found on the island, the one history of which there is not a single physical trace, is that of the aboriginals. I don’t doubt this is because the overseers of the convict punishment and building work made sure to erase all trace of existing life on the island. It may also be that I didn’t visit the part of the island where aboriginal settlement was, however, from what I could see, for all the careful integration of the past into an understanding of the present, it’s a past that begins well short of the real history.

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