VERSUCHE AUS DER LITERATUR UND MORAL II / Raphaël Denis
from September 12th to November 2nd
The exhibition Versuche aus der Literatur und Moral II, whose title is borrowed from a work by the poet and philosopher Christian August Clodius published in Leipzig in 1767, is a reworked and expanded version of a project first presented in Germany in autumn 2018. It brings together recent works that evoke the fates of various books and forms of knowledge that have faced the threat of censorship or even the flames of the book-burning pyre.
Upon entering the exhibition space, the visitor is brought face to face with Fahrenheit : Sauver, Maintenir, Soutenir, a work composed of an imposing metallic structure filled with black volumes that bring to mind books awaiting consultation. However, upon closer inspection there are no pages to turn here: lining metre upon metre of these library shelves are not books but rather charred wooden simulacra.
By offering up a repository of resolutely inaccessible works, the installation serves as a visual translation of the loss of knowledge brought about by the accidental and deliberate incineration of sites of learning. It recalls the succession of amputations that have marked the history of art, science, politics and literature, from the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, the Anna Amalia library in Weimar, or the Glasgow School of Art, to the autodafés decreed Cardinal Cisneros or Diego de Landa and the recent sackings of Timbuktu, Tripoli and Mosul.
Beyond the catastrophe of destruction itself, this piece points to the complex task that befalls conservationists, restorers and other figures working to protect and recover heritage following such disastrous fires. It similarly brings to mind the scholars who find themselves caught in the midst of conflict, such as Malian librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, who sought to save some 400,000 manuscripts from the jihadi militants of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or exiled author Alfred Kantorowicz who in the 1930s worked with fellow refugees to assemble a ‘German Freedom Library’ in Paris that collected copies of the thousands of books incinerated by the Nazi regime.
This final reference, along with the installation’s carbonized appearance, links the installation to the preoccupations that underpin La Loi Normale des Erreurs : Vernichtet (2015-2018). This piece earlier installation recalls the destruction of works of art during the Nazi occupation of France, and in particular a pyre upon which more than five hundred paintings and drawings were torched in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris.
As in this earlier work, which evoked the burned artworks through black surfaces set in charred frames, the elements of the Fahrenheit series were not obtained through the burning of real books but rather through the patient sculpting of sections of wood. The substitutes are thus carefully prepared before being passed through flames, and the process is hence one of restaging which confers a commemorative value upon the final work and orients it towards a memorial function which calls for vigilance and remembrance.
Directly facing this library is a 2019 work, Fahrenheit : Act of Faith, whose chaotic pyre contrasts starkly with the regimented shelves of the exhibition’s opening piece. Once again, the viewer is confronted with a mass of blackened imitation books; yet here they are tossed in a heap awaiting destruction or perhaps already destroyed: the elements of this work seem to be suspended between a possible reprieve and some further, imminent peril. The juxtaposition of these two works composed of the same painstakingly singed elements seems to suggest a back and forth between two possible destinies: are the volumes to be bravely snatched from the flames and returned to the stacks, or will they be torn from the library, strewn on the ground and set aflame? The titular ‘act of faith’ refers to the ideological or religious fanaticism that almost unfailingly inspires the latter course of action.
This pair of installations is followed by Corps 1 : Index Librorum Prohibitorum. This multiple, of which a dozen examples have been printed, results from the reactivation of a typographic protocol that reduces the entirety of an author’s literary oeuvre to a highly condensed format and which has in the past given rise to a number of pieces including Corps 1 : La Recherche (2011) and Corps 1 : Guy Debord (2013). In these works, monuments of literature are presented in a minimal format at the very limit of legibility. InCorps 1 : Index Librorum Prohibitorum, however, the text has little in common with the writings of Marcel Proust or Guy Debord that appeared in earlier iterations: here it is the final edition of the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ that is subject to reduction. This infamous catalogue of ‘pernicious books’ was compiled by the Catholic Church from the time of the Inquisition in 1559 and was regularly updated until 1948 prior to its 1966 abolition. The single page of this work thus brings together thousands of texts censored by the Vatican over the course of several centuries, an index for a library of books condemned by religious morality. The list features not only works by the west’s most illustrious philosophers, scientists and authors – Giordano Bruno, Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Emmanuel Kant, Jean de La Fontaine, Denis Diderot, Baruch Spinoza, Jonathan Swift and Alberto Moravia, to name but a few – but also numerous adaptations, studies and translations of the Bible that serve as a telling record of the Church’s unceasing attempts to herd its errant flock.
Versuche aus der Literatur und Moral thus stages two different forces – one contingent, the other regulatory – that disrupt and prevent access to texts and to knowledge, underlining the precarious conditions of their survival and the ever-present risk of catastrophe, destruction and oblivion with which they are faced. Whilst openness and secrecy both offer their share of advantages and disadvantages in terms of preservation, the exhibition first and foremost underscores the importance of the role of reconstitution and conservation for historical memory, with a particular emphasis on the commemoration of loss. Through the dialogue that emerges between these recent works, Raphaël Denis ultimately interrogates western society’s fraught relationship with war, heritage, and dogma, in a further extension of the reflection that has animated his practice for a number of years. The ambiguous role of the spectator is also underscored here, as they are confronted with unreadable, seemingly fossilized books presented either aligned on reassuring and familiar library shelves or scattered on disconcerting, extinguished bonfires.