I took a few hours over the weekend to tend to my balcony garden. The dry season arrived four weeks ago, and I have not been around in body or in mind to care for it. A Brazilian friend said during a dinner party recently, that our plants thrive when they can feel us around. I could see mine were dying, but had a number of deadlines to achieve. On the first weekend alone with my own thoughts, and no pressing deadlines, I dug up the dead plants, tilled and aired the earth in my terracotta pots and re-planted herbs and ornamentals, during which I remembered enough about a chance encounter I had only a few days before, enough to want to compose a short story about it.
Recently I found myself waiting outside a locked room where I was supposed to have an early meeting to accommodate the needs of an important artist. I was quietly stirring away while waiting on a bench under a magnificent tree, feeling the breeze on a Katherine dry season morning, when a woman stumbled out of nowhere and approached me, sat down across the bench and composed her mouth to utter the words, “have you got a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke, I’m sorry”, I replied.
She said she came to visit someone who works here and pointed to the direction of the building- a complex of arts and social services networks that occupy the former high school in the middle of town adjacent to the Katherine River. Meanwhile, cars arrived, and each time a driver exited she started to sigh a little between frustration that they were not the woman she was waiting for and trying to find the urge to lift herself off the bench to walk across and ask a stranger for a cigarette. “Do you think he smokes?” she asked me.
I’m waiting for participants in a public art strategy to arrive for a meeting. The office space is locked, contrary to the email I had, confirming it will be open at 7:45am. I operate on digital precision . A digital dragon fly. I buzz around the countryside looking for constant sublimation. I am content to wait for participants to arrive, so long as I can get lost in my social media feed. I’ve been operating like a machine for three months, according to and immersed in digital time.
I have started a criminal law practice with the Victorian Bar, accepting briefs across suburban and regional courts. I returned to Melbourne University to complete a Master in Art Curating, I must network with other strangers in an urban setting, where we all strive to connect without context. I return to Darwin monthly to maintain my Bar practice here, to develop and install public art events in Darwin and in Katherine, events that I have conceived, planned and installed and I return to nurture my relationships with a large family and network of friends. Clearly, judging by the state of my garden I haven't kept meaningful connections with home.
I did not want to engage in chit chat with this Katherine stranger just to be polite. I looked at my hand bag sitting exposed on the table between us. I do not remove it or nudge it, to do so will be completely impolite.
She shows me her damaged little finger. I took my eyes away from the screen momentarily. Her boyfriend hit her last night, it looks swollen, it may be broken she says, when I notice the image of Bruce Lee in a fighting pose on her t-shirt, with the letters spread across her chest “FEAR IS”.
The coincidence was alarming, I thought as she wiped her hair away from her forehead revealing a laceration to her head. She did not want to go to police. She didn’t want to be engaged in a conversation with me about the night before. I did not tell her I was a criminal lawyer.
I didn’t tell her I had just submitted for assessment a hypothetical contemporary art exhibition proposal inspired by Bruce Lee. I did not tell her that I grappled with the politics of representation, in proposing for my University assignment, a contemporary art exhibition for the Chinese Museum, investigating the "heroic" in Transnational Chinese art.
I asked her for her name. S, from B., she said, lives in Katherine now, away from B., overcrowded with family and constantly fighting. She said the earth is over breeding, "there are too many of us in one spot."
I wanted to tell her what her name meant, instead I told her my name and explained to her that my name was Greek, and that it sounds like Coolabah, and we had a belly laugh about that. I told her an old man gave me the name “that-lady-in-the-boat”, referring to the branding image of a woman being rowed on the Coolabah 4 litre wine cask, when she coughed and laughed, remembering the days she said, they lined up outside the bottle shop, for it.
Nowadays, only 2 liter cask wine is available for sale, ironically as a “harm minimization measure”.
In thinking about the urgency I felt to compose and write about this chance encounter, I reread the following from my hypothetical exhibition's rationale:
The defining of self, can mean the purposeful neglect of all that is other than self.+ It is intended that a contemporary art exhibition be developed for the CM, as a deliberate attempt to overcome the sterile ubiquity of the white cube, a trope which through de-contextualised space, displaces contemporaneity from all historical and cultural anchors that shape an indeterminable cultural identity.
I offered to take her to the hospital, but she didn’t want to go, instead, I told her I had been to B. many years ago, and when I told her I was waiting for T, she said she was family, and when I told her I was waiting for M, she said she was family too.
When I mentioned the death of, without uttering his name, she offered me her hand to shake in consolation of his passing, and said his name, "Tom E Lewis", and spoke drawing her breath, and with reverence acknowledged his contribution to Beswick through his devotion to “Walking with Spirits”.
I said, I loved his film, “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith” and the role he played in the “Shadow King”, in an adaptation as King Lear, while in the back of my mind I was thinking this was becoming more than a random encounter and tried to decipher what image of Bruce Lee was adorning her shirt.
Its funny how the mind works and all the memories that are stirred and then re-constructed at a moment of sustained clarity. Writing is a crafty skill, and like gardening can achieve unintended results.
I do not think in such a narrative fashion. Once I write, I am conscious that my constructed memory is being pressed through so many filters. I can not stand as, nor do I pretend that I am an un-challengeable witness to events. I do not pretend that this constructed short story format is definitive of a comprehensible truth.
This is a writing exercise, to critically reflect on an engagement with another, and all the complexities involved in representation.
I cannot pretend to be able to fully comprehend lest fully represent. I cannot even pretend that at that moment I was fully present. I cannot assume to know what forces are swirling inside this Individual with her own phenomenological forms morphing in an infinite representation of incomprehensible consciousness.
