Rosemary Laing’s welcome to Australia 2004 depicts a corner intersection of an obdurate, steel security fence topped with anti-climb spikes and orderly coils of razor wire. The fence stretches to the edges of the photograph so that its limits cannot be seen. A road and a gravelled driveway, sparsely dotted with low shrubs in red dirt, skirt the perimeter, but Laing’s framing means that access into and out of the fenced compound is not visible. Through the mesh of the carceral barrier another fence and a cluster of demountable buildings can be made out. No people are apparent in the photograph, the layered grids of fences estranging the viewer from the goings on behind the wire. It is an image of an impenetrable, imposing enclosure that compels authority, control and order on an arid landscape.
This is not an image signifying ‘welcome’, which makes Laing’s title, of course, ironic. The photograph depicts the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, the official title of an infamous detention centre remotely located in the South Australian Simpson Desert that operated from 1999 to 2003 to incarcerate asylum seekers and refugees who arrived in Australia by boat without valid visas. The so-called ‘unauthorised arrivals’ held at Woomera, the majority of which were ultimately found to be legitimate refugees, were subjected to prolonged, indeterminate and cruel periods of detention until they were granted visas, or deported, under a punitive policy of ‘mandatory detention’. The centre became notorious during its four years of operation for its isolated and scorching location, inadequate facilities, overcrowding and large numbers of detained children. Reports of human rights abuses, and media stories of detainees inflicting self-harm, sewing their lips, undertaking hunger strikes, breakouts and riots in desperate protest of their treatment, eventually induced the Australian government to close the centre after public pressure.
Born in Brisbane in 1959 and originally trained as a painter, Laing has dedicated herself to a photo-based practice since the late 1980s. Often working on series of photographs that elaborate on a theme, her work is consistently concerned with interrogating the Australian landscape, and an often-uneasy relation to it. She has a reputation for constructing and photographing unusual interventions into environments; for example, carpeting the floor of a forest (as in groundspeed (Red Piazza) #2, 2001) or arranging mass-produced, Ikea-style furniture in the desert (as in burning Ayer #1, 2003). These are a way of questioning a conflicted sense of belonging to lands taken from Aboriginal people through violent, ongoing processes of colonisation, while at the same time those lands are subjected to the homemaking of successive immigrants.
Welcome to Australia, however, takes a more documentary, approach depicting a ‘readymade’ intervention violently imposed on a landscape. Itis part of a series of photographs titled to walk on a sea of salt 2004, which presents images of the Woomera Detention Centre alongside significant landscapes from Australia’s settler mythology. These additional photographs include images of the vast saltpan of Lake Eyre, which reference explorer Charles Sturt’s failed search for an inland sea, and the bleached gums in the Flinders Ranges, which allude to quintessential Australian pastoral scenes rendered by painter Hans Heysen and photographer Harold Cazneaux in the early half of the 1900s. The series could be taken as an interrogation of the way contemporary Australian national identity and attachment to place is constructed through stories of celebrated explorers, sentimental views of enduring, weathered gums and the ‘protection’ of our borders, while reflecting on those who are excluded from such constructions and attachments. Rosemary Laing has said of the series:
… you’ve got the Heysen, you know, trees that you want to belong to, and then you’ve got the endless vista [of Lake Eyre] – though it be a difficult journey across a horizon that never ends – and then you have the raised wire fence [of Woomera], completely closing off access to that land, and that place, and those images of belonging and heritage.
Viewed on its own, welcome to Australia is a powerful meditation on how the political theatre of a secure nation is staged. The threatening fence, and the cruel conditions it encloses, is intended to project an image of an Australian nation that effectively managed and controlled its borders to both deter prospective ‘unauthorised arrivals’ and reassure an Australian public anxious about an inundation of such arrivals. It is the material manifestation of an Australia that asserts it has the right to ‘decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. The harsh fence characterises a fantasy of sovereign jurisdiction that the Australian nation-state has maintained through violent relations of control and mastery over land and people since the outset of colonisation.
Amy Spiers is Naarm/Melbourne-based artist, writer and researcher. Her writing and art practice focus on politically-engaged, critical art practices and expanded forms of site-specific and public art. Spiers completed a Master of Fine Art in 2011 and a PhD in 2018 at the Victorian College of the Arts.
 Rosemary Laing, artist talk at Tarrawarra Museum of Art, delivered 3 February 2018.
John Howard, election speech, delivered 28 October 2001.