The Social Dilemma is a beautiful and terrifying expose on just about everything. Our little girl is looking forward to Christmas. She’s 12 and for high school both our children receive a mobile phone, which the school suggests and all 12-year-olds demand. Most of her friends have been carrying them around for years, she reminds us. But The Social Dilemma has us both considering a phone ban, right through high school. The documentary lays out starkly, from the mouths of the young people who designed the algorithms, how the biggest companies in the world strive to entrance and addict us to social media. And then most sleep-destroyingly, how those social medias have polarised sensible and compassionate debate. It is no longer acceptable to disagree. Extreme views, conspiracy theories, are much more interesting than the truth. Truth is boring, so we don’t click on it. My daughter needs to be the PM. I tell her that. We need her. A phone will make her path to that position distinctly more difficult.
The song you’ll never tire of hearing
Well I won’t tire of hearing it because, like all my favourite music, I don’t overplay it. My problem is picking a song that I love but rarely play. There are many of them. The thought of wearing it out for myself is dazzlingly scary. My contemporary listening was held to my head in the 1980s and welded there through the ’90s. When OK Computer was released by Radiohead in 1997, I was still attempting to remove the shroud of angst that defines young men.
I’d been to a school where teachers told us that certain music would open the gates of hell to us. I was interested in peering in through those gates! Wouldn’t any normal 14-year-old? Subterranean Homesick Alien is track 3 on OK Computer. The whole album defines my head then. It’s also pure experimentation and ambition, a distillation of all that humans have learnt about making sounds to challenge and please, disturb and dance. The album is an anthem to the uncertainty and anxiety that now defines sensible communities.
Speaking of an anthem, I’d like to use this platform to suggest to the PM that Blackfella/Whitefella would make the most rockingly perfect Australian anthem. Someone’s got to replace that decrepit piece of embarrassment we currently pretend to sing at the football. I haven’t asked Warumpi Band but it’s worth a shot.
The building that most amazed you
My studio, over and over. I’m in No. 8. The first one was in my brother’s room, established the second he left home for uni. Cheap cornice, gyprock walls and shredded beige carpet in a brick veneer, late ’70s masterpiece. I was the eldest of three boys, but Mum and Dad had some issues parting with their eldest. I was 26 when Kylie [Needham, Quilty’s wife] finally nudged me into a new studio in Melbourne as we followed her career to the ABC in Elsternwick.
At first, I rented a 3 x 2-metre space just off St Kilda Road in St Kilda. There were eight little studios squashed together into a low-slung warehouse space on a side street. Most of the other practitioners didn’t show up, so I played my own music as loud as I needed. By then I was obsessed with making art. The Torana paintings were made in that dark, inconspicuous shed. St Vincent’s Hospital then offered me studio space in the abandoned nurses’ quarters on the corner of Nicholson and Victoria Parade in town. The studio was on the 10th floor in a maze of little rooms. The whole floor was mine and I marvelled at my luck.
Now I’m lucky enough to spend my days in an industrial warehouse. Its stand-up pre-fab concrete walls insulate well and the roof is covered in solar panels, more than enough to power my electric car. The interior walls are clad in ply that has been pulled down and nailed back up again at four of my last studios. The floor is scraped annually. The studio is my salvation. It’s a private space, a three-dimensional visual process dairy. I don’t encourage visitors and I don’t live too close.
The character you hated the most
Humbert Humbert. Kylie handed me Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita last year. Read this, she said. The way we punish people like we’re still herding convicts has always furnished a debate in my family about paedophilia. They’re the offenders most linked to a possible future rebuilding of the gallows. Parts of the public cry for the death penalty for every downcast paedophile. Art has a way of confronting taboos and I hoped to find some more substance to my argument in Lolita. But I was disappointed.
Humbert walks away from a slightly messy, poor, but mentally stable young woman, Lolita. My own primary school mates who were sexually assaulted all struggled to live. They are in prison; they have chronic addictions and profoundly dysfunctional personal relationships and some have taken their lives. My favourite teacher from primary school told me her life’s greatest regret was not speaking up about one of my little mates who she suspected of suffering abuse when he and I were about 10. That boy became a heroin addict, in and out of prison, and I lost contact with him a few years ago.
