Captain Cook’s Axe

Tim Alves


National Library of Australia, digital scan, cover of Journal of the HMS Endeavour

Capt. Cook had an axe. Its head was replaced twice and its handle six times. Yet, it was always still the same axe. Cook’s Journal of the HMS Endeavour occasionally discusses axes, as they were valuable commodities on any voyage. Though I’m not sure that Cook ever wrote about his own axe specifically (or about replacing its parts) I do know that the saying, ‘it’s like Capt. Cook’s axe’, refers to an object that has been altered so many times that little is left of its original material, though it’s still ostensibly the same object. I’d like to compare Capt. Cook’s axe to the meaning of the word art.

Art, in a very conventional sense, is associated with creative and imaginative practices. (This is a rough generalisation, of course, but I’m not trying to establish this meaning in order to agree or disagree with it.) The creative energy of modern art, for instance, was fueled by a desire to contest their own conventions. Perhaps you might say that historically significant forms of art challenge their own definition.

Installation artist Robert Irwin’s claims that ‘art has come to mean so many things that it doesn’t mean anything any more.’1 Let’s address the semantics of Irwin’s claim. The word art is meaningless because its coherence has been reduced by an excessive application to designate things that it did not traditionally include. My observation is that, rather than the word falling out of use because of this incoherence, the semantic slippage has circulated the word in a different way. The word doesn’t have a different meaning; it has a different function. It functions less as a sign that evokes an idea and more as a declaration. It is hollow and self-referential, but it operates performatively. It’s like Capt. Cook’s axe because only the name gives the whole edifice consistency.

To identify art, then, seems to require another word—like a prefix, that can attach the slippery and performative word art to some coherent meaning. Modern; Australian; Aboriginal; contemporary: these are all examples of a prefix that attaches meaning. Put another way, art can designate any practice or artefact as being suitable for a certain type of contemplation—hmmm, like in the museum—but its meaning lacks coherency. Another word must be seconded to outline an expectation. The word contemporary is an interesting attaching-type prefix because it has been subjugated to the same slippage as the word art. Articulating something like my Capt. Cook’s Axe approach to the semantics of the a-word, the editors of the e-flux reader What is Contemporary Art? call for more isms2,  given that the word contemporary seems more and more to also need a word to give it coherence.

Peter Osborne and Dieter Roelstraete have both identified the ways words, like isms, retrospectively function to attach slippery performative words to some meaning. Osborne argues that the intelligibility of works of art depend on words including contemporary, which function to make sensible an art-historical periodisation. When Osborne writes periodisation he is referring to a categorical schema of history. In other words, there are multiple possible temporal structures of history which work to give meaning or context to past events. Contemporaneity is a periodising category.3 What’s more: the period it describes continuously needs to be replaced. To interpret new meaning into past events is retrospection.

Roelstraete operates from a future perspective in order to retrospectively consider the present. He wonders what historians will think when they look back on contemporary art. ‘What ism will be coined to describe the systemic confusion of the present moment?’4 Linking slippery performatives to some meaning, words work in reverse to make disparate elements coherent.


This reasoning extends spatially: nations, like axes, can have their parts replaced endlessly. Look up any European country on Wikipedia: you can click flags to trace the preceding nations that occupied a similar geographical space backwards through history. Tom Nicholson’s Untitled wall drawing, last exhibited at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012, takes this theme as its subject. Nicholson uses pencil to write the dates of international border treaties of the 20th century on the wall. The treaties are arranged chronologically and describe the date, the nation states concerned, and the title of the treaty, as well as the preceding border treaty that was being replaced. This hand-written data is presented in a series of columns across the distance of a long wall in a way that is similar to how names of casualties are engraved into war memorials. This similarity is an effective device as renegotiations of national borders have been (of course) largely associated with conflict. The pencil literally takes on the title of the exhibition in which the artwork was shown—Marking Time. Marking emphasises delineation while time parallels space. Yet at the same time, the specific geographical location of the boundaries that were agreed upon in those treaties is not shown. The integral subject of the art work is omitted, just as border treaties displace some certain subject, some coherent point. Extending on this theme, it also concerns an essential lack in relation to the subject matter of history.

L: Daniel Boyd, Treasure Island (2005)
R: Richard Lewer, Final School Map (2004)

I think it is possible to view Nicholson’s Wall Drawing as an artwork that continues a conversation about Australia. A painting by Daniel Boyd precedes it. His Treasure Island (2005), is of a map of Australia with Treasure Island written in script across the continent. The map is filled with a coloured patchwork that shows the approximate geographic locations of the languages of Aboriginal Australia. The Wurundjeri people, for example, who spoke Woiwurrung, are the indigenous custodians of the land on which Melbourne is built. The research to produce this map was carried out by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 1994. The map itself reinterprets the political landscape of Australia. It could be seen to demonstrate the distinctiveness of contemporary Aboriginal Australian identities. Boyd’s inscription ‘Treasure Island,’ however, seems to imply this territorialisation has been, at the same time, open to exploitation. Tina Baum, curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the National Gallery of Australia, has associated the use of the Aboriginal Australia Map in Boyd’s painting with the pathos of land dispossession from Aboriginal people by European colonisation.5 Baum frames Boyd’s project as offering some parallel dialogues on the narratives of Australian history.

