‘One cannot complain of having no clues in this case. There are clues here in abundance’, so Hercule Poirot exclaims on finding a body in Murder On The Orient Express . The detective speaks in a double voice, the second of course being that of his maker, Agatha Christie. His statement encourages and deprecates both the novel’s characters and its reader. Speaking through surrogates, Christie’s framing of memory, structure and authority was always duplicitous. Meanwhile, in her personal life, the writer’s engagement with archaeology provided an unlikely outlet for her interest in photography.
Susanne Kriemann’s compelling publication Ashes and Broken Brickwork of a Logical Theory is an artist book that presents both the professional and personal practice of Christie, intermixed among research material that spans nearly 100 years. The slim volume initially appears as an intuitively organised presentation. Comprising annotated pages of Sir Leonard Woolley’s 1930 Pelican classic Digging Up the Past, highlighted excerpts of one of Agatha Christie’s lesser late works They Came to Baghdad, and a collection of images by Kriemann, unattributed photographers, Christie, and archaeologist Max Mallowan, the book is also accompanied by texts from Dieter Roelstraete and Axel John Weider.
Connections between the scattershot material seem initially formal. Here is a photograph of an old archaeological site, barren and dry; on the neighbouring page is another photograph taken perhaps 70 years earlier – a group portrait of natives working on the active site as labourers. Elsewhere, a description of a car pursuit through central London is juxtaposed with a journey through the desert that skirts the Iran-Iraq border. But after successive readings, the book is revealed as a montage that coerces its reader into a literary version of a kim’s game.
The content is neither nostalgic nor arbitrary. Wooley’s text, for instance, is followed by Mallowan’s images—the latter was originally Wooley’s assistant archaeologist, and later Christie’s second husband. Meanwhile, They Came to Baghdad mirrors the writer’s own travels with Mallowan, and uses her friends (also archaeologists) as inspiration for the characters in the novel. But his external information is not necessarily ‘explanatory’, and warnings against hasty judgement and comparison are also deployed in Ashes and Broken Brickwork . Early in the book Kriemann highlights a passage in Digging Up History that details the unearthing of a bronze lion mistakenly used as a benchmark for Hittite styles of art. Historians later find the object to be nothing of the sort, and the lion is revealed to have thwarted all subsequent research on Hittite artefacts. Using the voice of Woolley, then, Kriemann points out ‘subjective criticism based on too partial knowledge was to blame’, a declaration that instigates suspicion of all proceeding content and the manner of its framing. Kriemann’s material, meanwhile, is presented as individual illustrations, labelled fig 1, fig 2, fig 3 etc. Turning to the index, then, one is surprised to discover the artist has inserted her book as the first illustration (with a diminutive fig 1 evident on the cover of the book).
Ashes and broken brickwork… is an odd entity, not least because one does not read it in the normal fashion. The reader’s eye skims from left to right, up and down, forwards and backwards. A consecutive page-by-page reading neglects the circular orchestration of information. Meanwhile, at the top right hand corner of each page is a sequence of texts. Pieced together Kriemann composes a flick-book prose which goes some way to revealing her motivations: ‘Digging up a blank page / and supplementing / written records / testifies the need / to observe objects / in their original / place.’
Reading through the book, rather than across the pages, brings to mind cultural commentator James Harkin’s recent observation that contemporary story telling has adopted complex and simultaneous strategies for the perception of information. Today, readers can more readily decipher information concurrently, across times, multiple consciousnesses, rather than in a chronological fashion. Kriemann exploits this form of composite reading by sliding between fact and fiction, archaeological history and contemporary documentation.
Erasure and its avoidance are the informing impulses of the Ashes and Broken Brickwork… and its oblique construction, material, and framing are consequences here. Multiple images of empty deserts conjure a place of forgetfulness, while memory of what has gone before is constantly reconfigured. Kriemann’s archaeological motif betrays a further motivation: materially and monumentally speaking, archaeology implies a certain destruction of the present, where the latter is displaced by the desire to discover an authentic past. Ashes and Broken Brickwork… is orchestrated as a tussle between memory and counter-memory, and interpretation is presented not as a cynical endeavour but a labyrinthine one.
Isla Leaver-Yap was MAP’s editor-at-large until summer 2011