In January this year, I used words from two seemingly unrelated books to create an installation in Shotover Country Park as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. The piece was called The Woods, Breathing, the title coming from an entry in the diary of Adam Czerniakow, who was ‘mayor’ of the Warsaw Ghetto up until his death in 1942.
In his diary, on January 19th 1940, Czerniakow describes a book he’d read, of which, he wrote: ‘The forest, little wild animals – a veritable Eden.’ The book was Pilgrims of the Wild by Grey Owl, and his comment is especially poignant given the horrors of the time in which he was living. It’s as if in the book, he found the freedom he craved, freedom which vanished as soon as the book was closed. The previous year, a few months after the start of the Nazi Occupation, he wrote how he was ‘constantly envying all the heroes of my novels because they lived in different times.’ There is a sense then, when he describes Pilgrims of the Wild that he is also envying the author, Grey Owl.
I’ve always seen Grey Owl’s book as a map, as in many respects all books are, maps through fictional landscapes, half conjured up in the minds of the author and his or her readers. Having read Czerniakow’s diary, reading Pilgrims of the Wild bought me closer, not only to him but to the time in which he was living, as if reading the book was a shared experience; as if we were walking through the same landscape, emerging at the end in very different places. That is not to say of course that reading the book enabled me to understand what it was like to live in those terrible times – nothing can ever do that. But by reading the words he would have read, it was as if I was following in his footsteps.
Looking up from the page, gazing out the window at the sky made me consider the present, the moment in time in which I was living. The sky was that of the book’s landscape, and that which Czerniakow would have seen outside his own window. We must remember, although it seems quite obvious, that the past too was once the present. By understanding this, we can begin to find indviduals lost to the pages of history. We don’t know what it’s like to experience the horrors of Nazi persecution, but reading the book beomes a shared experience, both mentally and kinaesthetically. It is an everyday activity, which opens up a crack through which we can glimpse the past.
Tom Phillips’ ‘treated Victorian novel’ – A Humument – (a page from which is pictured above) has always interested me; the technique of taking a text and changing it to make something entirely new is appealing for a number of different reasons. Every conversation we have, letter we write or note we take borrows from conversations, letters and notes spoken and written over the course of centuries (depending of course on how long the language has been used). Similarly the way we move, whether walking, sitting, standing or reading, borrows from the ways people have moved, again over the course of many hundreds, if not thousands of years. For me, Tom Phillip’s technique as used in The Humument articulates this. It’s as if we’re in the same landscape created by the original work (A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, first published in 1892) and yet are making our way through it in an entirely different way, as if the words are breadcrumbs on a trail, most of which have long since vanished.
As we walk down streets today, across parks, or through woods, we find ourselves within the same place as those who walked there a hundred, two hundred, maybe three hundred years before. We use the same words, we move the same way, but find ourselves interpretating the place quite differently. But it is the same place.
I want to useTom Phillips’ technique and create a new work from Pilgrims of the Wild, a page from which can be seen below; a work that articulates both my time of reading the book and that of Czerniakow’s.