Subject: NZ Herald: Books fiery victims of war and ignorance

New Zealand Herald

September 27, 2007

Books fiery victims of war and ignorance

Visual Arts: A campaign to collect books for East Timor influences an activist. Adam Gifford reports

When the Indonesian Army left East Timor after its people voted for independence, it burned every book it could find. Not just the books in public and university libraries but the bookshelves of private individuals were dragged on to the street and burned.

As an activist who had joined an East Timor solidarity group while studying at the Drawing College of Arts in Melbourne, Tom Nicholson was asked by friends in Dili for books in English to replace those lost.

Working from their lists, he launched a private aid campaign, soliciting language primers, dictionaries, books on veterinary medicine, literature, politics, arts. As an artist concerned with politics and social processes, he also looked for a way to make art out of his efforts

"From the beginning, it was conceived to have a parallel function,'' he says. "The traces which that process [of collecting books] generated would become an image of a set of histories: the history of resistance in East Timor, the history of the relationship between Australia and East Timor, and also a meditation on what it was to begin again.

"The process of beginning a library again was in some ways symptomatic of the process of beginning a state again.''

Two linked works came out of it.

Photographs which Nicholson took in Dili in 1999 of a burnt-out bureaucratic library, the metal rings of lever- arch files lying in twisted piles on concrete shelves, have been blown up into billboards across the road from Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts.

Next door, at the Pakuranga Library, a table display contains copies of an artist's book Nicholson made of photographs of 130 title pages from among the 5000 books he sent off to Dili.

This tale of an imagined library with its narrative within a narrative sounds like a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and two Borges titles, A Universal History of Infamy and The Book of Imaginary Beings, did make the cut.

"The grip that literature has on reality and fantasy is in that project as well,'' Nicholson says.

The book opens with Ernest Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and ranges widely, if sometimes showing the tilt that might be expected of gleanings from the shelves of Melbourne University-educated leftists - Orwell, Kafka, Descartes, Alice in Wonderland, Ballard, Beckett, Marx and Lenin, and two copies of Huxley's Brave New World.

While the older generation of Timorese may have spoken Portuguese, those schooled since 1975 speak their own Tetum tongue, Indonesian, and what English they can learn. Nicholson said he was comfortable sending English language books because they were requested.

Getting East Timor into the public consciousness has been a challenge for solidarity activists in Australian and New Zealand for more than 30 years, as they have tried to challenge the acquiescence of their governments towards the Indonesian state or Army's actions.

Some of the most sophisticated efforts have been the advertisements funded by West Australian businessman Ian Melrose, challenging the Australian Government's grab of oil and gas in the Timor Strait.

But Nicholson argues his books and billboards don't fall into the category of propaganda, where the work is subsumed for a political purpose.

"Ads have to be in tune and on time. Their only function is to achieve a specific thing at a specific moment.

"Art is interesting in that in some way it is out of time. There is a delay between an event being processed into an interesting artwork, so there is always the sense artwork appears out of time, and that is where the purpose and value lies because it is a disruption, whereas, if an ad appears out of time, it has no function.''

While some artworks, like Picasso's Guernica or Christo's Wrapping of the Reichstag, may have had a political effect in real time, Nicholson sees Goya's Disasters of War series as emblematic of political art.

"It is one of the greatest meditations of what one sees in your own time and the horrors of it, but it wasn't published until 30 years after the event, so the power of the work is its out-of-timeness. It is not instantaneous, it's a processing of it. That's why art is so much connected to memory.

"That's a critical way art somehow stands against war because it stands against that all-destructive mode of war. It's an attempt to retrieve something out of human experience at a time almost everything is destroyed.''

He says every time After Action for Another Library is shown, it takes on different resonances depending on what is happening in Timor-Leste.

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