One Thousand Cuts
Two years ago, artist Rod Moss took up the tale of his own life in Alice in The Hard Light of Day: an artist’s story of friendships in Arrernte country (University of Queensland Press, 2010), a book that takes a personal approach to the story of life in the Town Camps, the officially defined areas of Alice in which Aboriginal people live. For all that it is an intensely personal book about Moss’s life and art, it captures repeatedly the telling details of what it means to be an Aboriginal person in Alice Springs.
Now Moss has returned to the subjects and the stories of The Hard Light of Day with a new series of vignettes and the paintings that illustrate his ongoing immersion in the life of the Town Camps’ denizens. One Thousand Cuts: life and art in Central Australia (University of Queensland Press, 2013) straddles the line between memoir and meditation. Invoking the aphoristic description of “death by a thousand cuts,” the title suggests the brutal indignities that suffuse the book’s pages.
The Hard Light of Day had a sort of temporal structure, a chronicle of a decade plus of Moss’s life, mixed in with stories of the lives of his friends in Whitegate Camp, and especially with the mentorship of Edward Arranye Johnson, under whom Moss recorded the stories of country around Alice. One Thousand Cuts is less linear, less tied to temporality, but no less effective and affecting for that. The stories that Moss tells this time generally take place in the first decade of this century; in that respect One Thousand Cuts is a sequel that takes up where The Hard Light of Day left off. But time in this book seems almost non-existent or irrelevant. Were it not for occasional references to the stages of his children’s lives, Moss might have produced a narrative in which it is almost impossible to tell when events occur in relation to one another.
It strikes me that this is an intentional strategy through which he aims to get closer to the perspective of life as it is lived by the Johnson, Hayes, Neil, and Ryder families into whose orbit Moss has been drawn over the years. The story is episodic, possibly picaresque. Time is rarely measured in terms of progress, apart from a few almost peripheral references to young men undergoing initiation. Instead time in this book is doled out in hospitalizations and arrests, in bookings into alcohol treatment programs, above all, in deaths. There is a short genealogy appended to the main text of the book that aims to document for the reader the relationships among the individuals and families who populate Moss’s stories. Two symbols are used in laying out this information: > indicates offspring; d indicates deaths. The preponderance of the latter is startling.
Indeed, it would be all too easy to regard One Thousand Cuts as a catalog of misery, for Moss is unblinking as he tells these stories. But if a sense of fatalism pervades the telling, there is no accompanying sense of resignation. The people that Moss lives with whom he ferries about the camps and out to Amoonguna or Santa Teresa, whom he visits in the hospital, persist. They do not give up. They are stoic even if they wail with grief. It wouldn’t be right to say that Moss confers nobility on them; that would be too condescending. But he never lets their suffering and their shortfalls reduce them in any way. To call them battlers would be incongruous; it would serve only to heighten the contrast between the hardships they encounter and those of Howard’s suburban emblems of a real Australia. But it would show where courage and determination lie in the continent’s heart. Even as I write those words, I am aware of a romanticizing tendency in my critical reactions to the book. And I remind myself that there is folly and meanness, anger and cruelty embodied in these pages alongside the humor, the kindness, and the caring. The strength of Moss’s storytelling lies in his ability to present all of this simultaneously, without judgement, but suffused with awareness nonetheless.
The matter-of-fact quality of the prose in a way serves to set the other important theme of the book into a very, very subtly drawn contrast with the stories of life in and around Whitegate Camp. Throughout the book, Moss spends a great deal of his time in transit, moving people, firewood, and expended beer cans from one location to another. On a few occasions, these trips involve long journeys, hundreds of kilometers, out to country that is infrequently visited, in part because of the inaccessibility that distance imposes.
These are collecting journeys: the Arrernte are in search of ochres or in need of plants to replenish the medicinal stocks at the Akeyulerre Healing Centre in town. The men hunt kangaroo on these trips, sometimes, and everyone sleeps in creek beds, or on the verandahs of old homesteads, all but abandoned. One of these excursions is detailed in a chapter called “Healing Trip.” The regenerative qualities of the venture are clear, even though Moss doesn’t editorialize. He reports on, and indeed, good parts of the chapter are concerned with, an unexpected, shocking death and funeral; equally, he includes the rehearsal of Rodney Coulthard’s band for a recording session at CAAMA. This chapter is in many ways a representative microcosm of the book: it brims with the business of living and dying, it swings to the rhythms of town and bush.
This is the life and these are the lives that occupy Moss’s days and his art. In contrast to The Hard Light of Day, in which the paintings were relegated to a special section at the end of the book, in One Thousand Cuts they are integrated with the text. I mean that in two senses: not only do they appear frequently in the pages of each chapter, but often Moss will relate the story of the painting’s inspiration (which sometimes comes in the form of a request from a member of the Whitegate families to document some aspect of their lives) and creation. He explains how pictures are composed, offers references to the classical models that inspire him, and in an appendix actually details his working methods and materials. I’ve never seen one of his works in person, and I’m glad now to understand how the combination of graphite and polymer works in conjunction with the photography and drawing that are fundamental elements in each work’s genesis.
