Two days left to check out "Library Science"
50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Through Jan. 28, 2012.
Libraries are not an obvious choice as an art-making subject. But, as the show Library Science at Artspace in New Haven through Saturday demonstrates, the topic is rich with resonance. This sprawling group show featuring national and international artists takes the subjects of libraries and books as springboards for wide-ranging works of imagination and philosophical and intellectual engagement. It comes at a time when the Internet and the digitization of information are usurping the role of the book.
At least some of these works focus on libraries as signifier, not so much as a repository of knowledge but as a sign of the repository of knowledge. Mickey Smith's "Corroborating Information" features found portrait studio images, re-photographed by Smith, which situate individuals and families in front of bookshelves laden with what appear to be weighty tomes. The books are props, a sort of intellectual fill lighting for the posing subjects.
Candida Höfer's (Web) "Biblioteca Geral a Universidade de Coimbra IV," a photograph of packed bookshelves in an ornate reading room at a prestigious Portuguese university, conveys multiple messages. This is a temple to knowledge—the books are associated with wealth and power and are not out of place amid the finely detailed, plush surroundings. And yet, they are worn, inert, likely largely untouched for quite some time, orphaned repositories of knowledge that may no longer be useful or even credible.
Nina Katchadourian's photographs also employ books as signifiers, albeit in a lighter, more idiosyncratic mode. Katchadourian is granted access to private libraries and specialized collections and allowed to rearrange the books, gleaning personal statements from the juxtaposition of titles. Read left to right, the titles on the book spines in Relax from Composition" posit an amusing conversation: "Relax," "When I Relax, I Feel Guilty," "When I Say No, I Feel Guilty," "God Always Says Yes!" It concludes with the title "Don't Say Yes When You Want to Say No." It leaves me wondering whether God has taken the advice.
Where Katchadourian creates her winking juxtapositions from the spines of books, Erica Baum finds hers on the subject headings of library card catalogues. My favorite was "Untitled (Suburban Homes)." The subject heading in the foreground reads "Suburban homes;" behind it just out of focus in the tight depth of field is "Subversive activities." Where suburban homes in this culture are considered the antithesis of "subversive activities," Baum's images suggests that, of course, subversive activities lurk behind the respectable facades of these houses. It's is worth noting that Baum's photographs succeed not just as visual puns but as images, finding strong balances of line and shadow.
In order to closely view Baum's images and those by Mickey Smith on the facing wall, it is necessary to do something that feels wrong—walk on the spines of over 1,000 books. Mickey Smith's floor installation "Memorial Service," is composed of 1,201 copies of Federal Reporter," compilations of federal court decisions and opinions that were once de rigeur for law offices, since replaced by digital editions. It feels sacrilegious to tread on the spines of these compendiums of legal knowledge—they squeak as they give way underfoot, almost a cry of despair.
Theoretically, these physical objects are obsolete. This, however, prompts me to segue to a concern that I have flogged before on this blog: the danger of storing increasing amounts of our information and knowledge in the digital realm. As a vehicle for storing knowledge, books are simple and direct. Crack open a book and—provided you can read the language in which it is written—you can dive right in. But information in the virtual format is a completely different story. Digital information, supposedly so free, is actually stored under lock and key, the lock being the hardware and the key being the software. Without the right combination of both, the information is inaccessible.
The peril of this reliance on technology is, ironically, demonstrated by a work in the show inspired in part by a failure of technology. David Bunn's "No Voyager Record" is a slide projection of catalogue card images for lost or missing books at the Brooklyn Museum of Art Library, where Bunn had been invited to do a project with catalogue card discards. Why were there discards of catalogue cards? Because the library was digitizing its card catalogue under the rubric of the Voyager Project. But when Voyager was launched, it crashed and the backup was also erased. The old card catalogue had to be salvaged; it had been boxed for disposal but was not yet gone. The irony? I couldn't see the slide projections because of a malfunction with the projector.
Still, if digitization and the concomitant obsolescence of the book presents (what I believe are under-appreciated) risks, it's incontestable that it has placed a wealth of knowledge and information—not always overlapping concepts—at the click of our fingertips.
Loren Madsen's three Iris prints hearken back to the pre-Google search engine era of 1998. Madsen used Amazon's search engines to ferret out book titles with popular and loaded search terms like "self," "fashion" and "sex." Her results, alphabetized, are printed in long lines of small, upper-case block type, making up big squares dense with text broken up by occasional rivers of white. It is all weighted the same—Is Salami and Eggs Better Than Sex? as consequential in the design as The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.
Xiaoze Xie's (Web) two photorealist paintings are based on photos he took in libraries. "Chinese Library No. 46" depicts the edges of a stack of decaying manuscripts, torn, curling and marked with Chinese characters. "Untitled #3" references the active destruction of books, showing orange-yellow flames twisting amidst a background of black and red. The painting is based on a still from the documentary Degenerate Art about the Nazi assault on culture and the attendant book burnings. The subtext to both works is the notion that knowledge is fragile and contingent, dependent both on the survival of physical objects and the moral will to defend free inquiry.
Melissa Dubbin's and Aaron S. Davidson's (Web) "Reading Room for Kids" is a subtle and powerful statement on the fact that knowledge is not necessarily neutral. Did you know that the Central Intelligence Agency has recommended reading lists for grades K-5 and 6-12? Well, they do and as one would suspect, they are geared toward glorifying spycraft, subterfuge and the shepherding of secrets. The installation imagines a reading room for My Little CIA Library.
A small shelf holds all 39 books from the CIA's reading lists. The walls are papered with an ivy pattern based on illustrations from Lord Robert Baden-Powell's 1915 book My Adventures as a Spy. (Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts.) Disguising himself as a distracted butterfly collector, Baden-Powell spied on Boer forts in South Africa, sketching important information into drawings of ivy leaves and hiding other information on the patterning of butterfly wings. A kaleidoscope of butterflies—printed from one drawing in various sizes and different shades of brown—is pinned to the wall in a random, lively arrangement. A cloak of nature and innocence conceal the CIA's propagandistic intent, trying to inculcate children with the notion that knowledge is a weapon and deception a virtue.
Library Science is on view through Saturday.