Some might call the word “racist” scrawled in thick black ink on a library catalog card vandalism. On the wall of a new Artspace exhibit, it is both jarring and beautiful.
It also reveals the heart of “Library Science,” a captivating new group show of 17 national and international artists.
“Library Science” isn’t the rarified, marble-stuffy affair its name might imply. It’s thoughtful, playful, and provocative. The interaction of the human with the library—and, by extension, books—turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, revealing creative vitality and political rebellion outside the bindings. Most stunning of all is that so much of the work is simply beautiful.
Much can be written about what the work in “Library Science,” energetically and creatively curated by Rachel Gugelberger, is saying about libraries, books, and their place in our culture. (Independent readers would have a field day with this — so go and see the work and tell us what you think it all means.) The artists are clearly transfixed by our liminal state between the printed word and the Kindle. Many do a wondrous job of getting to the heart of changes in the role of the library, from the tangible human element, to more philosophical (and abstract) graphical musings. They are as nostalgic about the loss of the card catalog (see “Catalogue des manuscrits, Bibliothèque Vaticane, Rome, 1995,” above, by Philippe Gronon), as they are entranced by the ghosts of books that have been eliminated from the stacks because they’ve been digitized (see Mickey Smith’s “Memorial Service, 2011”).
Right away the exhibit announces that it will be both playful and serious. The first installation you see on entering Artspace is Melissa Dubbin’s and Aaron S. Davidson’s “Reading Room for Kids, 2006/2011.” At first glance it appears to be a whimsical installation of a bookshelf in a kids room with wallpaper made from three-dimensional butterflies.
But take a look at the books on the shelf, and the work gets more somber. Titles such as “Secret Mission of the Civil war” and “Spies and Spymasters” were among the 39 books from the CIA’s “2006 Intelligence Book List for K-5th and 6-12th graders.” The butterflies are a riff on ex-spy (and founder of the Boy Scouts) Lord Robert Baden-Powell’s 1915 book “My Adventures as a Spy.”
Not so overtly politicized is Mickey Smith’s “Memorial Service.” The work places 1,201 copies of bound volumes of the “Federal Reporter” spine-side-up on the floor. You then have to walk on the books in order to view the found family portraits hanging on the wall — people photographed in front of their bookshelves. Here, the ghosts aren’t just the unnamed moms and dads in the photos—they are the books behind them. Obviously, you can’t put your Nook collection on a shelf. What would it be like to live in a house without real, physical books to entice and inform?
Book spines also form the focal point of Nina Katchadourian’s photos, including “Kinds of Love.” Katchadourian strategically places book spines on a shelf against a black background so that the titles form a kind of funny and culturally revealing poem about what we are interested in reading. In one, they read:
When I Relax I Feel Guilty
When I Say No, I Feel Guilty
God Always Says Yes!
Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No
They are also technologically exquisite photographs, rich with detail and depth of color.
Cards from card catalogs are the stars of both Chris Coffin and David Bunn’s revealing work. Coffin imprints wave patterns with swirling arows on top of cards, while Bunn is interested in the found art created by notes that people have made on the cards. One of the cards Bunn uncovered, for the book “Mexican-American Youth: Forgotten Youth at the Crossroads,” has the word “Racist” scrawled in magic marker. It’s blown up to a size large enough to see the texture of the marker on the card. Another, “This Cute Piece of Miniature Art (Rosalea),” reveals the miniature works of art secretly placed on random cards by the artist Rosalea under the heading “Art” to “remind the public to have a heart and support living artists.”
Also catalog-related are the wonderful accidental juxtapositions of adjoining file headings in a card catalog documented by Erica Baum in her piece “Untitled (Suburban Homes),” which shows the heading “Suburban homes” in the foreground, with the heading “Subversive activities” behind it.
The exhibit contains more; it is also not confined to Artspace. The curators have also organized site-specific installations by local artists at the Whitney Library at the New Haven Museum (Colin Burke’s “Deliquesence”); at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library (Andy Deck’s and Carol Padberg’s “Augmented/Obstructed”); the New Haven Free Public Library (Heather Lawless’ “iLibrary) and the Institute Library (Meredith Miler’s and Rob Rocke’s “Little Library”). I haven’t yet had a chance to check them out, but I plan to.
If that’s not enough, a library-related film festival has also been organized, including Hollywood movies such as “Fahrenheit 451” (naturally) and “The Music Man,” but also many less viewed feature films and documentaries related to the theme.
Library Science is on display at Artspace, 50 Orange St., New Haven, through Jan. 28.