The political content of Alex Seton’s dramatic Adelaide Biennial work is obvious. 28 marble life jackets are strewn across the gallery floor, replicating those found washed up on the Cocos Islands in May last year and assumed (seemingly by all except the Australian government) to belong to asylum seekers lost at sea. These sculptures stand as reminder and memorial; a confrontation to our reluctance or inability to appropriately respond to the situation unfolding just off our shores.

Informing the political character of this work, however, is a subtle and haunting aesthetics; a materiality that draws us down a more speculative path. To encounter these objects in the evocatively lit gallery is not an immediately political encounter. Rather, it is a deeply personal encounter that evokes in us a moment of pause, of disruption, within which the political character of the works takes shape.

As the implication of the empty jackets dawns on us we grapple with it, trying to understand what it is we have stumbled upon and what it means. In many ways, the work’s refusal to prescribe these meanings is its strength. It is not what is in the room that leaves the most lasting impression, but what is absent – the bodies that should have occupied the jackets, their journeys and aspirations, and the ultimate risk they took in hoping for a better life – indeed life at all.

These few moments of aesthetic disequilibrium signify our collective inability or unwillingness to engage with the larger issue – the nature of asylum, the dangerous weighing of risk and reward those seeking it undertake. The nature of the work challenges us to seek a more cogent engagement.

It is immediately obvious Seton has invested significant attention-to-detail in the works, and in doing so has imbued them with an abject specificity. The jackets are undeniably beautiful objects, carved to the most minute details – the ripple of distressed lining and deceptive buoyancy, the sharpness of seams and crisp white nylon belts hanging limp through silver D-loops. In one exposed pocket, a few notes of Iranian currency are wedged, encountered only as one comes almost full circle around the installation; until this point we have been denied any such explicit reference to the events on the Cocos Islands. Through these details we are anchored in a specific time and place, while still retaining the eerie uncertainty with which we first experienced them.

To encounter the work is to rend one’s sense of calm, to plunge into a silence that unsettles our equilibrium. In this moment we are caught between the loveliness of the objects and the stories they stand for, the hopes and ultimate gamble of those to whom they once belonged. From the classically rendered sculptures, their craftsmanship and beauty, we glean these stories in parts building to a tragic whole. 

In a larger work depicting two conjoined jackets we see a mother and child perhaps, holding each other as they struggle against the tides. In the lone full sized jackets, flung open amidst the debris we see a father, forging a new life for his family waiting fearfully at home. The boats and their ocean roads, unlike our nation, do not discriminate in taking custody of human lives. 

Each of the 28 jackets has its story to tell. There are the large and the small, the paired and the isolated - each one full of individual drama; the life of someone who died, as the title of the work imparts, trying to have a life like ours.