The Great Wall of Books ~ theatre notes

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Great Wall of Books

Generalising... we could infer that all forms have their virtue in themselves and not in any conjectural "content". This would concord with the thesis of Benedetto Croce; already Pater in 1877 had affirmed that all arts aspire to the state of music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belaboured by time, certain twilights and certain faces try to tell us something, or have said something we should have missed, or are about to say something: this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Wall and the Books, Jorge Luis Borges

The pure wall, the pure book: The Great Wall of Books, briefly camped in Federation Square after a three month visit to Macau, is neither. Or perhaps it is both. But it shines, all the same, with a strange sense of promise, of something like the imminent but elusive revelation Borges describes.

It's an installation that is at once a public sculpture, stage set, art gallery and invitation, the brainchild of Well Theatre. Artistic director Dario Vacirca says it is inspired by Borges's meditation on the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti, who simultaneously ordered the building of the Great Wall of China and the burning of every book that preceded his reign. As Borges says, the walling in of a garden is an ordinary act, but the walling in of an entire Empire is not; just as the erasure of three thousand years of history is far beyond the usual scale of dictatorial bookburning.

If The Great Wall of Books is an answer to Borges's story, it is in its undoing of imperial boundaries, its potential chaos, its impurity. But it too encompasses creation and destruction: it is built out of books, which are thereby emptied of their content. Within its walls you trace the ghosts of knowledge - old gilt-lettered encyclopaedias, classic works - but their pages are missing. Instead, passers by are filling the book space with their own stories. It's almost a metaphor for Web 2.0, for the death of traditional critical authority, which is a common cause of breast-beating among the literati. But what you feel most of all here is its human liveness.

There is something irresistible in a book made out of books, a book, moreover, that you can walk into and climb inside, a book you can write in, a book that is a receptacle for your own discarded books, that is at once an art object and a literal and metaphorical theatre. It accretes its form and history - as books do - through its encounters with its "readers". We write it, wander inside it, read it, study its form, help to make it. Just as intriguing as the object is the behaviour of people around it, its invitation to write one's own story: you can type on a computer, or handwrite on the thick paper provided. And people do. Yesterday I saw an old man writing something which was carefully dated and written in beautiful copperplate. I was burning with curiosity, but didn't have the nerve to ask what he had written; it seemed too private, somehow.

In its impurity, its materialisation of the possible, The Great Wall of Books is an entirely charming thing. It's at Fed Square until Thursday, and well worth the wander: and there are performances - for children in the afternoon, and others in the evening. Performance times here.

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