For all that Alice Springs is a small city, the complexity of its composition never fails to surprise. Open the pages of the Alice Springs News, and you will find a fair amount of variety, but come away with an impression of an almost suburban community, despite its distance from an urban center. If, like me, you were drawn to visit because of its central position in the history of the marketing of contemporary Aboriginal art, you get a sense of its cosmopolitan character. Reading Eleanor Hogan’s entry in the City Series, Alice Springs (New South Books, 2012) and you’ll get a taste of the contrast between the cultures of long-time white residents, transitory government and services workers, and the Indigenous population. Wenten Rubuntja and Jenny Green’s The Town Grew Up Dancing (IAD Press, 2002) demonstrates how the two cultures, black and white, shaped the history of the place. If you want a deeper historical dive into the lives of the Aboriginal population, Jeff Collmann’s Fringe Dwellers and Welfare: the Aboriginal response to bureaucracy (University of Queensland Press, 1988) is a sobering experience.
Two years ago, artist Rod Moss took up the tale of his own life in Alice in The Hard Light of Day: an artist’s story of friendships in Arrernte country (University of Queensland Press, 2010), a book that shares much in common with Collman’s sociological study, but takes a personal approach to the story of life in the Town Camps, the officially defined areas of Alice in which Aboriginal people live. For all that it is an intensely personal book about Moss’s life and art, it captures repeatedly the telling details of what it means to be an Aboriginal person in Alice Springs.
Now Moss has returned to the subjects and the stories of The Hard Light of Day with a new series of vignettes and the paintings that illustrate his ongoing immersion in the life of the Town Camps’ denizens. One Thousand Cuts: life and art in Central Australia (University of Queensland Press, 2013) straddles the line between memoir and meditation. Invoking the aphoristic description of “death by a thousand cuts,” the title suggests the brutal indignities that suffuse the book’s pages.
The Hard Light of Day had a sort of temporal structure, a chronicle of a decade plus of Moss’s life, mixed in with stories of the lives of his friends in Whitegate Camp, and especially with the mentorship of Edward Arranye Johnson, under whom Moss recorded the stories of country around Alice. One Thousand Cuts is less linear, less tied to temporality, but no less effective and affecting for that. The stories that Moss tells this time generally take place in the first decade of this century; in that respect One Thousand Cuts is a sequel that takes up where The Hard Light of Day left off. But time in this book seems almost non-existent or irrelevant. Were it not for occasional references to the stages of his children’s lives, Moss might have produced a narrative in which it is almost impossible to tell when events occur in relation to one another.
It strikes me that this is an intentional strategy through which he aims to get closer to the perspective of life as it is lived by the Johnson, Hayes, Neil, and Ryder families into whose orbit Moss has been drawn over the years. The story is episodic, possibly picaresque. Time is rarely measured in terms of progress, apart from a few almost peripheral references to young men undergoing initiation. Instead time in this book is doled out in hospitalizations and arrests, in bookings into alcohol treatment programs, above all, in deaths. There is a short genealogy appended to the main text of the book that aims to document for the reader the relationships among the individuals and families who populate Moss’s stories. Two symbols are used in laying out this information: > indicates offspring; d indicates deaths. The preponderance of the latter is startling.
Indeed, it would be all too easy to regard One Thousand Cuts as a catalog of misery, for Moss is unblinking as he tells these stories. But if a sense of fatalism pervades the telling, there is no accompanying sense of resignation. The people that Moss lives with, whom he ferries about the camps and out to Amoonguna or Santa Teresa, whom he visits in the hospital, persist. They do not give up, they are stoic even if they wail with grief. It wouldn’t be right to say that Moss confers nobility on them; that would be too condescending. But he never lets their suffering and their shortfalls reduce them in any way. To call them battlers would be incongruous; it would serve only to heighten the contrast between the hardships they encounter and those of Howard’s suburban emblems of a real Australia. But it would show where courage and determination lie in the continent’s heart. Even as I write those words, I am aware of a romanticizing tendency in my critical reactions to the book. And I remind myself that there is folly and meanness, anger and cruelty embodied in these pages alongside the humor, the kindness, and the caring. The strength of Moss’s storytelling lies in his ability to present all of this simultaneously, without judgement, but suffused with awareness nonetheless.
The matter-of-fact quality of the prose in a way serves to set the other important theme of the book into a very, very subtly drawn contrast with the stories of life in and around Whitegate Camp. Throughout the book, Moss spends a great deal of his time in transit, moving people, firewood, and expended beer cans from one location to another. On a few occasions, these trips involve long journeys, hundreds of kilometers, out to country that is infrequently visited, in part because of the inaccessibility that distance imposes.
These are collecting journeys: the Arrernte are in search of ochres or in need of plants to replenish the medicinal stocks at the Akeyulerre Healing Centre in town. The men hunt kangaroo on these trips, sometimes, and everyone sleeps in creek beds, or on the verandahs of old homesteads, all but abandoned. One of these excursions is detailed in a chapter called “Healing Trip.” The regenerative qualities of the venture are clear, even though Moss doesn’t editorialize. He reports on, and indeed, good parts of the chapter are concerned with, an unexpected, shocking death and funeral; equally, he includes the rehearsal of Rodney Hayes’s band for a recording session at CAAMA. This chapter is in many ways a representative microcosm of the book: it brims with the business of living and dying, it swings to the rhythms of town and bush.
This is the life and these are the lives that occupy Moss’s days and his art. In contrast to The Hard Light of Day, in which the paintings were relegated to a special section at the end of the book, in One Thousand Cuts they are integrated with the text. I mean that in two senses: not only do they appear frequently in the pages of each chapter, but often Moss will relate the story of the painting’s inspiration (which sometimes comes in the form of a request from a member of the Whitegate families to document some aspect of their lives) and creation. He explains how pictures are composed, offers references to the classical models that inspire him, and in an appendix actually details his working methods and materials. I’ve never seen one of his works in person, and I’m glad now to understand how the combination of graphite and polymer works in conjunction with the photography and drawing that are fundamental elements in each work’s genesis.
Scattered throughout the book’s pages are a set of inserts: small, four-page booklets, about two-thirds the size of the book’s pages, tipped in between those that carry the text and the reproductions of his paintings. These insets comprise a series of black-and-white portraits of Moss’s friends, his children, and the country he visits with them. The vast majority of them are head shots of Arrernte men and women, the dramatis personae of Moss’s two books and his many paintings. Glancing through them after I finished reading, I was struck again, as I was by the genealogy, by how many of these souls are departed, taken their ways in another direction (to paraphrase the epigraph Moss takes from George Trakl).
In some ways One Thousand Cuts is the sequel to The Hard Light of Day. It updates the story of Moss’s life in Alice Springs, carries us forward from the conclusion of the earlier volume. In another, more important, way, though, neither book is fundamentally Moss’s story: rather they contain the stories of friendships and the stories through which the lives of Moss’s Arrernte friends are given voice. One Thousand Cuts, like Moss’s paintings, often owes much to the technique of impressionisme, the difficult task of capturing the ephemeral, the ineffable aspects of life in Alice Springs, the life that goes on all around yet refuses to be pinned down, that is communicated best in the fleeting glimpse, in the characteristic mood. They are books of immutable sadness, but not irredeemable despair. They are testaments to those stories, like the ancestral narratives, that surround Alice Springs, that endure, that permeate experience whether we recognize them or not.