In the decade since I first wrote about Melbourne artist Tom Nicholson his work has been exhibited in Europe, the United States, Chile, Palestine and China, often in major exhibitions, and he has intensified his observation of histories local and global. Bearing in mind the subjects of his early work – the portrait image in a mediatised, transnational culture, the act of political demonstration, and the historical document – the widespread interest in his work could seem inevitable; certainly, since the GFC, curators in Europe have been more concerned with economics and politics. In Australia Nicholson’s work remains exceptional in its attention to the relation between methods of political and historical representation and the notion of the social self.
The first manifestation of these investigations was to be found in his banner portraits, in the various iterations of the banner-marching project. Then there were those portrait flags which flew atop Trades Hall in inner-city Melbourne. In parallel with a focus on the dynamic between the individual and his or her politics, Nicholson’s early work also indicated a willingness to be engaged, to call into question actual politics and histories.
Indicative of this motivation, After Action For Another Library (1999) was in response to the Indonesian military’s ransacking and razing of much of East Timor following the population’s vote in favour of independence. For this project, Nicholson presented photographs of the title pages of the 5,000 books that had been collected as donations in Melbourne – books intended to replace those lost in the wilful destruction of Timor’s libraries. A perusal of the artist book containing a selection of the images reveals, among the many left-orientated texts, the inclusion of volumes such as Descartes: Philosophical Writings and Mao Tse-tung: An Anthology of His Writings. Even in the corrective of donation there may be an unintended imperialism.
One of the first presentations of After Action For Another Library was at the library of the law faculty of Berlin’s Humboldt University, a building overlooking Bebelplatz, where in 1933 the Nazis’ infamous book-burning took place. Configurations of this work have been shown in the 15th Biennale of Sydney, in the exhibitions Systems Error: War is the Force that Gives us Meaning in Sienna, Italy, The Art of War at the CEPA, in upstate New York, and in To the Arts, Citizen! (2010), curated by Óscar Faria and João Fernandes, at the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal, where it accompanied Indefinite Distribution, a project commissioned for this exhibition. The Porto version of After Action ... consisted of a stack of 4,000 copies of Nicholson’s artist book which could be taken away by members of the audience in exchange for a Portuguese-language book which would eventually join the other English language books gathered a decade before in the collection of the nascent Library of the University of East Timor in Dili.
Just as this After Action ... was intended to achieve a linguistic symmetry, counterbalancing the global language of the English books with those of Portuguese, Timor’s colonial language, the new work accompanying it differently articulated the precariousness of East Timor within a deeper, modern geopolitical context, prompting reflection on the overlapping histories of Timor, Portugal, Australia and imperial Japan.
In keeping with much of Nicholson’s practice, Indefinite Distribution – while presented as a configuration of video, text and wall-drawing – represented, in his words, “traces of a public action on 15 November 2010 with two aeroplanes and two aeroplane texts, and the distribution of 30,000 leaflets by 60 volunteer participants in and around the centre of Porto". The leaflets were facsimiles of an Australian wartime pamphlet as key to the entire project, the pamphlet’s photograph was the subject of the large wall-drawing. Every aspect of the project was orientated by this pamphlet that had been dropped over Timor in 1944, when the principally Australian Allied Sparrow Force, who had been defending the island against the invading Japanese, was forced to withdraw. Nicholson has remarked, during a public conversation at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in 2013, part of In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art, an exhibition I curated, that this pamphlet, with its title which reads – in Portuguese – “Your Friends will not Forget You", was well-known among activists of the Free East Timor Movement in the 1980s and 1990s; its bitter irony then still painful, considering Australia’s tacit approval of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and the subsequent 25-year low-intensity war.
For the citizens of Porto, witnessing Nicholson’s contribution to the exhibition coinciding with the hundred-year anniversary of the establishment of the Portuguese Republic, either receiving one of these facsimile pamphlets in hand or looking up to see the two aeroplanes flying by, one bearing the first, and the other the last, lines of the document’s text, must have been an eerie, temporally dislocating experience. Nicholson’s evocation of belatedness, both in these actions being long after the end of the Second World War and ten years after the emancipation of East Timor, is the suggestion that there might be a parallel, phantasmal history, a history in which the Australian promise to not forget the Timorese could have been kept – an idealistic history.
Nicholson’s paralleling of Australia’s twice betrayal of the Timorese people with the singular betrayal of Portuguese inaction while the Japanese were invading the island is clearly a provocation. Considering that, as estimated, during the conflict and after the departure of the Allies, there were only 450 Allied casualties, while there were at least 40,000 Timorese and Portuguese deaths. In response to Nicholson’s suggestion, it could be objected that the invasion of Timor by Japan, the later invasion by Indonesia, as well as Australia’s abandonment of the island on both occasions, were distinct, unrelated events; but, even so, these events are fraught with geopolitical implications.
