Artist Edgar Arceneaux has a keen interest in books. He’s spent a significant amount of time pondering their lifespan, how long it takes an author to complete one and its physicality — numerous pages bound together by a spine. While examining books, his attention naturally turned to where they are housed: libraries. As he studied library systems, the artist connected them with his geology research. In particular, the strata of a mountain.
“They are monuments, monuments of time but in a geological sense they’re constantly being rearranged and sorted,” said Arceneaux. “Libraries are actually sort of organic, even though they’re made up of paper, but they’re actually very much alive.”
The architectural installation “Library of Black Lies” at the Henry Art Gallery is the outgrowth of this perspective. Arceneaux describes the structure as cabin in the woods meets geode. When visitors first walk inside, they must crouch before they can fully stand. Books by the dozens sit on the shelves.
Some are made up of old newspapers bound with rope and painted black, representing the past. Others are handcrafted books by Arceneaux. Titles from his family’s personal library and sugar crystal books are dispersed throughout the installation. In an accompanying video, the multi-disciplinary artist explains why he used that treatment for the books. He shares that sugar crystals are associated with being timeless or things that are frozen in time.
“Library” addresses how libraries evolve over time. As books become outdated, everyone’s history doesn’t survive the transition. Arceneaux explores what the means for Black people.
“The way in which we as Americans like our history is to be successive and triumphant. We like it to be climbing a stair step, kind of a sense of progress,” said Arceneaux. “I thought, maybe I could build a library that explores the boundaries, the edge of that logic.”
As the past couple years have demonstrated, progress does not happen in a straight line. It’s more akin to two steps forward, three steps back. A two-term Barack Obama presidency, followed by a commander in chief who describes White nationalists as “some very fine people.”
“Library” was first presented in Paris in 2016. Since then, Arceneaux has added a few books by Bill Cosby to the installation. Coated with a layer of saccharine ornamentation, the comedian’s welcoming face smiles at the viewer. He was “America’s Dad” as leader of a beloved fictional family. Before that role, Cosby broke color barriers in Hollywood and was well regarded. Today, he’s serving a prison sentence for sexual assault.
“What do we do with Bill Cosby’s show that we all grew up watching, and comparing our families to the Huxtables? Do we throw all of that away or can we separate the man from the from the message? I wanted people to confront that,” said Arceneaux. “He was considered to be the top of the mountain.”
To reinforce this notion of non-linear progress, Arceneaux made the interior of “Library” a labyrinth. Visitors don’t exit the same way they enter. One could easily miss Cosby’s titles because of the mirrored walls and ceiling. It’s disorienting and that’s the point. He believes in the value of getting lost and sees it as an opportunity to learn.
For curator Shamim Momin, bringing “Library” to the Henry was an opportunity to add Arceneaux’s voice in a city grappling with many stories and histories.
“It reminds us all that we need to remain open and attentive to the diverse ways of thinking and being that exist in any city,” said Shomin. “Whose voices take precedence and whose are obscured or ignored, and what is our civic and human responsibility to our whole community?”
Arceneax is based in Pasadena, California. He’s exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art, Hammer Museum Los Angeles, the MIT List Visual Arts Center and more. He’s also an associate professor of art for Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California.
In August, his latest body of work “Boney Manilli” will debut in Los Angeles. The performance, exhibition and film is inspired by the swift rise and fall of ’90s pop duo Milli Vanilli. After winning a Grammy, the award was stripped from them when it was revealed their chart-topping singles were sung by voices other than their own.
Before that even, he’ll return to the Henry from May 16 to 19 to participate in programming centered around the installation.
“Library” is both a visual and physical experience. Arceneaux has built layers upon layers of metaphors and symbolism into “Library.” Visitors may find themselves lost, taking their own journeys through the installation while deciphering its many meanings. While he has a specific vision of the installation, the artist also sees his work as able to change those who consume it. Mirrors offer an opportunity for introspection.
“It’s an art experience which is really tailored to you,” said Arceneaux. “You won’t be the same person that you were when you walked in.”
WHAT: "Library of Black Lies"
WHEN: Runs until June 2, free admission of Sundays and First Thursdays
WHERE: Henry Art Gallery, UW campus, 15th Ave. NE & NE 41st St., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
Artist Tom Gormally channels his frustration with division in the country through sculpture
We're still here: Art exhibit shows creativity flourishes in those living with dementia
Utopian Blackness: Artist Jeremy Bell explores the human experience
Read the full Feb. 27 - March 5 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.