Red Beryl opens with a shot of hill mounds. Like a large mole settlement. Only its preternaturally lunar. It’s ghostly even. It sets the stage as both out-back and as a pause in history. These mounds are the by-product of the opal mining boom of Cooper Pedy, a small Australian mining settlement which the Aboriginal people named Kupa Piti, which translates roughly as ‘white man in a hole’. Known now to only sell imported opals, Cooper Pedy is in every way the post-industrial ruin, a site of entropy, a melancholic artefact we can project our desires onto. No wonder it’s become a site of constant representation, finding its way into numerous Hollywood films as a perfect sci-fi landscape. Here then is where Oscar Enberg starts his tracing of a multiplying history, a quest, so to speak, that finds its perfect protagonist in Red Beryl, in the film a young girl, in reality an opal gem stone commonly found in the Wah Wah mountains.
Red Beryl’s quest to find Crocodile Harry is ostensibly the framework Red Beryl the film hangs on. Confusingly, her one aid in her navigation of Cooper Pedy is a small reproduction of the frescos from the Roman emperor Nero’s Golden House, his Domus Aurea. In doing so, Enberg overlaps two historical eras, both in potentially significant periods of change and adaptation, deploying both the archival and mimetic methodologies that Hal Foster suggests so characterises contemporary art made since the late 1990s.(1) Indeed, Enberg’s deployment of both mimicry, especially as it is seen in his use of the Dadaist poem of Jean Arps, Tristian Tzara and Walter Serner and his archival overlapping of Cooper Pedy’s history with the historiography of Nero, is unusal in that Red Beryl is able to develop a sustained critique through mimicry whilst simultaneously building out or building up new meanings through the stitching, or overlapping of multiplying archival histories.
If we glance over Enberg’s practice we can see the archival at work in his constant excavation of history’s minor tributaries, whether that’s the colonial parvenu John Court who worked so diligently to improve the communal infrastructure of Auckland (funding plumbing, zoos and tennis courts)(2) or more contemporary histories like his work concerning the Pagen bread factory in Malmo(3) or his reworking of the paternalistic constraints of philanthropy as it concerns Stanley Ho the proprietor of the Grand Macao casino.(4) The point here is that, just as Foster notes of artists like Tacita Dean and Sam Durant, Enberg also probes these kind of historical disjuncture, desiring to ‘turn belatedness into becoming’, making of these moments indexical ‘scenarios for alternate kinds of social relation’.(5) I’m going to return to this impulse, this suturing of multiple narratives, so that Enberg’s alertness to history, his nimbleness around discontinuity comes sharper into focus, at a later stage because it makes no sense to talk about how we might conceive of this archival impulse as anything other than a paranoid, self-indulgent thread of rushed connections unless we attend to the mimetic register of Enberg’s work.(6)
In Foster’s hands, the mimetic isn’t a faithful reproduction, a one for one scale, nor is it the types of blank parody we associated with pastiche, but rather it takes up a nonrepresentational concern with the affects of political culpability. So in Foster’s reading work by Robert Gober mimics the ‘cultural kitsch of post-9/11 America’ treating it as a ‘political program [that is] imposed [upon] us’, not for comedic affect, but to underline its ‘damaged authenticity’.(7) Likewise, he suggests that Jon Kessler’s multimedia junk assemblages exploit a similar mimesis, this time aimed at a reckoning with ‘the political infotainment’ of what so often passes as the news.(8) Just from these two examples we can see then that Foster is concerned with the mimetic as a register that acknowledges and indeed makes palpable the ‘madness of everyday existence under advanced capitalism’.(9) This is a phrase he uses to talk about the entire practice of Isa Genzken, but it is also one he links to the work of the Zurich Dadaists which mixed ‘requiem and buffoonery’ in the context of the first world war.(10) That kind of riposte to bourgeoisie values, particularly a rational subject overly imbricated in that war, both commiserated its entrapment as well as rejected the values wholeheartedly in the hope of reconstituting a new subject. As Jean Arp, a member of Dada, and a figure we will return to later, put it: "Dada is for the senseless that does not mean nonsense. Dada is senseless like nature and life."(11) Dada’s mimetic response to the madness of what Arp called the ‘butchery of World War I’(12), should then be read as an alertness to the senseless reduction, to the brutality of war, and yet it also entailed as Foster points out a paradoxical enthrallment of self-disintegration, a tactic which effectively "advances a critique that flaunts its own futility". That is, in their mimetic celebration "of the bashed ego" of a rational subject, dada risked the very real possibility of banishing the subject entirely.(13) And yet as Foster points out, it is precisely this "hopelessness that gives the bashed ego its critical edge"(14), a refrain that runs through Kessler’s infotainment, and Gober’s damaged authenticity, in that they offer no immediate idea of how we might reorient, or recoup a subject less prone to such blatant manipulation.
