March 16, 2020

Edmund de Waal mourns lost British libraries in latest installation


Edmund de Waal (Bernhard Holub, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Contemporary artist Edmund de Waal, known mostly for his installations of row upon row of porcelain vessels, has a new installation on view at the British Museum.

This time around, the pieces aren’t trinkets—but books. Two thousand books just like the ones you would find in a bookstore or library. (If you’re asking yourself, “So how does De Waal’s signature porcelain play into this one?” the walls and shelves are made of liquid porcelain according to The Guardian.) The more logical next question for the rest of you who don’t come to de Waal by way of your passion for porcelain might be: why has the artist chosen such a subject? Another question I am uniquely equipped to answer having read the aforementioned Guardian piece: the UK has closed 20% of its libraries in the last 10 years, and De Waal is determined to mark this loss and push back against it.

In the installation, the books themselves are the usual board and paper that we all know and love, and you are expected not just to feel the love but show it if you are lucky enough to attend (the British Museum remains open at press date). The artist has instructed viewers to write their names on a label tucked inside each book, and encourages people to talk while they are in “The Library”—famous library no-no’s, but guys, this is art! Anything can happen!

In these trying times, de Waal is not satisfied to just challenge one social issue with this installation. Besides the aforementioned rampant closure of UK libraries, which the artist calls “violent and vile” and “absolutely heartbreaking,” he is also challenging xenophobia towards refugees. To communicate this, he included only exiled writers in the collection, from TS Eliot to Ovid. And to top it off, he was also inspired to create the installation by the library of his great-grandfather, which was looted by the Nazis (more on De Waal’s family is detailed in his best-selling book The Hare with the Amber Eyes).

All worthy themes to consider on their own, but the concept of the installation is also a sober reminder of just how far we’d fallen from the ideal of our institutions in the past few decades. Here’s to rebuilding it right.



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.