arch-peace editorials

08 July 2006

Eternal Games and Eternal Flames

Eternal Games and Eternal Flames
Anthony McInneny, July 2006

In the recent Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games (M2006) the eclipsing of this international sporting event by a celebration of the arts and the city was further extended through political activism about land and place.

The cultural program for M2006 revisited many of the ideas of the original Melbourne Spoleto festival of 1986. Free and high quality art experiences were the highlight of the games in a city that likes to pride itself as the self-appointed cultural capital of Australia. The City looked and felt like an active place with debate about the things that matter – art, public transport and Indigenous sovereignty.

The unofficial cultural program of the Stolenwealth Games opened the debate through a group calling for the end of Genocide of indigenous Australians, Sovereignty to be recognized and a Treaty to be made (Black G.S.T). This was perhaps the most effective indigenous political action in recent years because of its site, the Commonwealth Games offering international exposure and the simplicity of it methods of engagement. It found few supporters in the mainstream but challenged all to enter the dialogue.

Black GST established a tent embassy on a site in the Kings Domain Gardens for the duration of the Commonwealth Games. Known as Camp Sovereignty, the fire at the centre of the camp and the Aboriginal flag flying above it became the focus of a protracted legal battle about the use of land for ritual and ensured the issues of indigenous Australians would stay in public debate longer than the games themselves, running into the equally charged commemoration of national identity through the tragedy of other wars – Anzac Day.

It must be said from the outset that the Indigenous leaders of the Wurundjeri do not and did not support Camp Sovereignty. From the vantage point of Camp Sovereignty, one can view Birrarung Marr, the first major parkland to be created in Melbourne for 100 years. Birrarung Marr is the Wurundjeri name for the area and the river; it is the designated site for an aboriginal meeting place and the site of contemporary indigenous public artworks commissioned by the City of Melbourne in consultation and supported by the Elders of the Wurundjeri.

It is appropriate and ironically fitting that the group Black GST should use the element of fire and a continuum of its use that runs millennia in indigenous culture as the central point of claim and contention. Camp Sovereignty occupied land that was in a direct line with another flame at the Shrine of Remembrance.

The source of this fire, known as the Aboriginal Sacred Fire for Peace and Justice, was from ashes brought from the Tent Embassy in King George Terrace, Canberra. Perhaps the most controversial, permanent, temporary structure in Australia, the tent embassy was established in the 1972 as a protest action for indigenous land rights. The recent debate about the Tent Embassy’s status and structure has confounded the very notion of heritage when mixed with indigenous issues, ephemeral forms, a beleaguered government with a paucity of imagination only matched by a lack of empathy with the notion of land rights and planning regulations that cannot cope with anything other than bricks and mortar. But that is for another time.

Back to the Kings Domain; of all the memorials to settlement and war, the place where camp sovereignty was situated is the only commemoration to indigenous history in the Kings Domain, albeit occupied indigenous history. This is the burial site of some 30 aborigines whose remains were once held in the Museum of Victoria. A granite burial rock honours the Aboriginal people of Unungan (Victoria). This easily missed boulder is adorned with an as easy to miss plaque that marks their burial. “Their remains, were interred here as a tribute to the people whose long relationship with the land was destroyed with European settlement.” This description on the Melbourne City Council website was put to the test with a petitioning of the Council by Black GST and a humorous offer to return the flour, sugar and blankets that were traded for the Kings Domains.

Just prior to the Commonwealth Games, the Melbourne Prize 2005 was awarded to quite a witty concept by OSW called “groundings” that would place three oversized grass turntables across the road from Kings Domain in the Queen Victoria Gardens. People could sit and be rotated through a gentle 360 degrees panorama of the gardens like a ground floor picnic version of a revolving restaurant.

The concerns I am raising here are not in relation to the validity of the grass turntables as an artwork, the recognised sites for indigenous expression and reconciliation in Melbourne or the sanctity of the Shrine of Remembrance.

What I am drawing attention to in considering these sanctioned expressions of identity in the city in contrast to political activism during an international event is the power of an action that uses the act of lighting a fire, both metaphorically and actually and the raising of a flag as an act of dissent.

The idea of a flame to symbolise the continuum of a culture, to offer solace, contemplation, reflection and mourning is acknowledged through the eternal flame at the Shrine, the lighting of a fire at a campsite or the cremation at a funeral. The use of Prometheus’ gift to cook food, offer warmth, forge a tool or manage an ecology is universal. The raising of the flag is recognised immediately as a claim even if it is as futile as hoisting it on the moon or in the Kings Domain.

Upon visiting Camp Sovereignty and after being taken through a smoking ceremony, and watching Council workers in a cherry picker remove the red yellow and black flag from the light pole, I sat upon the rise overlooking Melbourne and thought of the idea of a public artwork that was simply a flame, not an artificially, eternal gas flame but simply one in a hole in the ground, tendered and fed with eucalypt timber that would remind us all of a fundamental humanity, that would smell of this country, that could be seen and sensed from a distance by the smoke that leaves its scent in our cloths and blows through our shared land, that would be a site of acknowledgement of indigenous culture and custodianship, a place to warm our Melbourne winter and light the night above our city. This couldn’t be too hard to achieve across the road from the rotating grass turntables, on the other side of the river from Birrarung Marr and down the park from the Shrine of Remembrance.

Image 1. Photo: Andrew de la Rue.
Image 2. People gather by the eternal flame at the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo: Eddie Jim.
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