THE BOOK AS SCULPTURE
Beijing, 13 July 2014
As I mentioned in the postscript to my previous posting, I was in Budapest these last few days. One evening, in search of a restaurant, I came across this fountain:
As the pictures suggest, the fountain consists of a sheet of water moving as if it were the page of a book being turned. I rather like that idea. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I have since discovered that two venerable Hungarian universities, Eötvös Loránd University and Péter Pázmány Catholic University, both of whose foundations reach back to the 1600’s, are located across the street from the fountain. I would guess that the fountain is linked to them: aren’t Universities places which revere books? Maybe the fountain is telling us that books water our intellectual life. But that’s a bit too fanciful, perhaps.
My curiosity piqued, I started looking around for pictures of other sculptures where books play the lead role. And of course someone has already helpfully put together a gallery of such photos! It’s on a site called Book Riot, which promotes reading of book reading and writing about them, my kind of site. I have shamelessly lifted a number of their photos to put here. Most of them have obvious connections to book-related institutions.
Stacking books is clearly a popular design motif. Here’s a fairly straightforward stack in a sculpture in front of the Nashville public library
Here is another, a little bit more untidy and making the connection between books and children (which perhaps explains the untidiness of the stacking?). It adorns the public library in Coshocton, which is (and I had to look this up on Google Maps) in Ohio. The sculpture is composed of 100 books, each one representing one year of the library’s service to the community.
Here is another stack of books, this time from Berlin.
This particular sculpture no longer exists, alas. It was part of a set of six sculptures celebrating the football World Cup of 2006. After a few months, they were taken away, who knows where to. This particular sculpture, set up in Bebelplatz opposite Humboldt University, celebrated Johannes Gutenberg who invented the modern letterpress in the German city of Mainz in around 1450.
The stacking motif continues with this sculpture, although a spiraling twist has been given to the whole.
The sculpture is in front of Beijing’s Xinhua bookstore, although I must confess to never having noticed it.
Here, the stacking has turned into a triumphal arch, located in Atlanta, at Georgia State University.
This is a very obviously symbolic statue. It was created by the sculpture students at the University and is entitled “No Goal Is Too High If We Climb With Care And Confidence”. A visual metaphor dear to the hearts of many a University Professor, I’m sure.
This one, from Charlotte North Carolina, is quite different. Like the sculpture in Coshocton, it makes a connection between books and children, but here it becomes equivalent to playground equipment, showing books as something for children to play with, on, in.
As for Kansas City library, it dispenses with sculptures altogether and has just built the books right into its façade
Another approach to book-sculptures is to consider the book a brick to be used to build structures. The Czech-Slovak artist Matej Kren has created a number of such structures, a couple of which I have photos for. The first is in the Prague municipal library
I’ve not seen it, but I read that if you look inside you get the impression of an infinite tower. It seems that Kren has made clever use of mirrors to get this optical effect.
I don’t know where the structures in these other two photos are to be found
The last could easily be an old farm house in southern Europe somewhere. The site http://callmeabsurd.tumblr.com/post/22000303273/beautiful-structures-made-of-books shows a couple more such structures made with books by Kren and other artists.
This last photo brings me to another structure made with books, but of an altogether darker tenor. It is the Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz, Vienna, a memorial to the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis before and during World War II. On my way back from Budapest to Beijing through Vienna, and with the book fountain still fresh in my mind, I decided on the spur of the moment to quickly revisit the memorial before boarding the bus for the airport.
From far away, it looks like one of those squat, windowless blockhouses which dotted the battlefields of World War II. But when you get closer, you see something else.
You see that the walls of this blockhouse are made of shelves of books. But the books are facing outwards rather than inwards as would normally be the case on a shelf. So unlike the sculpture pictured above in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, we know neither the author nor the title of any of the books. The shelves of the memorial simply appear to hold endless copies of the same book, which can stand for the vast array of faceless victims. The choice of books as the design motif perhaps alludes to the idea of the Jews being a “People of the Book”. Fittingly, another name for this memorial is the Nameless Library. Around the edges of the structure are carved the names of the camps where Austrian Jews died
At the other end of Judenplatz is a statue of the writer Lessing, staring so it seems at the Holocaust memorial
This is the same Lessing whose name appears on one of the spines of the sculpted stack of books in Bebelplatz, Berlin, a photo of which I included earlier. A connection which allows me to segue into my next memorial, in that same Bebelplatz, a memorial to the campaign of book burnings, orchestrated by the German Student Union, which took place there and in 34 other German university towns in May 1933, shortly after the Nazis had taken power. The purpose was to ceremonially burn books by classical liberal, anarchist, socialist, pacifist, communist, Jewish, and other German and non-German authors whose writings were viewed as subversive to the new regime. Many came from Humboldt University’s libraries. The students first marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit”. Some 40,000 people then gathered in Bebelplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address:
“The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path…The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.
Then the students joyfully threw the books onto the pyre, with band-playing, songs, “fire oaths”, and incantations.
In Berlin, some 20,000 books were burned. Looking back at the stack of books which make up the sculpture put in this same square 83 years later, Heinrich Heine’s books were burned, as were those of Anna Seghers, Karl Marx, Heinrich Mann, and Bertolt Brecht. In all, the works of some 60 German authors and 25 non-German authors were consigned to the flames.
The memorial to this shameful episode consists simply of a glass plate set into the square’s cobble stones, below which are visible empty bookcases, enough of them to hold the total of the 20,000 burned books.
Next to it is a plaque, with a line from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” Heine was referring to the burning of the Muslim Quran by the Christian Inquisition in Spain. But looking back at the Holocaust memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz, how prescient is that line! And the book burnings haven’t stopped, as a Wikipedia article eloquently shows.
Budapest book fountain: my photos
The following five photos are from bookriot.com/2013/03/06/10-superbly-bookish-statues
– Nashville public library: http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/nashville-public-library-book-statue.jpg
– Berlin Walk of Ideas http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/berlin-book-statue.jpg
– Xinhua bookstore, Beijing: http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/beijing-xinhua-bookstore-statue.jpg
– Brick book statue: http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/brick-book-statue.jpg
Georgia Tech University, Atlanta: http://www.himalayanrestaurantct.com/article_images/best-bizarre-statues-or-public-art-in-atlanta.jpg [in http://www.himalayanrestaurantct.com/arts-culture/best-art-museums-in-atlanta-449.php%5D
Holocaust memorial, Judenplatz, Vienna: my photos
Bebelplatz book burning-2: http://cdn2.spiegel.de/images/image-485121-galleryV9-ohuq.jpg [in http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/photo-gallery-erich-kaestner-and-the-nazi-book-burnings-fotostrecke-95652-2.html%5D
Bebelplatz memorial to book burning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_book_burnings#mediaviewer/File:Bebelplatz_mit_Mahnmal_B%C3%BCcherverbrennung_Aug_2009.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_book_burnings%5D