Haunted Australia

‘Haunted Australia’, catalogue essay in Trace Elements: Spirit and Memory in Japanese and Australian Photomedia, 2008, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and Performance space edited by Bec Dean. English version, pp 52 – 57 of 142 page catalogue, ISBN 978-4-925204-22-4 C 0070

Every country has its ghosts, every country is haunted by spirits and memories. Even countries who once thought of themselves as being young, but are now realizing that they are in fact old, are finding themselves to be as haunted as anybody else. Thirty or so years ago if you had asked an Australian if there were many ghosts here they would have laughed — compared to England or Japan, no way! Sure, there was a ghost in our most popular national song, Waltzing Matilda — the ghost of a poor, sheep-stealing swagman who committed suicide rather than be caught by the colonial police — but that was about it. Recently, however, we have begun to see a persistent tradition of Australian ghosts emerging.

The swagman’s ghost stayed around the billabong in which he had drowned himself, mournfully repeating the refrain from his once cheerful song to warn and remind passers by of the injustice which had been done to him. And this pattern of repetition, mourning, warning and reminding conforms to many other ghost stories from the nineteenth century. On 16 June 1826 an ex-convict and successful farmer named Frederick Fisher suddenly disappeared, a few days later his ghost was seen sitting on a fence rail and pointing to a spot on the ground.  When the spot was dug up his body was found, leading to the arrest and hanging of his neighbour for murder. Fisher’s ghost survived in colonial society as an urban myth until 1859 when John Lang published an elaborated form of the story as The Ghost Upon the Rail. In 1924 Australia’s pioneer filmmaker Raymond Longford made a silent film of the story, and in 1960 Douglas Stewart wrote a play. Ken Gelder discusses Fisher’s ghost and others like him in The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories.

Fisher’s ghost appeared at the disjunction between the new convict-based settler society of Australia, the old established home of Britain from which the convicts had been cast out, and the prior possession of the land by Aborigines. In Lang’s version, in order to cover up his crime and get his hands on Fisher’s wealth, the murderous neighbour, an ex convict equally as successful in his new life as Fisher, used forgery and impersonation to create the elaborate ruse that Fisher had granted him power of attorney before disappearing home to England. To expose this delusion the spectre does not simply point to his own grave, as in the urban myth. Rather, he is seen sitting on the fence-rail with a gash on his forehead. But the light appears to shine straight  through him, and he is as impalpable to the touch as empty air.  An aboriginal tracker from the local tribe identifies ‘white man’s blood’ on the rail, then follows some faint tracks for nearly a mile to a dark pond scummed with ‘white man’s fat’. At the bottom of the pond is found a bag of bones, the rotting remains of Fisher’s body kept together only by his clothing. He wasn’t a world away in old England after all, but still here in new Australia all the time, demanding that justice be done. In addition, the ancient knowledge of the land held by the radically dispossessed Aborigines is needed to track his rotting body down. As Gelder says, ghost stories are one way ‘in which white settlement in this country is shown to be, in fact, fundamentally unsettled.’ [1] Ghosts are able to bring into conjunction times and spaces which are conventionally separated. They can reveal what was previously hidden, or dormant, or ignored.

In the early twentieth century Australian ghosts took on a greater role in bridging vast distances of time and memory. After 60,000 Australian Soldiers died and were buried on the distant battle fields of World War One an extraordinary cult of the dead grew up amongst those that were left to mourn them, but who had no grave to grieve at. This collective grief became focussed on the Anzac memorials being built in each town, and in the annual ritual of the Anzac Day Dawn Service and Commemorative March. Just before Anzac Day 1925 Melbourne Punch described Anzac Day as ‘that solemn day, on which … the spirits of the nation’s gallant dead come back again for a space, on ‘Home Leave’.’[2] Two years later the famous war artist and cartoonist Will Dyson published his best-known cartoon in the Melbourne Herald. In A Voice from Anzac two ghostly Australia soldiers left behind on the beachhead of Gallipoli draw solace from hearing the feet of the Returned Men marching in Australia. One of them says to the other: ‘Funny thing, Bill—I keep thinking I hear men marching!’.

