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Visual arts: Edmund de Waal: Library of Exile

18 December 2020

Jonathan Evens visited a British Museum library

© Trustees of the British Museum

Library of Exile by Edmund de Waal, installed in Room 2 at the British Museum

Library of Exile by Edmund de Waal, installed in Room 2 at the British Museum

THE wisdom of the world is found in words and images and held in containers of space and containers of thought. Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile gives us architecture, art, and literature combined in one habitable installation, where the inside and outside provide different responses to human learning and creativity.

The exterior to this library is painted in porcelain slip, enabling de Waal to inscribe its walls with the names of the lost libraries of the world, from the ancient Library of Alexandria to the Mosul University Library in Iraq. Gold leaf is painted on at points giving a sense of hidden wonder and richness. Knowledge has been covered over as libraries have been destroyed only to re-emerge, revived and reconstituted

This will literally be re-enacted in the life of this project as, after its presentation at the British Museum, the library’s collection of books will be donated to the world-renowned library of the University of Mosul in Iraq, upon which restoration work has begun after its near-total destruction by the Islamic State group in 2015.

It’s always personal, de Waal writes on the library’s wall. I remember as a child cycling to my local library, taking out four books — the limit then — reading them at home that same day and cycling back that afternoon only to be told I couldn’t borrow more that same day. My grandson recently visited our local library for the first time and was amazed by the opportunity to borrow 25 books.

De Waal has said that library closures are “violent and vile” because there are few spaces left in society where children can be silent and quiet and read and discover. In my previous parish, we were glad to be involved with a successful campaign to reopen a local library at a time when closures were more common around the country.

© Trustees of the British MuseumEdmund de Waal in his Library of Exile

Sitting in this library brought these personal experiences of the significance of libraries to mind as I explored the collection that de Waal has brought together. This temporary pavilion is designed as a place of dialogue and contemplation, with visitors are encouraged to sit and read the books, almost all of which are in translation, exploring the idea of language as migration.

The library includes the works of almost 1500 writers from 58 countries in dozens of languages, and is still growing. The books all contain an “ex libris” label for visitors to write their name in a book that matters to them. The collection can also be explored through an online catalogue, where new titles can be suggested.

Among the books that I read on my visit and in which I, following others, made my mark were works by Paul Celan and Simone Weil. Weil writes that studies and prayer both involve attention and therefore, potentially, complement one another. Celan, of our soul becoming true as we come again, this very day, to finger it forth by conferring again with creasebent thundering. For many of us, our personal experiences of libraries and all that they contain bears out the wisdom of philosophers and poets.

Also contained within this library are shelves, spaces, shapes, lines, circles, squares, rectangles, cubes, cylinders; the varied colours of book spines contrasting with the bleached whites and creams of de Waal’s ceramics and marble. These are a quartet of new vitrine works. De Waal is interested in the spaces that his ceramics inhabit and the relations between them. His vitrines draw our attention to the spaces that we inhabit, and his ceramic installations are equivalents for our relationships within the cubes in which we live and move and have our being. The rule of six is a current manifestation of the minimalism that we see visualised here.

These vitrines are his “Psalm”, echoing in their design the pages of David Bomberg’s early-16th-century editions of the Talmud, where the Hebrew, Aramaic translation, and commentary are all held within a single page. De Waal views the psalms as “songs of exile from the city”. They are the first occasion on which attention is paid to the voice of victims in literature. De Waal describes them as moving “between the singular and the plural, the solitary voice and the tribal, anger and despair and lament to joy”: a polyphony of voices and views is necessary to frame the centuries old experience of migration, of destruction and restoration.

Outside this temporary structure, we see destruction recorded; inside, we view, review, and remember; and, when removed, the memories contained in covers will revitalise and renew the rebuilding of a restored thought container.

In the Psalms, in de Waal’s “Psalm”, in this library, in all libraries, we still ourselves and “navigate the space between the silence of things and the silence of people”.


“Edmund de Waal: Library of Exile” is in Room 2 at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 12 January 2021 (subject to any Covid restrictions). Phone 020 7323 8000. www.britishmuseum.org

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