In the age of Google books and the Kindle, the printed word is beginning to feel like an endangered species. In its place we are offered downloadable texts that materialize at our command, only to evaporate back into cyberspace when they are no longer in use.
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s “chronotopes & dioramas” presents a reminder that books have qualities that cannot be replaced by digital wizardry. This installation, the third in Dia’s partnership with the Hispanic Society of America, is at once a melancholy meditation on the fate of physical books and an homage to the alternate realities contained between their covers. It involves a collaboration between Gonzalez-Foerster, a French artist last seen in New York as part of the Guggenheim’s much less rewarding exhibition “theanyspacewhatever,”and a team of diorama makers from the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Invited to create an intervention in the stately though stodgy Hispanic Society’s Beaux-Arts digs, Gonzalez-Foerster zeroed in on the museum library’s holdings, a massive collection of books and other documents relating to the history and culture of Spain, Portugal and the Americas. Herself a bibliophile, she searched its collection for copies of books of modern and postmodern literature. Finding few, she acquired examples from secondhand bookstores, which became the basis of her invented landscapes.
The exhibition, in an annex to the museum, opens with a white wall covered with unidentified text fragments, culled from books in various languages and arranged like concrete poetry in shaped clusters. Describing abandoned landscapes, lonely spectators, and unhappy pasts and futures, they offer hints of what lies within. Rounding the corner, the viewer is plunged into near darkness, which slowly reveals three dioramas inset into the other side of the entry wall. Spaced so that only one is viewable at a time and constructed of a range of artificial materials, they present distinct worlds drawn from the ecosystems of the Americas. The first is a dimly lit jungle dense with faux vegetation and what looks like a running stream where scattered books seem to sprout like mushrooms. Next is a desert where books and book pages are strewn in the sand like bits of bleached bone. The last contains a view of the Atlantic, a seemingly underwater vista—the illusion is achieved largely with lights—where books grow from the ocean floor like coral while a single volume floats near the top, its pages spread like the wings of a skate.
Each painted backdrop contains a fragment of modernist architecture—a glimpse of a glass house in the tropics, the foundation of a bunkerlike structure in the desert and a large concrete cylinder at the bottom of the sea. These add to the futuristic quality of the works, suggesting that modern civilization has gone the way of Byzantium. They also connect the installation to Dia’s more typically minimalist esthetic.
The “chronotopes” of the installation’s title refer to a term used by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to describe the temporal and spatial coordinates that offer a framework for understanding narrative. Gonzalez-Foerster’s literary selections, identified in a handout (a helpful aid, since few titles are visible in the gloom), are strong on science fiction and fantasy. They are carefully matched to their settings, with works like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in the desert, for instance, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest in the tropics. They remind us that books can act as imaginative triggers, and one almost feels that the surrounding environments have simply materialized out of the very volumes they contain.
Commenting on the massive cultural dislocations created by the advent of the printing press, the narrator of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris predicts that “The book will kill the building.” It didn’t happen, of course, and one suspects that the computer will not kill the book either. But, Gonzalez-Foerster suggests, in the future the act of turning pages may emerge as a different and perhaps more precious experience, akin to the rituals of a secret cult.
Photos: (left) installation view of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's tropical diorama, 2009. (right) detail of her desert diorama, 2009; at Dia at the Hispanic Society.