By far the most popular painting of the period was Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, 1927, which depicted a psychic vision Longstaff had experienced during a midnight walk after the unveiling of the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, when he saw soldier spirits rising from the cornfields around him. When the painting toured Australia in 1928 and 1929 it was seen by perhaps half a million people, who filed reverently past it to the accompaniment of sombre organ music.[3] To this day the spooky painting still hangs in its own darkened grotto in the Australia War Memorial.

The emotional power of Dyson’s and Longstaff’s  spectral imagery derived at least some of its legibility from Spiritualist photography. Spiritualist ideas were pervasive after the war. The period’s most famous proselytiser of Spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective and arch rationalist Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One, during which he lost his son and his brother. After that war, when virtually every other family was experiencing similar grief, the ‘sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge’, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the Spiritualist cause in lectures delivered from platforms across the world.[4] In 1920 and 1921 he travelled throughout Australia, eventually speaking to a total of 50,000 people. His most popular lecture was on spirit photography, where he showed lantern-slides of photographs taken by mediumistic photographers at photographic séances. In these images the faces of the dead where captured floating above the living, they seemed to have finally returned to join their loved ones once more within the photographic emulsion. When projected onto the lantern-slide screens of packed meeting halls these photographic ‘proofs’ of the ‘truth’ of spirit return provided implicit comfort to the bereaved families in Australia, whose sons had died thousand of miles away. The Melbourne Age reported:

Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia.[5]

Since that time the Anzac tradition has developed radically. It has changed from being a collective cult of memory for the dead intensely focussed on the physical absence of fallen soldiers, to being a more generalised set of nationalistic and quasi-religious rituals through which every Australian is meant to feel bonded to their country.

At the same time the mechanisms through which ghosts are conjured has developed and widened. Images of people from the past increasingly pervade the present through the power of photography. In the photographic archive the past lies hidden and buried, whilst always containing the potential for exploration and retrieval. The archive has increasingly become a terrain in which some artists feel as though they can meet people from the past and even, in some sense,  bring them back to the present.

For example in 2003 two Sydney artists, Kate Richards and Ross Gibson, presented Life after Wartime at the Sydney Opera House. The work was an interactive  ‘performance’ of an archive of crime-scene photographs that had been assembled by Sydney’s police force in the decades following the Second World War. The artists sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens, The Necks, a jazz trio well known for its ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images generated open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalized characters and locations in Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation, in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives, preserved the integrity, the historical artefactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [6]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the palpability of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a ‘metaphorical x-ray’ of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran, the photogram process made them look ‘three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.’[7]

Other Australia artists have gone beyond the generalised, enigmatic, uncanny ambience of the photographic archive, and have used archival photographs to directly create ghostly images. But these contemporary spectres — photographically produced apparitions from the past superimposed on the present — are not being invoked in order to console the living, as in the Anzac spectral tradition, but to cajole them, beseech them, or imprecate them, just as Fisher’s ghost did in the nineteenth century.

In 1980 Australia’s most eminent art historian, Bernard Smith, gave a series of lectures under the title ‘The Spectre of Truganini.’ In the nineteenth century, Truganini had been a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the ‘last’ of the ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s aboriginal population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[8]

As aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Their reuse attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two-way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling. In a meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs, the aboriginal photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[9]

But aboriginal ghosts face a lot of work to do yet before they can finally rest. Aboriginal ghosts are needed to remind Australia that there is unfinished business, that the process of reconciliation with the past is not complete. Rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo[compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[10]

King-Smith holds spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[11] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[12]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous (1996), I Split Your Gaze (1997), and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998). Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately reinscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticized for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of aboriginal and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral self portraits in Australia and the United Kingdom. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an aboriginal haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention while wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalized, accusatory masculinity – exactly the same feeling that a memorial Anzac statue gives. Like much other contemporary aboriginal photography in Australia, Siwes’s photographs are mannered, stiff, and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. It is not the intrinsic quality of the art that is so persuasive, but the rhetorical force of the spectres. As overwrought and histrionic as they are, ghosts are still able to directly address historical and cultural issues of broad contemporary concern.

