“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges
There is something inexplicable about libraries. It is something felt when entering the dusty space of an old book repository—the story of humankind’s passion for knowledge, as well as the archives that allow such wealth to be passed on. Although there have been setbacks—such as the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 48 BCE, or the many institutions that were damaged or destroyed during World War II—we remain fascinated by the act of reaching into past experiences to layer them with present conditions, and even make predictions about the future. We organize, read, interpret, and then create our own libraries.
At a broader scale, in political struggles, there is no doubt that books and the spaces they occupy play significant roles in the fight for independence. As public libraries are open to everyone, they naturally become centers of democratic ideals, highlighting their influence on social equality via free access to cultural heritage and useful information. As suggested in Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), totalitarian regimes favor neither books nor libraries, as they could easily become platforms for dissidents and intelligentsia to share information. The free flow of information threatens totalitarian rule, so despots manipulate knowledge and history by executing different forms of cultural genocide, including biblioclasms and the destruction of libraries. Nowadays, the control of public perception is practiced in the censorship of online and printed textual materials; in Turkey (as well as several other countries), access to certain information outlets, such as Wikipedia, has been banned. That was why a collective library was constructed during the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Similarly, but under much more dire circumstances, Darayya residents in Syria built a “secret library” last year, as a safe harbor for those who believe in freedom of speech and thought.
When the Collective Çukurcuma Curatorial Initiative received an invitation from the Berlin nonprofit art space Dzialdov to curate a show, we were still licking our wounds after a tough summer. Last year, more than 400 people were killed in major attacks throughout the country—the attack at Atatürk Airport on June 28, the attempted coup d’état on July 15, and a bombing outside a soccer stadium on December 10, to name a few. As the violence unfolded not only in Turkey, but also around the world, we learned that a book depository was being built at the presidential palace in Ankara, and that it was collecting rare books from public libraries all around the country, limiting access to their contents to a choice few individuals. As the shock wore off, we found inspiration instead, and remembered Foucault’s notion of the archive as “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.” We decided to build upon that idea and to construct our own archive-library in Berlin.
To shed light on the intensifying censorship that is taking place in Turkey and beyond, artists and researchers chimed in for the project. The main aim was to rethink the philosophical, sociological and political nature of books, at a time when the mere existence of certain texts was coming under threat. While conducting research on the political power of libraries, we came across Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, a library founded at the outset of the 8th century in Baghdad, where thousands of books from different regions—written in various languages and covering philosophy, art, science and history—were housed. Translators, researchers, stenographers and authors traveled from many corners of the world to Bayt al-Hikma every day to conduct research, discuss new ideas and record their conclusions. They translated the most important texts of the era into Arabic, Persian, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew, which made Bayt al-Hikma a center of learning and intellectual exploration, inspiring other libraries far and wide, including the Library of Alexandria, to do the same. Obsessed with these untold narratives, we decided to take Bayt al-Hikma as the core of our project, learning from its history to think of libraries not only as spaces to contain and preserve information, but also as centers of research where the exchange of knowledge takes place rapidly.
German art historian Aby Warburg’s (1866–1929) curatorial technique provided the general framework: rather than creating categories within the archive based on theme, we decided to focus on the possibilities that books could offer to the reader-audience by simply existing within the same space. Presented with no beginning, end or limit, the books not only shattered the hierarchy of information, but also invited the audience to form new relationships between fragments of preexisting data. When taken together with the second location of the exhibition, Berlin’s Stadtbibliothek Else-Ury—a library founded in the 1900s that was partially destroyed during the Second World War, and named after a woman whose books were censored—these new relationships promised new ways of understanding history.
Contemporary artists have tapped into similar concepts, referencing the social and cultural power of libraries in their artworks. In Infamous Library (2006/09) by Işıl Eğrikavuk, the artist recounts the fictional story of 12 people who were kidnapped in September 1980 by unidentified people, and held captive in a library for two years, highlighting the underestimated manipulative power of written materials by questioning our tendency to blindly believe in stories reported by media outlets. Turkish video artist Ali Kazma’s personal archive contains more than 8,000 photographs taken at libraries, bookshops, print houses and bookbinderies. In one image, we see the famous quote by Borges, imagining paradise as a library. An actual library of artist books was compiled for the “House of Wisdom” exhibition at Dzialdov. The audience was encouraged to read at a big common table in the middle of the exhibition space. These books were kept in their original languages, with no translations, as homage to Bayt al-Hikma. It was up to the visitors to decipher the texts for each other.
Artists from other parts of the world have also taken the destruction of books and libraries as a point of departure in their practice. In 2016, Wafaa Bilal installed 168:01 at the Art Gallery of Windsor, featuring a library of blank, white books. He was referring to one of the non-human casualties of the 2003 invasion of Iraq: the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost its entire book collection when looters set fire to its library. Deeply affected by this incident, and drawing inspiration from Bayt al-Hikma, which was destroyed by a Mongol siege in the 13th century, Bilal created a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter, titled “One Hundred Sixty-Eight Hours and One Second,” with the aim of replacing College’s book collection based on a wish list compiled by the faculty. Taking a different approach, Chinese painter Xie Xiaoze has been visiting libraries all over the world to paint worn, nearly disintegrated monographs to record the histories carried not only by their texts, but also the books’ physical bodies. Xie’s canvases tell the stories of violent incidents toward books directed by political authorities. For instance, by depicting half-burned Chinese books rescued from Japanese attacks during World War II, Xie questions the stability and resilience of history and cultural artifacts.
Even in the digital age, books and libraries—in physical form—remain important as vessels for cultural heritage, identity and history. Beyond that, libraries provide spaces for us to come together and share ideas, especially in locations where there is suppression of free expression. By inviting artists to build a new library in Berlin, or learning from the purpose and function of Bayt al-Hikma, we can revisit the revolutionary potential of libraries as venues of dialogue, organization and remembrance.
*This article is published on ArtAsiaPacific: