In the face of so much suffering, if art insists on being a luxury, it will also be a lie.Albert Camus: Create Dangerously
Future Library by Katie Paterson turns hope into art. Coronavirus has closed museums and galleries but there is an irrepressible vitality in the Now Exhibition at Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art.
Showing remarkable optimism, especially in these viral environmental times, a forest of one thousand Norwegian spruce trees has been planted at Nordmarka just outside Oslo. The trees will grow for a hundred years, along with other local self-seeded birch and pine, and at the end they will be used to create an anthology of one thousand books from one hundred unread texts deposited with Future Library. The texts will come from a range of artists over time chosen by a committee who are charged with playing a part in realising the project. A project that will outlive the originating artist, the selected artists, the current committee – and you reading this right now. Commenced in 2014, it will end in 2114. The faith all of the above have that it will happen is in itself a sign of hope, and one that deserves support as well as success.
Playing its part is City of Oslo council along with the Agency for Cultural Affairs and Agency for Urban Environment. They have the responsibility of working with the artist and Future Library Trust to ensure the protection of the forest and the manuscripts. Taking the role seriously, they have commissioned a Library Room – the Silent Room designed by architects Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem – which is in the New Deichmanske Bibliotek in Oslo.
It’s a magnificent space reflecting the aesthetic of the project with a design made from wood from the forest. Resembling tree rings from floor to ceiling, it contains drawers to host the documents/contributions securely. Again, this is a bold move by a public authority in the face of the digital onslaught on the word but also shows trust in the concept of the project itself. Glimpses of this space can be seen in the film about the project in the exhibition.
The space will display the authors’ name and title of their work but the works themselves will remain unseen and unread until 2114. The first author was Margaret Atwood who was ‘honoured and flattered ‘ to be asked but also admired the optimism that humans will be around In a hundred years to witness the culmination of ‘this endeavour’. She told the Guardian that it reminded her of burying things as a child to be discovered long into the future exciting the curiosity of the finder. The idea of her voice being heard after being silent for quite some time also intrigued Atwood: a neat summary of what this work attempts.
Joining her in writing for the future and future generations so far are David Mitchell (2015), Icelandic writer Sjón (2016), Turkish writer Elif Shafak (2017), Korean author Han Kang (2018) and Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard.
The work becomes interactive in the handing over ceremony in the wood itself each year. This is a walk open to all and has grown each year as word spreads about the future words. Knausgard will hand it over in a ceremony on 23rd May this year. There is a reading by each author but not from their submitted text – only the title of that is revealed. All events are followed by a talk by the author in the evening at the Bibliotek. This year’s would have been extra special as it is the official opening of the Future Library Room.
A secular act of faith
Elif Shafak described this work as ‘a secular act of faith’ but it is more than that. It reminds us how the printed word is produced and arrives in our world. It reminds us to take care of our world not just to make sure that the promise and endeavour of Future Library is fulfilled but also that the environment that created it is looked after as well. This interdependence is a key part of the work. As is time. Artist Katie Paterson points out that a hundred years is not a long time ‘ in cosmic terms’ but ‘the human timescale of one hundred years is more confronting’. However its proximity is not close enough for the current participants and even the artist is not sure her daughter will see the denouement despite being born after the project started.
But the attempt is being made and that is key. Check it out if you can. Although the virus has closed the National Gallery in real life, you can visit virtually (it says until 31 May). You can also find out more from the artist’s site supported by the Ingleby Gallery and from the Future Library site.
Camus’ famous Nobel address Create Dangerously, a quote from which opens this piece, also observed: ‘The time of the irresponsible artists is over… The freedom of art is not worth much when its only purpose is to assure the artists comfort‘. Katie Paterson’s work takes that observation and invocation to heart. Go see it however you can.
Featured image: Look up: Giants of the Hermitage by Fay Young