THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE 2023
The truth shall make you free was originally installed and performed in Port Arthur’s Separate Prison Chapel for the 2007 Ten Days on the Island Festival. Every day, over ten days, I sat at the lead table that features in the Twist exhibition, and repeatedly wrote the words The truth shall make you free with dipping pen and ink over the pages of a 1964 edition of Quintus Servinton, Australia’s first novel. Published in Hobart in 1831, Quintus was written by Henry Savery, a convicted criminal who died at Port Arthur and is buried in an unmarked grave on the Isle of the Dead. Savery was an enigmatic man, his life characterised by dramatic career successes and failures, relationship difficulties and psychological trauma that led to three suicide attempts.
As I sat and wrote over the largely autobiographical account of a man who falls from grace, I was attempting, through ritual and repetition, to symbolically release him from the bindings of his tragic past. Every time I covered a page with the phrase The truth shall make you free, a Biblical quote from John (8:22), I tore it from the book and dropped it to the floor. My inky scribbles obscured Savery’s story, but at the same time reinforced the liberating power of disclosure. I was using the handwritten word to both conceal and reveal and I was doing this while sitting at a lead table that infers the tremendous weight of history. The task I had set myself may seem futile because the past cannot be changed, however, it is open to continual reinterpretation and re-narration, and therefore to transformation.
Savery was a well-educated Englishman, a successful businessman who fell from grace by forging bills of exchange when he ran into financial difficulty. The sentence was death, but because Savery was so well-connected, the judge commuted this to transportation to Van Diemen's land. Ironically, when he arrived in Hobart Town, Savery was set to work in the Treasury. He worked hard, was popular, and as well as writing his novel, published Australia’s first book of short stories under the pseudonym Simon Stukeley. Savery earned a ticket of leave and sent for his wife and son in the hope of starting a new life with his family in Tasmania. But after his wife rejected him and returned to England, and after he once again forged bills of exchange, he was sent to Port Arthur, where he spent the last eighteen months of his life. The exact nature of Savery’s death is unclear, but it may have been the result of complications from a suicide attempt, a stroke or an infection. Our little-known first novelist, was buried alongside other criminals without acknowledgement on a tiny island that was part of this country’s southernmost penal settlement.
As part of the Twist program, I repeated the performance I first carried out in the Separate Prison Chapel. I thought about Savery and the power of the word – and of truth - to conceal, reveal and transform.
Lead, table, lead stool, glass, steel, lead lettering, ink, 1962 edition of Henry Savery's Quintus Servinton.
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
TWIST exhibition, Argyle Galleries
9 June - 22 October 2023
Pop-up writing performances during September and October to accompany art work included in TWIST.
Image credits: Mary Knights and Carmel.