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In the Libraries of Memory

Nina Levitt

Browsing in used bookstores and flea markets, I always flip through old books. This habit is not about the pleasure of the text; I don’t really read much—rather I scan the pages looking for images. This visual appetite for images is also about a physical love of the books as objects in and of themselves. Echoing these pleasures, the four artists in the exhibition Book Keepers engage with the form of the book as an aesthetic and symbolic object.

While thinking about the works in the exhibition, I remembered Walter Benjamin's essay Unpacking My Library, which stands out to me as one of his most personal and readable essays. In it he rhapsodizes about unpacking his books "after two years of darkness." Using the experience of dusting off and sorting through his library, Benjamin theorizes an interesting relationship between collecting books and memory:

"What I am concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection. If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring books, this is something entirely arbitrary. This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surge toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories […] Thus there is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order." [1]

In some way, the artists in this show are like the collectors Benjamin describes. They are similarly engaged with these poles of disorder and order. Photographers in particular are apt to address the “chaos of memories” simply because of photography’s ability to frame, and capture moments. Think of the role of the snapshot in preserving different occasions and then triggering memories. However, more and more these days I am drawn to photographic works that are staged for the camera/viewer rather than photographs that impose order on “reality.”

The impulse to curate a show of works about books came after seeing Katie Varney’s video and sound installation herstory. I was drawn to her use of the book as both a symbolic object and a conveyer of knowledge, while also addressing personal memory— or rather the loss of memory. herstory, 2003, describes the artist’s relationship with her late grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

In a small darkened room, the muffled voice of an elderly woman can be heard. Further inside is a table with a large book illuminated only by the light of a video projector. The video sequences that spill onto the pages of the open book are composed of haunting scenes of an abandoned farm cut with footage of a nursing home and family snapshots. Paired much like the facing pages in a photo album, the shifting images also animate the delicate handwriting on the pages.

The soundtrack, made of the artist’s conversations with her grandmother and ambient sounds of the nursing home, is played on a stereo system tucked out of sight under the table. Because the images and the soundtrack are not in synch, the piece is constantly changing. Turning the pages, it feels as though you control the flow of images and voices that seem to slip away as slowly as new ones emerge. The experience is at once familiar, elusive and poignant. The disjointed narratives created by our presence echo the devastating and irreversible effects of the disease. Our experience of reading herstory is never the same and never repeatable, as we experience the obscuring of knowledge and the failure of memory.

Alison Rossiter’s photographs embody the notion that books seem to have a life of their own. Her ongoing series The Stacks, 2000-2004, are elegant black and white photograms that transform books into silhouettes of exotic life-forms. Looking at her grid of twelve photographs, the books seem to flutter from frame to frame. As if she was tiptoeing through Benjamin’s library borrowing books (and placing them on the paper under her enlarger), Rossiter’s series produces a kind of physiognomy based on the simple form of the book; each image describing a unique character and expressive temperament.

The character of Rossiter's chosen books also resonate through the titles, informing a secondary reading of the objects. The titles of the photograms betray a contemporary and a likely female owner -- Black Beauty, Frankenstein, Persuasion, The Bell Jar, Anna and the King of Siam, The Complete Guide to A Great Social Life, Madam Curie. These titles create another level of animation in Rossiter's images, by triggering distant memories of works of literature. Many viewers will have their own experience of some of these books, bringing to the work both a personal pleasure and a form of collective memory.

Keeping journals and making bookworks have long been common artistic practices. In the case of Balint Zsako, his journals become raw material for a new iteration of the practice. Untitled (Bookworks), 2001-2002, are large scale colour photographs taken from the pages of his journals. This young artist’s initial obsessive journaling involved a process of collage, sketching and writing, so much so that the journals swelled into sculptural objects. However, Zsako’s series, included in Book Keepers, investigates what happens when pages of these journals are detached from the flow of their sequence in a book and are photographically enlarged. As the images stand alone, monumentally displaced from their original context, subtle and intimate details are revealed.

A dog-eared King of Hearts playing card hovers over a smiling 1940’s pinup girl lying across the facing pages in the journal. Wedged into the top of the page and disappearing down into the image of the girl are Zsako’s journal entries about events in an art class and at a Cindy Sherman show. Another photograph, presented as a diptych, features a dictionary illustration of a woman’s anatomy mirrored with a rendering of her skeletal system, both ringed by a halo of indecipherable handwriting. Zsako’s highly idiosyncratic and somewhat romantic assemblages conjure up the work of Joseph Cornell.

I was particularly drawn to Zsako’s almost obsessive attention to images of women and thereby his objects of desire. His somewhat private scribblings offer a hint of his relationship to these desires while also conjuring up personal memories of events we can only imagine. His series seems at once familiar and remote, mysterious and naive, chaotic and ordered. And these contradictions are intriguing and provocative.

Victoria Scott’s mechanical installation e-motional response #1, 2001, also elucidates the nature of reading as a process of memory and desire, but in a radically different way. Enticing us into a cluster of open books displayed on low aluminum podiums on the gallery floor, the collection of books seems ready for perusal. However, a computer connected to a small camera installed above the books causes them to react to a viewer’s presence and proximity. As one approaches, “the book closest [to the viewer] snaps shut, while those slightly farther away remain open, their pages just out of visual range. If the viewer wades into the flock of books, the ones that had first closed, re-open” [2] and new ones snap shut. Luring us in and then denying us access to their content, the books take on a passive/aggressive personality. We become complicit in their child-like and petulant behaviour.

Scott’s installation plays a wonderfully coy game of hide and seek, denying the fulfillment of our curiosity. This contradictory experience of pleasure and the ultimate denial of the text echoes my browsing experiences in bookstores. Yet, here is a relationship to books that is controlled electronically by an unseen computer and a viewer’s unwitting interaction.

----- Notes: [1] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Schocken Books: New York, 1978, p.60. [2] Victoria Scott, artist’s statement, 2004