It’s obvious then that such mimetic strategies are concerned not to reflect back the conditions as they are seen, as politics is reported on television, as so many invasions, blockades, sanctions, cronyism, blatant indignities if not outright exploitation, but rather as a pervasive force that affects the very sense of community, that exhausts subjects, that ties us together in ways we often refuse to acknowledge. Which is why we could also have equally bracketed these mimetic responses as a type of destitution (15), this time less as a requiem for a subject or a history we never much believed in, but rather, as the exposure of an exhausted subject, a blank subject, or more increasingly its inverse, the manic, over-subscribed subject. We can recall here any number of recent attempts of refusal, of the collective embrace of Melville’s Bartleby as a proto-subject whose I’d prefer not, poses a tactile immunity to this very persuasive lure. Equally, we can point to any one of the too innumerable attempts to curate, as though mere selection holds the banality of choice at bay. Which also explains why this condition, this mimetic drive coincides with an archival impulse, as a type of thickening of this bashed ego, not through the aggrandisement of certain subjects, but rather through the collation and manifold belatedness of these particular projects to extend new focal points for consideration. Certainly Enberg’s attempt to collate an archival narrative around Cooper Pedy is a clear example of this sort of rethreading, which turns not to lament history, to not simply confront it as an abject disillusion, a zone of trauma to be repudiated. Instead, what we get is precisely the sort of thickening of the bashed ego, not so much through the answers Red Beryl’s exploration of Cooper Pedy provides, but through the conflation of so many different narratives.
So yes, if we are going to talk about the mimetic impulse then we need to turn to focus quite keenly on the opening scenes of Red Beryl, particularly the Umoona women’s recitation of the Jean Arp poem in front of a movie prop space ship. Here we have a triage of historical invocations, the first people, that conventional hook of the indigene in the landscape, the movie prop as representation’s terra nullius, its implicit celebration of history as a technological marvel of progress, and finally Arp’s poem, his sheer verbiage of associative words, violent and unsettling, deliberately flung across this landscape as a desolate site of colonisation. All of this is then deeply symbolic. It is a loaded, contorted history that goes nowhere obviously. As a film we might say that Red Beryl is suffused with frustration, men flail in pools, the protagonist’s questions are never so much refuted as simply ignored. Life goes on all around her, but it is an inextricable life. A life in which a replicant Nazi solider casually strolls, grenade in hand, down the town’s main street, movie props abound, cavernous sex-tourist lairs wait to be discovered. Nothing is entirely clear but rather suffused in a subcultural norm that belies a mimesis of more persuasive forces.
It pays here to loop back to the unlearning of the crushed ego, particularly as it might apply to Enberg’s work. Here I think it’s useful to contextualise this with Ajay Kurian’s reading of Jordon Wolfson’s Coloured Sculpture (2016).(16) What I like about Kurian’s reading is its focus on Wolfson’s deployment of race in this animatronic puppet that is so obviously bruised, so obviously beaten, even crippled and yet is still entirely propulsive, still sneering, still totally indignant. The great thing about Kurian’s reading is that he doesn’t simply refer to this as another version of the exhausted body, the subject undone by his overabundance. Instead, what he suggests is that the Coloured Sculpture is the mimetic response of "our contemporary pollution", zoning in on a specific malaise in which "many feel their liberty, their spirit, their individualism" to be threatened. More specifically, Kurian points out, ‘this petulant child’, ‘so easily mangled, yet made of incredibly durable materials, mechanized and sustained by a series of massive moving parts’ is paradigmatic of the "boiling resentment" of "white victimhood" which is "thought to be as pressing an issue as the institutionalized murder of black people in America". This type of resentment would be comical if it wasn’t so perverted in its logic, precisely because it functions as particularly powerful form of empowerment for a disenfranchisement that is imaginary at best. As Kurian makes plain:
Many white men today feel themselves under attack, usually because of the burn of growing equitability. It is becoming clear that “when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” … We have a breed of white males who believe they are persecuted while being the aggressor, and are powerful while maintaining a sense of painful fragility. This kind of cognitive dissonance cannot be brushed off.
