A view from the West: Humphrey Bower

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I moved from Melbourne to Perth for family reasons 14 years ago on the cusp of the new millennium. Twenty years previously I’d made a similarly open-ended move to the UK to live and study, but the move to Perth felt bigger. Even in the early 80s moving to England still felt like going home; Melbourne was a very European city, the dominant culture Anglo-Celtic, and my family heritage one generation back English on one side and “Continental”, as they used to say, on the other.
Moving to Perth on the other hand felt like going to another planet: somewhere that didn’t even exist on my mental map, and therefore in some sense wasn’t real. Was there intelligent life there? I believed so, but had no evidence to prove it. My brother even gave me The Lonely Planet Guide to WA as a parting gift with the motto: “Go west, young man!” inscribed on the flyleaf. As I set out self-consciously on the drive across the Nullarbor in my old second-hand mid-80s Volvo (how Melbourne can you get?), I felt like I was setting out on a journey to Australia itself, the country where I actually lived, for the first time. “Voyage within you,” as McAuley wrote, “And you will find that Southern Continent, / And mythical Australia, where reside / All things in their imagined counterpart.”
For the first five years I lived and worked here but felt like an outsider. Partly this reflected the practical fact that I was coming and going between Perth and Melbourne for work; partly the emotional reality that Melbourne was still the repository for most of my previous life, friends, family, colleagues, community and sense of self. The Perth theatre community welcomed me as a newcomer from “over east”, but I was still “an alien” as one colleague ironically described me several years into my stay. For my part, I embraced the marvellous landscape and glorious weather, the easy-living modus vivendi, the strong Aboriginal presence, and a healthier, more physical, less narrowly cerebral existence. I was also lucky enough to find myself living in Fremantle: a multicultural hub and working port with magnificent beaches, heritage architecture, decent coffee and food, an arts centre, two local theatre companies, an art-house cinema, a thriving independent music scene and a progressive local government and community where I rapidly felt at home. I rented a house near the beach, swam every morning, started doing yoga and eating more fish. I found a different perspective and balance in Perth: between my brain and the rest of my body, between theatre and the rest of my life, between culture and the rest of society, between where I was and the rest of the country.
When I arrived in 2001 the Perth theatre scene was strong on diversity but weak in quality and (ironically for a mining town) lacking in energy and resources. Apparently a mining boom was underway but I saw no evidence of the profits trickling down into the arts or anywhere else. Around the middle of the decade long-overdue regime change across the theatre companies brought a breath of fresh air and a sense of reconnection to a new generation of artists and audiences. This reflected a renaissance in theatre across the country. Since 2010 we’ve seen the onset of a period of restoration (if not reaction) across the national scene (theatrical and otherwise) following the age of revolution that preceded it. Theatre in Perth has likewise consolidated and arguably improved in quality if not diversity, in profile if not substance. Globalisation, anyone? A triumph of marketing over content? What has been gained or lost?
Recently I performed in a multimedia adaptation of Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia for Spare Parts in Fremantle. Of course Shaun is a Perth-born and raised artist and writer who now ironically lives in Melbourne (a more common trajectory than my own, let it be said). One of the stories in Tales is called Stick Figures: mysterious beings who haunt the suburbs (in which I now reside as a proud home-owner in Hamilton Hill, just south-east of Fremantle). “What are they? Why are they here? What do they want?” the narrator (in the show, myself) asks. “Are they here for a reason? It’s impossible to know, but if you stand there and stare at them for long enough, you can imagine that they too might be searching for answers, for some kind of meaning. It’s as if they take all our questions and offer them straight back: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?” The other performers used forked sticks with eyes and manipulated them as puppets. At the time it seemed to me that “they” inescapably represented the original indigenous inhabitants that had been cleared to make way for “us”. Now it strikes me that in a less obvious way they are the shadows of us all; perhaps in particular “us” artists, especially those of us who work in theatre. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing here? What do we want?
I still sometimes feel like an outsider, but I’ve come to feel that’s part of the cultural condition here, and perhaps in Australia generally, at least for non-indigenous Australians, and perhaps for them too. The English artist Anthony Gormley’s haunting installation on Lake Ballard in the goldfields northeast of Perth speaks of this condition: ironically titled Inside Australia and consisting of a host of humanoid sculptures or “insiders” based on infra-red scans of the bodies of the local townsfolk of Menzies and scattered across the salt-pan.
I now see WA as a microcosm and perhaps even an intensified reflection of the country as a whole: a stranger to itself, remote, out of time, provincial, anxious yet complacent, vast, underpopulated, orphaned, looking back to England and forward to Asia, insistently drawn to the ocean and sporadically to its own interior, where its deepest mineral and perhaps spiritual resources lie. Beyond this I hesitate to define what it means for a work or artist to be “Western Australian”, or indeed “Australian”, other than that they are made or live here, notwithstanding the directives and claims of funding bodies and marketing departments to “tell Australian/WA stories”. Perhaps these names refer only to a metaphorical sense of place, or even what Kant called “the suprasensible ground” of things. But then what distinguishes here from elsewhere? A certain intensification of the light? To predicate cultural identity in terms of content is a transcendental illusion at best; at worst, tribal ideology or totalitarian politics. As to form: is there a Western Australian species of actor, writer or theatre? Are they threatened with extinction? Or were there only ever individual WA actors, writers and theatres? But then who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing here? What do we want?

One response to “A view from the West: Humphrey Bower

  1. Nice article, I totally agree with the “outsider as cultural condition” thing. As a young artist trying to get by in Perth, I’ve always felt the shadow of the east coast looming heavily over Perth’s art/music scenes, and in turn Perth tends to look outward for recognition/validation, like it’s perpetually self-conscious and aware of its insignificant place in the art world. Having said that I think the best art coming out of Perth is wilfully ignorant of that discourse. Embracing ‘outsiderism’ but never acknowledging it or pinning it to a location.
    Looking forward to reading more from you.

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