Wafaa Bilal’s contemporary artwork starts out as shelves of blank white books. Over the run of the exhibition, visitors transform the installation ¬– and change the lives of students and faculty at the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts – by donating educational texts.
Visit the exhibition or read on to find out how you can participate in social change by helping to rebuild the College’s lost library!
MOURNING A 13TH-CENTURY LIBRARY AND REBUILDING A 21ST-CENTURY ONE
In 2003, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost their entire library due to looters who set fire to the collection during the invasion of Iraq. More than 70,000 books were destroyed. Fifteen years later, students at the college still have few remnants from which to study.
Iraq has a long history of cultural destruction. During the Islamic Golden Age in the 13th century, an invading Mongol army set fire to all the libraries of Baghdad, including the famed House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma. Legend describes the invaders throwing the Bayt al-Hikma’s entire library into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for their army to cross. The pages bled ink into the river for seven days (168 hours), at the end of which the books were drained of knowledge.
168:01 refers to the first moment when grief is transformed into a call to action, signaling the beginning of a struggle to move forward from the ashes of ruin. As a monument, 168:01 mourns the loss of the College of Fine Arts Library with a site-specific installation presenting thousands of books of empty pages filling out rows of shelves. Visitors to the installation become participants, linked directly to the students and faculty in Baghdad.
“The work needed to be participatory and needed to have tangible results, not only to engage people who come to encounter the show but also so it would benefit people on the ground in Iraq.”
– Wafaa Bilal
HOW YOU CAN PARTICIPATE AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE
FROM THE ARTIST’S STATEMENT
Here, hushed stacks take on the oppressive silence of a tomb, suggesting that cultural destruction is a sustained and compounded loss, re-victimizing each student whose continued lack of educational materials keeps them trapped at the point of devastation. But visitors to the white library encounter a space of duality—a memorial of loss whose persistently austere palette has been transformed into a platform for change. The transformation is multiple … The installation becomes activated from a sterile memorial to a system of exchange, trading blank art books for academic texts and the open possibilities that education affords.
As a platform for encounters, 168:01 generates narratives that multiply beyond its initial scope. For its original exhibition at the Art Gallery of Windsor in 2016, viewers also chose to become volunteers. A spontaneous network of retired librarians offered their time and expertise to develop an open source digital index that catalogues the libraries of all major fine arts schools around the world, thereby paving the way for 168:01 to construct a library on par with any world-class institution of higher learning. Rather than merely replicating its lost archives, 168:01 could now seek to build a database of knowledge that will push the College of Fine Arts Library beyond restoration and into future growth. The transformative encounters among the dispersed network of individuals participating in 168:01 cross steep cultural chasms, connecting distant localities through their combined efforts and shared hopes of building a brighter future.
Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal, an Associate Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is known internationally for his online performative and interactive works provoking dialogue about international politics and internal dynamics. For his 2007 installation Domestic Tension, Bilal spent a month in a Chicago gallery with a paintball gun that people could shoot at him over the internet. The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time” and named him 2008 Artist of the Year. Bilal’s work is constantly informed by the experience of fleeing his homeland and existing simultaneously in two worlds – his home in the “comfort zone” of the U.S. and his consciousness of the “conflict zone” in Iraq. Using his own body as a medium, Bilal continued to challenge our comfort zone with projects like 3rdi and …and Counting. Bilal’s most recent body of work, Canto III, premiered in a solo booth at the New York Armory Show in 2015 and went on to be shown in the 2015 Venice Biennale. In 2008, City Lights published Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, about Bilal’s life and the Domestic Tension project. He holds a BFA from the University of New Mexico and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, among others.
Photos by Frank Piccolo