The idea of parallel dialogues could be a positive way of describing the debate about Australian history which has re-emerged recently. Early this year, while announcing a review of the Australian Curriculum on 7:30, Education Minister Christopher Pyne included the subject of history as a pillar of his education reform stating that he thought “the history curriculum should be the truth” . Within days, activist Gary Foley rebutted, “the only certainty in this new phase of the History Wars is that Aboriginal people and the truth are likely to be the losers.’6 Truth is like Capt. Cook’s axe (but I really don’t know if Capt. Cook even had an axe).

This debate, known colloquially as the History Wars, is also the subject of history. In his book titled Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Brian Attwood describes an episode from the transition between the Keating and Howard governments, when polemics over historical revisionism became a key issue for interpreting Australian identity. Both Pyne’s and Foley’s use of the word truth brings back memories. Here, truth (or perhaps historical veracity) has no inherently homogeneous nature. On one side, there is the doctrine that historians should strive to evaluate evidence in a impartial fashion in order to describe events that happened in the past. On the other, there is the argument that this goal (regardless of its value) is impossible to achieve. History, and its revision, is always mediated symbolically; there is always the sense that any truth about history is self-referential and performative. Attwood maintains that truth is related to identity: “What you believe is true depends on who you believe yourself to be.”7 Identity is like an ism—it allows slippery truths some coherency.

In First Australians, Marcia Langton tells the story of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. Her research draws on primary documents, referencing various journals by the colonists, including Watkin Tench, George Bouchier Worgan, Arthur Bowes Smyth and others. These accounts speak with a belief in their own impartiality. Yet the reader is asked to imagine this key narrative in Australian history from the alternate perspective of Bennelong of the Wangal clan—a man who was indigenous to roughly where Sydney is now. Langton guides the reader to identify with Bennelong in order to see the arrival of the First Fleet from an Aboriginal point of view.8 Here I recognise Baum’s idea of parallel dialogues.

Continuing this theme, Richard Lewer presents a curious take on how Australians identify with their history in Final School Map (2004). Lewer writes ‘I MUST LEARN TO LIKE MYSELF’ in black paint on a school-chart-style elevation map of Australia. I’d argue that the emphasis of this artwork is the identity of the ‘I’: is it the person who graffitied the map; the viewer of the artwork; any Australian? Lewer appear to imply that Australians need to be taught to like themself as citizen of Australia but the ‘I’ still refers to just about anybody. The issue of Australia’s past in the present necessitates tuition here. I associate Final School Map with the polemics over the Australian Curriculum: the way to improve our national self-likeability is through the work of reconciliation. This can happen at school. The point here is not to endeavour to impose one monolithic idea of truth, but to consider how the word in its slippery performative dimension might be retrospectively attached to some meaning.

Inspired by Boyd and Lewer’s paintings, I conclude by posing an answer to the question of how we might identify with ourselves in order to be likeable. Typical of maps, both these paintings activate the words that name places. These words function to periodise the geography. (Nicholson’s wall drawing is also a great example of this periodisation.) Boyd and Lewer’s paintings both activate these words to say something about the place other than its name. They also both pose a very similar question: how do we deal with Australian history? Returning to art being like Capt. Cook’s Axe, I would say that my previous discussion wasn’t entirely about semantics. Instead, it was about history—from the viewpoint of where my argument has been. The word’s associations are continuously renegotiated. This continuous renegotiation is dialectical. Through continuous renegotiation, the singular monologue named truth can be exchanged for the possibility of parallel dialogues.

  1. Cynthia Freeland cites Irwin in But is it Art?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 206. []
  2. Julieta Aranda; Brian Kuan Wood; Anton Vidokle eds., What is Contemporary Art?, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010. []
  3. Peter Osborne, “The Postconceptual Condition: Or, the Cultural Logic of High Capitalism Today,” Radical Philosophy, 184 Mar/Apr 2014, 19 – 27. []
  4. Dieter Roelstraete, “After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings,” e-flux journal, #6 05/2009 []
  5. Tina Baum’s discussion of Daniel Boyd’s artwork in Culture Warriors, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2007, 72. []
  6. Gary Foley, “Education Minister Pyne Opens a New Front in the History Wars,” Tracker, []
  7. Brian Attwood, Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005, 185. []
  8. See Rachel Perkins & Marcia Langton, First Australians, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing, 2008. []
Tim Alves is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Art and Design at Monash University, and a curator at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.