‘Somebody died trying to have a life like mine’

A conversation on the role of art in politics with visual artist Alex Seton

In May 2013, 28 life jackets washed up onto the shores of the Cocos Islands, a network of islands off Western Australia, southwest of Christmas Island, about half way between Sri Lanka and mainland Australia. One contained a small amount of Iranian currency.

This distressing image lingered in the mind of Sydney artist Alex Seton. When approached by the 2014 Adelaide Biennial to create a piece within its Dark Heart theme, he knew where to begin. “The event on the Cocos Islands provided a sort of aesthetic trigger,” he told me, “an idea through which to explore themes I was already thinking about.” He would recreate these life jackets in Australian marble — “part memorial, part personal meditation, part documentation of the state of affairs in Australia today”. The work, ‘Someone died trying to have a life like mine’ would expose “the dark heart of Australian society that will not offer asylum to those who seek it”.

Alex carries an urgent desire to point out what is missing in the national conversation around asylum seekers, something that has become disfigured as part of political games between the two bickering major parties. “The human stories are forgotten,” he says. Forgotten “in favour of a back and forth political blame game”. The idea that there are people as real as you and me who are dying at sea trying to get here is lost amid the “stop the boats” soundbites and conjured public hysteria over “queue jumpers” and “economic migrants”.

No one should accept the fatal consequences of our government’s cruel policies. The hope is that people “forget about the fear and hoopla of the party lines and the media” and confront the most immediate and significant underlying issue: the unconscionable loss of human lives.

The gravity of this artwork allays any sentimentalism, it instills the kind of immediate horror that a carefully manipulative political attack ad can only feebly grope towards. Alex sought to “bring the focus back to these people”, away from the inane rhetoric. The work demands that the audience imagine who might have filled the life jackets splayed out across the room, “each jacket is different in its details,” Alex emphasises. “Some are big, some small, some are tangled together and some prostrate and alone. Each has its own story, its own life.”

There is a careful mechanic at play — this artwork does not seek to participate in the worn and impotent conversation around methods of deterrence or the quantity of refugees Australia should accept, it forces you to recalibrate the entire foundation of this national problem and leaves you there. People are dying. At the heart of this entire circus is a tragedy no one ever wants to recognise and meditate over. The most basic of all rights, that to live, is being conveniently ignored. “No one should accept the death of innocent people at our hands,” Alex urges, “no matter what your thoughts on the present policies, the number of people that we should be accepting into Australia seeking asylum, or the method of processing them.”

This is a very specific and purposed artistic interaction with politics. “Rather than push any specific agenda and ‘pick a side’ of partisan politics, “Alex tells me, “I’m trying to get people to pause and think about the real underlying issues that might be missing from the inflammatory rhetoric informing public opinion and debate.” ‘Someone died trying to have a life like mine’ doesn’t come with a four-point plan on what to do about the boats. It resists four-point plans and point-scoring in general. This antipathy towards the contemporary politics of asylum seekers is both understandable and necessary — we have had successive governments from both major parties contribute to the kind of event that leaves 28 life jackets washed ashore on the Cocos Islands. None of these governments displays a capacity for empathy or conscience.

There is a careful hope. This kind of installation art has the capacity to reframe our understanding of a previously muddy and tired problem, to dispel myths and draw attention to where it is needed. “It’s about grabbing someone’s attention,” Alex says. “That jolt that you experience when you’re looking at something that evokes emotion in you. In these moments people are open, they work to recompose their understanding of what’s in front of them.”

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