CM: This will be the third manifestation of After action for another library. It was first exhibited in 2003 as a response to the systematic destruction of books, in public libraries but also private collections following the UN-sponsored ballot in East Timor in August 1999. As a member of a solidarity group in Melbourne you collected and shipped 3,000 books that the East Timor Student Solidarity Council in Dili had requested. The title pages of the books were photographed which you then showed in an exhibition Feedback organized by Charlotte Day at Monash University in 2003. How is the new work in the Biennale of Sydney different from the earlier work and do you consider that it has now become a monument rather than a memorial to that action? How would you distinguish between the two?
TN: I think I always conceived the action as a memorial or at least an attempt to picture a particular history of suffering and resistance. I began the project in direct response to the events in East Timor, which was the year after I finished art school. I was part of a solidarity student group in Melbourne called University Students for East Timor (USET), which worked with the clandestine pro-independence student movement in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation, in particular with the East Timor Student Solidarity Council (ETSSC).
At that time, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah had been very influential, as well as Susan Sontag’s writing about photography, and watching the final stages of the war in ex-Yugoslavia unfold in the media. So the work evolved alongside particular questions around how it is possible to picture certain experiences.
The manifestation in Sydney is a new form of the work. At Monash University in 2003, I exhibited a huge grid of 3,000 photographs of title pages, each at the standard size of a family photograph, 10 x 15cm. It created a field, and a sense of the process of accumulation. I was also given the chance to produce an artist book of After action for another library, and therefore to return the residues of the project into the form of the book. Ordering the title pages into doubles seemed to produce a different logic of reading. I was keen to re-elaborate this logic in the piece for the Sydney Biennale, introducing a different formal structure. There are fewer photographs of the title pages but they have been ordered into doubles, rather than an undifferentiated grid and printed much larger, at 60 x 90cm.
The question of the work becoming monumental is a vexed question. It is now more monumental in scale, though the work evolved in opposition to the monument, an attempt to create a memorial that was anti-monumental in character. The conventional monument assumes its authority through the appearance of weight and permanence, and in some way being the culmination of an urban space. The process of collecting books and shipping them to Dili occurred over 2 years: it was highly dispersed in temporal and physical terms. The traces always worked through a principle of compactness, compressing a highly dispersed action into a small physical space. The size of the whole work in Sydney has perhaps given it back over to the scale of the monument. The critical distinction in relation to a conventional monument is that the scale of After action for another library is a function of its indexicality. This is a different relationship to the body’s agency, and to time.
CM: The problematic surrounding the trace is precisely its divided nature, that it is both a remainder or residue of the past but, at the same time, constitutes that which has survived and therefore as a something that goes forward in time and constitutes the new. This movement creates the possibility of openness towards the future, a position that refuses the fixity we associate with melancholy. From this perspective, your project may be better defined as an anti-monument insofar as it resists a monumentalization of history seeking rather what Nietzsche defines as a critical history. This critical history reintroduces temporality opening what has been called a breach in history. This breach is a rupture of evidence that leaves only erasure. It marks a disruptive moment and therefore a temporality in which the force and potential for change can be seized. Is this a way we may identify what you refer to as action and hence a correspondence between revolutionary action and avant-garde or radical artistic practice?
TN: The traces of the project have always been addressed to that problem of reading. Partly this is a problem around the trace, around the relationship between a very extended series of actions in real time, and the aftermath of those actions. In a limited sense, After action for another library memorializes a set of actions. Its form evolved through addressing that problem, trying to make the work function as a proposition, as a prospective form, as well as a retrospective one.
CM: You write of a gulf that existed between Melbourne and Dili which the work addressed. Do you simply mean the impossibility of ever adequately addressing the destruction of a culture through forms of representation and, if so does the memorial itself become an object that mourns this failure as much as the loss that occurred within East Timor? Is this what you mean by gulf and does the action of what you might call indexical reading provide for you an alternative theorization to representation? Could you explain?
TN: That gulf was the context for the work. The piece evolved through working with USET, trying to deal with that problem of how one acts upon a situation that is politically critical but physically remote. That problem has many dimensions, logistical, conceptual, political, strategic. And it is a problem common to many forms of activism and particular to acts of solidarity, especially from the position of a relatively prosperous Western country. What is central to that problem is picturing, the way we imagine the experiences of others remote from our own. Sontag’s writing on this has shaped my thinking a lot, in On photography, and more recently Regarding the pain of others. After action for another library was a response to that problem, in a fairly iconoclastic fashion. There is an implicit assertion about the limitations of images in that work. And, I do think the inadequacy of the work is built into it, or at least a sense in which one never recovers that past. That is something built into the difficulty, the labouring, and the extended duration of describing by words, and it is part of what is extraordinary about Shoah. The accumulative force of words functions differently to the speed and ease of conventional press photography, the way we normally encounter that gulf, between here and there.
