In ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941), Jorge Luis Borges conceived a library that accommodated all possible 410-page books, ‘each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in colour’. Here was a collection that, the library’s inhabitants believed, included every intelligible book ever written beside any that could possibly be written. After Babel, curated by Anna Kafetsi as the second part of a trilogy of exhibitions under the title ‘The Unwritten Library’ at annexM, takes Borges’ short story as a starting point to reconsider the basic set of parameters defining what a book is.
Take for example Nina Papaconstantinou’s Mourning Diary (2016): the drawing, presented in a series of table display cases, is made by filling with black ink the spaces separating the words in Roland Barthes’s 1977 text. Literally interpreting the expression ‘between the lines’, the work emphasises that the pages of a book are also filled with material and metaphorical absences and gaps. In a mesmerising 36-minute video (Bookworks Revisited 1986), Ulises Carrión delivers a visual and spoken commentary on his personal archive of artist books, presenting them in front of the camera and pronouncing the author’s name and the title while flipping through their pages. In doing so Carrión argues that an archive of artist books could be an artwork in itself, like a collection of diverse artistic personalities – another little Babel, just to stay on subject.
The exhibition also considers the idea that books are the site of cultural revolutions, as elaborated by Michael Mandiberg with his Print Wikipedia (2009–16). The work is conceived around the idea of printing the whole content of the online encyclopaedia in a series of volumes, which are then reproduced to scale on wallpaper covering the walls of a lofty room. In itself the idea might feel like an excessive simplification of the revolutionary collective endeavour that Wikipedia came to represent. Yet the scale of the ‘poetic gesture’, so to speak, devised by the artist is instead impressive and useful in visualising how technology transformed the form and the function of books. Benny Brunner’s film The Great Book Robbery (2007–2012) leads to more dire considerations, through the story of the books looted from the houses of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and indefinitely held in the National Library of Israel under the label ‘Abandoned Property’. The documentary looks at a collection of 70,000 books hijacked by a seven-decades-long conflict and turned into a symbol of loss and dispossession
Designed as a labyrinthine sequence of halls and corridors, After Babel is laid out in spaces that cleverly respond to the monumental architecture of the library described in Borges’ story. At the same time the show accommodates the perspective of the twenty-five participating artists to create a place where books are regarded as something more than a technology for the dissemination of ideas through written language. The result steers away from the systematic and logical principles that organised Borges’ Library, towards a boisterous multitude of voices that itself deserves to be called a Babel.
After Babel at Annex M, Athens, 5 December – 10 March
From the March 2019 issue of ArtReview