Tag Archives: history

Vinegar Hill

It seems that Sydney will host a "re-enactment" of a historical battle between convicts and soldiers:

"It was on March 4, 1804, that several hundred convicts broke out of the Castle Hill government farm, with plans to storm the garrison at Parramatta and march on Sydney, where boats would be seized and a daring escape made.
Instead, after 24 hours of confusion and conspiracy, the escapees were confronted by Governor King's soldiers and the militia on a site north of what is now the new suburb of Kellyville Ridge. Fifteen convicts were shot dead, their leaders captured and executed or exiled."
Sydney Morning Herald 5 Feb 2004]

It could be an interesting event, performance-wise, if it stays away from nostalgic cliches. Jane and I drove through a small town near the SA-Victoria border in November 2002, which was having a "dedication to the pioneers" day. It was nauseating – men in breeches and women and children in bonnets milling around in makeshift tent buildings, while a pompous country town mayor pulled back a homemade curtain to reveal a plaque dedicated to the hardworking ancestors of the town, who had survived through gruelling times, and gave us what we have today. Or some other crap.

No mention of displaced/massacred indigenous inhabitants.

Neither are they mentioned in the spiel about the Battle of Vinegar Hill. The event's official website only offers:

"Commemorating this particular event in Australian history is not to pay tribute to a Battle, or to revive the sectarian and authoritarian issues that led to the rebellion almost 200 years ago. The survivors of the battle from both camps, and their children after them, were the pioneers of this nation. Few of them had a choice in whether or not they came to this isolated land so far from all they knew. A great many on both sides stayed and became worthy citizens of a new country where differences could be settled without the bloodshed suffered at Vinegar Hill."

It's hard not to be cynical about such a statement. No mention is made of some of Australia's most famous current prisoners, who certainly have shed blood by sewing their lips together.

What is interesting, however, is the historical background to the "battle" –

"Among the embezzlers, forgers, petty thieves, sheep stealers and house breakers transported to the colony, were men whose crimes were purely political. The resentment of these political prisoners knew no bounds. Many of the Irish convicts were infuriated by the lack of official records and the resulting injustice and confusion over the lengths of their sentences. Realising the impossibility of returning to Ireland, the dissidents created a state of constant unrest in the new community. Cropping their hair in the style of the French revolutionaries, they formed secret leagues and held clandestine meetings to plan their escape. In desperation, they attempted to lay siege to the colony and demanded to be taken home to Ireland." [from a book by Lynette Ramsey Silver]

The "botched mini-rebellion" [as Silver describes it] got its name from Vinegar Hill, Wexford, in Ireland, where an "insurgence" of a much larger scale took part in 1798. More information about the Irish Vinegar Hill is available from the Irish National 1798 visitors centre website. My knowledge of Irish history is scanty, so any insights on this appreciated.

I haven't been able to locate a source as to whether any of the Sydney convicts who participated in the Sydney insurgence were also involved in the Irish one. It's a juicy thread, because in a way, the 1804 battle was already "referring" to another historical event from six years previous.

I'd also especially like to understand better this line from the visitors centre site: "The award winning National 1798 Centre offers a fascinating insight into the birth of modern democracy in Ireland."

How is this statement related to the comment by the Sydney re-enactment committee: "As part of the 200th Anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Vinegar Hill in March 2004, the combined Councils of Baulkham Hills, Blacktown, Hawkesbury, Holroyd, and Parramatta will be organising a Descendants Day to recognise the contribution that those involved in the Battle made to justice, freedom and the right to self determination in Australia."

One final question – the Sydney re-enactment of Vinegar Hill is being carried out by "several Groups of re-enactors who are mostly from the Napoleonic Period (1790's to 1815) and already have appropriate costume". What, or who, exactly, are these "re-enactors"?

[postscript – there is a review from the Sydney Morning Herald, (8 March 2004) here.]

Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel Gallery

(Nov 23 2003)

Egad! The cult of Joseph Beuys lives! Today’s so-called “symposium” on the late artist was pure hagiography. Three of the office-bearers of the JB Fan Club were up on stage, and there was no shutting them up, nor was it possible to get through to them with an even slightly uncelebratory remark (let alone critical). Richard DeMarco, Robert McDowell, and Ken McMullen released so much hot air it seemed for a moment that they meant to exhort the young audience to march en-masse and exhume Beuys from his grave (wherever that may be).


(Excuse some of the following, as I can't remember which of the experts said what. Sheesh. I am trying to find out for the purposes of not appearing sloppy). – see below for comment about the 3 "experts"…

(?) was the director of the ICA during the 1970s, and also ran the Edinburgh festival, organising several Beuys shows during that time. (?) was a gallerist who now runs the Royal Academy Gallery, and (?), an artist who was involved with setting up the International Free University together with Beuys and others in the early 1970s. All three speakers reported at length on their personal relationships with the artist, emphasising his charisma, his inspirational presence and his ability and willingness to teach, as an integral part of his art practice. All agreed in one way or another that he was a genius, a Da Vinci of the 20th century (in fact, one of the speakers even claimed that Beuys was “the first artist of the 21st century”, whatever that could mean, given that he died in the 1980s).


With all this eulogising, you might expect that the discussion might eventually turn to the work itself, or even his teachings, or exactly what influence or impact that he has proved to make on the (art)world. But despite obvious and insistent interest from the audience, and an evident desire to dwell upon more critical responses to Beuys’ ouvre and aura, those with the microphones constantly returned to focus upon just how much “LOVE” this man had for the world. Jesus Christ himself hasn’t had such a glowing review as this, possibly since Vatican II.


And as for the show itself, which was a temporary installation set up in the Whitechapel gallery downstairs, it consisted of “performance relics” such as blackboards mounted behind perspex, as works of art, seized and “fixed” the moment that Beuys’ various lectures were over, as well as video and film documents of discussions between the artist and various audiences between 1972 and 1980. Only the videos yielded actual information about Beuys’ work of teaching, for they showed him in intense and earnest discussion with students and artists, genuinely trying to answer questions and nut-out a way forward, developing as he went, his now-famous notion of the “social sculpture”. The preserved blackboards, I must say, nauseated me – contrary to what (which one of the "experts"?) had said in his speech, I did not find them to be “fascinating drawings in themselves”, nor did I find them to yield any but the most rudimentary information that may assist us to pursue Beuys’ arguments further. By being encased in plastic glass, they were converted to the status of religious relics, and (worst of all) lost their very nature as blackboards, that is, as mutable surfaces for the transmission of information. Certainly, it can be argued, that Beuys cleverly exploited the fetishising nature of the artworld, in selling the blackboards (and other relics) in order to fund his more expensive, and progressive projects (such as the 7000 oaks in Kassel) – however, we must not be fooled by this into granting them more importance than they would have had at the moment of inscription – that is, they are as useful as any filled blackboard from a previous lesson, upon entering the lecture theatre (ie not very useful).


One astute audience member pointed out that, until 1983, the Tate Gallery's Beuys Lecture Blackboards had been in the archive of the gallery, whereas, in that year, they were transferred to the “art collection storage area”. What change had occurred, she asked, in respect to these objects, that they were suddenly transfigured from one category of object into another? No answer from the fanclub.


Full respect to Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick, who chaired the discussion, for her attempts to bring some critical points to bear in relation to Beuys, and whose voice was ignored and drowned out by the fan club. Both she and Gustav Metzger, a contemporary and friend of Beuys, urged caution when considering the charisma of the artist, for it was a charisma, they argued, that he cultivated and nurtured, and which ultimately took control of him. Blazwick referred to two texts, critical of Beuys and his aura, and they were by Benjamin Buchloch, and Kristine Stiles. I have not read either of their arguments, but after today’s love-in, am keen to get my hands on both of the essays.