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.
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 work, which is essentially a performance takes place in a beautiful, modernist garden designed by the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. As visitors mill around the garden a performer quietly (and seemingly randomly) invites one of the guests to take a seat in the garden and admire the view, listen to the gentle sound of the flowing water and watch the world go by.
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.
The index cards that are visible read like an essay on a particular topic – could they be notes for a presentation (or references for a thesis) and the books themselves be the source material? The box files, which are closed to us, may contain papers of a manuscript and the metal cases could be full of real objects; artefacts to be presented.
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.
On canvas and in sculptural form Latham layers materials; wires, mesh, plaster, paint all wrestle on canvas – into this mix are thrown books. Latham’s books are hacked at, carved up, coloured (reds, yellows, brown/black) and splayed open, held by the wires which curl round them like tendrills. These rounded, chopped up, tinged pieces of book are meat-like.
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.
The artist’s work comprises brief handwritten diary entries stored in small readymade containers such as cigarette tins and chocolate boxes. Although I can’t read his texts, the look of the scrolls and concertinas in their characterful tins each seem to tell a particular story.
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.
The motif of the book reoccurs again and again; we see book-like sculptures wrapped in wool, page-like panels of a dyptich and open volumes containing seemingly-symbolic relics.
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.
The edges of the pages are blackened and warped. Drops of water fall from height, gouging the paper with each impact and breaking it down. It’s not clear how long these papers have been subjected to the drops of water, but the cumulative result is surprising. There is something unsettling in the contrast between the vibrant scenes of Venice and the soiled, slowly decaying paper, as if these are two spheres of life that shouldn’t really meet.
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.
Weighing this structure down are stones, tied with red strings. At the edges are piles of books (sealed, made untouchable, waterproofed with wax), also with red strings. Were they anchors too?