Yinka Shonibare MBE’s site-specific installation The British Library identifies the artist’s role to capture the contemporary zeitgeist relating to moral transformation in society. In particular, the work explores the idea of immigration within British culture and considers notions of territory and place, cultural identity, displacement and refuge. The work makes visible the cultural influences of colonisation and the complexity of post-colonial cultures.
The Old Reference Library in Brighton Museum becomes a repository for circa 10,000 books bound in Shonibare’s colourful ‘African’ trademark wax cloth, which is itself a cross-cultural hybrid of Indonesian design and Dutch manufacture. The spines are printed with gold foil and identify individuals such as Henry James, T S Eliot, Zaha Hadid, Hans Holbein, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anish Kapoor, Hammasa Kohistani, Helen Mirren, Cliff Richard, Amartya Sena and Emma Watson who were not born in Britain, and others including Liam and Noel Gallagher, Mick Jagger, Paul Merson and Queen Elizabeth II who are descended from immigrants to Britain. The books are without text and the names on the spine present the narrative content of the work. The central theme is to list the names of individuals, both celebrated and unfamiliar, who as immigrants to this country, have contributed to ‘British’ culture. It also includes names of those who have opposed immigration, and books without names.
The idea of the artist’s book as a conceptual art object emerged in the 1950s and 1960s with artists such as Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha. Recent projects that have concerned the library as art object include the work of Anselm Kiefer, who from 1969 produced artist’s books as a collage of painted and constructed materials. His series of lead books on steel shelves in libraries are symbols of the stored, discarded knowledge of history. Zweistromlan / The High Priestess, 1985-89, is a construction of 200 books, made from lead, each weighing circa 300 kilos. The oversized library is a metaphor concerning the impossibility of knowledge and the oppression of history. The books contain trivia about the world – maps, pictures and materials – concealed from our eyes. Although the books can be handled and read, their weight and size make this unlikely.
Roni Horn’s 2007 commission for Artangel, VATNASAFN / LIBRARY OF WATER is a long term installation and houses three related collections – of water, words and weather reports in the former library in the town of Stykkishólmur, reflecting the geography, geology, climate and culture of Iceland. In Water, Selected the artist has replaced stacks of books with a constellation of 24 glass columns containing glacial water collected from around Iceland. The glass columns refract and reflect the light onto a rubber floor embedded with a field of words in Icelandic and English which relate to the weather – inside or outside. http://www.libraryofwater.is/
HOUSE is an annual contemporary visual arts event that commissions site-specific works with an invited artist (co-commissioned with Brighton Festival) and new projects by artists based in the South East region selected through open submission. HOUSE 2014 commissions – Leah Gordon, Ester Svensson and Rosanna Martin, Tobias Revell, Phillip Hall-Patch and Yinka Shonibare.
HOUSE, devised and directed by Judy Stevens and Chris Lord, started in 2009 as a platform for contemporary visual artists to promote a wider public engagement with contemporary visual arts in the city of Brighton and Hove. HOUSE 2014 is curated by Celia Davies, Director Photoworks.
Yinka Shonibare MBE: The British Library, at The Old Reference Library, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. 3 – 26 May 2014. A HOUSE 2014 and Brighton Festival co-commission