In an indirect sense, I hope the work also functions as a memorial to something much broader, the recent history of East Timor, or perhaps more specifically the history of the relationship between East Timor and Australia. Each photograph of a title page has this double relationship, both factually (and indexically) to a process of collecting and shipping books, but also (through links between ideas and narratives) to the history in which the action is inserted. This double relationship becomes a logic of reading, or I hope it does, where the meanings of title pages shift and prolong the act of reading.
How reading takes place is something that has shaped our conversation, in the lead up to the Biennale, about the form of the room constructed for After action for another library at Pier 2/3. I have always had in mind the way any book is encountered, its prolonged duration, and the way we can only see one small part of a book at any one time. This is part of the connection between the form of the book and memory. Reading a book seems to involve the storage of time in some way. The room at the Pier was conceived as an echo of that logic: the work is nowhere to be encountered as one thing, except in memory. I also had in mind the strange shape of the chapel with that Piero fresco cycle, the Legend of the True Cross, in Arezzo. There is a paradoxical connection – thinking of the relationship between the body and reading – between the unusual height of that series of pictures, and the sequential encounter, at close quarters, involved in reading a book.
CM: You mention the film Shoah by Claude Lanzmann who in my view implicitly criticises what the French historian Pierre Nora defined as the lieux de memoire orplace of memory. Commenting on Shoah, Lanzmann said:
I began with the impossibility of recounting this story. I put this impossibility at the beginning. What there is at the beginning of this film is on the one hand the disappearance of traces: there is no longer anything. There is nothing, and I had to make a film starting with this nothing.
As Lanzmann's remarks suggest, there is and was a story, an experience we may add; but not only does nothing remain but everything was obliterated. My concern would then be that to create any form of monument or even memorial would stand against the idea that the event was one of obliteration where if there were traces they would be of that erasure and therefore without any material imprint. This is why Lanzmann’s film is about the present. Do you agree this position and if so, how do you see your work being about the present?
TN: That’s part of the double character of the trace. It’s also amplified by the form of the title page, which for me holds a related double character. The presence of the title page is often deathly, through a resemblance to the headstone and its typography. But the title page is emblematic of the potential of the book, something I became conscious of during the process of making judgments about whether a donation should be discarded or shipped to Dili. Each book (or at least any interesting book) is a transformation – a renewal of understanding – waiting to unfold. This character of the book – its enormous potential, contained in such a physically compact object – came to be connected in my thinking to Hannah Arendt’s assertion, in The Human Condition, that although all humans must die, it is the human capacity to begin again which is our critical shared characteristic.
CM: What appears striking here is your implicit engagement with the concept of the archive as not only the repository of the book and therefore a historical record but equally as a custodian of that history. It therefore falls on the side of a monumentalizing history. This is the challenge of the archival and precisely an important issue of contestation which is explored in the artists I have chosen for the Biennale. This is the case in the work of artists from Palestine, Lebanon and India for example, where a breach in history has occurred and their practice engages with the idea of the rupture in evidence. This kind of practice is what I have defined elsewhere as counter-archival. In the context of the Biennale concept, ‘Zones of Contact’, this constitutes exposing the breach, or the misencounter suppressed by the monumentalizing force of the historical archive. Would you agree that this is the importance again in stressing the concept of action as distinct from representation?
TN: Living in Berlin during 2001 and 2002 I became very conscious of that breach, in historical terms but also in physical terms. I found it striking the way that the anarchist Left in Berlin engages that physical environment: a kind of contest between the presence of that ruinous physical environment and a will to self-organisation and invention.
CM: Finally, I would like to mention that in the Biennale manifestation of the work you have introduced photographs of the burnt-out library in Dili on the outside wall of your enclosure in which one finds the title pages. How do you reconcile the co-existence of what appears as an iconic representation to that of the indexical as a way to read the event as erasure?
TN: I have never shown the small photographs of the burnt-out library together with the installation partially because I have never been able to reconcile the two sets of things into one form. The room built for the work at Pier 2/3 seemed to allow the two to be reconciled, with one set of things occupying the inside, the other the outside. It was a way to put two kinds of memory systems in relation to one another, to play out the culturally deep-seated conflict between the image and the word, their respective claims on memory. The photos were added perhaps with East Timor itself in my mind: one of the things that is interesting in East Timor is the intense iconophilia, and the role of photography in memorialisation. Almost every grave at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili includes a small photograph encased in those very Portuguese gravestones.
There are also important connections, not only contradictions, between those photographs outside the room and the mass of title pages inside. There is a related confusion of scale in both, between the scale of architecture and that of the book. More importantly, the images I introduce are focused on residues: the vestiges of burnt books still sitting on the shelves, and the scorch marks left above by each burnt book, with its echo of a photographic process.
1. Claude Lanzmann, “Le Lieu et la Parole” in Au Sujet de Shoah: le Film de Claude Lanzmann, ed. Michel Deguy (Paris: Belin, 1990) 295.
Dr Charles Merewether is the Artistic Director and Curator of the 2006 Biennale of Sydney.
Tom Nicholson is an artist who lives in Melbourne.