So this is the type of subcultural malaise that I think also suffuses Red Beryl. There is an element of residual anger in the film, much as I imagine a similar archival envisioning of an Appalachian mining town might also entail. Indeed we only need to look at say Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) to see similar forms of frustration, of drug dependency, of helplessness, of random acts of violence, in short all the depredations of a post-industrial town abandoned to welfare dependency and the exploitation of one kind of another, and yet like Korine’s film, Red Beryl also offers up a different narrative, one of an adaptive mobilisation of self-identity, of autonomy being a capacity that works best in hybrid, articulated settings. Here the mimetic response isn’t the conventional narratives so normally invested in a resurrection of a rational subject through retraining or entrepreneurial élan, but rather a contorted dismantling of the ego. What we get then is not the grotesquely faux-disenfranchised subject we see in Wolfson’s Coloured Sculpture, but rather a consolidating, articulated subject enjoyably flipping between identities. Nobody envisions this better in Enberg’s film than Crocodile Harry, the Nazi-sympathising Latvian baron who fled to Australia after WW2 where he prospected for Uranium, hunted crocodiles and finally settled in Cooper Pedy to mine opals. It is fitting then that Red Beryl is attempting to track Crocodile Harry down, precisely because she is the conflicted, confused subject who seeks out an anachronistic model of stability that contrasts so much with an age in which choice is so often little more than picking between what Guattari called the mass serialism of one uniform or another.(17) In fact we can go further and suggest that Red Beryl is a type of millennial figure navigating the attenuating pressures of resentment that hallmark our era, that is of figures manipulated by irrational expectation and the blunt reality of a coercive inequality that mires us at best in varying strata of debt and precarious employment. No wonder then that Crocodile Harry, even with his irredeemable Nazi history is a figure we might gravitate towards, precisely because he rejected the paths laid out for him, crafting instead a mobile, adaptive, and entirely energetic fervour that resists the types of exhaustion, or curation we are greeted with so constantly these days.
It’s fitting then that Enberg overlaps Harry with the Roman Emperor Nero and yet it’s not entirely obvious why. As Edward Chaplin points out, we all think we know Nero:
Nero murdered his mother… fiddled while Rome burned… slept with his mother, married and executed one stepsister, executed [another]…, raped and murdered his step brother… Kicked his pregnant wife to death… castrated and then married a freedman… married another freedman, this time playing the bride… raped a Vestal Virgin, melted down the household gods of Rome for their cash value, [and] after incinerating the city in 64, he built over much of downtown Rome with his own vast Xanadu, the golden house, [whilst] fixing the blame for the great fire on the Christians, some of whom he hung up as human torches to light his gardens at night. (18)
In short, Nero is the debauched dilatant, whose last egomaniac words were ‘what an artist dies in me!’ And yet where does this story come from. Who wrote it? Why do we constantly here about gross negligence being yet another case of fiddling while Rome burns?
This is of course another one of those moments in which the archival impulse reaches back for the belatedness of a bifurcation, this tuning of the narrative for one purpose or another. Because if we look closely we can see that this mythologizing of Nero as the "archetypal sadistic monster is chiefly the creation of people who never met him but who wrote about him some fifty or more years after his death".(19) In fact we need only heed, Richard Holland’s contrast of Nero with Julius Caesar to see how asymmetrical this reading is:
How much longer are we to go on admiring Caesar for helping to create the grandeur that was Rome out of the genocide that was Gaul, while we continue to revile Nero – a man who spent his adult life trying to persuade his people to embrace and enjoy the blessings of Greek civilisation… [By contrast] Caesar was a power-hungry ex-consul who, by political manipulation and bribery, had managed to secure a five-year command of some Roman legions and used them ruthlessly for his personal aggrandizement, ignoring any senatorial protests.
Indeed unlike Caesar, and unlike the Emperor’s before him, Nero’s did not embark on any new military endeavours. In fact his tenure is marked by a general prosperity and freedom of movement within the empire, presiding over a period of stability that also saw him free Greece from taxation. How then do we account for the portrayal of Nero as a decadent fop who fiddles whilst Rome burnt (a myth that runs contrary to all reports in which Nero played not only a key role in combatting the fire, but also opening the temples to the public and lowering the price of food). Perhaps the trajectory of this reading lies in Nero’s devaluing of the silver and gold currencies following the great fire, but distinctively not copper which was used in everyday transactions. Actions like this meant Nero constantly clashed against the ruling aristocratic class, antagonising them with his public performances as a musician, as an actor, as a chariot racer. Not to mention his favouring of freed-men for civic roles, and his embrace of an Epicurean philosophy of free will at the expense of the traditional Roman society’s enthrallment before Stoicism, so much so that oracles, and divinations were as regularly watched as todays’ politician’s heed the ticker of the stock-market. The point here isn’t that Nero wasn’t alert to the expectations of the aristocratic order, their preference for military prowess, the enshrinement of tradition and respect for the gods, but that he turned his hopes towards a different model entirely.
