Mixing the NGV’s Triennial and its own collection together as I was decidedly zombie on the day (Paea saw me and laughed), and sometimes not sure where one or the other began or stopped, and saving all the old cruft for a separate post.
Richard Mosse I confused with Trevor Paglen, whose Limit Telephotography and The Black Sites work has been turning up in my reading for over a decade. Mosse is kind of a successor, or working similarly, pushing photographic technology and making deeply political art. Louisa Bufardeci also, though using manual labour to again create something on first view beautiful and aesthetic, which is contextualised into a evidence of and memorial for refugees whose boats sunk at sea off the coast of Australia. Both these works sit uneasily inside Fortress Australia and within the NGV, as Mosse’s second work (which you have to pass through to reach Incoming) describes: the NGV’s former use of Wilson’s security, to whom the government outsourced illegal detention centre policing. (The NGV ended its contract with Wilson’s after artists’ protests, organised by Gabrielle de Vietri and others, though the relationship between arts institutions like the NGV, policing and generations of human rights violations remains largely untouched.)
Onto something slightly more cheerful, or at least I could not wipe the smile off my face watching Adel Abidin’sCover Up! where Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway scene in The Seven Year Itch is replaced by an Arab man wearing a Kandura (Dishdasha, Thawb) giving me the cheekiest eye as he tries (not very hard) to prevent a flash of leg.
Next to that is Faig Ahmed, with a 21st century Azerbaijani carpet, digitally bleeding and glitching. Hal reminds me of the Afghan War Rugs, cultural memory lossy compression like a jpg, copied and recopied with no line of context to an original, regional signifiers and techniques that say authentic and traditional unfolded as repeating geometric shapes of aircraft carriers, World Trade Centre towers, text like USA and Pepsi, blocks of iconography decoupled from meaning, becoming pattern again.
Timo Nasseri, Epistrophy, op-art cut into the wall like the mid-20th century works of Adolf Luther I saw in Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal. Possibly a new profile photo coming out of that, but not thinking much of it until I looked at more of his work and saw the thread of Islamic / Islamicate architecture and mathematics in it. Good choice for a profile photo, then.
Jumping to the last artist, Nusra Latif Qureshi. She used to come into the VCA Student Union when we were both students. I always loved her art, miniatures in the South Asian tradition (which has connections to mediæval European illuminations, art flowing along the lines of trade as much as trade and commerce), and I was really happy to see her work in the NGV. Again, political, the colonial history of Europe in the unbroken history of Asia-Pacific.
I had thoughts, weaving through the Triennial and the NGV’s permanent collection in my spent, post-festival state. Thoughts. Many. I had. Like, the art that can touch me is always political, because art is inseparable from political, unless the artist has the luxury to be insulated from having political’s gaze turn onto them, so they get to play with ideas and technology and pretend there are no consequences, no urgency, no struggle; they get to live without the violence of history. I see myself in art that is political, even though it is seldom specifically ‘about’ me. I see also a difference between the superficially political, diversity as aesthetic, and art by artists whose lives, by their very existence, is political. I saw the strength of the NGV when it celebrates, represents, amplifies Asia-Pacific and Indigenous artists. This is when it makes sense, not when it assembles an incoherent, contextless junk box of ‘European’ art, manufacturing a phantasmic history of Australia, like Australia was ever located just off the coast of England, or when it divides that into Art and anything pre-Invasion Asia-Pacific into Ethnography. I didn’t see the entirety of the Triennial or the NGV, it’s an awkwardly designed interior space, easy to miss cul-de-sac turn-offs that open to entire wings, more time walking to and from and between than through art. It struggles between competing imperatives, like that of its European fantasy, or oddly misplaced exhibitions that owe more to consular trade and advertising than art and artists. But, see the Triennial? Yes, if you’re in Naarm. There’s good stuff there (heaps I didn’t see, let alone photograph).
Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.
Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.
A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.
There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.
There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.
At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.
I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.
Maybe I’m going to make this a thing (which always feels contrived), but I’ll finish quoting myself again, first from 2013 and then from 2015:
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.
Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:
An introduction. Published in 1988 and here we are, 30 years later, still having to prove the same truths, provide the same evidence, grieve the same death and damage. This is one of those fucking read this books. Fucking read this. You want to know how we got to this place again? We never left it. Fucking read this.
I’ve been trying out this lately, since my last year or so of reading on German Empire Colonialism (Deutsches Historisches Museum Deutscher Kolonialismus exhibition, and Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out in particular): It’s easier to count the number of countries and places that weren’t colonised. If a country was colonised, there was genocide. Countries that weren’t colonised also suffered heavily the effects of colonialism. I do this to shift the burden of evidence or proof: it should not be the task of each country or place in isolation to prove again and again colonialism and genocide happened and continues to happen. I read Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and it’s unarguable.
What else that’s unarguable: the same philosophical positions informed — and continue to inform — political, social, medical, legal, religious positions which have regional and temporal variations, but are nonetheless identical. These positions were enacted not just on racialised bodies, but on hierarchies of class, sex, gender, ability, and so on: any aspect of a person could be classified and taxonomied, and once classified, denied humanity. This is what we currently call intersectionality, what Peter Fryer and others have written about for decades.
This is a hard book. It will give you nightmares. It is a horror story all the worse because there’s no end, it’s all true, and it’s only an introduction. 30 years old and half that time the colonial nations have been busy at an endless war of colonialism. Nothing’s changed. Remember that. There’s no post-colonialism or neo-colonialism. It never ended. Just like those horror movies where you wake up to find you’re still trapped asleep. All the progress and improvements of the last 30 years rest as a thin film floating atop systematic horror.
I am a child of this. Every country I’ve lived in or had citizenship in exists as it does because of colonialism and genocide: Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, China, Germany. My parents travelled in the international wash of it, were born where they were because of empire, British, Ottoman, Dutch. This is what it means to be that thing called Citizen of the World.
And there’s something else colonialism does: it atomises culture and destroys history. Every generation, every year, continuity is lost and it’s like starting again. This is an introduction, it reminds us where we came from and what we live in. It’s not complete or comprehensive, it’s 30 years old, but fucking read this.
Dear Lei Zhang of Fujian Nan’an Boreway Machinery Co., Ltd. in Shuitou Town, Nan’an City, Fujian Province, China. We have never met. But you emailed me on my blog email this morning. Your email was beautiful. I sadly have no use for boring and grinding heads as I sadly have no boring or grinding equipment. I wish I did. I saw the attached photograph of bush hammer rollers and thought to myself, “This is good and useful spam. All spam should be this good and useful. Imagine if it was, I would buy things.” So, thank you, Lei Zhang, you have done the unique. In all my years of receiving spam, in all those tens or hundreds of thousands of impersonal and unwanted emails, yours is the first that’s made me say, “I wish I had a need for this, I would buy immediately.” It’s true, if I had spare cash, I’d buy some bush hammer rollers just because they look brilliant — and I’ve never even seen them before. Because of your email, I learned something new, which is what is best in life. You must think I’m being sarcastic and mocking you, but I’m not. Yours is genuinely the best unsolicited email I’ve ever received.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.