Arts » Visual Arts

Opening and Closing the Book on August First Friday in Indy

The open books of Librería Donceles, the closed books of Every Trick in the Book, and the pages in-between



Pablo Helguera and patron in Librería Donceles - KURT NETTLETON/BIG CAR
  • Kurt Nettleton/Big Car
  • Pablo Helguera and patron in Librería Donceles

August First Friday began for me at a lunchtime lecture/workshop in an itinerant Spanish language used bookstore called Librería Donceles. The bookstore is housed until Oct. 22 in Big Car Collective’s Listen Hear storefront on Shelby Street, on Indy’s southeast side.

Librería Donceles was conceived by Pablo Helguera, the Director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Helguera, 45, was on hand that day and he both lectured and led the workshop.

Attending this gathering at the outset of my usual round of First Friday art gallery visits provided me with the opportunity to think about the written word in relation to art and about the importance of interactivity in contemporary art exhibits. It also led me to think a little about art that wrestles with mortality and the relentless passage of time.

It also made me think about recent political developments. Because opening a Spanish language bookstore might very well be considered a subversive activity in the very near future. Just consider some recent remarks by Sarah Palin, who has been quoted saying “Here in the United States we need to speak American," in late 2015. This was her way of criticizing former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush for speaking fluent Spanish on the campaign trail. Donald Trump has pledged to put Palin in the cabinet if elected president.

Not that the following factual tidbit would matter much to Palin, but it's worth noting that the Spanish arrived in North America more than a century before the Pilgrims bumped into Plymouth Rock. So it’s hard to see how Spanish is any more – or less – an American language than English. (And we haven’t even talked about the plethora of the true American languages; i.e. Native American languages.) And such comments seem to assume that there’s some kind of war on English — the world's preeminent language of commerce and pop culture — taking place. Such comments also seem to assume that most 2nd generation Latino immigrants to the U.S. haven’t learned English as well as, or better, than Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol.

And when I asked Helguera about Palin’s comment, he agreed that there was a political context to his bookstore, which also might be described as a socially engaged art installation. (He would go into some detail on this point later, in his lecture.) Used bookstores are, after all, a great place for political discussions, whether in English or in Spanish.

After a tamale lunch, Helguera stood up at the head of our very long table (which made me think of the tea party in Lewis Carroll's Alice and Wonderland although Helguera was no Mad Hatter) and he asked us all our names and what our favorite books were – from both our adult years and our childhoods.

Participant talking about her favorite books - KURT NETTLETON/BIG CAR
  • Kurt Nettleton/Big Car
  • Participant talking about her favorite books

And then he spoke of his early fascination with books during his childhood:

“I’ll tell you a little bit about my story and the story of this bookstore,” he said. “I was born and raised in Mexico City. Books have always been an important part of my life. A lot of my family were writers... My father was a very avid reader and lover of literature so I grew up before the era of the internet... And being a kid in this house in with my parents was interesting because they did have a big library and my brother who did become a writer told me stories about literature, simplifying them for me. He told me stories about the writers and philosophers who became famous became characters in my own fantasy lands. With Superman and Batman I also learned about Sartre and Hegel. To me they were kind of like equivalents. It’s very weird.”

And he outlined the history of the itinerant library.

“I’ve always been a book lover,” said Helguera. “I have a lot of books. Then I became involved in performance art and public art and what is now known as socially engaged art. And when I was in discussion with a gallery three years ago, and they asked would you like to do a show here, and I kind of jokingly said, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to turn your business into a failed business like a bookstore? And they guy said okay.”

And so Helguera went to Mexico City to try to figure out how to go about organizing this “failed business.”

At first he offered his own artwork for books for his library.

“I got, like maybe, six books,” he said. 

Then he convinced a newspaper in Mexico City to write about what he was doing. “Then I had the opposite problem,” he said. “I had hundreds of people callings, saying I want to give you my books… We had a museum give a trailer full of books. We had to turn them away. There was no way we could take that many books. Within two weeks we had 25,000 volumes. Of course, I don’t have any art to give to those people but people don’t really care.”

(In the current Indy iteration of Librería Donceles there are around 6,500 Spanish language titles.)

