Monday, April 1, 2013

Matias Faldbakken's Untitled (Book Sculpture) in Oslo and at Documenta 13

Matias Faldbakken, Untitled (Book Sculpture), 2008/2012. Photos: 16 Miles (except where noted) [more]

Since Documenta only arrives every five years, hopefully it's okay to spend the next year or so writing about it.

One of the more unusual moments came in Kassel's Youth Library, where Matias Faldbakken had installed his Untitled (Book Sculpture) (2008/2012), throwing dozens of books from their shelves onto the ground. For the 100 days of the exhibition, the poor children of Kassel had to wade through the pile on the ground to find some volumes. Faldbakken also staged the work in the City Hall Library, though I sadly didn't make it there. (Contemporary Art Daily has an epic selection of installation shots of that iteration.)

The dating of the piece—2008/2012—was interesting to see. It turns out that it was first staged in 2008 at Oslo's Deichmanske Public Library, the largest public library in Norway. Kunsthall Oslo's director, Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, helped to arrange that presentation (pictured below) and wrote extensively about the experience. The backstory is awesome.


Untitled (Book Sculpture), 2008, at the Deichmanske Library, Oslo. Photo: Vegard Kleven

Eeg-Tverbakk and Faldbakken pitched the idea to the library and naturally did not expect an especially positive response, given that books could be damaged when they were thrown onto the floor, but the library agreed to it. And not only did they agree, they proposed making the project even more dramatic. Writes Eeg-Tverbakk:
[Library administrators] later suggested expanding the act of vandalism to include a much larger section of the collection, which Faldbakken rejected on artistic grounds. He was predominantly interested in the staged act of vandalism as a concentrated image, rather than a comprehensive state of affairs.
Not only did the library eagerly take up the project, but some patrons "in sympathy with the plight of the Library took matters into their own hands and began tidying the books and placing the back on the shelves again—only to find the pile on the floor again the next day." Only in Scandinavia. How great looking is that? It's scatter art realized through vandalism, a González-Torres-style pile that requires you to be a member of the institution to take away the souvenir.)



Furthering confusion among the public, the piece was unlabeled at the Deichmanske Public Library, as it was in Kassel. Faldbakken asked librarians to tell people who asked about the mess: "It is somewhat unclear how this happened, but we have been told by the management that it will be taken care of shortly." That response is maybe as good as the piece itself: art requiring its host to lie to its users.

The Oslo library's head, Liv Sæteren, wrote a news release that it planned to issue in case there was a controversy over the project. (One wonders how often organizations do this?) It was never used, but it makes a pretty great case for the piece:
[The books] are still there, the thoughts are still there, the content is still there - but the system has been demolished and we have to search in new ways. In this light, we can see Faldbakken’s sculpture as a highly topical comment on the idea of a new library space.
It's a playful, slightly sinister attempt to imagine a reordering of knowledge, to be sure, but it also highlights the library, that sleepy and staid institution, as a site that can be contested, where very real conflicts can get played out (and have been played out in the past). I don't know how Norwegians felt about the work when they saw it back in 2008, but I know that in the center of Germany last summer, as part of an exhibition that was, in part, concerned with the unresolved, unresolvable traumas of World War II, those violently scattered books looked horrifying.

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