A strange image indeed: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, naked, one armless, one decapitated, both clad in T-shirts and draped in a quilt covered with Australian flags. A cameraman holds his microphone in front of the royal couple, almost as though waiting for them to speak. Meanwhile, a man bearing a tube of glue tries to paste the T-shirts onto the sculptures. This is an image about images, and what they mean to us. More—it is an image that asks who or what ‘us’ might be.
This is April of 1995, the International Year of Tolerance; Paul Keating is still prime minister of Australia, and republicanism is on the agenda. The sculpture is Gregory Taylor’s Down by the lake with Liz and Phil, a depiction of the royal couple naked on a park bench. Liz and Phil didn’t stay down by the lake for very long. The sculpture of the queen was soon beheaded; attacks on the prince followed.
Things were falling apart. Why else would Carey McQuillan (variously reported as an ex-policeman and a Vietnam veteran) have leapt into his car and driven the four hours from Sydney, brandishing a tube of glue and a T-shirt, arid vowing to defend his sovereign lady, the queen? McQuillan’s ride to Canberra bearing the glue of reparation and the undignified scuffle at the royal knees are, for me, among the most meaning-laden moments of the whole affair; symbolic action taken on behalf of symbols. Rarely is such symbolic action also so literal. A symbol is falling apart and someone wants to glue it back together.
A brief but intense furore ensued, especially in the letters pages of the Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. Its force was extraordinary; Australians for Constitutional Monarchy spoke of a ‘threat to the stability of our country’. Bruce Ruxton allegedly called for the artist to be killed; the sculptor also reported receiving death threats. The letters pages roared: the royals’ human rights had been violated; the sculpture was sexual harassment; the artist was a vandal; the vandals were vandals; Queen Elizabeth 1 would have known what to do with the artist; even the communists hadn’t been so vulgar; the prime minister ought to be stripped naked and put in a cage next to the royal couple. Keating, somehow, was to blame; even though he had had nothing to do with the commissioning of the work, he came for some to replace the sculptor as the author of this atrocity, rather as Whitlam had with Blue poles. The sculpture stood in for everything that was wrong with Australia. All this horror was summed up in the most monstrous epithet the era could muster: the statue was ‘politically correct’.
In all this grotesquerie, two things stand out. First, as a piece of symbolic action, the iconoclasm was incredibly powerful, but utterly ambiguous. It could have been the work of either a monarchist or a republican, or simply a joker. Secondly, the responses are striking in their ferocity and their sheer viscerality. Letter after letter speculated about other nude leaders—Mahathir, Suharto, both Paul and Annita Keating, even Carmen Lawrence: ‘Are we now going to have a 12-metre high penis called the ‘Prime Minister’ or a giant walk-through vagina called ‘Carmen Lawrence’ mounted in Martin Place?’ asked one imaginative citizen. You name a psychosexual stage, someone invoked it. Scatological imagery abounded; it was as though the sculptor had presented an infantile ‘gift’ in front of overseas visitors, confirming their (or Keating’s) infamous vision of Australia as the ‘arse-end of the world’:
I used to take exception to our Prime Minister’s reported description of Australia. Now, after seeing the statues on the bench in Canberra, I think it rather apt. That’s the sort of stuff one would expect to see emerge from that end. What bravado to display that work in our capital city for the whole world to see. Are our trading neighbours laughing with us or at us?
– B.C. Greaves, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April 1995
[P]erhaps there should be a series of such ‘sculptures’. One could imagine Mahathir dangling his genitals at Parliament House or perhaps Suharto giving the Department of Foreign Affairs a ‘brown eye’—the ideas are endless.
– John Senior, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April 1995
My own instinctive reaction to that offensive sculpture [sic] was to ignore it. After all, isn’t that how we are told to treat a spoilt brat of a child who deliberately makes a disgusting mess on the living room carpet, when the natural reaction might be to turn it over and spank its bottom?
– (Sir) David Smith, Canberra Times, 18 April 1995
The two ‘concrete blocks,’ the ‘pathetic bit of baked clay,’ were, in sum, infantile: ‘most would expect better “art” to be cobbled together by an average kindergarten.’
In this brief scandal, then, political and nationalistic discourses found expression within and alongside the visceral and the phantasmagoric. The incident revealed an intense latent popular discontent with middle-class leftism (one which with hindsight could well have served as a warning to Paul Keating and the Labor Party) and a sharp division over the idea of ‘Australia’, in particular, a lament for a lost or fading Australia. The sense of loss of a coherent and undivided national identity—the loss of the fantasy of wholeness—found expression in exasperated, often violent language. We have seen since, with the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, where such visceral exasperation and anger found at least one outlet.
We know that the nation is, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, an ‘imagined community,’ but we have still a lot to learn about how as citizens we imagine ourselves in relation to some version of this phantasmagoria. Warned by Graeme Turner’s criticisms of Australian cultural criticism’s reliance on the rhetoric of growing up (in his Making it national: Nationalism and Australian popular culture), I don’t want to leap too hastily towards the psychoanalytic, but I am nonetheless interested in how people conceive of themselves as belonging to an idea in all its richness (a history, a geography, a set of institutions, a ‘culture’). Is the body politic too easy a metaphor here?
There is no reason to believe that political figures or royalty need always function for our unconscious as parent figures, as Freud suggested they did in dreams. But in this instance, they may well have for some participants in the event. For the phantasmagorical content of so many of the reactions was quite extraordinary: not only did a lot of letter writers take horrified pleasure in imagining the prime ministerial penis but people on both sides of the debate saw destruction and tearing apart as metaphors for what was happening to Australia. Melanie Klein probably has more to offer here than Freud. Some of us want to tear the Mother’s body apart; others want to glue it back together in reparation. This dis- and re-membering remind us that we are corporeally involved in the nation—a point worth remembering in our current struggles to reinvent the national ‘we’. Presumably, every inhabitant must introject (or reject) some version of this phantasised social body known as nation. The idea of a singly, coherent, ‘whole’ Australia (an idea that surely cannot survive) will die hard, and many will feel its loss personally, emotionally, viscerally.