Artist Lu Zhang spends a year in the George Peabody Library
By By Maura Callahan
Dec 08, 2015 | 12:27 PM
With its profound collection of books and prints dating as far back as the Renaissance, as well as its history and Neo-Grec architecture and ornamentation, the George Peabody Library is as much a museum as the Walters across the street. But for the past year, it has been at once a library, a museum, and an artist's studio. Baltimore artist Lu Zhang spent a yearlong residency working in the narrow stacks of the ornate library, collecting, copying, and transferring everything around her, from the books to the interior itself. Using these images, texts, and materials, Zhang created six books of her own, each embodying a level of the library with a nod to the Dewey Decimal system, forming a kind of topology of knowledge. Presented jointly by the library and ICA Baltimore, the books are exhibited in the building's atrium in a show called "topo(log) typo(log)."
Another project might feel swallowed in the interior's magnificence (such is the experience of entering the library), but Zhang's large, cloth-bound books demand curiosity at the front of the atrium. Spread out on the old wood tables, the books are free to peruse, handle, flip through.
"Book" here is defined loosely, as it tends to be when in the hands of an artist. Though the heavy folio-sized books appear more or less identical, each opens to a different configuration using different materials.
Hand-transferred onto soft cotton paper, Book One "General Reference" takes photocopied elements from architectural renderings by the building's architect E.G. Lind as well as encyclopedias, maps, and other reference material. Each of the illustrations—mostly 19th-century etchings—are beautiful in their own right. Pristine renderings of ancient Greek vases flip to cathedral columns to early images of the Peabody Library to blueprints to fiber diagrams to sea urchins to constellations to hieroglyphics, and so on, each suspended in the center of the page. Visual connections form between each image, linking the contents of "general reference," i.e. more or less everything in the universe. It's impossible to look at one page without feeling compelled to leaf through the rest.
Book Two "Biography" comprises two small, thin books, each representing the two volumes of Miguel de Cervantes' "The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha." In the center of each page is the title of each of the protagonists' adventures, beginning with "WHICH DESCRIBES THE CONDITION AND PROFESSION OF THE FAMOUS GENTLEMAN DON QUIXOTE OF LA MANCHA" (soon followed by the burning of his library) in the first volume, and ending with "WHICH DEALS WITH HOW DON QUIXOTE FELL ILL, AND THE WILL HE MADE, AND HIS DEATH" in the second. It's a handy alternative to SparkNotes, for one, and for another, it's a collection of highlights: the nature of biography, as opposed to the nuance of experience and memory. Book Two stands out from the rest, as it is the only piece that rejects nuance.
Detail is the subject of Book Three "History," which is filled with full-color photographic prints of the library's bare surfaces—the marble floors, wood tabletops, creamy walls—enlarged, cropped, and thereby abstracted to reveal their painterly, landscape-like qualities. Below each image is the transcript of a guided tour of the library with Paul Espinosa, the library's curator. I can't help but think of trudging through tours when I was too young to appreciate things there are tours for, idly staring at the floor or some corner—the act of misfocus. But on this tour, Zhang gives you permission to become lost in worn scratches in wood grain, dirt embedded in stone, delicate cracks in layers of wall paint—evidence of a century and a half of use and replacement, archived in the library's body like its books.
There aren't pages inside Book Four "Literature and Translation," but 31 polymer clay sculptures that can each fit into a palm. In fact, the back of each piece fits the form of the artist's hand, pushing the clay into a textural detail found in the library. A few of the impressions from these tactile moments are discernible—one is clearly indented with Braille, another the corner of a table or wall moulding—while others are unclear. Some appear yonic; one looks like a nipple. Some appear to have been formed by buttons or parts on machinery. Many of these details are unexpected in this environment, but together they make up what is now the "George Peabody Font," each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet (and, we assume, punctuation). The sculptural and tactile nature of the font draws attention to the aesthetic qualities of text, distinct from its meaning, and the pliability of language. The library's collection of early material in particular contains pages of texts that might be enjoyed purely for their appearance, from ornate, decorative initials to early type pressed into yellowed paper.
68 cyanotypes and text from each page of Luke Howard's 1803 "Modification of Clouds" hover within the frosted vellum sheets of Book Five "Science and Art." Each page emerges behind the one before and after through the foggy translucence of the page material. The cyanotypes, too, are cloud-like by nature: Left white as the sun colored the surrounding photosensitive paper a crisp blue, the ghost images of objects placed on the paper float in space. Like the impressions in Book Four, some of the silhouettes are ambiguous, others were clearly left by office supplies like staples and hole-punched paper. One can imagine looking over the cast-iron banisters and feeling like a cloud in Zhang's studio area, located in one of the stacks on an upper level corner (interestingly, the library's interior appears significantly larger from the upper levels than from the ground floor). The book collides science with art through the blurring of evidence with abstraction and feeling.
Book Six "Bibliography and Books About Books," might be the most satisfying piece to explore—going through it is like picking out chocolates. Like a library card catalog, the cover opens to a box filled with thousands of small sheets of material used in the project, including captions and translations for Book One, photographic film, cyanotype paper, snippets cut from Zhang's journals and sketchbooks, glossy photos of the library and its stacks, print-outs of emails, photocopied illustrations, the printed George Peabody Font, even tiny versions of the Don Quixote books. Book Six is the whole project and the library itself in miniature.
Skimming through all six books imparts a sense of the library's space and its contents, from its most precious offerings to easily overlooked details—unlike the typical nature of "skimming" through text, or scrolling and swiping through the Web. After the exhibition closes, the books will become a part of the library's permanent collection, so visitors can study the pieces in greater depth as they would indulge their curiosities elsewhere in the library. Zhang taps into that Victorian spirit of inquiry which built this incredible space by letting us into her process, literally giving us all of the pieces without fully assembling them.