Content warning: This blog touches on topics of suicide and family violence.
In 2017 my abusive husband, a veteran of the Australian Army, died by suicide. Death has a paper trail, particularly when that death is a direct result of the impacts of war. My current project will utilise the mountainous archive of Department of Defence reports, personal correspondence and items as material to explore the imprint of violence against women and children, and the courage, endurance and resilience of survivors.
Throughout this project I will be asking how can reconstituting the mountainous archive of paperwork created by my husband’s death create a critical discourse about the imprint of domestic violence and war? I will also be considering how thinking with contemporary mountains expand my creative engagement with the personal to create work that challenges the primacy of patriarchal, white, nation building tropes that surround Australian war commemoration?
American ecologist Aldo Leopold (1949:115) wrote that to ‘think like a mountain’ was to shift homo sapien thinking to consider humankind as interconnected citizens of the natural ecology within deep time. However, due to the military-industrial complex, climate change and colonisation, mountains are on the move. Mountains are disfigured by modern warfare and the extraction of commodities, transformed by fire and floods, or reshaped through the interruption of ancient systems of care. To think with contemporary mountains is therefore to think with trauma, change and re-formation: to ask when the dust settles, when the paperwork stops accumulating, what does the mountain/person look like.
Drawing from the research of trauma psychologists Bessel van der Kolk and Judith Herman, I will undertake an exploration of what van der Kolk (2014) calls the ‘imprint’ (21) of traumatic experience on mind, body and brain, and the subsequent ‘unbearable heaviness of remembering’ (186). By breaking down and creatively reinstating my late husband’s enormous ‘paper trail’ I will investigate the weight and physicality of memory and the imprint of domestic violence. In doing so I will not only contend in a very personal way with my own experience, but I will also create a critical discourse, through creative practice, about the greater societal impacts of domestic violence and war. Domestic violence is considered a major health and welfare issue, predominantly affecting women and children (AIHW 2023). Whilst the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide (2023) confirmed that families are inexorably linked to the health and wellbeing of Defence personnel, it acknowledged that there is insufficient awareness and recognition about how families suffer when the veteran suffers.
Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote that postmodernism originated with the questioning of metanarratives, and that ‘petit recits’ (1984:60) offer alternative narratives to the traditionally held beliefs which unpin our society. In public spaces, counter monuments reinforce petit recits by giving context to voices often excluded in traditional statues. Counter-monuments question the unmoving nature of memory and engage meaningfully with the concept of absence (Kerby et al. 2021). For example, Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz's Monument Against Fascism (1986) was a pillar placed in a busy Hamburg square that disappeared over time in response to public participation. This work commemorated those affected by the Holocaust and challenged Germans to contend with their history (Kerby et al. 2021). Here is documentation of the statue:
There is also a history of artists building, reconstituting, and creatively engaging with archives as a way of exposing and highlighting petit recits. From Hans Haacke’s (1971) exposure of institutional connection to fraud, to Brook Andrew’s (2018) critique of colonial museum practices from an Indigenous perspective - these works interrogate ‘dominant power structures, challenge or reframe history, or bear witness to those silenced, oppressed, or marginalised’ (Carbone 2020:261) in a similar fashion to counter monuments. Both these traditions highlight the role art plays in creating a critical discourse about loss, memorialisation and the challenging of personal and national histories. The lived experience of women and children is often at odds with the primacy of patriarchal, white, nation building tropes that surround Australian war commemoration (Lake et al. 2010) highlighting the importance of this research and its connection to artists working with archives and the counter monument movement.
British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1960) asserts that the third stage of bereavement involves reorganisation. This reorganisation involves sorting unconscious material to redefine oneself, including the learning of new skills and the taking on of new roles (Bowlby 1960). The theory of reorganisation was reinforced by academic Naomi Golan’s (1975) research into the experiences of young Israeli Six-Day War widows where they commonly had major personal history revisions, abandoning old modes of thinking and living to embrace a stronger version of themselves. The reorganisation of self in the processing of grief and trauma is as ‘painful as it is crucial’ (Bowlby 1960: 94), because of the confidence and independence a successful rebuilding brings. This project, through its engagement with my husband’s paper trail interrogates how a haptic ‘reorganisation’ of an archive may bring about a successful rebuilding of self.
Interestingly, Process Art’s emphasis on a devotion to creative labor could be seen as an extension of these ideas (Grant 2017:13). For example, artist Francis Alÿs’ project When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) explored the void between effort and effect by getting 500 volunteers to shift a sand dune by a few inches. This reorganisation of sand, which was an incredible collective physical feat, became a metaphor for Latin American society and the significant collective efforts that have enacted small political reform. By creatively reorganising, breaking down and reforming my husband’s mountainous paper trail this research project speaks not only to trauma theory but also the long history of Process Art.
Social historian Jacqui Durrant writes about a silenced Australian history: the culturally significant Mogullumbidj Indigenous religious class, who lived and cared for a section of the Australian Alps in the state we now call Victoria (2020). Further, anthropologist Deborah Bird-Rose discusses how Gulaga/Mt Dromedary has been disrupted by colonisation and extraction (2004:191-202). The scholar Donna Haraway argues that to live and die well in the Chthulucene (her preferred term for what others have called the Anthropocene) one must mourn irreversible losses and myths for recuperation and recomposition (2015). The mountains of Australia, as Durrant and Rose-Bird have articulated, have a lot to ‘mourn for’ as they have been permanently changed through the impacts of colonisation (2020). As such, I am part of a significant community of practice that seeks to shift cultural mountains, by amplifying untold histories and revealing the impacts of sexism, trauma and violence.
Through practice-led research I will develop my print-informed practice to explore the imprint of domestic violence and the impacts of war on women and children. I will explore this using the ready-made mountain of my late husband’s personal archive in the tradition of Félix González-Torres' “Untitled” (Para Un Hombre En Uniforme), (1991), which consisted of candy weighing the weight of his partner when he died.
By practicing Process Art, in conjunction with Bowlby’s reorganisation theory, I will physically and internally reorganise myself and my landscape. My methods will be thinking, gathering, reflecting, sorting, making, purging, and feeling my way through my project.
I will interfere with archival documentation through redaction and shredding, reorganising it as the anti-print. Throughout I will be considering mountains as monuments to personal growth, physical embodiments of surviving silence and trauma. The remnant relic will be a counter monument to the rarely recognised social impacts of Australian conflicts abroad, subverting stereotypical ANZAC tropes in the vein of Brook Andrew. The ecology of my physical work and internal landscape will be documented through photography, made artifacts, drawings, diary entries and sound and video recordings.