We can see quite clearly how this counter history plays out in Nero’s contentious construction of the Golden House, the Domus Aurea, whose frescos are the illustration that Red Beryl carries with her in her navigation of Cooper Pedy. On the one hand, Nero’s opportunistic embrace of the great fire, poses him as antiquity’s Robert Mosses, taking by expedient fiat a significant tract of Rome’s urban landscape only to make it over as one large private palace.(20) And yet as Edward Chaplin points out there is significant overlap in the designs of the Domus Aurea with the public baths that Nero had earlier built in the northern part of the city. Such overlap suggests that the Golden House was considerably more communal in spirit than we might have previously thought. Indeed, whereas once Nero’s comment’s that this new palace would allow him to be "housed as a human", no longer need echo as the megalomaniac, grandiose statement of the selfish tyrant, but might instead reflect a different narrative, one much more concerned with the collective, collaborative agency of the human.(21) Indeed adapting this counter narrative to the ways in which we might conceptualise Red Beryl’s encounter with Cooper Pedy, and in particularly her navigation of Crocodile Harry’s grotto, it’s entirely telling then that Enberg would preface this exploration with her brief investigation of the city’s church. Not only does this contrast throw up a number of binaries, on the one hand we get the prescribed space of the church versus the sprawl of Crocodile Harry’s cavernous love den (the solemn vs the ribald) and yet, we are also faced with the recognition that both of these spaces marshal human behaviour in quite specific ways, towards quite specific mannerisms.
We can see then that there is an ideological clash the underwrites the historiography of Nero, notably his disinterest in the bounded world of the Stoics which so marked traditional patrician Roman society, particularly their belief in which "everything that happened on earth was in line with the will of the gods", an ethic that enshrined respect for tradition and one’s ancestors, that underscored a slave’s role in society, Nero’s adoption of a new philosophical order belayed his own hopes for a cosmopolitan society based on the free exchange of ideas which benefitted everyone, but it also radically unfounded the very foundations on which Roman culture was based. In its place, Nero’s embrace of Epicureanism offered chance and indifference, no longer relying on Providence, but sheer randomness and the recycling change of a Terran life as it is being theorised today by the likes of Timothy Morton and Donna Haraway. Is it any wonder then that this history would be omitted, that he would be turned from a much loved Emperor whose ten year rule was marked by unprecedented peace and stability to become the psychopath who abandons Rome.
I have laboured this overlap of Nero and Crocodile Harry simply because it was never obvious to me in my first reading of Red Beryl. In my earlier essay (22) I talked about how Enberg’s film absorbs and reconstitutes Michel Serres’ idea of abuse value (23), not as a derogative term but as a general principle of exchange. I can see now how one might adapt this program of abuse, particularly as it comes to define a contrapuntal relation to Terran life, as precisely this sort of recycling, this opening of Providence, less to chance the more it is to renewal. It’s in this way that we might start to interpret the doubling of Serres’ host and prey, as one that is hosted and the one that is the host. Both are interpenetrating, something hinted at by Red Beryl’s opening remarks when suggests she is searching for the moment in which the host becomes the guest, when the guest becomes the host. And yet whilst it would be easy to misread this conflation as a type of neo-colonial apology for abuse, for the methodologies of extraction and victimisation that the colonial apparatus excels at, to simply leave it at that, as one indignation amongst many, is to miss the point. Abuse is an exchange that imbricates us in the world, not simply as guests but hosts ourselves. We are constantly having to make our nests in places other than ours. I think this is what those final scenes of Enberg’s charting of Coober Pedy’s grottos suggest. That there is always an insistent need to overwrite, to mark out that space of hosting with our own forms. In Serres’ terminology this is a stercorian narrative, in which we mark our inhabitation through our stench, through our pollution.(24) It makes it inhabitable only to us. And yet, this occupation has to occur through a type of cognisance, a charitable opening up of that space to exchange for it to escape the types of solipsism that reduce life to pointlessness.
