All We Can’t See, an exhibition of works responding to the incident reports published as the Nauru Files, leaves the viewer deliberately overwhelmed in the face of the trauma it interrogates.By Will Cox.
‘All We Can’t See’
Hanging in the middle of Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs gallery is a digital print by artist Ian Strange. In it is a suburban house in the early evening, a calm setting, though the house is rendered totally black, as if charred by some grisly blaze.
On a card next to the image is an account of the incident that inspired it, which reads:
“Type of Incident: Actual self-harm. 02 March 2015. Risk rating: Critical. Downgraded? No. [REDACTED] was walking out of IHMS toward the bus stop. SCA CM [REDACTED] witnessed [REDACTED] pick up two or three rocks and swallowed them. Whiskey 1 and another officer restrained [REDACTED] to prevent him picking up any more rocks: [REDACTED] calmed once restrained.”
Something plays out between this stark description of the act and Strange’s image, with its eerie calm. The clear, straight architectural lines of this dark, tarnished home and the trimmed garden brim with tension. Strange, who was born in Australia, is now based in Brooklyn. It’s perhaps this distance that gives him such a precise view of one of modern Australia’s darkest conflicts.
Distance and the long shadow of trauma are at the heart of All We Can’t See, a collection of artistic responses to the leaked repository of 2116 incident reports from Australia’s offshore detention centre on Nauru, published by Guardian Australia as the Nauru Files in August 2016. For the most part, the flow of information from the tiny Micronesian island has been rigidly controlled by the Australian government. The sheer scale of the Nauru Files was enough to occupy a team of journalists for four months as they compiled 8000 pages of harrowing detail into an interactive database.
Paul Farrell, the journalist who broke the story, sat in a little room in Guardian Australia’s Surry Hills offices for those months reading every single page, by his estimate at least five times. “Those words are etched in the back of my brain,” he says. “I don’t think they will ever leave me.”
Farrell had to take leave to recover from reporting the story. “When you let that much trauma wash over you it’s a very shocking and confronting thing.” No matter how this information is presented, it is harrowing. The files contained 19 abuse-related police referrals and no prosecutions. Sources indicate that “clients” – as harmed detainees are described – are caught in a deliberately tangled net of bureaucracy and mistreatment.
“What are the Nauru files? How to read and interpret them”, read the headline on an accompanying explainer article on Guardian Australia’s website when the story broke. Two years on, we’re still trying to interpret these documents, now past the literal reading of the paperwork and onto a kind of collective mental processing.
All We Can’t See is many things. It’s an art exhibition, it’s an act of protest, it’s a collective attempt to come to terms with a repository of human horror. The project, led by Arielle Gamble and Daniel New, invites artists to respond to an individual incident from the files, varying from small moments of violence to self-harm and sexual assault. First launched in Sydney in February, this latest iteration of the exhibition, opening as part of Melbourne Art Week, adds several more works. To date, 134 works have been created in response to the files, and according to the project’s website – through which the public can submit their own creative responses – a further 109 are currently in progress.
Speaking with Gamble, as with Farrell, the emotional toll of the work is clear. Long pauses stretch out between us as we reach for the right words, as we talk around the horror in front of us. Communicating such extremes of suffering can bring forth cliché; language so grave as to sound trite. So we just stand, looking for something to say that gives the topic the weight it deserves.
Gamble is a book designer by trade, used to condensing thousands of words of text into an image. She says that after an initial look at the Nauru Files, she forced herself to go back and read the whole lot. “So much about this issue has become intangible,” she says. “We have the facts. We have so many facts. Traditional media can only go so far. What art does is explore the intangible.”
Making a value judgement about the actual art presented in All We Can’t See seems out of place. Contributors vary from high school students to established names. The clear implication is that these pages draw out visceral responses, which transcend age, discipline and experience. In the space, there’s a wall where pieces from school students and those who submitted online are pinned, like the results of the classroom art projects that some of them are. For the most part, these works are no less thoughtful than those from established art world voices. There’s real feeling, a bitter sadness.
