A few days after the opening of the New Museum’s "Museum as Hub: The Bidoun Library Project" -- a high-low mix of periodicals, historical books, propaganda manuals, state-sponsored children’s books, romance novels and other printed materials from and about the Middle East -- the New York Times Magazine published an article on "Physical books’ bright future -- as decorative objects and props" by Rob Walker. The article was a clever take on the many uses of books (remember books?) as materials in the age of Kindle, from intricately carved works of art to a source of wallpaper (the book pages). The parallels were uncanny.
In the case of "The Bidoun Library," books serve as raw materials for a conceptual art installation that invokes the romance of the physical library. Arranged on wall-mounted shelves -- some by thematic order, others simply visually -- with a catalogue for each section hanging from the ceiling, the interactive installation encourages viewers to freely browse (albeit wearing archival gloves) the cover designs, engage with the printed materials or study the texts in detail.
The books selected were all published after the Second World War, when the region’s mass production of crude oil (1945), the beginning of the Cold War (1947), and the establishment of Israel (1948) gave birth to the modern Middle East as we know it today. The second half of the 20th century was also a period when the written word was the most powerful means of communication, with books, manifestos, periodicals and newspapers catalysts for cultural and political revolutions. It was also its last, as the printed material gave way to virtual communication.
While the materials themselves are unique and should be acknowledged -- Documents from the US Espionage Den #43 produced by Muslim Students Following The Line of the Imam, So Sorry We Won! The Story of the Six-Day War in Word and Cartoon by Israel’s Foremost Satirists by E. Kishon and Dosh, and Harlequin Series’ The Sultan’s Virgin Bride by Sarah Morgan -- it is the context of a heterogeneous Middle Eastern literary culture that is truly worth noting. As the show’s catalogue explicitly states, "Please exercise caution. . . . Many of the books, magazines, and pamphlets on display are in delicate condition." Showcased on the shelves of a museum in stunning visual array, the physical printed materials presented here are filled with the new life of an ephemeral and malleable concept.
"Museum as Hub: The Bidoun Library Project," Aug. 5 - Sept. 26, 2010 at The New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10002
NAZY NAZHAND covers contemporary art from Middle East and is the founder of Art Middle East