Distilled destruction: an artist's response to East Timor
It has long been the Australian War Memorial's policy to select a diverse group of artists in order to allow for individual interpretations of wartime experience. Indeed, the Memorial has always encouraged artists to depict all aspects of war: not only the bravery and compassion shown by Australian servicemen and women, but the mundane, the tedious and the horrific that they must endure as well.
With the deployment of Australian troops to East Timor, the largest overseas commitment since the Vietnam War, the Memorial saw an opportunity to select an artist to record all aspects of Australia's involvement in the Interfet peacekeeping operations, and appointed Rick Amor. The urban environment and its inhabitats have been the subject of his work - thus his response to the offer of appointment was positive and enthusiastic: "The sort of art I normally do, a lot of it deals with the aftermath, and it's rather sombre work. I also believe in taking art from reality. So I thought it would fit in perfectly with what I've been doing for the past ten years." Amor was given free reign to choose subjects in East Timor and associated support activities in Northern Australia.
Fitted out in a non- combatant uniform with the insignia "Australian Official Artist", Amor arrived in Dili on 11 November 1999. Despite three days of briefings in Darwin, he was still unprepared for the level of destruction: "I was shocked by the destruction, it's just everywhere. I couldn't believe how thorough [the militias and Indonesian forces] had been. It was profoundly depressing. Coming back from [the border town of] Batugade, we passed through where they'd even ringbarked some of the trees. Unbelievable." For nine days Amor traveled with the Australian troops to Suai, Maliana and Balibo, sometimes sketching but preferring to take photographs to ensure he had the necessary record to take back to his studio.
The drawings, watercolours, gouaches and oil paintings that Amor produced on his return to Australia present a personal view of his observations in East Timor. His largest painting, Rural destruction, synthesises his reaction to the ravaged country. In this alien landscape the Australian peacekeepers tread warily, as though enveloped in a deathly silence. Amor's ability to arrange elements in his work to create a sense of alienation and disquiet is evident in the circular arrangement of the soldiers, the burnt remains of dwellings, an empty chair and a discarded sewing machine. Domestic detritus sounds a note of loss and dislocation. A series of studies demonstrate Amor's process in creating a work of this scale. A small beautiful oil study shows only the empty landscape in which the figures are yet to be positioned.
Amor often objectifies his experience by using a device to detach himself from the subject. For example, his painting, Urban destruction, has the appearance of a stage set. The frame of the building is used to form a proscenium arch behind which the key figures, two Australian soldiers and a small boy, appear as though they are actors playing out their scene amidst the charred remains of the once grand edifice.
A group of gouaches provide another view of the lives of the Australian peacekeepers. Morning wash, INTERFET Headquarters shows a soldier adjusting to the difficult conditions the servicemen and women experienced in East Timor: an outdoor bathroom exposed to the elements and with little privacy. Sandbag position, Komoro Airport, Dili shows a soldier cocooned in a machine-gun position with the Minimi (Light Support Weapon) at the ready. Amor is a master with the brush creating painterly effects of colour and tone, yet at times his style evokes the timeless images of previous wars, as in Tentlife, Heliport, Dili. Vigorous drawings in charcoal illustrate the military activities of peacekeepers and emphasise the physicality of the soldiers and their work. Amor shows the other side of soldiering in a series of engaging vignettes, painted on seven nine- by five-inch cedar panels, recording the everyday activities of the troops.
Several pencil drawings of the East Timorese capture moments of dislocation: Internally displaced Person, Dili Harbour is a gentle image of an old man carrying all his possessions in a bag with his hat by his side. In Mother and child at a medical unit, Memo and Woman and child, Memo, Amor expresses the human form with minimal eloquent strokes.
There are two works depicting religious edifices that do not immediately reveal the horrors that were perpetrated within them. One is a delicate watercolour, Atrocity site, church altar, Suai, and the other a small oil painting The cathedral, Suai. Amor recalls: "Suai cathedral and the church next to it are very disturbing places. You can see where the people were when they were shot down from the scaffolding. There's blood trickling down the walls and evidence of where some bodies were burnt. A very bad atmosphere at that place."
Amor's work reflects a refusal to succumb to maudlin compositions that will only alienate the viewer. Instead he presents images in a way that invites contemplation of the incomprehensible through their very detachment. Amor has been most generous in what he completed for the Memorial. He has provided almost twice the twenty-two works that were requested. His contribution is a lasting tribute to those Australians who served in East Timor; it records forever the aftermath of an attempt to destroy a people and their newly independent nation.
Head of Art
Australian War Memorial