And the Winner Is Fiction

Inventing Australia, Again, for the Sydney Y2K Olympics

How to Cite

Leishman, K. (1999). And the Winner Is Fiction: Inventing Australia, Again, for the Sydney Y2K Olympics. M/C Journal, 2(1).
Vol. 2 No. 1 (1999): Fiction
Published 1999-02-01

In Australia, we are more prepared for the year 2000 than many. With regard to the technical difficulties that might be experienced, we have the honour of being the 12th most prepared nation in the event of worst predictions. In addition to the usual effects the impending millennium is wreaking however, Australia is also anticipating the year we will be hosting the Olympic games. The fervour that has seen religious cult members invest in matching pairs of Nike trainers (and coincidentally, buy plane tickets to Australia) has also infected this nation's official image-makers, who have been busy preparing for the definitive moment when the world's television cameras will be pointed at Sydney Harbour, and Australia, by association, will be the subject of international media scrutiny.

Since the closing ceremony of the Atlanta-hosted Olympic games in 1996, commentators have expressed the uneasiness that such observation provokes in Australians. The entrance of inflated kangaroos on bikes into the Atlanta Olympic stadium was described by David Marr in the Sydney Morning Herald as "the first in a long line of cringes", and he warned Australians that "we must all understand from now on that embarrassment is part of the Olympic Spirit. It's a key to us surviving the next four difficult years until the torch goes out in Homebush. All of us are going to be embarrassed some of the time by the Olympic image of ourselves". Marr's anxiety is further revealed in his comparison of the inferior display (with the exception of the Bangarra dancers)1 of the "few minutes of the Royal Easter Show" presented by the Australian contingent at the ceremony, with the efforts of the representatives of the United States of America, who are described as "some of the greatest stars in the West". Marr is convinced of his assessment of Australia's lesser cultural talent, noting that not only did the Atlanta audience seem puzzled by the display of Australian culture before they were able to recognise "the profile of the Opera House", but also that the transmission of the event via a "bank of [television] sets in David Jones's window" failed to elicit much of a response from those who watched, and was unable to distract those who didn't watch away from their involvement in shopping, working or driving.

Marr's generally pessimistic assessment of Australia's artistic and cultural merits is not one that is obviously shared by the organisers of the four Olympic arts festivals that are being held leading up to the Sydney 2000 games. From the 1997 "Festival of the Dreaming" through to 1998's "A Sea Change", this year's "Reaching the World", and next year's finale "Harbour of Light", the rhetoric has focused on showcasing "a strong vision of Australian culture" (Cochrane). It would appear Marr's advice, that Australians resign ourselves to a painful four year cringe festival, is at odds with the enthusiasm being invested in creating those images by the directors of the respective festivals. There are, however, more similarities in these apparently different visions of Australia than are immediately apparent.

In National Fictions, Graeme Turner identifies a dominant tradition in the construction of Australian narratives which dates from the nationalist pastoral ideals of the 1890's. Turner explores how in fiction, the Australian individual has been formed through an imagined experience of "exile, divorce and isolation" (60). This experience is closely linked to a view of the land as uncompromising, and brutal in its effects. In contrast to the North American protagonist who sets out to conquer the Western Frontier, the belief of the Australian protagonist is that she, or more likely he, can do nothing to overcome the harshness of the landscape, and therefore must simply endure its effects. This attitude also transfers itself to the relationship the individual has with society. Again, where the North American individual will generally triumph over the constraints of society, and is prized for her or his difference, for the Australian individual difference is problematic; it will ensure she or he is viewed with suspicion and resentment within the narrative. It is only through accepting and conforming to the values of the community that the Australian individual will survive.

Turner's thesis is "one that insists on the connection between the individual narratives on the one hand and the culture which produces them on the other". Thus, it is argued that "narrative is an epistemological category, one of the means through which we construct our world" (National Fictions 142). Certainly, it is a narrative of communal embarrassment, frustration and survival that Marr invokes when he urges Australians to accept our exile in all matters cultural. It is also this narrative of cultural frustration and isolation that is informing the Sydney 2000 cultural Olympics.

The planning of the Sydney Olympics Arts Festival has drawn on discourses around the occasion the Olympics presents for Australia to clearly establish a cultural identity. This has been contrasted with evidence of the extent to which former Olympic host cities Atlanta and Barcelona were able to assert the extensive credentials of their cultures. Craig Hassall, the general manager of the Sydney Olympic Arts Festivals identifies Barcelona as "the benchmark", arguing that "Barcelona reinforced the cultural fabric of that city by reminding the world of the power of Miró, Gaudi and the Catalan culture" (Cochrane). Hassall's assessment of the Barcelona cultural Olympics recalls Marr's comments about the strength of the American artists in Atlanta. In contrast to the inarguable evidence of the cultural achievements of Spain and the United States, the Australian cultural Olympics is perceived as the moment when we will have the opportunity to present our culture for the first time; we will overcome our cultural exile and take our first steps onto the world's stage. Thus Hassall maintains that "the brief for Sydney is slightly more complicated [than that proposed in Barcelona]. Our task is to establish rather than reinforce, a strong vision of Australian culture" (Cochrane). Although Robert Fitzpatrick, the director of the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, is less enthusiastic about the other cities' efforts, claiming "Atlanta botched it [and] Barcelona did only slightly better", he nevertheless arrives at similar conclusions to Hassall, suggesting that "this is an occasion for Australia's arts mitzvah" (Hallet).

Turner offers an explanation for this connection between the Australian experience of exile and shows how it engenders a response to constantly establish and re-establish a particularly Australian identity when he argues:

if the myth of exile proposes that life does not go on here as it does elsewhere, and if there is an intuition of a society beyond these shores in which the 'norm' resides, then 'universal' philosophical solutions to the problems of existence within the society may not be convincing. Our fictions characteristically address not only the modern, 'universal', problem of meaning that has its own archaeology within world literature, but also specifically Australian physical and metaphysical problems. Metaphysically, Australia becomes a special case, since existence here is defined as being Australian as well as human. As victims of cosmic xenophobia, we are still bailed up by the problem of being Australian as well as by (the usual) problems of inventing or discovering meaning. Far from being an indication of cultural immaturity, or the failure of our writers' and film-makers' attempts to articulate a national identity, this is in fact a defining feature of the portrait of the individual as protagonist in Australian narrative. (National Fictions 80-1)

The narrative trajectory of the four festivals bears out this dominant Australian characteristic of defining our identity through exile. While Andrea Stretton, the artistic director of "A Sea Change" and "Reaching the World" applies the analogy of a concerto to the arrangement of the Olympic arts festivals -- "beginning and ending with a bang, with a change of pace in the middle" (Morgan) -- it is also possible to locate in their narrative a shift between an assertion of cultural identity, using specific notions of indigenous identity in "Festival of the Dreaming", and multi-cultural identity in "A Sea Change", towards an ever-present awareness of separation from the rest of the world, so that the third festival is entitled "Reaching the World" and the final festival anticipates sending out a beacon, a "Harbour of Light", beckoning the world to join us in the year 2000. Although the distinction between the assertion of identity and the frustrated feeling of exile are not quite so clearly distinguished in terms of their relationship to a particular festival in the manner that I have described (they are both in operation to varying degrees in all the festivals), it is from a culture that understands itself to be in permanent exile that the narratives being employed by the organisers of the cultural Olympics are derived. So, rather than orchestrating our debut onto the world's stage, it might be argued that the role of the Olympic arts festivals is one of co-ordinating participation in our favourite national pastime: inventing Australia, again.

Author Biography

Kirsty Leishman