Helguera then pointed out the wall over the table where there were pictures of the book donors from Mexico City for the first Librería Donceles, people from all walks of life: children, professors, writers, artists, complete strangers.

“In Mexico there’s something really powerful thinking about what happens over the border,” he says. “It’s very painful to know that your people are suffering on the other side and you’re really powerless to do anything about it. So in a funny way, I had a third world country giving aid to the most powerful country in the world.”

So he started the first Librería Donceles in the Kent Gallery in 2013 in New York, a city with two million Spanish speakers. The last Spanish language bookstore in New York had closed in 2007. 

“Used bookstores are disappearing,” he said. “These are now a dying species because as you know ebooks and internet is basically killing the physical object of the book. We will soon be living in an era where there are no newspapers…. And encountering the anti-immigration climate in this country, I felt that it was really important that we could have a place to speak about what culture is in a very proactive way.”

Patron brousing - KURT NETTLETON/BIG CAR
  • Kurt Nettleton/Big Car
  • Patron brousing

Helguera has since taken Librería Donceles on the road to Phoenix, Seattle, Brooklyn, Seattle, and Chicago. None of the aforementioned cities have Spanish language bookstores to accommodate their Hispanic and Latino populations.

I didn’t think it was strange that Helguera’s workshop was conducted all in English, as the attendees were predominantly English speaking. While Librería Donceles titles are exclusively in Spanish, and while there will be many programs geared towards Indianapolis’s growing Spanish-speaking population, there will also be activities for English speakers and bilinguals as well, all focused on Latino history and culture.

(Click on for upcoming events or go to the bottom of this blog for info on upcoming events at Librería Donceles.) 

After Helguera finished his lecture, he gave all the participants an assignment: he told us to go the Librería shelves and pick out a book. From that book we were told to pick out a sentence that we would turn into a sentence-long short story, and then Helguera would read that story aloud.

Pablo Helguera explains a passage in Spanish to Meredith Brickel - KURT NETTLETON/BIG CAR
  • Kurt Nettleton/Big Car
  • Pablo Helguera explains a passage in Spanish to Meredith Brickel

And I dutifully picked out a line from the opening chapter of a book of seafaring history. I forget, however, both the title and the name of the author. What I was looking for was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Cien Años de Solidad (One Hundred Years of Solitude).

For me, the closing paragraph of that novel is one of the single most moving pieces of prose in any language. It is particularly resonant for me, as my life is beginning to seem less like a novel than a short story. But of course, my story is not unique, and the final line of that novel applies to everyone:

“For races condemned to a hundred years of solitude do not have a second opportunity on earth.”

After the conclusion of the workshop, I headed over to Tube Factory Artspace, Big Car Collective’s new facility, a short walk from Listen Hear, where Detroit-based artist Scott Hocking's exhibition entitled “RCA” was opening.

Much of Hocking’s work strives at transformation – if only temporary transformation – of abandoned spaces. In 2009 he built a pyramid in an abandoned factory with materials he found onsite. These materials just so happened to be wood blocks contaminated with creosote, a carcinogen. Actually, pretty much the entire factory was contaminated and the Environmental Protection Agency eventually came to remove everything inside, including the pyramid.

In “RCA,” Hocking took a different approach. Rather than building something onsite in the old Indianapolis RCA factory — the last use for which was as a recycling facility — he took some of this stuff and displayed it in Tube Factory artspace. Included is a pyramid composed of partially burnt Styrofoam and pieces of strangely deformed plastic and foam that he mounted and displayed as wall-hanging sculpture. The mountain of Styrofoam made me think a little of Richard Serra's abstract steel sculptural work. This might be an absurd comparison, considering that Serra's work — like the Pyramids at Giza — seems to be designed to last for millennia while Hocking's work will only last the length of this particular exhibition.

