maps + territory

In terms of Australian colonisation the map existed before Europeans ever settled the land. Pre-colonial European cartographers imagined terra australis incognita as either a secular place of wealth and fortune — a new world or utopia– or as a place of horror and dystopia with grotesque and bizarre creatures inhabiting the Australian interior. Dystopia as the end of the world. This dual map as simulation existed before the white colonists even experienced the land.

Mt Babbage

This designation immediately places Australia, with its heat and desert, in oppositional terms, standing in contrast to, and distanced from, the typically European landscapes of green mountains, rivers and fruitfulness. The character of the land in the Antipodes the white settlers saw and experienced in the northern Flinders Ranges after white occupation compounded this dystopic map. The land was arid and harsh with ephemeral springs and water holes and the droughts bankrupted the miners and pastoralists. It was a space of monstrosity, horror, disillusion and death.

The negative images of this designation worked against the utopian ideals of the imperial explorers — eg., Eyre, Sturt, Babbage and Stuart — who imagined Australia as a place of fortune and promise–pastoral, agricultural and mining. They saw the Flinders Ranges as the most reliable path into the geographical centre and they had hopes of a viable waterway northwards to an inland sea or  a great inland lake;  their 7 decades of inland explorations were a search for an Eden only to discover the centre as an impenetrable wasteland — a threatening space hostile to humans.

rocks + tree

This vision inscribed the territory as an apocalyptic space, and it suggested a significant connection between apocalypse and dystopia. What emerges is a discourse that operates with a long-established tradition that associates Australia with dystopia and the end of the world. The utopic image of Australia is a facade or mirage that hides the true reality that is a dystopia in the form of the myth of Australia’s dead, empty spaces.

The various ruins and the dead animals that I was seeing whilst walking the country of the northern Flinders Ranges reinforced the darker vision–this was an alien territory of trial, suffering, exile and punishment far removed from the fertile and fruitful promised land of Europe. Death and silence pervade and gird the whole white settler colonial project.

I realized this recovering of maps of this territory was part of a process of a ‘peeling back the layers’ deposited by colonialism and an ‘unmaking the colonial regimes of violence’. It is a journey back through the landscape.

One thought on “maps + territory

  1. Pingback: Terrapina Gorge | The Long Road to the North

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