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  • Exhibition

  • January 25, 2015 - May 1, 2016
  • Galleries

From the Greek βιβλιοθήκη, meaning library.
“Traditionally, collection of books used for reading or study, or the building or room in which such a collection is kept.”

From the Greek φιλία, meaning friendship.
A suffix meaning “friendly feeling toward, […] tendency toward, […or] abnormal appetite or liking for.”

For centuries, libraries have exerted a quiet sort of gravity, pulling us in with the promise that for a while, in the hushed, book-filled corridors, we can exceed ourselves. But, in this age of eBooks and library apps, does the physical and philosophical space of the library remain relevant? And what qualities define a library? Can libraries exist digitally, or be constituted of things other than books? The six artists in Bibliothecaphilia explore the medium and ethos of libraries: institutions straddling the public and private spheres, the escapism that libraries offer, libraries’ status as storehouses for physical books—and thus for experiences and knowledge—and the way that these objects circulate and are re-used. Participating artists included Clayton Cubitt, Jonathan Gitelson, Susan Hefuna, Meg Hitchcock, Dan Peterman, and Jena Priebe.

Perhaps no work in Bibliothecaphilia likes the library more than Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature. In each “session” of Hysterical Literature, the camera captures a woman from across a table as she reads aloud from a book that she has selected for her “session.” Slowly we become aware of an unseen force; is it the book or the unseen assistant, pleasuring her with a vibrator below the table, which sends her into titular hysterics? One woman writes of her session, “This is my revolutionary act of selfishness… my virtual picket sign… my one-woman rally… my rebel yell… my sedentary march… a call for dialogue and understanding.”


In Jonathan Gitelson’s work, Marginalia, the presence of books’ previous readers is felt despite their physical absence. The markings and ephemera that they leave behind invite us to imagine their relationship to the text—a relationship that, he writes, “may be a dying mystery […] with the advent of e-books and computer-based reading.” In Marginalia, visitors have the opportunity to explore shelves of marked books that Gitelson has collected in a work that includes bits of ephemera found in books and works on paper that show bright lines of highlighting drawn from the pages of the books—from which the printed words have been removed.

Dan Peterman’s work likewise deals with the repurposing of used materials. In place of books, however, Peterman’s work utilizes pieces of compressed post-consumer plastic. His previous installations include Archive (one-ton), 2012, which occupied a former private library, where he filled the shelves with paperback-sized boards of plastic to act as “surrogate books,” and a 100-foot long continuous table in a public park, at which, each day, strangers dine together (Running Table, 1990). Like the books of a library, these materials form part of a circulating network of individuals whose knowledge of one another is limited to their shared connections to the materials that they (re)use.

Jena Priebe’s and Meg Hitchcock’s works engage with the reuse of texts that takes place in libraries, as well as the interaction between books and readers. For Priebe, who often uses books that have been deaccessioned from libraries as materials in her work, books become fodder for immersive installations populated by towers of tomes and swirling streams of pages that appear to defy the laws of physics. Her works blur the boundary between the physical material of the book and the reader’s mental experience of the text. Hitchcock’s intimate Texts brings the books themselves into conversation, using letters and words from one holy text to recreate the verses of another. In her hands, the books are transformed into geometric meditations on interconnectedness.

Susan Hefuna’s mashrabiyas isolate the interstitial space between public and private life that libraries so often occupy. Historically, mashrabiyas, large-scale carved wooden screens, were placed in windows to allow air to circulate. Hefuna became interested in the way that they allowed women to view the outside world while being shielded from the public eye: “You see life outside the room, hear the cars and feel the hectic pace of the city—but you yourself are in calm surroundings, so it’s therefore very meditative.” Dyed with ink, the patterns of Hefuna’s large-scale screens are woven with spare words and phrases, with past and present resonances with which viewers are called to engage.

Ranging in scale from intimate to all-encompassing, these artists’ works prompt both private contemplation and public exchange, and invite us to imagine what might be lost if libraries—those archives of paradise and longings—should truly disappear.

The exhibition coincides with a year-long initiative at Williams College (including the Williams College Museum of Art and Clark Art Institute) dedicated to books, libraries, and information. It focuses on exploring the diverse ways in which people preserve and convey ideas, creative works, data, and other forms of information. The project features a wide array of public presentations, performances, courses, and exhibitions (including at the Williams College Museum of Art and Clark Art Institute) that imagine the theme from many perspectives.

Clayton Cubitt, Still from Hysterical Literature: Session One: Stoya, 2012
Digital Video, 6 min. 51 sec.