Civilisation – My Library Intervention at Leeds College of Art

On Monday 20 April I will be heading over to the Leeds College of Art library to begin a project called Library Interventions. LCA have been inviting artists to spend time in their libraries to research and make new work a bit like a residency only I won’t be there every day.

My starting point for this intervention is the television series Civilisation by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark who set out to show us what civilisation was supposed to be. Ours was the civilised world, he said, this European post dark-age world of art and learning and enlightenment. Below is a still image from the final scene of the series where he lovingly caresses a small Henry Moore sculpture that sits on the desk in his magnificent study – itself a great symbol of learning and privilege. The look on his face has always bothered me.

clark2 copy

The picture below it is my school portrait aged 12. The bookshelves aren’t real – it is just a backdrop put there to create an illusion.

School portrait

What is civilisation? How do we become civilised? Why is it seen as better than other forms of society or culture? Why does K. Clark bother me so much? Here’s what the sociologist Michel Leiris had to say.

‘Civilisation could be compared to the layer of green scum that settles on still waters. All our moral habits, polite customs, all that brightly coloured cloak that veils the crudity of our dangerous instincts, all those lovely forms of culture we are so proud of, for it is thanks to this that we call ourselves civilised, can vanish at the slightest turbulence, break up at the slightest shock revealing in the cracks terrifying savagery.’

I would like to use my intervention time exploring these cracks. By researching civilisation, enlightenment, dark age, ignorance and savagery I want to tread the fine lines between all of these ideas and find new ways to make work. 

Early definers of civilisation such as Petrarch and Vasari vilified the Dark Ages. In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari says that the years between the sack of Rome and the Renaissance were a time of ignorance and barbarism and that all of the art made then was rubbish. We now know this to be untrue of course but I’m still fascinated with the idea of working within a dark age – a time and place with no expectation, no complexity or veneer of civilisation and therefore a space for creativity and potential. Where are the dark places of ignorance and freedom to be located within the library? How can I exploit them?

I will probably start out by using the library in a standard, traditional way: reading, looking, notetaking and collecting images – and documenting my findings and thoughts in this blog. I am also planning to create small drawings and paper mache objects in the form of amulets and votive bookmark offerings. I imagine myself depositing these around the place for library users to find and puzzle over.

Most importantly I’m going to experiment with being uncivilised in the library, whatever that means, with (or without) the permission of the librarian, out in the open and more enjoyably when no-one is looking, like when I was at school, secretly misbehaving.

Between now and 10 May I will document my interventions and the work that follows here in this blog. 

Find out more about Library Interventions here >


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