IT IS UNUSUAL to walk into a library and find the books laid out across the floor. It is even more unusual to do so in a Special Collections Archive, where the books and magazines in question are normally only available upon special request. But precisely this has happened in the Women’s Art Library, located in the Goldsmiths College Library Special Collections department, courtesy of Greek-born artist Christina Mitrentse (born 1977).
Originally established as the Women Artists Slide Library in the late 1970s, this artists' initiative developed into a fully-fledged organisation and research resource, becoming part of Goldsmiths College Library Special Collections in 2004. Its holdings include a significant number of early feminist art journals, such as Feminist Artists Newsletter (UK), Heresies (USA) and Matriart (Canada), alongside, of course, the complete nine-year, 92-issue run of what came to be known as MAKE, the library’s own publication of and for women's art, focusing on historical and contemporary women's art practice and highlighting both emerging and established international artists through previews, interviews and feature pieces.
It is this archive to which Mitrentse has been given no holds barred access for her site specific, interactive, floor-based installation, incorporating all 92 issues, and bringing them out on to the reading room floor, where visitors can pick them up, browse and read, before replacing them on to the specially constructed close-to-floor shelving. This is not the first time Mitrentse has created such an installation, and this instance forms part of the ongoing Add to My Library project, whereby the artist compiles, archives, and represents the favourite books of various contributors, and turns them into ‘metalibraries’ at various galleries, libraries, and art institutions around the world. Her work references the art practices of renowned conceptual artist John Latham, and this exhibition also includes a Book-SkoobTower, situated in the main library’s stairwell, which directly reflects his own sculptural pieces.
Also on display are four written pieces by art critics and researchers, responding to Mitrentse’s work, and previewing this exhibition, showcased in glass cabinets and display cases, suggesting they be considered as much as works of art as the books and journals in the archive. Two screenings provide background information from Volumes II & III of the Add to My Library project, and a selection of colour drawings also adorn the walls.
Apart from the magazine installation itself though, perhaps the most significant (and thoroughly feminist) work in this exhibition is the latest in another of Mitrentse’s series: the Wounded Book Sculptures. For this, she has selected a number of books, largely about, and many by women, all vintage Penguin publications, and has shot through – or wounded – them, with a gun, leaving clearly visible bullet holes. All manner of questions are raised here about the power play and intentions: why, in an archive which attempts to preserve disappearing printed matter, would the artist be damaging the books? And what does it signify that a woman is using a traditionally phallic weapon such as a gun to lash out at books fighting for her visibility, such as Henry Rider Haggard’s best-selling late Victorian novel She, and Susie Orbach’s revolutionary Fat is a Feminist Issue?
As Areti Leopoulou writes in one of the four texts on display, Mitrentse, as she collects, researches, organises, archives, edits, borrows and (re-)appropriates, basing her approach on the established methodologies of libraries and museums, is ‘ultimately building an heterotopia of her own’. As such, Leopoulou continues, ‘she initiates a kind of post-museum for books that are symbolically “disabled” or “dead”’. Rather, it would seem to me, Mitrentse is recycling and questioning the status of all printed material, presenting current critical writings as artefacts, wounding, symbolically silencing, but then presenting as key figures of history, significant feminist books, and rescuing, freeing, and making available to all, hidden volumes of the history of the Women’s Art Library, the very place where this exhibition is taking place.
The live installation will take place at Lacey Contemporary Gallery on 29 November 2014 between 12-4pm. The interactive sculpture requires the local community to bring their favourite book (new or old) to the gallery where Mitrentse will use the books given to create her sculpture as a live performance throughout the afternoon.
A version of this review appeared on DIVA online
The exhibition reviewed – Christina Mitrentse: MAKE – METALIBRARY / An Interactive Exhibition – took place from 2–23 September 2013 at the Women’s Art Library, Special Collections, Rutherford Building, Goldsmiths, University of London