In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to aboriginal spirituality. Although it is supposedly a settler country, in many ways Australia remains ‘unsettled’. In Australia both aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships to the land have to co-exist, while its often violent history of possession, displacement and oppression underscore both relationships in different ways. For over two hundred years generations of non-aboriginal, settler Australians have forged strong spiritual bonds to the land, but aboriginal claims for the full recognition of their prior occupation of the continent, and for the precedence of their sacred relationship to the land, often give non-aboriginal Australians the uncanny feeling they are ‘foreigners at home’. In these postcolonial terms Gelder and Jacobs see hauntings as a productive occurrence, a means of acknowledging the inherent postcolonial contradictions in modern day Australia:

‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner—a structure in which sameness and difference embrace and refuse each other simultaneously: this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.[13]

Ghosts have re-emerged because both white and black Australians are now spiritually immersed in their country in a way which goes beyond the mutually exclusive binary of possession versus dispossession.

The haunting experiences of everyday Australians are explored by the historian Peter Read in his book Haunted Earth. He uses oral history interviews with over forty non-aboriginal and aboriginal Australians to explore their relationship to what he calls ‘inspirited places’. These are places defined by the nexus of place and history, time and spirit. For Read ‘inspiriting’ is a reciprocal process between the Earth and humans, where both old and new Australians bring inspiriting mythologies, rites and beliefs with them to the land they inhabit, just as particular landscapes are experienced by the humans who inhabit them as ‘haunted’ with a kind of soul or essence. Like many contemporary cultural historians Read is trying to go beyond hackneyed ‘paranormal’ explanations for some people’s intense experience of spiritual presence. He wants to understand these uncanny feelings as something more interesting and complex than the self-limiting notion that they are just the ‘epiphenomena of an excited or deluded brain’.

He recounts the vivid experience of people living in the suburbs built on the sandstone ridges north of Sydney which were once intensively occupied by Aboriginal people. He meets three separate families who believe they have either seen or felt the direct presence of Aboriginal spirits. ‘To the haunted families, the land itself, and the memories that the land holds independent of humans, carry profound meanings clearly related to invasion, dispossession and violence.’ However this haunting is not something to be banally expiated. If all the ghosts were ever to be exorcised then something would be lost to our contemporary experience. As he comments, ‘Those untroubled, those unhaunted, by the ghosts of the past have missed something profound.’ [14]

Australia has a long and persistent history of haunting. And its ghosts are a long way from being laid to rest, indeed more seem to be accumulating. The means through which we make these ghosts appear might have changed — from the genre of storytelling, to drawing and painting, to photographic superimposition. And the uncanny, unsettled worlds between which the ghosts communicated may have changed — from distant countries sundered by space, to not-so-distant pasts sundered by historical forgetting. But in all their over the top kitschiness, in all their histrionic posturing, ghosts have always continued to contribute to our sense of ourselves.


[1] The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, selected by K. Gelder, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. xi.

[2]  R. McMullin, Will Dyson: Cartoonist, Etcher and Australia’s First War Artist, London, Angus & Robertson, 1984, p226.

[3]  A. Gray, Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, nd, np.

[4] N. Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press, 1933, p106.

[5] ‘Conan Doyle in Australia’, Light, December 18, 1920, np.

[6] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, 1999, p30.

[7] A. Ferran, ‘Longer Than Life’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 1, 1, 2000, pp166 -70.

[8] B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980.

[9] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear, Sydney, 1997, p9, p14.

[10] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[11] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[12] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 1999, p117.

[13]. K. Gelder and J. M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42.

[14] P. Read, Haunted Earth, Sydney, University of New South Wales, 2003, p59.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s