GOUGH WHITLAM 1916-2014
“The fun is where I am.” Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia 1972-1975
Its fair to say that Contemporary Art Spaces like CCAS would not be around, at least not in their present form, were not for Gough Whitlam. Nearly all of the CAOs organisations are to some extent the conceptual children of Gough’s time, the early 70s. Politically speaking Gough might have left stage right (sacked) in 75 but his spirit lived on through the arts. As the tributes continue throughout the day of Gough’s death few leave out his passion for the arts. This begs the question; why amongst all of his extraordinary achievements is art and culture so important? In many respects the groundswell of creative pursuit in the 70s is indicative of a nation that had turned its back on the past and was taking it up to the future with all the bravado of a rebellious adolescent upon whom the idea of unique potential had just dawned.
Gough Whitlam was a leader who made Australians feel good about themselves; at least as good as anyone else if not better. But this was not just blind patriotism. These were the days when David Williamson would critically redefine what it was to be Australian with plays like The Removalists (1971), Don’s Party (1973) and The Club (1978). Harsh perhaps, but fair, and as masters of our destiny we could take it, if not, love it. And there were great actors like Jack Thomson, Judy Davis, John Hargreaves and Jackie Weaver who could blow the poms of the stage. Tall poppies, no syndrome. Concurrently entered a golden era in Australian filmmaking. Classics such as Wake in Fright (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) often revealed the dark underbelly of Australian History and an uncomfortable relationship with a vast land to which we do not all belong.
Whitlam’s light, albeit fleeting as a speeding comet, shone brightly on contemporary Aboriginal art which took hold mid 70s with the painting movement that started at Papunya and spread like wildfire across the country in the 1980s. At last there was an environment in which the contribution of First Australians could be recognised and realised. In Brisbane the Institute of Modern Art opened in 1975 with work by Robert MacPherson whose work addressed the colloquial and distinctive aspects of Australian landscape and language. Meanwhile in Adelaide the Experimental Art Foundation geared up to accommodate a new era of “post object and performance art and the Jam Factory revolutionised crafts. Australian contemporary art was rocking and not just Sydney and Melbourne. CCAS kicked in soon after with the Bitumen River Gallery and Arts Council Gallery in the early 80s with contentious work of a political nature, a fair share coming from women like Alison Alder, Mandy Martin, eX de Medici and Julia Church. The mission and vision of art spaces, to push the boundaries of concept and technique, to wrestle with what is distinctly our own, to push our luck, is a legacy of this era. Whether or not the CAOs organisations have been successful is open to argument but one thing is not, the legacy of Gough Whitlam that gave Australia permission to relish critical and creative thought, be it to celebrate, take the piss or just get nasty. His brilliant wit and sense of humour, his far reaching inclusiveness and the sense of Gough and Margaret, PM and “First Lady”, operating as a cohesive power team changed the very fabric of Australian society – so much for the better.
Notwithstanding the quasi Shakespearean implications of the dismissal that played out on television screens in the style of an ancient Greek drama, perhaps we in the arts can dismiss politics and simply thank Gough for generating a sense of Australia being the coolest place on the planet. But he above all must have realised that art and politics are often interchangeable. They are the essential elements in defining the complex network of identities that make a nation. When I think of Gough Whitlam and his short term as Prime Minister, the banal machinery of political controversy dissolves into the murky miasma of time. I prefer to think of long hot days on the beach, the smell of sun tan lotion, glittering blue seas, hangovers, the endless shimmering horizon, bongs, Holden Monaros, flares, Fosters, Tim Tams and kangaroos, didgeridoos, Cold Chisel and Countdown. Gough seemed to genuinely love Australians, and showed us how we might learn to love ourselves. David Broker