Tom Nicholson has made a monument to the 20th century in the simple form of a list. Detailing, from 1901 to 2005, the formal treaties and agreements that have formed the world’s national borders, the list is a powerful reminder of the past century: the after-effects of the scramble for Africa, colonial territories in the Middle East and Asia, the shifts in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR. If, as Albert Einstein insisted, ‘the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion’, then Nicholson’s ‘Lines Towards Another Century’ was an appropriately phantasmagorical display. His performance, and the traces of it that made up the exhibition, had the ritualistic atmosphere of a séance, with the ghosts of Otto von Bismarck and David Livingstone hovering in the background of the event.
Begun in 2003, the list was the basis for a series of pseudo-political marches that have taken place in several locations in Australia. Carrying giant grey banners featuring a nondescript serene face, a small band of demonstrators follow an unlikely path tracing the shape of a chosen border. In the Western Australian town of Kellerberrin in 2004, marchers walked the same route at dawn and then again at dusk: the first time to commemorate the border agreed by Great Britain and Germany in 1911 to separate their colonial territories in central Africa, the second to commemorate the moment when, in 1962, the same line became the boundary between Uganda and Rwanda. Reading the list of dates itself aloud was part of Nicholson’s first collaboration with the composer Andrew Byrne in Melbourne in 2005, and for ‘Lines Towards …’ the two again collaborated to create an instruction-based score for a string quartet to accompany the reading in Bath.
Nicholson and Byrne’s latest work occupied a rectangular room at the top of Bath’s Holburne Museum, a Georgian building that was once the hotel centrepiece of one of the city’s pleasure gardens. A scattering of speakers, televisions (all facing in one direction) and projection screens (all facing a different one) separated each of the musicians and the lone reader, who began calmly: ‘23 January 1901, protocol fixing the frontier between French and Portuguese possessions in the Congo …’. The incantation of the list, the central logos of the piece, seemed to be a force able to summon visions – faces speaking mutely into microphones filled the TVs – but was soon lost under a growing chorus of pre-recorded voices all reciting parallel, overlapping dates and countries, mixing with the swelling, aleatory sounds of the quartet. At the swirling climax theprojectors came to life, each of the four screens featuring digital and Super-8 footage of the jaunty marchers.
As may be evident from the lengthy explanation, ‘Lines Towards …’ revelled in exploiting the tensions of documentation, hovering between personal experience and historical fact, between the present and the mute, distancing past. Taking as its starting-point the recounting of dates of marginal political events, and drawing heavily on previous incarnations of the list, the show relied in part on a knowledge of each element’s background, leaving it with an emotionally detached demeanour. The banner marchers emerging from the apex of this dirge, then, made for confusing offspring; the marches in themselves are a form of collage, imposing the shape of an imaginary political line onto a different location to emphasize its own arbitrary placement. Nicholson’s images of the marches, however, don’t carry any of the potent – and format-aware – ironic nostalgia found, for example, in Josephine Meckseper’s short Super-8 film of anti-war protests in 2005 (March on Washington to End the War on Iraq 9/24/05). In this context the deliberately evasive sentiments that brought together his demonstrators here appeared to be more the promotion of a bland, globalized identity.
The performance’s crescendo, though, also brought about changes that emphasized more positive effects in the land of the living. In contrast to, or perhaps even in sympathy with, the interminably forward-marching bodies on the screens, the audience began to circulate. Denied any comprehensive perspective on each layer of the work, they could not retain an immobile gallery stance for long enough to catch the different notes, country names and faces that floated by. Their motion provided a pale echo of the movements, shifts and disruptions instigated by the boundaries formed on each date. This also broke the audience free from the role of witness to an unchangeable past, able to make their own personal narrative of a century that was so distended and overwhelming as to be impossible to comprehend fully. Byrne and Nicholson’s poignant ritual managed to conjure up a suitably ominous portrait of the previous century, although it did retain one central illusion, providing us with the false comfort that the list might, at some point, end.
Published in Frieze, Issue 118, October 2008.
A shorter review by Chris Fite-Wassilak was also published in Art & Australia, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 2008.