Nabokov lets Humbert off the hook. If Lolita became a broken wreck like my friends, like the true victims of years of sexual assault, Humbert would have paid a bigger price. Recently I joined The Justice Reform Initiative. In Australia, we imprison more people than at any time since 1900. In eight years our prison population has swollen from 30,000 to 43,000 inmates. Our incarceration rate is higher than all countries in Western Europe and Canada. Jailing is failing our nation on every front. It leads to more offenders committing more crimes upon release, more disadvantage and more cost to the taxpayer.
Paedophilia is socially seen as the most grotesque crime of all, and yet recidivism for paedophiles is chronic. Our shameful system of punishment does nothing to redress the crimes committed upon my little mate. Punishment is the tool of extremists. There is no place for it in our community. We need answers and healthy ex-inmates but Nabokov’s masterpiece owes Lolita a more truthful end.
The book that always defeats you
I studied art in the ’90s. Painting was dead, art theory was on steroids trampling on the upturned earth of the grave of pigment! I enrolled in an art school to study painting and I was one of only two students actually using paint. The essays we were handed were dazzling in their turgidity. I excelled at English in year 12 but was beaten by an essay on deconstructionist theory in the second year of my visual arts degree. Since that essay I’ll try anything. I’m pretty dogged. I won’t be beaten.
The painting that you always return to
Clarice Beckett, The Motorcyclist. We’re lucky enough to own this little painting. Melbourne gallerist Bill Nuttall gave me generous terms and a sneak peek at this jewel of a painting and I was addicted. Clarice (my obsession with her work led to our first-name-basis friendship) was a devoted student of artist Max Meldrum, who wrote later in his career: “A great artist has to tread a lonely road. He becomes great only by exerting himself to the limit of his strength the whole time. I believe that such a life is unnatural and impossible for a woman.’’ Clarice was attacked by critics, all men, almost all her working life.
Painting for me is so much about the visual language, the painterly handwriting of the artist. Clarice took Monet and made Melbourne her own. It would be simple for me, and tiring, to respond, one after the other, to the critics of her time, but I know the power inherent in making paintings. Pigment arranged and wrestled is a magic tonic. I feel bullet-proof as long as I am in striking distance of my paint. A Melbourne winter claimed Clarice in 1935 and sometimes now she’s seen like a tragic and disempowered film star. But the film is not made. Clarice lived with the infectious and enormous energy that creativity brings with it. It’s impossible to make great paintings, so many hauntingly beautiful paintings, and not benefit from the ecstasy of knowing you have.
The streetscape you never tire walking down
My friend, curator Lisa Slade, encouraged me to introduce myself to Arrernte artist Vincent Namatjira years ago. In fact she pushed me to look at the work of many of the great painters living remotely in Australia. Many of the best painters on the planet are living in those remote communities. Names such as Sylvia Ken, Betty Pumani, Nongirrna Marawili, Nyunmiti Burton, should be household names, like Olley, Olsen, Nolan and Williams. They’re not. The system so rapidly enforced as community-building in first European colonies had deep, deep roots.
Acknowledging anything Indigenous threatened the ‘best country on earth’ mantra I was brought up with. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is one of my desert island reads. The anger at her art was blinding but momentary. Howard lost the next election. The kidnapping of truth in history by propagandists posing as historians is behind us, at least for that chapter of Australian history.
To have lived in Australia as a white person has been complex for me. The more I know the more complex it feels. As an artist, the greatest honour and most exciting experiences have all been in remote community artist studios. The first Betty Pumani painting I saw blew my little mind. The red dirt on my white face turned muddy with tears. Amata, Ernabella, Yirrkala, the people in those little towns, my friends and colleagues, have challenged my view of the world and blown apart my expectation of art practice. The streetscape I cannot tire of is the walkway from the dusty Alice Springs airport to the runway. I float it. I leave the towns of central and northern Australia on a high that is hard to describe. The risks those people face − poverty, unemployment, frighteningly extreme climatic change − all are put into perspective by the best paintings, over and over again, that I have ever opened my eyes in front of.