[First posted at HNN as an exhibition review]
Books are beautiful, even in death and deathly times. So says a new photo exhibition of dying books, immortalized in print and on display in Cambridge University’s Gonville & Caius Library.
Entitled Last Folio, the exhibition presents Yuri Dojc‘s photographs from an old Jewish school in eastern Slovakia, a building frozen in time since one fateful day in 1943 in which every teacher and child in the school was spirited away to the concentration camps. Their abrupt departure left the halls and classrooms desolate; the books, their pages fluttering to stillness, decayed wordlessly until their discovery half a century later.
It’s an arresting theme, and the photographs wield the symbolism without feeling overly contrived. There are a few that do border on artifice: this one, for example, frozen into an impossible grace, feels to me the most laboured.
But mostly, the photos capture without contrivance a world of timeworn books, with a deep sensitivity to the textures of aging. Intimate shots of spines and sheets evoke fust and mildew, dusty sandpaper under the skin, old gnarl and crackle, fragility. Words and alphabets peek coyly out from between books and pages. One of the exhibits, an oval furl of sheets, spirals like a prisoner’s thumbprint.
The exhibition opened first at the Slovak National Museum, and the Cambridge installment of it is the first in the UK. It’s due to reach further next year, travelling to New York, Moscow, Sydney and beyond.
But there was something about seeing it in the Caius library which really brought home to me the sense that an exhibition is made as much of the space it occupies as of its content. The exhibition designer, Daniel Weil, made his intent explicit: to take advantage of the contrast between the photos of decaying books and the actual books of the Caius library. Each of Dojc’s photos is housed in a kind of skeletal bookcase of its own, suspended in front of a translucent wire mesh through and between which the viewer can glimpse the solid bookcases and books of the Caius library.
At the end of the hall, a massive mural of the abandoned synagogue artfully extends the perspective lines to a vanishing point lodged in a distant past.
And the hushed silence of the library completes the experience. Even footsteps sound blasphemous here. Tiptoeing through the long hallway, amidst all these books suspended in their ghostly shelves, and wreathed in tragedy and history: one feels as though some boorish step could break the spell and bring the whole thing crashing down into the present.
The Last Folio Exhibition is running from 11 to 5.30pm every day from the 10th to 27th of November 2009, in the Gonville and Caius Lower Library, Cambridge University. Entrance is free!