Reeling from the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford hearings at the end of September 2018, I was not surprised to find that “Justice” was the most looked up word in the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary in 2018. It is a word that covers so much. It is a technical and legal term as well as carrying lofty and philosophical meanings. In the past year we have thought about racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice and I keep thinking about gender justice. While I know personally and professionally that the world is not a fair and just place, I long for it to be that.
In November I found myself on beautiful Bribie Island in Queensland, Australia on a home exchange. I was sharing my home with “the” ecological activists of Bribie island. The home itself is a testament to ecological justice. Its water is recycled rain water and the heat is solar and the air-conditioning provided by shade trees and wind. The family save the turtles. This retreat for me was an inspiring perspective after months of CNN and Trump America. Hopefully this photo will transport you to a peaceful reflective place.
Before I went to Australia I found the book Destination Art: 500 Artworks worth the Trip. Of course I checked out Australia and found that the new Supreme Court in Brisbane had an art installation that was designated worth the trip. I was primed for a day in Brisbane.
As I entered the Plaza I was greeted by Thousands of Eyes, the art installation created by Yayoi Kusama.
These large childlike eyes were everywhere. I was surrounded by eyes. There are 90 metres of eyes. Sitting in their midst I began to feel accountable. Then I felt massively accountable. I did not even notice the court buildings. I gave myself the time to just absorb what stood out for me. I began to question “Was I doing enough with my life?” Was I attentive enough to those around me who need to be seen.? After awhile I thought about being the eyes looking for justice and mercy. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of us. Then I began to look where the eyes were looking. First I noticed that they looked out upon a stunning green space winding throughout the city, like a river. It could be an image for The New Green Deal. Maybe the artificial poinsettia is realistic touch?
It was more than an hour before I thought to find the Supreme Court building itself.
It took awhile to see that it was completely clad in glass. Any Supreme Court Justice striding its halls or any clerk for that matter had to come to terms with the fact that they were living in a glass house and being watched constantly. Transparency was a structural reality. The eyes of those seeking justice were right there and it seems to me, pleading with a childlike candour. Those who meted out justice were supervised constantly. I looked more closely and saw
that the eyes, by reflection, get inside the building everywhere. The glass brings what is outside, in. There can be no escape to an ivory tower of justice. I thought about our own Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley MacLauglin who retired in 2018. Continually she reminds us that justice must be accessible to all equally and yet, it is not. When the average lawyer’s fee in Canada is $338.00 an hour and a two to three day civil trial cost upwards of $60,000 it means that a lot of pleading eyes do not get inside. No place is this more critical than in the area of family law. There may rest the reason that the artist gives us eyes that a child would draw. There are many who think that children are the most short changed by our justice system.
In 2012 when this installation was unveiled there was widespread criticism led by Justice Minister Jarrod Bleijie. For him the installation was an “Eyesore” that cost one million Australian dollars. The conrtoversy carries on. More than one Australian found my pilgrimage to the site very strange indeed. I was the soul tourist exploring the site on a bright sunny Saturday.
Imagine how I felt to discover that the artist, Yayoi Kusama, is an octogenarian and further that she is a psychiatric patient at a Tokyo hospital and has been for 36 years. There she painted each eye in black ink before they were enamelled and mounted. I imagined making eye after eye and what that would mean. When we truly see, empathy is born. Surely she was trying to insure deep connection between those needing justice and those administering justice. I thought about how she knows what it is like to want to be seen.
In my field there is so little justice for the mentally ill. Slowly we are seeing and as a result accessibility of health care is being addressed. As I got to know her story the eyes took on yet more depth.
There is a plaque on the installation and here is how it reads
“In a time when public accountability is of the utmost importance, Kusama’s eyes not only look back at you, they surround the courts with looking.
“Metaphorically, the process of justice is made transparent through the building’s glass façade to the unblinking eyes forever watching. The universality of Kusama’s graphic language is as at home in the context of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as it is in contemporary art.
“It is suggestive not only of a watchful public but also omnipotence, enlightenment and inspiration.
“While all senses are integral Kusama reminds us that it is through the experience of seeing another that our empathy for humanity is instigated and negotiated.”
In Australia, at the end of January 2019, the Victoria Prize for Literature has been awarded to Behrouz Bouchani, a Kurdish refugee, detained for more than five years in prison like conditions, by Australia on Manus Island PNG. He is not free to accept the $100,000 prize money in person. He has written No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison in Farsi on a cellphone and sent to a translator in short sections by What’s Ap. Let’s give a shout out for the Victoria Literary Awards committee! But as Bouchani texted in his acceptance, there are so many eyes in need of justice. Let’s buy his book and “see” Bouchani. It is a start.
In Canada at this very moment, February 2019, our government is deeply challenged by an issue of justice. Our former attorney general, an Indigenous woman, just resigned from the cabinet. Transparency is blocked by attorney client privilege. She must not speak. Canadians are deeply upset. Our Prime Minister who is not silenced uses his words and sounds like a betrayer of his feminist principles as he more than hints at blaming her. Racial and gender justice issues are exposed. Strong and angry eyes are turned on the Prime Minister’s Office. We await accountability. We long for the transparency and dialogue that Kusama is asking us to experience.
Kasuma called her work Eyes Singing Out. That is how I experienced her art form. . Surely this is a visual image worth attaching to Justice for the year 2019. It signals a better future.