Scattered throughout the book’s pages are a set of inserts: small, four-page booklets, about two-thirds the size of the book’s pages, tipped in between those that carry the text and the reproductions of his paintings. These insets comprise a series of black-and-white portraits of Moss’s friends, his children, and the country he visits with them. The vast majority of them are headshots of Arrernte men and women, the dramatis personae of Moss’s two books and his many paintings. Glancing through them after I finished reading, I was struck again, as I was by the genealogy, by how many of these souls have departed, taken their ways in another direction (to paraphrase the epigraph Moss takes from George Trakl).
In some ways One Thousand Cuts is the sequel to The Hard Light of Day. It updates the story of Moss’s life in Alice Springs, carries us forward from the conclusion of the earlier volume. In another, more important, way, though, neither book is fundamentally Moss’s story: rather they contain the stories of friendships and the stories through which the lives of Moss’s Arrernte friends are given voice. One Thousand Cuts, like Moss’s paintings, often owes much to the technique of impressionisme, the difficult task of capturing the ephemeral, the ineffable aspects of life in Alice Springs, the life that goes on all around yet refuses to be pinned down, that is communicated best in the fleeting glimpse, in the characteristic mood. They are books of immutable sadness, but not irredeemable despair. They are testaments to those stories, like the ancestral narratives, that surround Alice Springs, that endure, that permeate experience whether we recognize them or not.
It’s hard not to think of Rod Moss’s paintings of Whitegate camp east of Alice Springs as communiqués from a war zone.
But his composite images don’t just picture the effects of drunken violence, social dislocation, and the impact of tourist culture on Aboriginal people.
Often using compositions from art history (such as the inspiration of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, 1656, which is evident in Mirror, 2010), Moss records the deprivations and vicissitudes of camp life, but also his commitment to a fruitful engagement with his neighbours since moving to Central Australia in the 1980s.
Moss’s paintings are didactic. They exist first as ideas, then as cut-and-paste designs from his photographs, and then as graphite drawings on paper that are subsequently painted with synthetic polymer.
From the earliest work in the show, Age of Currugation, 1987, to one completed this year, Edward Neal on the Whitegate Ridge, the people depicted have been staged by Moss to enact events he has witnessed.
But Moss’s images also function as portraits. Moss records how individuals stand, how they hang their heads in watchful or mediative silence, what they wear, their roles as bearers of knowledge.
And any humour, here, is definitely black. For example, Moss tells us that during the 1990s, Reenie Sweet and her sister Eileen camped in the river bed at Middle Park before being moved on by police and land council personnel.
TV at Reenie’s records the elderly sisters, with five kids, watching TV on a set run by a 12-volt battery, under a blazing sun. All are turned away from the viewer, but Reenie, or Eileen, who is sitting on a blanket in the centre foreground, has her hand raised in benediction towards the screen. If there‘s a joke there, it’s on us.
While Moss’s clever, confident handling of paint on the toddler’s face in Healing at Twin Caves, 2002, is a pleasure to examine, too often, his surfaces reveal shiny areas of meanly applied pigment.
Moss deliberately jars our looking with many such technical decisions, such as preserving the graphite underdrawing of the flesh of his Aboriginal subjects rather than rendering them in colour.
And his penetration of the moral dimension of looking shames us, as he is shamed by his subjects.
“Inverting, if not subverting the usual courses of looking at Indigenous people has been one of my recurrent themes,” he writes in annotations of the paintings for the show.
Finally, so that there can be no doubt about the precarious nature of black and white relations in this frontier, in 2012’s Anatomy Lesson, a single word is legible on the tee-shirt of the pointing man on the right. The word is vengeance.
Moss asks in relation to this image, in which he is recognisable as the corpse on the dissecting table (the design being after Rembrandt’s 1632 painting of the same name), “Who should not be anatomised, autopsied, scrutinised, placed under the interrogation torch if not myself”?
Where Art And Life Collide
Rod Moss grew up in the country. Well, in the 1950’s Ferntree Gully (in the Dandenong Ranges) was country-ish. But he was never “in country” until some time well into his long apprenticeship under Edward Arranye Johnson, in and around Alice Springs. Moss’ first book, “The Hard Light of Day” recounts that apprenticeship, which began with a spontaneous act of neighbourliness and evolved through friendship to become a connection of spiritual father to son. The building and the breaking of that bond is the subject of that first book, winner of the Prime Minister’s Award.
The present volume renders the experience of being “in country” – an opaque expression we Whitefellers who work outback hear often from Blackfellers – increasingly clear. Luminous in fact. The light is shed by Moss as he moves around Arranye’s hereditary demesne as his named spiritual heir. Moss gives us birdsong, birdflight as he walks beneath. He breathes the breezes and tempests that flutter or flatten foliage and carry mood or prophecy. He names and describes the fauna – from grub to reptile to marsupial – that create the country.
Moss does all this in the same manner as in his painting. His colours are florid, his verbal sallies outrageous, his attack fearless. But in all this bravura we find nothing flash or glib as Moss walks and paints and photographs the lands of his spiritual patrimony, bearing the loss of spiritual father (and of many brothers and sisters), accruing more and more losses until their weight becomes unbearable.
