December 2011 – January 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Island rising

By Fiona McGregor
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour

Is there any place more typical of Sydney’s protean nature than Cockatoo Island? A decade ago, it was a wasteland. One hundred and fifty years of industry had layered it with a toxic tiramisu of asbestos, cadmium, lead and more. The island had also been a convict gaol. Both endeavours had hacked away its bluffs of Hawkesbury sandstone; the angophoras that housed its original cockatoos were long chopped down. Who could have foreseen that it would become one of Sydney’s favourite picnic spots and cultural hubs?

The 1980s handover of Australian Defence Force lands to Sydney Harbour National Park had been anticipated with great excitement. The public would finally access land in the middle of the harbour, at places such as Middle Head and Cockatoo. But the temptation of the developer dollar intervened. The Hawke government decided the ADF should pay for its relocation by selling land, even if it meant tweaking the agreement. Bob Hawke’s attempted sale ended in a mire of litigation and clean-up costs. Further north, then Defence Minister Kim Beazley’s attempted sale of an angophora forest at Balmoral was stymied by well-heeled and well-connected locals.

The Howard government bravely persisted with this sale of Commonwealth lands. Yet Cockatoo Island, like HMAS Platypus, was so sullied, and places such as Woolwich so fiercely defended that John Howard eventually ceded, creating the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to manage key sites around the foreshore. Yet Howard’s stipulation that Harbour Trust lands pay for themselves alarmed many, even with the promise that none would be sold. How could parklands pay for themselves?

Ferrying out to the island lifts the spirits immediately. The water is mesmerising. The harbour is luminescent. Once diesel and coal dust were commonplace; now, even close to jetties, the water is clear. There are oysters everywhere. Sydney Harbour was initially famous for its oysters (and sharks) but for most of its post-settlement life was referred to as a ‘port’ because its working existence was what mattered. All that work, from fishing to factories, poisoned it. Now the oysters are stacked on top of one another, thick as Hong Kong housing. And we all knew the sharks were a good sign when they returned a few years ago, despite their danger.

It took $200 million in funding and years of rehabilitation to get Cockatoo Island ready to earn its keep. Geoff Bailey, CEO of the Harbour Trust, considers the self-funding model a blessing and a curse. The pressure to earn never ceases, but independence is good: “We had about 400 empty buildings when we started. We could have bulldozed a lot, created parkland, but we saw them as an opportunity to engage the community in a variety of ways.”

A flashpoint in Cockatoo Island’s renaissance was the eponymous music festival in 2005 that attracted thousands and went over three days. “That festival took ten years off my life,” Bailey laughs. “But it taught us a lot about how we could use the spaces.”

As a rock’n’roll stadium, Turbine Hall would be hard to surpass. Most of us know it as a vast, light-filled space, criss-crossed with girders. Or as an art gallery for the Biennale of Sydney, filled in 2010 with Cai Guo-Qiang’s cascade of cars. There would still be men alive who operated the large machinery for which the hall was originally built.

Bailey’s aim to weave Cockatoo Island into the cultural life of the city has meant constant experimentation. He stresses a broad definition of culture, not the European model that tends to be “internalised, museum-based, made for terrible weather”, but rather a culture that knows its strengths are in its topography, its very land.

The music festival’s experiment to offer camping to punters was so successful it became a central feature, now bringing in much revenue. There is also ‘glamping’ – the luxurious version – with tents and bedding provided. Barbecue facilities are spacious yet protected. There are gourmet catering packs and houses on the hill for top-notch renters.

The decision to rehabilitate minimally has been a masterstroke in a city otherwise renovated to death. Cockatoo’s combination of natural beauty and raw history offers a richer experience than museums or parklands can alone. So it was disappointing to find the industrial sector, including the Turbine Hall and other key sites, cordoned off during my visit in September. Red Bull was constructing an arena for their X-Fighters freestyle motorcross championships – more than 90% of ticketholders to the championships had previously never heard of the island. Still, I was able to wander unsurveilled, after-hours, through the barracks on the hill. This is the freedom Cockatoo is prized for.

Artists the world over have entered the dead ends of towns and breathed life into them. The complexity and transitional nature of Cockatoo Island’s many sites are ideal for this. Forgotten rooms are opened; redundant features, called into conversation with contemporary minds, speak their history directly.

The 2008 Biennale of Sydney was another flashpoint. Until then receiving 8000 visitors per year, the island received this many in just three weeks. It was inspiring to see the event become a family attraction yet still allow risks; the tyranny of occupational health and safety regulations was somehow overcome. Mike Parr’s work in the former sailors’ quarters was a journey into the heart of Australia’s darkest politics, through the pain of the artist’s body and its rank expulsions. Vernon Ah Kee’s claiming of a disused toilet block as a readymade was a trenchant quip about modern art and colonisation.

“Hopefully, we’re not going to change much,” says Bailey. “We know we’ve got something special here. Rustbucket-chic. Of course you’ve got to provide toilets that flush, not expose people to contaminated material and make sure the telephone works, but tidying up things too much will destroy them.”

In the period of Cockatoo Island’s rebirth, notions of heritage have changed. As Bailey alludes, ‘gritty and industrial’ has gone from pejorative to trendy copy. Likewise ‘convict stain’ is now ‘convict chic’. When archaeologists uncovered solitary confinement cells from convict days, hidden in the foundations of the military officers’ quarters, Cockatoo Island received the tremendous boost of a UNESCO World Heritage listing. 

To be an island, as we Australians know, is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Bailey says the Harbour Trust is still looking for partnerships. Permanent leases for businesses such as bars and casinos have been difficult to attain due to transport restrictions. There are no permanent mooring spots.

This summer sees the return of Island Bar. Outpost Project, a street art exhibition featuring the work of graffiti artist Banksy, opened in November. Cockatoo Island Film Festival has taken up offices to prepare its debut in the final quarter of 2012. Camping berths on New Year’s Eve were so popular they had to be sold by ballot.

“Cockatoo Island used to be the site that kept me awake at night,” says Bailey. “I slept with my fingers and toes crossed, hoping nothing bad would happen. But so far, so good.”

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

Cover: December 2011 - January 2012
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