PUBLIC VIEW: ADVENTURES IN CONTEMPORARY ART-NO 15: REFERENCE LIBRARY
Sunday 10 January 1999
That's my first impression of Rachel Whiteread's Untitled (Book Corridors). But I need to look properly at the work. Three huge long blocks of plaster running parallel with the containing walls of the gallery give four corridors to walk down, six walls of missing books to look at.
On either side of each plaster block there are six shelves. The artist's plaster has flowed where it could. Where it couldn't flow was into space occupied by shelves and books. So the solid horizontals are the spaces above where the books once stood in rows, and the shelf itself is represented by a gap. The books are gaps too. But where the top edge and the leading edge have pressed into the plaster, the pages have left an impression on being eased away from the set plaster. Instead of the usual view of spines, I'm looking at the impression of thousands - millions - of page edges.
All the books seem to have been paperbacks - hardback covers would have left deeper indentations in the plaster ... This batch of thick Penguin- sized books are slightly warped, suggesting the books were put under tension before the plaster was poured ... The books vary in size - the taller ones cutting into the ledge of plaster above, giving it a ragged bottom edge - but there is a level line at the foot of the books, an even gap ... Some of the books have been made in the traditional way, as batches of eight or 16 galleys folded together. They leave a subtly different impression from books consisting of individually cut pages ... The impressions of the page-ends is so realistic that the temptation to think of them as actual pages is strong. There is no distinctive paper smell, though ... These marks are smooth. Perhaps the books were pulled away before the plaster had set sufficiently ... My God, I'm getting bogged down in minutiae here, but that's what the work encourages - a scrutiny of traces.
I walk up and down the aisles wondering if the Picador edition of Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fe was once here and has left its mark. In the novel, written in Vienna and set in Germany between the wars, Professor Kien is ejected by philistines and thugs from his home and private library. Undaunted, and helped by Fischerle - a chess-playing, hunch-backed dwarf - the professor sets himself up in a hotel room. This involves unpacking his library from his head.
I stop pacing the plaster aisles. This particular socket fits my recollection of the Picador's height and thickness. I focus on the white-spined volume standing on the shelf in my room and transfer it here. The paperback holds its position an inch above the ledge of plaster. It floats ...
The professor spreads brown paper over the floor, then mentally hands a packet of books to Fischerle, who begins piling them in a corner of their hotel room. The dwarf allows only a moderate height to each pile, and tests them by gently passing the tip of his nose over the top book. Between the piles he always leaves a few inches where he can conveniently insert his hands. After an hour Fischerle is in difficulty because of his hump. Manoeuvring carefully as he does, he still collides with books at every turn. He feels like spitting on them and going to sleep. "In all my born days I never see such a library," he growls. The professor boasts that Fischerle hasn't seen the half of it yet, though he acknowledges to himself that two-thirds of his library is unpacked. His exhausted helpmate threateningly suggests that they finish unpacking in the morning. The patronising professor respects the little man's fatigue, and agrees they could probably finish off later. "What we do for books is well done," he smugly concludes. It all ends in tragedy.
Rachel Whiteread's soon-to-be-realised Holocaust Memorial will be installed in the Judenplatz in Vienna. Apparently the block - which looks like the cast from the inside of a whole library - will be viewed from outside, ghosts of book pages to the fore.
Stepping out of the corridors of this library, I survey the plaster blocks one more time. I can't help feeling there's just enough space to contain all the great books ever written. Their paper and ink and flesh and blood.
Rachel Whiteread: Anthony d'Offay Gallery, W1 (0171 499 4100), to Friday.
'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book on contemporary art, is out now from Quartet (pounds 12).
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