Kader Attia: The Infinite Library, Emily Butler, 2013

Writing published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, 2013-2014, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. ©All Rights Reserved.


The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. […] In the hallway there isa mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite…

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’1

A towering structure of open steel shelves fills the room piled with thousands of books from floor to ceiling. Kader Attia’s installation at the Whitechapel Gallery offers the viewer the opportunity to discover an extraordinary library. At times the publications seem casually stacked, awaiting further use or re-ordering. Some are carefully displayed on book stands, their covers offering a rich array of illustrations and conveying a sense of their varied subject matter: from a beginner’s guide to new technology, to the arts of Africa. It traces the evolution of book publishing: from leather bound tomes with engravings such as d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751), to mass-published textbooks. It also charts the development of human knowledge, from early astronomical tools, through printed books and their impending obsolescence due to online publishing. The books are in many languages; they have been gathered from flea markets, international online sources but also from publishers and booksellers’ surplus stock in London where this piece was first exhibited.
In a space that was previously a library, the shapingof the project epitomises how books are as precious as they are obsolete, and knowledge is as valuable as it is disposable.
Attia has responded to the space, the former central reading room of the Whitechapel Public Library, which is steeped in history. The endless stacks of books on various subjects record the accumulation of human knowledge. Moreover, this library is a repository but also a display of knowledge. Attia says: ‘the display is both a celebration and critique of the library’, as Michel Foucault wrote in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) ‘the more you know, the more you control’.2 At the centre of the installation lies a wooden display cabinet, or cabinet of curiosities, filled with scientific instruments such as microscopes, telescopes and precious books. In the past, influential collectors would have carefully selected objects for display in their Wunderkammer or tomes for their libraries. These legacies later formed the basis of civic libraries and museums, which are still today carefully mediated for the benefit of the public. Attia is aware of the archive’s legacy, drawing upon an archival aesthetic in his work. By carefully orchestrating or re-enacting our encounter with the corpus of books and the central cabinet, Attia highlights how books and libraries have been used to collect, mediate but also, ultimately, to control knowledge.
The piece is titled Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder (2013). Here, Attia is alluding to two important concepts. Firstly, to Jacob’s dream as told in Christian, Judaic and Islamic scriptures, of a ladder of light with angels descending and ascending from heaven. Attia uses a minimal strip light between two mirrors to create a Jacob’s ladder, or a mise en abyme 3 reflection. This story offers a powerful metaphorical image of the link between the terrestrial and celestial, in other words man’s search for God or enlightenment.4 The second key subject is the Continuum of Repair, the artist’s idea of physical and cultural processes of repair.5 Here, the word ‘continuum’ refers to a continuous process of experience or to the repetition of history.6 Indeed, Attia problematises the concept of a single universal trajectory by inferring that nature can be cyclical, yet also unpredictable.7
The image that Attia uses to reinforce the idea of the continuum in his work is the loop. Indeed, the bookshelves are organised in a thematic loop, offering a progression through a series of subjects: mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, architecture, archaeology, art history, non-Western cultures, medicine, war, philosophy etc.
The list is not exhaustive, however it does follow a specific sequence; this library is organised according to different disciplines or approaches to understanding the world: through the sciences to the arts and back via philosophy. For centuries, science and art subjects have been seen as polarised approaches to capturing and conveying reality, through objective or subjective means. According to Attia, these are not so distinct, both subjects aim to understand the world. What is more, he conceives philosophy as a bridge to these different approaches, and has placed the subject matter at the entrance to the inner sanctum, linking both sides of the installation.8 From the entrance you can also see the father of European Rationalism René Descartes’ Discourse on Method (interestingly published by the Religion of Science library in 1637) in prime position in the cabinet.
Another image associated with a continuum or loop is the idea of infinity. The Jacob’s ladder reflection in the two mirrors creates an impressive infinite ladder of light, which induces vertigo when stepping up to look at it closely. In the work, Attia harnesses the illusory and immersive potential of this endless reflection. Nonetheless, beyond making the viewer become highly aware of their spatial positioning, it also offers an impressive moment of existential self-reflection. On the subject of mirrors Attia has said, ‘what interests me is a direct relationship [with the viewer] […], people don’t really look at the work – they look at the mirror it holds up to them’.9
The idea of infinity can also be seen in the towering and cyclical shelving structures displaying thousands of books in multiple languages. “is reference to infinity is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ library in the short story ‘The Library of Babel’10 where an indeterminate number of possible books seem to extend to infinity. As we have seen, Attia’s work subverts the modernist idea of the library as a comprehensive space, a neutral conveyor of total or infinite information. Attia, like Borges’ story, shows that humanity’s vain attempt to reach enlightenment, either through the study of the infinitely small (biology, quantum physics…) or the infinitely large (astronomy, cosmology , philosophy…), will never capture knowledge in its entirety. Thus, the idea of total knowledge proves itself untenable and unfathomable.
The idea of the infinite library also extends Attia’s concept of continual repair, which has resonances with theories on the push and pull of chaos and order or on endless return, where history or time is seento repeat itself. By repeating chaos, does it become order? Borges employs the term ‘unlimited and cyclical’11 to discuss his concept of the infinite. Indeed, Attia’s library is not a static
repository, it is a living library. It is balanced between order and disorder, between being organised and disrupted. The public can leaf through these publications. People may unconsciously or purposefully move the books. Some will no doubt disappear. The books can also vary according to where the piece is shown. The library can transform and accumulate new books from the locations where it is exhibited. What is more, the creator of this library knows that it will never be able to contain all the books ever published.
Does the impossibility of creating a universal or total library make it redundant? Since the advent of the web, we can now potentially access all these books at the touch of a fingertip. Whilst the Internet is expanding at exponential speed it is not a universal source of knowledge, nor is it geo-politically neutral. Here, Attia encourages us to pause for a moment and to reflect on our traditional forms of capturing, recording and collecting knowledge, to look closer at how it has been conveyed
to us. At the same time, in the face of the plethora and the weight of this information, it highlights how knowledge is a continuous process of repair, helping us look into the unfathomable future, albeit with a bit more reflection.