Most of the losses come abruptly. Each comes with the force of a thump to the solar plexus. Moss, with his reader at his shoulder, absorbs blow after blow.
At this point we have Moss Agonistes, crying: “It rains in my heart. One drop at a time.”
Moss misses a much anticipated funeral: “I find myself crying on Saturday morning …Though I was sad at the gravesite, it has taken until now, opening the brochure and studying the commemorative words…for me to be sobbing.” And after further deaths: “They continue to die and I am still here…”
He continues: “This passing (of) senior men, seventy plus years: grandfathers and great-grandfathers, a great legacy spreading from them. Suddenly, it seems, I am the old one among those surviving. Teenagers who’d once exchanged pleasantries with Raffi and Ronja (children of the author) now have children, criminal records, flecks of grey in their hair.”
Moss has been there, stayed there, bearing witness to the generations, an epitome of constancy, trusted to record, to paint, to recount, to be – to be a friend, later a son, finally a posterity for a clan that loses its young.
How does he stand it? How can Moss bear the losses, the wantonness? How to reconcile the stone-hard contradictions?
After enduring most of the One Thousand Cuts Moss needs healing. On page 198 he sets out on a series of healing trips. To country. With traditional owners. To heal. And he does heal. Country regenerates itself and regenerates the indigenous self, the self to which Moss has been drawn, has moved for three decades.
Among all the wrecked lives, among the human wreckage, the degradation, Moss witnesses a moment of intimacy between a soft-spoken spouse and a deaf husband. He writes:
If only I could live in the grace of spontaneity and the elegance of fearlessness.
What violence do I emit by gazing into another’s eyes
with acceptance or rejection?
How often do I depend upon their recognition or rejection of me?
How often have I suppressed my feelings to maintain harmony
and bind others to me through my exploitation and fear?
At first reading these lines felt at once obscure and clear, a longing, an envious regret, a feeling of the lack of wisdom. Many readings later, they feel the same. The poetics are passionate as Moss strips himself bare.
Rod shows himself literally naked in a number of the paintings.
The naked artist appears in Expulsion: Once Upon a Time in the Centre, reappears in Reconciliation Walk, as in Eternal Recurrence: the Yard Went on Forever; and in Enigma of the Whiteman.
Moss renders himself as a curiosity. Like the bull in This is not a Bull, this white Mossfella is a stripped being surrounded by gazing Blackfellas. Mutely they gaze and wonder, Whitefella, what are you doing here? Who are you? What are you, here, in the land of the Blackfella? The questions are pertinent, urgent when Moss first arrived, still urgent today. Moss’ images help us to picture ourselves as the Very New Australians we helplessly are. Moss’ two-headed naked self-fighting himself is the Whitefella writ clear, a paradox emerging from a contradiction.
At the centre of the volume the reader comes to a section headed, Where Art and Life Collide. In fact this theme underlies the entire work in which paintings, portrait photographs and doublespread landscape photos in blazing colour punctuate the author’s prose, all alternate, illuminate and comment upon each other.
Moss anatomises the situation in Alice: What with the extreme weather, the systematic retributive crime, with the rages and ecstasies they induce, the closeness of families, the ready availability of knives and liquor, violence is inevitable.
Another Whitefella reviewer misses the point of these ‘generalizations’. That point is the inescapable question, universal – that is to say – a general question as much as a particular one: What happens to a human being during these sudden rushes of annihilating strength?
(It is precisely this question that prompts another recent book, “The Long Weekend in Alice Springs”, written by Moss’ Jungian psychologist friend Craig San Roque and illustrated by Joshua Santospirito. It is the same question that nags and erodes the being of this reviewer as he binds the One Thousand Cuts in his work as doctor to remote communities.)
A casual browser, encountering ‘One Thousand Cuts’ might wonder – is Moss a painter who writes or a writer who paints? The question would be idle. As Moss writes in this section: This unravelling of post-colonial strife is all the more poignant being enacted in an environment of quintessential beauty. The paints, pencils and pens I daily use, what evidence of this do they proclaim? What do they preserve or violate? Has my vision opened, narrowed or deepened? Can some balance be struck through this art I make, something teetering between the beauty and the terror?
Moss concludes his book with a reverie: “How do I draw from the void and relax in it? I rest on my pillow; my left ear hears a plane ploughing the corridors of night, mice rustling in the roof, the pulse of my wrists.”
He hears these sounds – the aircraft, epitome of the shifting, shiftless, impermanent Whitefella; the mice and the pulse, the domestic static of any insomniac.
But the passage moves on: “The breeze moves the citrus leaves by the bedroom window. In ten minutes I know where it will blow, further east. And where it will rain even later, and how that falling water will polish stones as it runs its swift course to the river.”
Moss knows his country, and, however ambiguously, inhabits it. Each day I measure myself.
Each day I find the same self. Others seem larger. More here.
I read this book, falling into its poetic rhythms, traversing country, guided by Moss, chosen son of Arrenye’s Johnson, traditional owner of the country in question – and I find myself asking, “How here am I?”