Voir Dire | Tammy McGrath | November 13 to December 10, 2009

I love books. They are the only objects in my house that I have willingly and lovingly (okay, sometimes begrudgingly) packed, hauled and unpacked repeatedly since my early twenties. Throwing them out feels like sacrilege, and thoughts of giving them away creates feelings of anxiety over future regrets. But what about burning them, or modifying them? On what basis may these choices be made, and by whom?  

In Tammy McGrath’s recent installation, Voir Dire, viewers are faced with similar questions. The artist collected over a thousand books from people whom she knows well or is acquainted with, and they all donated these cherished items with the full knowledge of their fate: to be sacrificed to the fires. No longer readable, these objects of adoration have been utterly and permanently transformed into piles of ash and delicately charred sculptures for our objections and contemplation. Oh, the shame!

Books are considered purveyors of knowledge; the sacred keepers of free thought, creative genius and most especially, delicious rainy days curled up on the sofa indulging in the dangerous and sinful thoughts of others. Book burning has a sordid past. As early as 212 BC, volumes of ink-stained paper were burned in order to control the flow of information and enforce the values and beliefs of a corrupted or delusional leader. The book-burning scene from the infamous poem, Don Quixote, is a delightfully daring epitaph carefully constructed to mock the indulgences of those damned book-burning Spanish Inquisitors while also revealing the author’s own literary likes and dislikes. Even on the imaginary plane Cervantes had limits on what he could bear to burn, even though he was unabashedly able and willing to condemn the books he disdained to an eternal, imaginary hell.

In a similar fashion, Voir Dire is an exhibition that unfolds in a conundrum of paradoxical metaphors. Is the message one that rails against those who destroy books in ignorant and malicious ire, or does it give rise to the ideal that humanity can and will rise anew from the cruel and irrational flames of destruction?

Hovering above the artist’s vast piles of ashes and burned books are three ominious creatures with vast leathery wings, dangerous talons and vertebrae-like tails that protrude four-feet out from their thickly tarred and feathered bodies. Neither bird, nor reptile, it is difficult to discern whether these mythological beasts have descended from the skies as the protectors of the persecuted books, or as the provocateurs of their evil demise.

There is an elegiac quality to this exhibition that both laments and pays homage to the book, either as it stands as a trashy piece of pulp fiction or as a work of great literary genius. Despite the discomfort a viewer might experience from smelling and gazing over this mass of burnt books, it is impossible not to be enraptured by their aesthetic transformations into gorgeous and delicately charred paper sculptures. The artist’s role in society is often a daring one, even deviant, and if the underlying message is one of lament and celebration, then in this context, the act of burning books can be appreciated and understood. In alchemy, all the processes – especially the regressive ones – are governed by the idea that it is a necessary provocation to improve or refine matter. Like the mythical Phoenix, the seed must rot and the body must burn to ashes before new growth and glorious resurrection.

Lissa Robinson, 2009