On the other hand, some of the wall-hanging elements, as the bearded, casually dressed Hocking pointed out to me as I toured the space with him, actually look like they might be original works of a contemporary abstract sculptor. But, in fact, there was no actual sculptor who had worked with these weird found pieces – pieces that might resemble the intestinal innards of some silicon based life form — only the elements. And that particular element was fire. Much of the foam had apparently been set ablaze in various attempted arson attempts.
Scott Hocking: RCA - DAN GROSSMAN
  • Dan Grossman
  • Scott Hocking: RCA

Some of the wall-hanging stuff reminded me of probably the creepiest exhibition I had ever seen: Bodies… The Exhibition, that I had seen in San Diego, CA back in 2007. After seeing the dozens of plasticized human bodies in this exhibition – cadavers that had been prepared by dipping them in acetone which removed most of the moisture – I learned that there was considerable controversy about the provenance of said bodies. What is known: the plasticized cadavers were produced by the Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories in Dalian, China. What is unknown but suspected: the use of executed prisoners as the meat and bones of this exhibition, as it were.

Anyway, the vibe that Hocking was relaying, I get it, I think. It’s the idea that we are surrounded by things that decay, that there is no second opportunity on earth, and that our culture is all grist for some future archaeologist from a species derived from a line of cockroaches viewing pyramids made of Styrofoam and stone with the same objective eye.

It was onto the Harrison Center for the Arts to Every Trick in the Book, a book art show, featuring work from the Herron Art Library – Artists’ Book Collection as well as work by working Indianapolis artists.

I was delighted to see Ginny Taylor Rosner’s Breadth of Memory at the show, a piece that I've seen before. I talked about in my June First Friday blog like thus:

The centerpiece of Rosner’s exhibit is a 15 foot long series of landscape photographs (each photo measuring 6” by 18” strung together, entitled “Breadth of Memory” featuring the windmill farms and the northern Indiana landscape where Rosner happened to grow up. The photos are printed with swerving parabolas of text, the kinds of thoughts written out that you might think as you’re driving along: “You never told me that you were proud of what I had become….. I didn’t know until after you were gone.” And many of the photos look like they were shot from the open window of a speeding car...

And in this work, like in the work of Hocking at Tube Factory, you can almost see time itself as an artistic medium that these artists are wrestling with.

Some of my favorite works of art are those in which you can almost see time rushing past like a rushing stream. I think of David Fincher’s films Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I think of Thomas Hart Benton’s historical murals. I think of Norman Mailer’s undeservedly underrated novel of ancient Egypt Ancient Evenings. And, of course, I think of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Ziggurat, East, Summer II, from Ziggurat and Fisher Body 21, 2007-2009  (in Detroit) by Scott Hocking
  • Ziggurat, East, Summer II, from Ziggurat and Fisher Body 21, 2007-2009 (in Detroit) by Scott Hocking

But back to Every Trick in the Book. There was much to admire in this exhibition of book art: there were David Johnson’s book of color etchings “Florentine Horses,” and Antonio Nelson and Julie Chen’s laser cut cityscapes from the Herron art Library book arts collection, just to give two examples. But I also felt some frustration, as many of the books did not open up and/or it wasn't possible to touch them. This was particularly frustrating with Brian James Priest’s twenty-odd art journals, consisting of 17-odd years of work. And since there were signs everywhere warning patrons not to touch the books, I didn’t touch, even though I wanted to.

But when I caught up with Brian James Priest later that night in Fountain Square –freshly off the plane from Düsseldorf, Germany where he’s spent the last two months showing his work— he said that he intended his books to be touched, and rifled through, contrary to the hands-off vibe of the exhibition. 

“There’s nothing worse than a book show where you can’t touch a book,” he said.

Brian James Priest's art notebooks - DAN GROSSMAN
  • Dan Grossman
  • Brian James Priest's art notebooks

Upcoming Saturday Events at Librería Donceles:
Address: 2620 Shelby St, Indianapolis, IN
Hours: 11 am to 3 pm
Free and open to the public

Agosto 20: El Estudiante, a Mexican film sponsored by Consulado Mexicano en Indianapolis.
Agosto 27: Platica con Eñe Magazine, local spanish magazine founded/editor by Karla D Romero.
Sep 3: Mascaras Mexicanas (Mexican folk masks) a presentation lead by Nopal Cultural, ( a local Latino arts group) will talk about the rich tradition of mask in Mexican culture.
Sep 10: Latinos en los Negocios, a conversation with Red de Talentos MX -Capitulo-Crossroads, about how Latinos are contributing in the local economy.


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