Closing the books MCA asked what will become of libraries in new exhibit

"Lament," Nancy Gifford Joanne Calitri photo
“Lament,” Nancy Gifford
Joanne Calitri photo

There will print be in 20 years? Will people still want to hold books and magazines and newspapers in their hand? Or will they be getting information in other ways? And in whatever future scenario one imagines, where is the place of the library in all this? These are the questions examined with humor and smarts in the new group show “Requiem for the Bibliophile,” which opened last week at Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).

Co-curated by MCA’s executive director Miki Garcia and J.V. Decemvirale, a UCSB PhD student, this collection of seven artists from Santa Barbara, New York, Mexico City and beyond all riff on the idea of the library and by extension the museum as well, both repositories of culture but for what?

"Project for an Empty Library," Jorge Mendez Blake Jorge Mendez Blake
“Project for an Empty Library,” Jorge Mendez Blake
Jorge Mendez Blake
Viewers are immediately confronted with a bold work by Santa Barbara’s Nancy Gifford, whose 32-foot-long collage of old book covers consumes the back wall, and then around the rest of the museum the other artists take on this idea of permanence, obsolescence, and curation.

Mickey Smith’s screen prints “Watch that Basket” examine the obsolescence of the library itself. In a series of prints she tracked down the dozen or more libraries in New Zealand that Dale Carnegie built at the turn of last century, matching similar libraries he had built in the Midwest and along the coasts, totaling 2,500. Carnegie probably thought he was building permanent, grand repositories of knowledge, but Ms. Smith overlays each vintage print with a current status update, such as “restaurant,” “demolished” or “visitors center.”

“Carnegie’s business philosophy was ‘Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket,’ ” Ms. Smith says. “So these are what he put in his basket\u2009…\u2009of the 18 he erected in New Zealand, two are still libraries.”

There are empty libraries of a sort in Jorge Méndez Blake’s work, one of which is a series of barren shelves with one lone book available, but high and out of reach. Books and libraries are a big part of Mr. Blake’s work, and what he brings to MCA was originally part of an exhibition called “Empty Bookshelf.” In America we take libraries for granted, he says; in his native Mexico it’s rarer and much more important, and so his work worries about the end of the institution.

“The library is supposed to be the keeper of knowledge and of civilization,” he says. “But public libraries in Mexico are almost abandoned. It’s terrible. They have one computer for 3,000 people. They have no classics. The government hasn’t put any attention to it, unlike in the States.”

David Horvitz’s work needs an introduction, but once understood, it becomes amusing. This SoCal transplant to New York returned to California and decided to travel to every public access beach up the coast, take a photo — usually with himself standing in the scene as a silhouette — and upload it to Wikipedia, the “online encyclopedia.” Instead of helping populate entries with photos, users started to notice the same guy was in every photo and that unnerved them. It finally led to Mr. Horvitz being banned from Wikipedia. But he wasn’t done. He printed up his Wikipedia entries from his trip and returned to place the academic-looking book into unsuspecting libraries — some as small as MCA’s side galleries — where it may be discovered\u2009…\u2009or not.

“Usually I’d place them in the local history section,” Mr. Horvitz says. “It’s a weird reversal, instead of this giant repository of knowledge like Wikipedia, I was placing it back into these very small ones.” You can see the book, a map of his travels, a photo slideshow and the long Wikipedia comment thread at MCA.

Xaviera Simmons, also from New York but making a return trip to MCA, plays on the idea of encyclopedias in her work about Africa. A few years ago, accompanied by some monks, she walked the length of Africa, retracing the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Gambia to Nigeria; then she flew to South Africa and hitchhiked to Ethiopia.

In her work, “Continent: Africa in the Present Tense,” which takes up a whole side gallery, a series of photos features Ms. Simmons holding up a collage of photos representing one of the countries in Africa, although that’s not always easy to figure out. It’s as if she’s taken five or so photos from an encyclopedia article and removed the text. Some are aerial shots, others are portraits. And across from that is a text-based sculpture that mentions Africa and the raw materials it has exported to the rest of the world.

“To me the most important part is the process, the collecting of objects that allude to a space,” Ms. Simmons says. The process of the viewer is also important, as Ms. Simmons wants them to “construct their own narrative” from the photos.

Elsewhere in the gallery one can find works by Carlos Garaicoa and Emily Jacir.

“I don’t see endings as nihilistic,” Mr. Blake says when we talk about the use of the word “requiem.” “I see them as a point of change. We like to think of culture as something that we can share, but I like to think of culture that is more complex and not so easy to transfer. An empty bookshelf doesn’t have to be the ruin … it can be the beginning of a library.”

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