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Short stories from a big country: The Australian

Australia is a country with a complicated yet distinct identity — we meet Driller Jet Armstrong, an artist who has invented 'Daubism', and one of many people who make the nation

Short stories from a big country: The Australian
Artist Driller in his studio with his pet barn owl. Image: Newstyle Media

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When you picture an Australian, what do you see? Probably a white male — an outback larrikin in a cork-fringed bush hat.

A nation’s identity can only ever be a cliché or a trope, but they still help us make sense of the complexities of people, landscapes and histories, those infinite layers of place.

Driller Jet Armstrong, 58, is an Australian. And like a full third of contemporary Australia, he was born overseas — as it happens, in ‘the mother country’, migrating from London to Adelaide at the age of seven with his family.

In 1985 he abandoned his job as a policeman, changed his name and became part of Adelaide’s bohemian art scene. And in 1991 he ended up in court following an injunction on a piece of art that made headlines across Australia.

“Do I feel like a subversive? Yeah…” He sits grinning in his kitchen in his Adelaide Hills home while a pet barn owl keeps watch from its perch. His misdemeanour was to have taken a painting of the Kata Tjuta rock formations, called Picaninny Daylight at the Olgas, and spray it with a crop circle.

“I’d been given six landscape paintings by [artist] Charles Bannon, who was father of the then-state Premier, John Bannon, and had been president of the Contemporary Art Society of South Australia. I got them for free because they couldn’t sell at auction. And to be quite honest, I thought Charles Bannon was dead!”

In his studio one night, Driller sprayed the crop circle image, liking its alien, pop-culture form. A new art form that he called ‘Daubism’ was born that night and it opened the way to make more powerful statements.

“The Western European tradition [of art] always shows an empty Australian landscape — there’s no-one in it. And it says, ‘buy me’. My work is saying ‘up yours’ to that.”

Though all six canvases were daubed, Charles Bannon was incensed by what had happened to Picaninny Daylight, which under Driller’s hand had become Crop Circle in Bannon Landscape. He had lawyers remove the work from exhibition under injunction and sought a change in the law of the land.

Driller still trawls second-hand shops looking for amateur landscapes to daub. “I recently did a series of daubs using Fuzzy Felt characters to depict two men getting married. I also like to take Aboriginal rock art images and daub them into landscapes; I’m putting the Aboriginal peoples back into the place that was appropriated by Europeans.”

Modern Australia has long been tormented by its two disparate layers: the planet’s oldest living culture, and the European settler culture, which arrived just 230 years ago. Driller’s fusion of artistic forms goads his countrymen to consider a different, more coherent identity.

Daubism has found its place in the Australian art scene and beyond (Driller says even Banksy is seen to daub). But daubs can now be legally challenged in the Australian courts owing to the 1991 case. The ‘Crop Circle’ injunction was overturned and settled out of court, but Bannon successfully pursued the introduction of laws giving Australian artists ‘moral rights’
as well as copyright over their paintings, even after sale.

Not that this is deterring Driller.

“Art history and a nation’s identity are similar. They’re never static, they evolve. With Daubism, my art has come to demonstrate that black and white culture can walk together hand in hand. Hopefully to a brighter, better place.”

Read more in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)