READING ROOM Betty Spackman and Anja Westerfrölke
[First written to accompany Lethbridge Alberta's Southern Alberta Art Gallery 15 March-4 May 1997 exhibition and also published in a small book in English with a German translation for an exhibition at Galerie Im Stifterhaus, part of "Arts Electronica", Linz, Austria, September 8-21 1997]
In Borges story "Funes the Memorious," Funes uses his perfect memory to link anything he fancies to anything else, for example, he likes to collate a certain morning's cloud formations to peculiar stains on a book. Borges is describing is the state of our world, in which facts and ideas become fragmented as they circulate across continents.
The spirit of Funes resides in the library, not the art gallery. Libraries make sense of things the way art galleries only do below stairs in carefully maintained vaults. In a library, any conjunction of ideas is perfectly possible and expected, but in an art gallery every juxtaposition is precious: most irritatingly, we expect that an art gallery's juxtapositions will be somehow unexpected.
The Reading Room was a small demonstration by Betty Spackman and Anja Westerfrölke of of how strange a library can be, of how the library has become the richest of art institutions because, unlike the art gallery, it assorts the homeless fact, the fragment, and the arbitrary image according some sort of categorization. By contrast, the art gallery attempts to float its contents within what it designates as neutral space.
Betty Spackman and Anja Westerfrölke invented a 'Reading Room" inside the Southern Alberta Art Gallery as if to bring attention to the Library which predated the Gallery in the same building. The artists called up ghosts from the discard bin to create a fantasy library which contained as many sculptures as books, and as many local stories as long-distance novels.
This Reading Room was a real library of sorts, but within it every viewer inquiry was cleverly rerouted into leisurely contemplation. It contained real books collected from the refuse of relatively-new Lethbridge Library down the street, not stacked on shelves but piled up and thumbable inside the temporarily reopened entrance of the old Lethbridge Library (knocking down exterior walls, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery spared no expense with this show). Inside the Reading Room were shelves like old library shelves--hand-built oak jobs--but they were empty of books. The Reading Room had computers, except without conventional catalogues or keys to the library/art gallery's artistic holdings. Instead the computers displayed drawings of the surrealistic objects which the artists had scattered around the gallery, and texts of locally-gathered stories. Like a real library, special rules for sorting and filing were evident in the Reading Room, but these rules were eccentric. For example, a system of hooks, hanging devices and bags for numbered and lettered objects did not easily reveal its secret code to viewers--one had to dig for the connections amongst the dense bric-a-brac of things.
The slippage between Austrian and Canadian views of the West figured strangely in Reading Room. Westerfrölke is from Linz, Austria, where this exhibition will travel later this year (September 8-21 at Galerie Im Stifterhaus as part of "Arts Electronica" 1997) and Spackman is from Toronto. Klaus Hollinetz--an Austrian--collaborated with the artists on an audio art work called "Little Stories for Reading Room." "Little Stories..." is a precisely blended and humorous collection of Lethbridge oral history and natural sounds such as thunderclaps and rain. The first-person tales on this CD include old-cogger yarns about quick sand, swallowing a dime in a cake, and beaver ponds. The cacophony of Austrian kids learning English by reading passages from the German nineteenth-century writer Karl May could also be heard. May's stories are still avidly read by European children but unread in Canada. He never visited the West and had a wildly distorted view of Frontier life, but he still occupies a little patch of European consciousness which has nothing to do with any of the many Wests we celebrate and debunk here. All this made for delightful thinking about Austrians.
Spackman has family roots in Lethbridge, and Westerfrölke, as mentioned, is Austrian, so one tended to read aspects of the show as a complicated reconciliation of Europe and North America, of Austria and Canada, of Linz and Lethbridge and even of Karl May and real First Nations people. A reconciliation between Betty Spackman and Anja Westerfrölke, not to mention the respective Canadian and Austrian neo-avant-gardes, was also implied.
This is the way the art world works now: someone in Linz collaborates with someone from Toronto to make an installation in Lethbridge which contains obscure references to Lethbridge history, Austrian children's stories. Such are the intricacies at work in today's art world. And it was an art gallery turned into a library which made it all possible.