Contributors: Dr Benjamin Matthews and Lucas Maddock
Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point, by John Glover (see Figure 1) was created at a time when most Tasmanian Aborigines had died as a result of the Tasmanian Black War with the remainders incarcerated on Flinder’s Island. Yet in the foreground of the work can be seen a group of subjects portrayed as free to act and inhabit the landscape with a “native”, undisturbed presence.
In this example of a utopian vision we see an origin point fixed for a fictional history - regardless of Glover’s intent, this origin is an invented scene that enables and generates false perspectives on history.
The real Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land, was founded as a penal colony in a manner disturbingly similar to the originary fictive vision created by More in his Utopia. In Tasmania the use of convict labour replaced the slaves, and the fictive premise of Terra Nullius permitted a rationale for the removal of native inhabitants. Assuming the status of Terra Nullius, from the Roman law that dictates this is “nobody’s land”, on behalf of Tasmania meant assuming its “discovery” rendered it a reality. In other words, from the European perspective before this time Tasmania was a “not” place. A non-place: a Utopia discovered, and simultaneously created.
This fictive dimension appears extended in the portrayal of the natural environment in Glover’s painting, which is exaggerated to present a romantic vision and mode of dissociation from (and reduction of) reality that appear intrinsic to the colonial endeavour and its justifications.
The handling of the indigenous subjects in the foreground is consistent with this utopian aesthetic presentation, which relies on the creation of an artificial binary of inclusion and exclusion. In order for a utopian project to progress, its subjects must firstly identify with their goals and act accordingly. This necessitates the identification and exclusion of those who are not working toward the common goals, and the creation of the “other”. The end point in such a divide is often justified exploitation, displacement, prejudice and as starkly exemplified by the history of Tasmanian colonisation, persecution and genocide. This is one of the elements of colonisation that appears common to utopian endeavour: its tendency to create “collateral damage”.
Glover’s painting depicts the fundamental structures of two opposing civilisations, one illuminated, the other shaded, playing out the violent theatre of survival on an awe inspiring stage. The majesty of Glover’s natural environment participates in the myth of rule by nature over civilisation, and the prevailing “reality” of the need to respond with artificial means of control. In the background, “Red Coats” can be seen drilling and toiling in semi-orderly lines on the hillside near Hobart, as the mountains rear-up to powerful heights behind.
Glover’s depiction of these people (in the foreground) creates a beguiling narrative where the figure of utopia plays a central role. The painting depicts and denotes a happy co-existence between civilisations, but what does it connote? Viewed from the "present", this ambivalent scene could be propaganda that masks the atrocities of the colonial power, or contrapuntally, as sarcastic and satirical injunction. The dynamic created by this ambivalence points toward a problematic assemblage; one which is further polarised by the illumination of Hobart Town by the sun in an otherwise shaded sweep of water and land.
This oscillation is between points marked off by the ideals of modernity and the transgressive reflexivity of post modernity, which fits well with the "metamodernism" Vermeulen and van den Akker (2015) describe. The authors identify the recent emergence of a liminal mode of aesthetic representation and experience that possesses a “structure of feeling” that moves beyond the postmodern, and takes the form of unresolved oscillation between modern and postmodern sensibilities.
The ambivalent quality of utopia — evanescent, yet all about — coheres with a present gaze cast "back" to Glover's Hobart. A thick reading of the apparent exaggerations of the environment might lead us to assert a connection between the Glover's enthusiasm in this ostensibly innocent distortion of reality (that has resulted in so romanticised a depiction), and a far more sinister reality that will result in (and even permit) atrocity.
This ambivalence also resonates with cultural developments during the 2010s, which have given rise to collective aesthetic and intellectual movements that engage with the impact of global flows of digitised capital and culture, and the expanded influence of related industry such as high-tech manufacturing.
These movements express dissatisfaction with the utopian presentation of technology and its impacts by the agents of late capitalism that dominated the period leading up to the end of the second millennium.
As you sit in your air conditioned office, shaking your head at the failures of the powers that be and the technology they command, decrying their failure to elevate us beyond all this carbon — are you not one of an army of Glover's, painting red men, and shaking our heads at their preposterous, orderly drilling?
Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. “Utopia, Sort of: A Case Study in Metamodernism.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 87, no. sup1, Dec. 2014, pp. 55–67, 10.1080/00393274.2014.981964.