I thought about writing the story about this encounter after I composed and sent a message to my sister, in which I found the opening line with which unearthed the possibility of a story.
It is during the writing of this encounter, that my thoughts turned fully towards Mr Lewis.
I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon, in 2014 watching a film and theater star, performing in polite company. I told him I was so moved by his performance of Lear. Quickly we mooted ideas, including that of Lewis playing the part of King Oedipus in an adaptation, setting the story as between Greek/Indigenous removed at birth and fearful of incest not knowing who are family and who are not, with a Greek and indigenous chorus, or as Jason in “Medea”, archetypal themes explored in old world mythologies. To Lewis, an accomplished thespian, aware of the command and attention his body attracts, Oedipus appealed to him most. After our lengthy meandering conversation, about history, myth and the stage, and upon my return to Darwin, I kept my promise and posted to him, since he had asked for it, a DVD copy of the BBC Production of “I, Claudius”. With his passing, we did not realise all our other ideas.
S's own father had passed away. He planted a seed and the roots of the tree are the brothers and sisters, she was saying, and wondered whether I had misunderstood what she was saying. Did her father plant the poison that is keeping her family at war?
That day was my own father’s 80th birthday. I could feel my own pain stirring a great disappointment in life, enduring the loss caused by that which shatters families and keeps brothers and sisters apart, parents weak in old age and daughters and sons adrift negotiating worlds without guides and without maps.
I pointed to her shirt, and asked her, if that was Bruce Lee. An enthusiastic “yeah” was exclaimed. We used to watch him when we were young. Imagine this, an indigenous young person living in B. some 100km south east of Katherine, and a Greek one, in Darwin, wondering why fathers and brothers are so enthralled by this televised character, and in the process becoming entranced by his “avenger” type. Oh, and James Bond. We both loved watching James Bond. Just because we grew up in frontiers inside frontiers did not exempt us from the power of the global pop culture industries. We are as contemporary as any Instagram feed being updated by hands attached to bodies in any other part of the world. To what extent has the proliferation of the “kung-fu” film genre, and in particular the singular, often male heroic figure uncritically entrenched racial and hetero-normative gendered stereotypes?
Bruce Lee's representations of Chinese characters in popular film challenged Hollywood mainstream stereotypes with his significant East-West political philosophy intervening to redefine and construct the heroic Asian body. Considering Hollywood’s resistance to the idea of an Asian leading actor, his influence cannot be understood outside the wider political, historical, technological and economic processes of colonization and globalization, particularly the emergence and subsequent success of the Hong Kong film industry in light of post WW2 American military interventions in Asia to secure global military and economic hegemony. Equally, these larger forces have conspired to bring this chance encounter together, out of which has created the urge to write about it, and present it as a revelation.
Lee's continuing influence on popular culture ranges from Jackie Chan action films to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol 2. ( 2004) with Uma Thurman’s iconic yellow outfit an updated version of the yellow outfit Bruce Lee wore in his unfinished Game of Death (1973).
I did not think of the above in that level of detail when i was tending to my dead plants. I was also thinking about how wasteful my attempts and current attempts to keep a garden going have been. Surely wasting so much water on a private garden is unethical?
Here is another extract from the concept of my hypothetical exhibition:
This exhibition is a temporary contemporary art exhibition. It aims to showcase 8 contemporary artists from a diverse Chinese heritage and presents a diverse range of works of art and art practices( including commissioned public sculpture, mural, light installation and film) through which to interrogate the multiple and various ways of understanding the complexity of contemporary diasporic identity, place making, myth making and culture.
As such, it is important that I articulate why this encounter with S was prophetic, and why I needed to engage with her to understand what and why.
I asked S what the writing was at the bottom of her shirt, she stood up. Negotiating permissions, for a social media post, she agreed to pose for a photo shoot, in which S. wearing her black visors posed, showing me her Bruce Lee t-shirt with nunchakus from the “Game of Death”, with the words “FOR OTHERS” emblazoned across the t-shirt covering her belly.
We discussed where was the best location to maximize the effect of light. S. held her skirt as it kept slipping, unable to button it up, when T. arrived. They exchanged hellos, and we agreed to pose for a photo taken and posted on Facebook by T. Between checking out to see what that Facebook post looked like and getting lost in my online messaging world to reconvene the meeting at another location, I lost trace of S.
We didn’t get to say goodbye.
In my hypothetical exhibition proposal rationale, I wrote:
I have provided works of art by contemporary artists who share a transnational Chinese identity. The choice of these works were guided by internet research. I do not profess expertise in the field, nor do I share in the artists’ heritage. I have however, attempted to select works with full “awareness of the shifting grounds of the contemporary, the way the postcolonial and global conditions have infected our awareness of art […]” **** I am proposing a method of display as a means of “addressing the multi-layered temporal and ethical complexities occasioned by the ever-more-blatant contradictions of contemporary societies.”*****
I have attempted to write about my encounter with S after gardening with the above it mind. I am trying to find methods by which to represent the other, as a lawyer, as an artist and as a curator, as a story-teller, since I have reached an understanding that it is impossible (and arguably unethical) to live by on self-reflexivity alone.
As I did not obtain S's permission to write this story, unawares at the time for the potential to do so, I am mindful of any signposts that may identify her. Consequently, while I did obtain her permission to photograph her, I am not publishing these photographic images.
I have decided to publish this blog after three revisions and after consultation with colleagues who have grappled with the politics of representation, who share my passion for understanding, albeit momentarily, abstractedly and randomly the vast complexity animating our existence.