Elsewhere, Alex Seton has carved a Yamaha boat engine from marble: solid, distressing in its permanency, sitting in a pit of engine oil that it will slowly absorb. Sam Harrison’s woodcut print of a gaunt human figure restrained by lines of shadow hangs alongside a triptych by Pia Johnson, on each panel, the same woman, her identity obscured by an opaque plastic sheet – clean and sterile. This piece is a response to a report in which a client was granted a longer shower in exchange for sexual favours.
Ben Quilty offers an impasto painting of a life preserver, thick brushstrokes heaving with kinetic life. In the middle of the room stands a sculpture by Penny Byrne – a porcelain child sitting beneath a bell jar, wearing an “I Heart Nauru” T-shirt, legs striped with cuts, lips sewn shut. Some of Byrne’s other sculptures appear in photographs – quaint European porcelain figures are crowded onto wooden boats, the sort of unheralded arrivals we’re accustomed to celebrating. These are called “Leaking like a SIEV (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel)” and “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas (Island, or Nauru, or PNG)”. The flippancy is warranted, perhaps, because everything is warranted when you’re attempting to communicate trauma. Any glibness is offset by the huge banners quoting detainee children from artists Elliott Routledge and Angela Brennan: “I want death, I need death”, and “Do I have to kill myself to go to Australia?”
Of the artists involved in the show, three were detained on Nauru – Abbas Alaboudi, Ravi Nagaveeran, and one who wishes to remain anonymous. Abbas is still on the island. He sent his work – a portrait of a worn-looking Peter Dutton carrying a child and holding a sign that says, “Close the camps, end mandatory detention” – by mail to the curators.
All We Can’t See isn’t an attempt to illustrate every report in the Nauru Files. There’s not enough space on the walls. Many works throughout respond to the same incident. Repetition, like the soft choral melody from George Palmer’s composition that bleeds across the room, compounds the pressure, weaving the show’s discrete works into one plaintive cry.
It’s a saving grace that we’re offered opportunities to respond: Nadia Hernández and Trent Evans’ collaborative work is a series of official Electoral Commission cardboard voting booths, provided by the AEC themselves. “We didn’t really tell them what we wanted to do with them,” Evans says. The audience is invited to use them, to fight paper with paper, casting down the actions we want our elected representatives to take. This feels more gestural than practical, an attempt to assuage audiences, to mitigate the futility.
“Trauma has this mysterious way of touching people who are very far removed from the events themselves,” Farrell told me, reflecting on the toll that working closely with the files wreaked on his mental health. “I’ve never been to Nauru. But the trauma of what’s happening there reaches across the ocean.”
There are pieces wherein the connection between the text and image is less affective. After staring for so long I can’t seem to join the dots on an emotional level. Perhaps this is the show’s greatest success, its ability as a collective whole to leave the viewer with the sense there’s so much more hurt than we can hold, something more we can’t know. But it’s no mercy. It leaves in me a hollow, dark gap. Strange’s print remains the centrepiece – amid the benign is something alien, disturbing, that is right at home.
As Ben Quilty points out in his artist statement: “Postcolonial Australia is built on violent foundations.” The Nauru Files are a record of a system of torture built and perpetuated by our elected representatives. That violence plays out in every piece in this exhibition. It crosses oceans and comes back to us. It’s our legacy.
MULTIMEDIA All We Can’t See: Illustrating the Nauru Files
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until August 11
CINEMA Melbourne International Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Melbourne, until August 19
VISUAL ART Hinterland
Tuggeranong Arts Centre, ACT, until August 25
VISUAL ART TarraWarra Biennial, From Will to Form
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, until November 6
Apollo Bay, Victoria, August 10-26
CLASSICAL Goldberg Variations
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, August 5-6
Adelaide Town Hall, August 7
City Recital Hall, Sydney, August 8-14
DANCE Irish Celtic
Capitol Theatre, Sydney, August 7-12
CULTURE The Sublime
The Quarry, Beech Forest, Victoria, August 11-12
THEATRE Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, until August 18
CLASSICAL (Not) The Last Night of the Proms
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, August 9
VISUAL ART Melbourne Art Fair
Southbank arts precinct, Melbourne, until August 5
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "Deserting island". Subscribe here.