The British Library is a large and colourful artwork by Yinka Shonibare which comprises a huge collection of specially bound reclaimed books covered in vibrant Dutchwax fabric and embossed in gold with the names of notable British figures who were born outside the UK or have non-British ancestry.
The volume of books and the number of well-known names is surprising, drawing our attention to the rich and expansive impact migrants have had on British daily life and culture, a debt that sometimes seems overlooked to me.
The boldness of the colours give this library a vibrant character and otherworldly air – it would contrast dramatically with the subdued aged muted volumes that populate the collection of the real British Library.
The colours are appealing and the weight of each tome makes me want to reach out to leaf through it, to get to know the characters that these represent. The books themselves are described as reclaimed – stripped of their covers the library would tell a dramatically different story, but an undoubtedly diverse one in the way that all library collections are.
It’s important that the objects are books, as it is no stretch to imagine these as biographies or accounts of the individuals named on their spines.
Let me start with a caveat: the object of exchange in Lee Mingwei’s artwork isn’t strictly a book, it’s an envelope containing a story. I wanted to discuss it though because the artwork itself is irresistible.
The artist Raymond Hains plays an interesting game with us in his artwork Valises; an installation which comprises a utilitarian metal shelving system stacked with box files, metal Airbus cases and plastic packing crates filled with books and index cards.
British conceptual artist John Latham (1921-2006) is an intriguing artist who frequently worked with books, producing provocative sculptural artworks, works that are attractive from a distance, but uncomfortable and brutal up close.
Years ago, inspired by the Bell Jar, I read Silvia Plath’s diaries. The salient memory of that labour was how artfully she translated even the most banal daily event, giving a literary sheen to often underwhelming everyday existence. Al Saadi works the same kind of magic here, but in a visual way.
Michele Ciacciofera’s installation Janus Code (2016-17) is a collection of artefacts that resembles a dreamlike museum exhibit. Apart from the occasional concrete items (a butterfly, seeds, a stone), many are handmade, created with unexpected materials to resemble familiar-looking objects and displayed like anthropological specimens.
Michel Blazy‘s Aqua Alta was displayed at the 2017 Venice Biennale. At first sightthe work looks like a neat stack of pristine books. On closer inspection they better resemble catalogues or fashion magazines. In actual fact they are anonymous leaflets, featuring scenes which appear to relate to Venice. Looking even closer one can see ridges and channels cut into the paper, like a small landscape of canyons and valleys.
A structure floats; the majestic hull of some dream ship. It’s huge, but nearing on the intangible. This is not quite the ghost-like art of Do-ho Suh’s, but evokes a similar feeling; the concrete-turned-transparent. This fragile tableaux is a combination of simple elements brought together to create a striking work.
Gurbet’s Diary (27.07.1995–08.10.1997), 2016–17 is a striking sculptural work by Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu which resembles shelves holding stone books. The work, exhibited in the image below at Gennadius Library Athens (as part ofdocumenta 14) seems like a strange extension of the library itself where the grey of the shelving and the textured edging of the stone tablets echo the stonework of the surrounding building.