'The Bristol Art Library', Annabel Other | catalogue essay | 1999

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As a child, I was banned from the local town’s lending library for the crime of tearing out a picture of Lazarus rising from his grave from an illustrated Bible. The episode was recast in a different light for me recently when an psychologist friend pointed out that in my account, the crime seemed to have been committed rather obviously under the gaze of the female library assistant. If my behavior had Freudian undertones, then imagine what could be read into the bizarre story of the young man discovered recently in East London to have slowly eaten his way through a library copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, or of the librarian in a Madrid suburb who blesses each book she issues with a long, lingering kiss.

The poetics of library life are the theme of The Bristol Art Library, a performance/object work by English artist Annabel Other. Shown, or should I say ‘open for lending’ by invitation, The Bristol Art Library [TBAL] is a very English conceit. It comprises of a fully functioning public lending library housed in a portable wooden cabinet the size of a small suitcase. Once open, it is meticulously administered by its full-time head librarian [Other, dressed in dowdy-chic tweed and wearing belletrist spectacles], who issues readers tickets, guides book choices, and shushes sharply if necessary.

If this all sounds somewhat theatrical, then listen to that shush again... it calls for reverence before a far more complex phenomenon. Resembling a triptych on an altar, the library doors open out to reveal a treasury of identically bound volumes, their spines picked out with gold-tooled reference numbers corresponding to The Dewey Decimal System, one of the library world’s codifications of knowledge. On the inside right-hand wing are listed the Library Rules [under Section 19, of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964], while on the left is a public notice board on which several tiny WANTED and FOR SALE cards are optimistically pinned like secular votives. Other tours the library around from venue to venue on a shopping trolley, a martyr to books, complete with attribute on wheels.

Other initially approached 70 individuals [not all necessarily artists] to create the contents of a book, providing only a size limit. The results are as diverse as one might expect from such an open remit, and each volume received has been lovingly bound in terracotta book cloth, it’s title and author’s name de-bossed on the cover. ‘Music for Inert Repetitions’ [Yoanna Hoffmann] presents its reader with a dilemma since it is a book of unfixed photographs of empty music staves, silent grids destined to vanish completely with consecutive reading. Louise Short’s ‘Stamp Album’, an archive of impetuosity, comprises entirely of those infuriating perforated scraps of postage stamp that never quite make it onto envelopes. ‘Body Language’ is a book of hilarious hand drawn observations on the process of aging by Graham Wilson, who turns out to be Other’s father, and a key influence. ‘Dawn to Dusk’ [Jonathan Taylor] is a miniature piano score, which may be quietly hummed, as long as no other readers are disturbed.

Not only a faultless pastiche of library rhetoric, TBAL converges performance with curation, staging as it does the varied worlds and strategies contained within the pages of its volumes. Fluxus in spirit, the library is both a collective and individual endeavour. It grows in members and books with each showing, now boasting a truly international catalogue, and its venues are equally varied, ranging from white cube gallery to women’s sewing circle, from a railway carriage on a train from London to Sheffield, to the hallowed courtyards of Harvard University. At the centre of this miniature, peripatetic faux-institution is Other herself, the strict-but-fair Head Librarian.

For Other, a playful Alice in a wonderland of her own devising, the simple book form remains a delicate, mysterious and infinite world. Like all serious librarians, her primary role is the gentle transfer of the curious reader across an administrative threshold to the imaginative space between body and page. She knows her collection intimately, and most ticket holders leave the library with the particular calm that accompanies deep book-reverie. There’s a website under construction, and the Head Librarian has an email address, although she prefers to be contacted in writing, preferably handwritten.

Much might be written about this wonder-full, and wondrous library. The Head Librarian, one suspects, will simply shuffle a few papers about, ink her rubber stamp, and quietly catalogue it all under Dewey System number 020, ‘Library Science’.

Jonathan Allen August 1999


Bristol Art Library >

Photography Silvia Omedes and Jonathan Allen