To return to the film, to return to my themes here of the crushed ego, and the belatedness of an archive, I want to focus on something I glossed across earlier as simply the rational, bourgeoisie subject. To be more specific what I mean is the idea that we have always couched modernity as a liberating force that glorifies ‘the autonomous rights-bearing individual’ whose ‘rational choice-making capacity’ is the foundation of the society we live in.(25) That this coincides with a capitalist structure that looks at money as the end-product of political life also means that this rational choice-making capacity is ultimately rather limited, or should we say coded. As Pankaj Mishra points out, ‘the autonomous, reasoning, rights-bearing individual, that quintessential product of industrialisation and modern political philosophy’, has proved to be the perfect device in which to enthral, ‘all of human existence into the mesh of production and consumption’.(26)
But so what! Don’t we already know this? And isn’t the very point of focusing on abuse value that it precedes capitalist structure.(27) Aren’t we sick of treating capitalism as our bogeyman, or worse as this omnivorous field that swallows us whole. Don’t get me wrong, I’m deeply sympathetic to these sorts of arguments, it’s just I wonder if such activity might be directed to different modes of being. If the subject of free choice, as any mode of curation currently shows us, is not already banal enough, then surely it is time we recognised that that mythological rational subject able to evaluate, is predicated, no, is marshalled into very specific directions, that generally tend to undercut the very autonomy it supposedly presides over. This is precisely Mishra’s wider argument concerning modernism’s emotive propulsion of ressentiment, a force so characteristic of our contemporary moment, shared alike by Donald Trump and ISIS, but one with deep roots in the modernising philosophies of the French Enlightenment, Italian futurists, and Hindu nationalists. The point then, isn’t so much that capitalism fails us, the more it is that this idea of the freely autonomous subject is misleading at best. So yes, if we are going to couch this rhetoric in mimicry, what we find in Enberg’s navigation of Cooper Pedy is precisely the sort of post-industrial malaise, that damaged authenticity of a crushed ego that we shouldn’t really believe in anymore. Here I think it’s telling that the landscape of Cooper Pedy is so lunar like, why the shots of the desolate miner town looks less like a human settlement the more it is a sort of outpost, a collective, enterprise. Which also, perhaps, grants us another way to look at the aboriginal naming of this settlement as kupa piti, as white men in a hole. Clearly such nomenclature evaluates the settlement not as the pioneering entrepreneurial endeavours of freely autonomous individuals the more it is a collective enterprise, a collective of white men huddled together, furtively camping out in the dirt. What madness would drive them here? What collective élan holds them together? Surely then we can sense that there is a collective drive to the presumably autonomous subject that belies the choices we never get to make.
Ok. So if that crushed ego, that wallowing, that requiem for the autonomous subject is our mimicry how might Enberg’s film adapt or provision us with a suturing of history, an arousal of new mythologies. Surely there is a libidinal drive to his film, one of desire. Is this why the film focuses so heavily on Crocodile Harry’s love den, scrawled, polluted with so many eroticised fantasies of pleasure taking. Does this too not contrast against the perverted, frustrated logic of the film, the confession of child abuse, the violence of being penetrated by a corkscrew, or the absurd, slapstick scenes of a rock drummer performing in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, or of a man, arms flailing in a pool? If these are instances of noise, of an interruption of normal programming, of a breaking down of the autonomous ego they are also the message, the medium of the film, the noise that carries with it this desiring, libidinal narrative. Such logic would certainly underwrite Red Beryl’s quest for Crocodile Harry, less as a source of entrepreneurial moxie, as yet another stylistic guise to adopt, but rather as a fundamentally different model. Indeed what Red Beryl’s conflation of historical modes, its overlapping of different subcultures, enacts is a desiring logic, one reinforced by the continual scenes Enberg interjects throughout the film of an opal being whittled down. Given this parallel might we not too think of the subject being less straitjacketed by one institutional norm or another, than we have momentarily, different kinds of collective becomings, which like the opal, fluctuates according to needs, from dirty rock to polished gem, from thing of value to potent portentous object and back again. Which is precisely why abuse value functions to differentiate Terran life from the constant reiteration of the exhaustion or the meaninglessness that our continual negotiation, if not contestation with capitalist structure tends to give us. None of which is to say that we shouldn’t continue to identity the means and mechanisms through which we are exploited, through which populaces are disenfranchised, ecologies victimised, but it is to say that we should begin to identify other strands of collectivity, new resolutions that affirm the human as social organism, no longer just a collection of isolated individuals, but as persuasive agents networked in a terran body, a contrapuntal reality that exceeds the solipsism of free-choice, of a reductive autonomy that has lead at best to a world polluted by our own personalised stench.
An early version of this text was originally commissioned by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Thanks to Hopkinson Mossman.