In a building that houses the finest book collection cared for by the National Trust (which requires funds for conservation), half an hour from the first English UNESCO City of Literature (which happens to have the most visited public library in the UK). Surely there is no more fitting a setting for an installation that encourages us to think about the importance of books.
The Word Defiant!, an immersive and thought-provoking exhibition created by award-winning Les Enfants Terribles, opened yesterday at Blickling Hall near Aylsham.
Subtly, and sometimes surprisingly, seven installations use light, sound and imagery to show the threats posed to books around the world… and their ultimate ability to exist in spite of them.
Burned, banned, redacted, drowned, neglected, superseded… We all know tales from history about books being burned and censored, but what we may not always consider is just how obscene and radical books can still be in today’s modern world.
Without giving too much away, as you really should experience the exhibition for yourself, the installations range from a children’s book being banned in China, as recently as 2017, to the vast redaction by the US Defence Department of a book published in 2010. The theatrically staged scenes include the destruction of thousands of books and manuscripts dating back to the Ottoman era in Mosul, Iraq in 2014. These threats to books are not historic, but very current.
You come across them as you walk around the Hall, eventually ending up in the Long Gallery that houses Blickling’s own library. Here a tsunami of books flows from the shelves, across the room and towards the window where the books look like they’re making a break for freedom. Accompanying the imagery is a looping sound recording of ‘fragmented language’, an interesting contrast to the comparative silence you normally find in the room. This is ‘The Word Defiant’.
“It evokes the idea that books cannot be contained,” says Project Director Joe Hufton, an Associate of Les Enfants Terribles Theatre Company.
I asked Project Designer Lydia Denno if these books were chosen at random or is there a theme to the vast swathe we see?
“It is mainly purposeful. We wanted a representation from the full spectrum of information that books contain,” Lydia told me. “From fiction to non-fiction, some old and some fairly contemporary.”
Lydia and Joe tell me that these books were previously earmarked for recycling/pulping so including them in this exhibition has effectively spared them (at least for a while), repurposing them and giving them a future.
One of the most interesting and stunning of all the installations is ‘The Word Neglected’, which is outside in the garden Temple. A magenta gel applied to the windows bathes the whole room in a dark pink light (“the colour of surreal nostalgia”, says Denno). Though your eyes eventually adjust, this new light will do very strange things to your phone if you’re taking pictures, and makes the green of the stunning garden outside almost neon in it’s depth and brightness.
And that is the point of the exhibition in many respects. In prompting us to consider books and their powerful place in today’s world – despite our best efforts to redact, destroy and replace them, you may see printed words on a paper page through slightly changed eyes. Many of you may find yourselves thinking about the installations for some while after.
The National Trust hopes this will resonate with Blickling’s visitors, raising awareness and, ultimately, vital funds for the conservation work needed for both the internationally important books and the fabric of the Long Gallery.
The Word Defiant! opened on 1 May, and will be open daily from 12-5pm until 28 October 2018. For further information and opening times visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blickling-estate
This project is part of Trust New Art, a programme of contemporary arts at Trust places which began in 2009 in partnership with Arts Council England.