By Tony Inglis
The first library in recorded history existed under the rule of Pharaoh Ramses II. It was revered and sanctified by the Ancient Egyptian people. This grand structure contained knowledge and escape, and was believed to be restorative and transformative. The important tomes housed within it were held in such high esteem that it was believed the building contained the power to aid those who revered it to pass over easily into the afterlife upon their death. It was a house that could heal the soul.
Nowadays, libraries are more commonplace, but their veneration has decreased dramatically. In Scotland, library use has dropped 11% in the past six years, and only 36% of British people considered libraries to be of “personal importance”, according to a Carnegie Trust and Ipsos Mori study from earlier this year.
Despite this, Scotland retains the crown of having the highest level of public library use in the UK, with half of Scots having roamed and read in the hallowed halls of their local library in the past year.
This makes the newly opened exhibition at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), The House that Heals the Soul, which takes its name from the grandiose description given to that first library so long ago, even more poignant and relevant. Library use may be in decline, but Scots are still flying the flag for the communal celebration of the printed word.
The exhibition, which compiles interactive works and displays from a number of disparate organisations and collections from Scotland and beyond, focuses on the political and social statuses of libraries. Most importantly, the exhibition itself is a working library which visitors can use as a place to read and even make books.
Curator Ainslie Roddick, who collaborated with CCA director Francis McKee, public engagement curator Viviana Checchia and artist and writer Nick Thurston in planning the exhibition, originally conceived the idea as a way to bring more people into the Sauchiehall Street gallery. “We were interested in turning the exhibition space into a more social space over the summer and encouraging people to feel welcome in it. We were trying to make a framework for that.”
As the list of contributors came together, a thematic connection between their works jumped out at Ainslie and her team. “We started to think about making the space into a kind of library of libraries. Public libraries are often thought of now as spaces of no obligation and for shelter, so we thought the exhibition would also make people think what public space is for.”
As well as housing collections of books, magazines, poetry and other literature from Glasgow Women’s Library, Glasgow Zine Library, Yon Afro Collective — an assortment of writings by and about women of colour from around the world who live in Glasgow — and the Multilingual Library of Scotland, amongst many others, there are also collections, with which interactivity is still encouraged, which straddle the threshold between books and art.
This includes Brett Bloom and Marc Fisher’s, otherwise known as Temporary Services, collaboration with Half Letter Press, The Booklet Cloud. This takes 40 publications that explore the blurry line between books and art and suspends them from the ceiling. The Book Lovers — a cooperative work between curator Joanna Zielińska and artist David Maroto — presents a constantly expanding compendium of novels written by artists which perfectly encapsulates this idea, as it acts both as shelves of the library, with books to be picked up and browsed, and as a visual art piece. Glasgow-based social enterprise My Bookcase provides an area where books can be shared and exchanged.
Visitors are even able to learn how to use book production equipment and print and bind their very own novel, thanks to facilities provided in the gallery by Publication Studio Glasgow.
But it is A Needle in the Binding and Untitled — by artists Beatrice Catanzaro and Emily Jacir respectively — two works which explore books and libraries in a Palestinian context using photography, and novels and notebooks read and written by incarcerated Palestinians, which represent the crux of what The House that Heals the Soul is about, according to Ainslie. “There’s something to be learned here about the power that books have in terms of political identity, oppression and occupation. The projects inspired and centred on Palestine represent how books, regardless of change, access, restrictive borders or censorship, are so vital in the transfer of knowledge and history.”
Works like this — as well as Nick Thurston’s installation presenting reprinted copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses dressed in slip covers bearing the fabricated name Drag-Nets by Arthur West, a classic method of publishing, smuggling and sharing banned books in times of censorship — emphasise the potential of libraries as sites of resistance and revolution, creation and preservation.
While it may feel unusual and counterintuitive at first to enter an art gallery and use hands as well as eyes to interact with and understand what is on display, the CCA’s rooms are expertly put to use to make that interaction as inviting as possible. It’s transformation into a library also runs the gauntlet between art piece and reading space as impressively as many of the collections included.
Ainslie also hopes that in addition to the political and social lessons that can be learned from the exhibition, this physical, more hands on programme, something the CCA is relatively new to, will bring people through the doors in their droves. “It has come about as a result of trying to build more trust with the community and get people be more familiar with the gallery spaces because we can be quite invisible on Sauchiehall Street — people don’t always necessarily know what we’re for, so it’s about letting people know that we’re here and there are things happening.”
In keeping with the constantly fluid, changing and utilised space the exhibition will represent, the gallery provides a workshop area which will host over 25 events, presentations and discussions. Ainslie says that it is an open door. “There are a variety of events that focus on different specific parts of the community but the exhibition as a whole has a lot of different levels and entry points. We wouldn’t hope for any particular kind of audience. Anyone who wants to read, make or interact with books is welcome.”
Ainslie does not seem fazed by the challenges that this summer’s exhibition will bring either, and hopes that visitors will put in just as much as they take out. “You have to embrace it, after all, it is a working library as well as an art space. It’s not just somewhere to pick knowledge up, but somewhere to make and produce it too.”
The House that Heals the Soul is open now, and runs until Sunday 3 September 2017. Admission is free. Visit the CCA website for more details.
Featured photo: The House that Heals the Soul, CCA Glasgow.
Photography by Alan Dimmick