Terror Australis

The Australian Magazine, 15 – 16 June 1996
Words by Susan McCulloch

Artist Julia Ciccarone's exotic view of the Great South Land

An Australia peopled with hermaphrodite humans, half-dinosaur/half-woman winged creatures, gigantic pink flowers and verdant plants in a Garden of Eden setting. A vision from a B-grade science fiction fantasy? Not exactly. At least, it's not one devised today but created some 300 years ago. In 1667, defrocked Franciscan monk Gabriel de Foigny, a man in constant revolt against the moral and sexual rest rictions of government and religion, wrote A 'Yew Discovery of Terra Australis, a novel purporting to be a journal of explorer James Sadeur amid the unexplored continent of Terra Australis. The "Australians" who inhabit the land discovered by Sadeur are self-pro creating hermaphrodites - bearded men/women who suckle babes, frolic naked in a blissful climate and live in collective harmony, free from the restrictive religious and social mores that dominated de Foigny's own times. Eight years later, Robert Poltock created his Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, A Cornish Man, an equally exotic tale in which yet another intrepid explorer happens on the Great South Land, inhabited this time with winged flying people, hybrid monstors and stunningly coloured plants. The Cornish Man interbreeds with the flying people to produce a new society of extraordinary and similarly harmonious beings.

Both Books more than intrigued Melbourne artists Julia Ciccarone when she came across the originals in her father-in-law’s library 18 months ago. “ My imagination went berserk–they had a far greater personal effect on me than just illustrating extraordinary tales. I had real stomach aches when I was painting the man/woman sucking the baby – it’s very disturbing stuff and raises all sorts of issues of gender. I could keep painting and painting from these - it’s preoccupied me totally.” To gender, add the equally prevalent themes of the search for identity, and of sex, violence and death.

The original books are now extremely rare (only five copies of one are known to exist) and were included in Ciccarone’s works in a recent solo show at Melbourne’s Robert Lindsay Gallery. They also accompany her exhibits in Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art at Heide’s Colonial Post Colonial show. This exhibition features 24 views of the colonial era from both contemporary and current perspectives. Entering through a “colonial corridor” of works by such early 19th-century luminaries as Eugene von Guerard, Robert Dowling and Nicholas Chevalier, the visitor arrives at a space filled with works by today’s artists who, like Ciccarone, offer responses to the early recording of colonial times.

Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore described Terra Australia as Europe’s “ geographic unconsciousness” – a journey into the subconscious tapping it’s deepest fears and fantasies. Now the Great Southern Land has been replace by equally graphic fictions of outer space, alternative realities and hypothetical scenarios of a future Earth. Yet Ciccarone’s paintings remind us that the imaginings of today are not so different from those of our western forbearers, and that such a fantasy continues to occupy an apparently necessary niche in the collective psyche.