When I was a child, one of my favorite books was about a girl who went to the library every day. Under the impression that all the world’s books were housed there, she thought she could read them all. Her plan was to go alphabetically, a single volume a day, not permitting herself to skip a book, not even a boring one. I so empathized with her that, for a while, I had the same plan, never questioning whether the strategy was commendable and never guessing the library as it existed both in my experience and imagination–smelling of old, frayed book covers and ink pads used for stamping due-dates—was temporary.
Library Science, presented by New Haven’s Artspace is a lively and challenging show that evokes anxiety and nostalgia as well as a sense of liberation. It explores the way libraries and books have existed in the past and imagines what they might be in the future. It raises questions about how we store knowledge and communicate with (and through) objects. And it reminds us that we’re at a tipping point in our understanding of the value and usefulness of information as well as the old dictum that knowledge equals power.
The exhibition, curated by Rachel Gugelberger, brings together work by seventeen national and international artists, investigating the subject from different angles and with a variety of media, ranging from oil on canvas (Xiaoze Xie’s painterly close-ups of decayed and burning books) to slide projection (David Bunn’s record of entry notes on the cards of missing or lost books, taken from the card catalogue of the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Library).
Candida Höfer’s magnificent Biblioteca Gerald de Universidade de Coimbra IV, a large (80.5 x 97.375 x 2.375 inches) color photograph of the grand Portuguese baroque library, examines a library space designed to be a storehouse of knowledge for the literate elite. Photographed to allow a balanced and expansive view, the focus is psychologically cool and solid, meticulously recording the logic of the structure from a respectful distance so that the gleaming wood gallery and balustrade, gold painted ornament, grid of book shelves and tooled book bindings fall into a pattern for the observing eye to manage. Though there’s no human presence in the photo, one can’t help but think about the layers of human imagination and human activity that designed and built the architectural structure, composed and studied the texts housed within it, and lived within the political and social boundaries of Enlightenment Europe.
In contrast, Reynard Loki’s First Lines/Last Lines presents an intimate record of the artist’s contemporary, personal library, organized idiosyncratically by recording first and last lines of all the books he owns in the order in which they’re obtained. First lines are arranged on one paper scroll and last lines on an adjacent scroll. The phrases are typographically centered so they result is a shaped but random poem in the tradition of Jenny Holzer or John Cage while the system allows unique accessibility since the viewer can literally get inside (at least the beginning and end) of every book in Loki’s library.
One of the most pleasing pieces is Jorge Mendez Blake’s Project for Pavilion/Open Library III, a model of Borge’s imagined library. Using Plexiglas and mirrors, Blake has constructed an elegant architectural quote for the “infinite library” Borges envisioned with the idea that it should contain everything in the universe. By building his matrix of empty (but imaginatively filled) cells with materials that light flows through and reflects off of, the artist approaches the idea of a continuously changing and expanding library that contains everything including contradictions and new meaning.
The Library Science project, itself, is organized as a hive or network with satellites in New Haven and beyond. Five Connecticut artists have designed installations at several New Haven libraries within walking distance of the Artspace gallery. One of the highlights is Colin Burke’s Deliquescence in which streamers of discarded microfilm are hung from two illuminated columns in the rotunda of the New Haven Museum. Between them, he’s placed a Lucite stand that supports a six-drawer set from an old wooden card catalogue. For Burke, the columns represent the pair of elms planted three hundred years ago in a city where almost all the elms were blighted in the nineteen sixties or earlier. The spools of microfilm and old card catalogues are symbols of the vanishing library of the past. By “repurposing’ old materials, Burke has found a way to create something new out of what’s been discarded and lost. When the columns are lit up, the curtains of microfilm take on a glowing indigo color. The exhibit is wonderfully whimsical—in a way, the streamers of microfilm are like gigantic grass skirts, jazzing up the Colonial revival style of the museum’s lovely front stairwell and library.
Finally, I must mention the series of films referencing libraries and librarians—for instance, Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper burns) or The Music Man (with Marian the Librarian)—that will be shown at regional libraries in the Connecticut Library Consortium until end of January and the excellent electronic catalogue which is accessible at the Artspace website: http://www.libraryscienceexhibition.org/
Frances Brent is a freelance writer in New York City. She writes about art and literature. Her most recent book, The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson, was published in 2009 by Atlas & Co.