Neha Kale reviews No Document by Anwen Crawford
by Anwen Crawford
Reviewed by NEHA KALE
Anwen Crawford’s No Document, a memorial to the casualties of late capitalism, occupies the space between elegy and witness, language and art.
In February 1991, a strange billboard materialised on New York’s Van Dam Street, perplexing commuters who happened to be travelling under the overpass. It featured a black-and-white photo of an empty bed curiously devoid of signage, rumpled sheets revealing gradations of light and shadow like mountains covered in snow. Two pillows are arranged, side by side. But the bodies that lay there announced themselves through impressions and indents. Existence and absence, different sides of a concave mirror. Each part, the form itself.
The billboard is part of Untitled (1991), an installation by the Cuban-American artist and activist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The same year, the artist’s lover, Ross Laycock, died of AIDS complications. The bed in the picture is less cipher than artefact. It’s where the couple slept when they were both alive.
“I knew that you would die young/ I didn’t know it at all,” writes Anwen Crawford in her book-length essay, No Document. A page before this: “I change tense, and travel back across your death’s border.” What to write when those we love leave us? Can the tricks of grammar reverse the passage of time?
The elegy is a fixture of art and literature. Gonzalez-Torres’ work, of course, but also Patti Smith’s Just Kids, the poet’s 2010 lament for the New York she once shared with her late friend and co-conspirator, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Above Crawford’s desk, the reader learns, there’s a postcard of Mapplethorpe’s Two Men Dancing, a gelatin silver print in which two figures hold each other made in 1974.
In her first year at the Sydney College of the Arts, Crawford meets the fellow artist, Ned Sevil. “Your brown panelled nylon zip-up jacket; the rat’s tail of red hair that ran below your shoulders,” she writes. They climb silos on Glebe Island. They “photograph using now obsolete materials” and sleep in railway underpasses after “spray-painting stencils of helicopters.” Their friendship burns bright, forged in the fire of art and activism. “So suddenly, vividly; your gentleness, the way you were always proud of me,” she writes.
At 30, Sevil, who suffered cystic fibrosis, dies of cancer. Crawford returns from New York, where she is working towards an MFA in poetry, six weeks later. “Sometimes, just for seconds the extent of my grief for you reveals itself and my breath dissolves,” she writes in an incandescent passage, “because it has no edges at all […]”
In Sydney, edges blur. Suburban pavements give way to old waterways. Sandstone cliffs end with a sheer drop into the ocean. For Crawford, grief is fractal. It radiates beyond her own body, into the spaces she moves through.
She thinks of her friend when “the train lifts from a tunnel and the built world manifests again” and when she sees “a line of three sulphur-crested cockatoos wheeling a line into the sky.”
When someone dies young, elegy can easily descend into hagiography. But in No Document, the gift of loss is a kind of X-ray vision. It can see beyond the strictures of place, time and history – and understands how these are bound together.
Crawford watches the planes hitting the twin towers. The pair cut the word ‘terrorist’ out of the newspaper, “spray-painting the letters into signifying order onto lengths of paper” to cover “over a billboard that edges a four-lane highway.” Two pages on, she tells us that the “last Siberian crane reported seen in Afghanistan was shot dead in 2002.”
Years after they climb onto silos in Glebe Island, Crawford discovers that it was once the site of the city’s first abattoir. Decades before, in 1818, “the first of the white surveyors ventured onto countries past the mountains – Wiradjuri country, Gamilaraay country.” Cattle, she tells us, comes from the Latin for capitale – ‘property, stock.’
Western imperialism changes form, sowing the seeds for modern conquest. Colonialism and capitalism, inextricable forces, knit living creatures into a constellation of death and displacement.
“Three billion animals have burnt in this place bordered as Australia since I began this, and the fact that all the sound of it is dampened by the painting being paint – well, it haunts me,” she writes.
No Document pushes up against borders – geographical, historical, imaginary. In a way, to have no document is to engage in the act of trespass, to enter places unauthorised. But who can trust authorities that are the legacy of violent systems? Records, we know, are famously unreliable. East African soldiers, we learn, who died in the First World War for the German Empire, were disappeared from history.
During the Tampa Crisis, John Howard famously accused asylum seekers of throwing their children into the water. The Australian government’s acronym for boats occupied by asylum seekers – suspected illegal entry vessels – is SIEV. For Crawford, this is “too close to sieve for coincidence.” In the sea, humans leak.
Throughout the book, Crawford writes letters to Alya Satta, a two-year-old girl who was among the 353 who drowned when the Indonesian fishing boat, SIEV-X, overturned on the way to Australia. “I call myself into this space with you,” Crawford starts. Then, “I redeem nothing: not in words, not any way.”
Words have their limits. Late capitalism strives to turn writing into content, story into commodity. No Document is interested in what art can do, where language can’t venture. In art school, Crawford studies photography and upon re-reading No Document, sentences reveal their meanings like negatives in a darkroom.
On my weekly walk, past Glebe Island, the landscape shows its bones. Places acquire a shimmer. I remember that in the 19th century, to take a photo was to render what was missing. That a camera was once considered powerful enough to capture ghosts.
No Document is a study in blank space. Sentences stand by themselves. Each section is marked by a rectangle. “You scratch the negatives,” Crawford observes of her friend, “sometimes for what the damage signifies: that the document is not neutral but emerges.”
When her friend Sevil dies, he leaves Crawford a book of images, made from mesh and contact sheets, “the whole thing smaller than a matchbox.” Someone tells her that “objects are just objects.” Friendships exist outside institutions, without ritual. She knows theirs has been “deemed insubstantial.” The book asks you, the reader, to weigh what matters, what to mourn according to an inner calculus.
There is no elegy without witness, even if “no document can make you manifest.”
Crawford and Sevil admired artists who died young. “Such an impulse isn’t rare at age nineteen, but for you at least, an early death was neither an abstraction or romance,” she reflects, in retrospect.
Gonzalez-Torres, who died at 38 of AIDS was among their favourites. Before he left, the artist strung lightbulbs in galleries, allowing them to flicker and fade, as fleeting as a lifespan. He arranged a pair of clocks that ticked together in the knowledge that one battery would fail before the other. That in time these objects – like bodies that exist together – would fall out of sync.
In 1989, he made sculptures out of block-like stacks of paper. To complete them, viewers were invited to pick up a sheet, to take it home. No Document, too, is an artwork – one that asks us to notice what’s absent. And love, through the act of paying attention, the things that might never return.
NEHA KALE is a writer, critic and the former editor of VAULT magazine. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, SBS, ArtReview, Art Guide and many other places.