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14 February 2006

Flag burning, flag raising, flag wearing, flag painting and flag waving

Flag burning, flag raising, flag wearing, flag painting and flag waving

Anthony McInneny Feb 2006


The 1945 photographic image by Joe Rosenthal of the flag of the United States of America being raised on the Pacific Island of Iwo Jima by five US soldiers in WWII has been accused of being a staged piece of propaganda and successfully defended as an authentic 20th century iconic image and the most reproduced photograph in history. It is an iconic image because this flag raising marks a pivotal point in the ascendancy of the USA as the world’s policeman, 20th Century Empire and first unipolar nuclear power.

Jasper Johns’ 1950’s series of paintings of the US flag posed a simple question. Is a painting of the flag of the United States of America the same as the actual flag? Johns makes us look at everyday objects in a different way. What is a flag but a piece of cloth, in this case a canvas, with an emblem on it, printed, sewn or painted? This same piece of cloth with the same emblem on it, floating weightlessly on the moon, was beamed across the world in 1969. This image, more powerful than the real object on a dead planet, had people standing to attention wherever there was a tuned television.

On the other side of civil rights movement and towards the end of the Cold War in 1989, the use of an actual flag in an art exhibition created an act of legislation. The work entitled “What it the Proper Way to Display An American (sic) Flag” by Dread Scott Tyler encouraged people to walk on the flag by exhibiting it on the floor in the entry to the gallery. As a result, the U.S. senate voted unanimously in the same year to make it a crime to display the flag of the United States of America on the floor or ground.

Talking about free speech in Australia in a constitutional sense is like citing the Fifth Amendment in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court. Similarly, there could be no cultural equivalent in Australia to that in the United States of America of the use of the national flag in art. Both the recent debate in Australia about a Human Rights Bill (A Bill of Rights) and that of the use of Australian flag and the flag itself are part of the same conversation about national identity that highlights our deficiency in terms of the protection of basic human rights and our unresolved sense of place and identity.

Recent events involving Indigenous Australians, activists and artists burning the Australian flag were not the first acts to bring the use of the flag into controversy.

The idea of a political leader draping themselves in the national flag and being taken seriously was brought into contemporary Australian life by Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign. ANZAC day at Gallipoli continues to swell with young people, caped solemnly in the Southern Cross and Union Jack, rising from sleeping bags on the beaches, rubbish and road works on the former battlefields as the Prime Minister claimed this site a de facto sovereign land in 2005. The pilgrims to Gallipoli have hyper inflated from 100 in 1984 to 17,000 (mostly young people) in 2005. We have been at war for no substantiated reason twice in this time period.

Imagine how 17,000 Japanese tourists might be received at Darwin on the 19 February (marking the bombing in WWII), sporting the Rising Sun.

In 2005, the Prime Minister placed the flag at the actual centre of the education debate with the policy of a functioning flagpole being the prerequisite for public schools receiving funding. Funding was provided to repair flagpoles as public education slips further down the pole.

The latest yobbo fest at Cronulla takes the Australian flag to the pressing national debate of who has the right to harass women and act violently and who doesn’t. Cronulla is more symbolic in the beach being the place of vitriolic racism. The shift in the idea of the beach as a place where egalitarian (I would argue apathetic) ideas had dominated, to a place of parochial and bigoted battles over crown land is fitting in a land girt by sea that excises territories for the purposes of exclusion, denial and abrogation of international responsibilities.

As an aside, the reaction and actions by some followers of Islam to the recent publication of cartoons portraying Muhammad serves as a source of reflection. Cartoons as an artform and a medium of expression are deemed to be a demonstration of a healthy democracy. However, as cartoonist Bruce Petty pointed out in an interview on ABC RN, while politicians are fair game, there is one subject in our culture, and particularly in Australia, that is out of bounds for the cartoonist’s satire, ridicule and criticism – corporations. It may be the fear of litigation by newspaper proprietors and/or it may simply be part of our shared cultural values. This fundamental tenet of the “free” press, is accepted as the way it is and our cartoons help us laugh all the way to, through and after the many wars fought in our name for the same said cultural values.

In the 1990’s and in a similar vein to Jasper Johns, Australian artist Constanze Zikos de-politicises the Australian flag by creating “counterfeit” and fake flags from laminex, felt and timber. He plays with urban/pop culture in an innocent and uncertain notion of national identity. There is little controversy around this use of the flag and postcards of Fake Flag are on sale in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) bookshops.

Azlan’s McLellan’s work is considered in the exploration of the relationship between galleries, public space and artwork that has as its subject matter political issues. Azlan McClellan’s recent work using the national flag will not appear on post cards in the NGV.

His latest offering is a partially burnt Australian flag, displayed in a charred and singed state entitled “Proudly UnAustralian”.

Works of this nature are usually exhibited within the walls of obscure galleries or small cinema’s with little or no response from the State or hesitation from the struggling collectives that exhibit these works.

Azlan’s work is important as much for the manner in which it was exhibited as for the subject it tackles or the object it is. The work is effectively in public space, viewed on the outside, rather than the inside, of the Footscray gallery, Trocadero. This is work consistent with his exploration of public space as a contested political space dominated by the visual pollution of commerce and sanctioned propaganda. “Proudly UnAustralian” forms part of his body of works that steps in, out and between public spaces, testing what is permissible and the tolerance of the Government, private sector sponsors and the police to dissent. Devised or not, he has managed to have his work threatened with removal or forcibly removed by all three defenders of public space in subtlety different manners over a very short period of time.

His work tackling the Israeli Palestinian conflict in the shop front windows of the Flinders Street Gallery 24/7 (supported in part by the City of Melbourne) was quickly removed upon threats to funding. His portraits of assassinated Hamas leaders on the outside of City Lights Gallery foreshadowed the “Proudly UnAustralian” work in the use of space and elicited condemnation from certain sectors of the press. A light box work featuring images of Abu Ghraib for the public art, tram stop project Urban Art, saw the sponsor and provider of the space, Adshell immediately remove the works after installation and following protestations from the State Government. The Victorian Police without reason or court order removed “Proudly UnAustralian” on 20 January 2006 from the outside of a the Footscray gallery Trocadero.

Azlan’s latest work raises the most interesting irony in the absence of laws prohibiting the burning of the national flag. The trouble for the law is that it appears that no crime has been committed and the artist will use the law to retrieve his artwork. The trouble for Azlan is that his right to burn the flag has been defended by the Prime Minister who has stated that burning the flag should not be a crime.

I would propose that, while the political debate about the content of Azlan’s work places it in the frame of political art, the far more interesting political debate he raises is about the notion of public space. In all the heat around the burning of the flag the more confronting question is who has the right to public space even when it is the outside of a privately run gallery? I look forward to Azlan’s next outing.



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a late addition to the use of the Australian flag, it has been almost comical to see what lengths our frightened nation will go. The Union Jack and Southern Cross has been spotted at the Commonwealth Games as a dress, a headdress, a ridiculous vaudeville hat, the now familiar "I'm Australian and you're not" Cronulla cape and matching beach towels.
In contrast, our sensible cross Tasman competitors are not using the New Zealand Flag to cheer on their team. To distinguish themselves from the other four competing nations whose flags are almost identical, they have chosen to cheer with a black flag, representing the most famous New Zealand sporting team the All Blacks with the silver fern.
Interestingly, England identifies itself a the Commonwealth Games with the cross of St George, not the Union Jack

Allan said...

Anthony, what about the latest yobbo display at the Commonwealth games? After what we saw happening in Cronulla, I thought we would have learnt a lesson. This was nationalism at its lowest!

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