Nicholson’s work, in drawing this parallel, is not aiming to rewrite that moment in history; but, rather, it seeks to produce a strange ambiguity, an aporia, in which historical and geopolitical presumptions may be rethought. Instead of being seen as a work of purely historical critique, Indefinite distribution queries the material that circulates as evidence of the action (or otherwise) of politics, such material typically being the basis for later, historical analysis. The banners trailing the two aeroplanes, the 30,000 pamphlets, the wall-drawing like a gigantic, haunting team-photograph of the Allied force with the Timorese troops, the framed texts which contain the false promise to return in Portuguese, English, Tetum and Japanese, and the high-definition photographs of the volunteers handing out the leaflets in the Portuguese streets, each in their own way deconstruct the public actions of Australian propaganda.
When Nicholson installed the work as part of In Confidence I was impressed by how elusive the political significance of the work became in viewing it. Nicholson’s attention to the material transactions in (to use his term) the “action” caused the viewer to be aware of the ambiguity of the politicised moment, and its historicity. In Indefinite distribution, in keeping with the logic of Nicholson’s other work, the actions are politicised and anachronistic. As anyone who has taken part in demonstrations knows, the significance of a protest is seldom in the moment; but, rather, in its delayed effect.
Not being a re-enactment as a form of mere current affairs, these actions, whether in Santiago, Berlin or rural Australia, which constitute Nicholson’s work, are always more than what he presents as their traces in galleries. The actions are a kind of un-acting, as opposed to an enacting. They are an undoing of the singularity of events to enable the reinterpretation of their nature as historical facts. Their effect is well encapsulated by Jacques Rancière’s concept of “dissensus”, which he described as “an organisation of the sensible where there is neither a reality concealed behind appearances nor a single regime of presentation and interpretation of the given imposing its obviousness on all ... This is what a process of political subjectification consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open under the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the visible.” 
Unlike most of his peers, Nicholson’s work, well exemplified by After Action ... and Indefinite Distribution, attends to the methods of grassroots politics – marches, banners, pamphlets and documents – within the questionable, global circulation of art. Hence, his regular insistence on an ethical exchange, also in the display, by providing his audience with free traces of the works in the form of his artist-books, booklets or posters, even if, on occasion, they are required to provide a possession of their own – notably, a book – in exchange. In this, and in the aesthetic of presentation of the evidence of his actions in galleries, Nicholson seems less to be following Western art historical examples than those of its vast, largely unappreciated alternative, namely, of art produced in what was called “the Eastern Bloc”.
Seldom directly addressing the subject of war, yet always addressing its effects, Nicolson’s work is evocative, in ambition, method and presentation, of the practice of artists like Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (Soviet Union), or of the collectives Irwin/NSK (Slovenia) and subREAL (Romania). Inevitably, the question that must arise from acknowledging this ‘socialised aesthetic’ in the work is the extent to which the Cold War’s effect on past international artistic production, its division between a privitising art market in the West and a socialised, variously politicised set of practices in the East, might activate an articulation of our present political circumstances, by providing the current, younger generation of Australian artists with a vocabulary for effective critique.
When, in discussions with a number of people during the preparation of my exhibition, which included Nicholson’s Indefinite distribution, I brought up its implications, it was clear that the political nature of the work, even though it was referring to events more than half a century ago, was capable of generating disquiet. Yet, it seemed that few in the audience had a clear understanding of the geopolitical dilemmas East Timor presented to Australia both during the Second World War and at the time of the Indonesian invasion, when the island was caught up in the East–West power play of the Cold War, and so they didn’t really have grounds for their anxiety. Simply that it was political seemed discomforting enough.
It is there, between those two affective states, between the guilt of an uninformed audience and its prospective, confident, informed appreciation of historical realities, that Nicholson’s projects act as more than cultural interventions: his ambition is the political activation of the artwork.
- ^ See my extended essay ‘The Gap of the Border: Tom Nicholson’s Banner Marching project', HEAT, no. 11, 2005. No. 11, pp. 171–88
- ^ This project, ‘Flags for a trades hall council’, coincided with the exhibition The Body, The Ruin, curated by Bridget Crone for the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne (5 November 2005 – 22 January 2006).
- ^ n Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 31 August – 13 October 2013, Iincluded artists from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, with Australian artists whose work engaged with life in Bali, Iran, Timor, Madagascar and Java.
- ^ Jacques Rancière (trans. Gregory Eliot), The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2011, pp. 48–49.
John Mateer is a writer and curator. His current project with the Cocos-Malay community, The Quiet Slave: A History in Eight Episodes, is currently on show as part of Spaced 2: Future Recall, at the Western Australian Museum, until 29 March.