Artist's Statement: Yinka Shonibare MBE on bringing 18,000 books to Brighton Museum

Yinka Shonibare interviewed by Mark Sheerin | 14 April 2014

British-Nigerian artist Shonibare tells Culture24 about a stunning and thought-provoking new commission, called The British Library, for Brighton Festival and the HOUSE Festival

Colour photo of an artist with a psychedelic print projected across his face© Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
Artist’s Statement: In his own words . . . Yinka Shonibare MBE talks about a major new work in Brighton, comprised of 18,000 books, with which he hopes to spark conversations about immigration.

"It’s a piece about famous migrants who are significant within British culture. So there are people like Helen Mirren. There are people like Tanita Tikaram, you've probably heard of that one, have you heard of Tariq Ali as well? You've heard about the Queen, Stuart Hall [the cultural theorist] . . .

So those names are on the spines of books and so there will be 18,000 books altogether. It's a combination of names already in my head and research. But there will be up to, I think, 3,000 names and Tracey Emin, Tracey Ullman, it just goes on and on and on . . . Tony Blair!

But also the names will include people who are opposed to immigration too. So maybe people like Nigel Farage, and various people who've made speeches against immigration, people like Enoch Powell so the whole project will be a platform for conversations about immigration.

And it's not necessarily looking at it from the point of view of those who support it or the point of view of those immigrants. It's also trying to understand why are people opposed to immigration what’s their point of view and I'm hoping that the space in the middle of the library will become a forum for that debate.

Some of those debates are quite emotive, I guess, quite controversial. Like the debates around Romanians coming into the UK. At the time I was being asked to do this project was when people were actually concerned about Romanians coming to the UK.

I don't actually have any kind of fixed answer and I think that's why it's important to try and explore both perspectives because everything is relative.

If you feel disenfranchised and then you see immigrants that might look like they're being better than you, you might not be so happy about it. Then if you're rich and you're wealthy, well, you don't want to spend a lot of money on plumbers you might be quite happy that immigrants are here. It's all relative.

Books epitomise human identity in a way, so you've got all the stories, all the histories, all the culture, all the literature, all the food, all the menus. It's the broad range of human history carried in a library: human ideas and thoughts and stories. That's what it's exploring.

But hopefully the installation itself is an extension of minimalist serialisation or repetition, with history introduced into that. If you think about artists like Donald Judd, also people like perhaps Mondrian, the modernist use of repetition and line and proportion: it's never about history.

I mean Clement Greenberg talked about the object itself being the artwork, so: art for art’s sake. And it was really about removing history from the formal art, so the form the shape all those things became more important than any kind of historical reference.

But what this is doing is introducing patterns for a start from popular culture. And it's also referencing humanity, human history as well, but it's taking a very simple modernist repetition and serialisation form to express this.

But it's not the most important thing when you see the installation. It's really a project that will be hopefully visually stunning. And I'm hoping to reach people who are from Brighton, who have in fact used that library. For them it's still their library but it's morphed into this very strange thing. Something you know very well has been literally invaded and so hopefully it's a fairly simple device. It's a poetic shift of the familiar really.

Obviously, obviously, Brighton is not London. It's different, and there are certain groups, because Brighton’s been a refuge for certain communities, as well. It's always been a place where very specific groups of people have escaped to.

But I'm a bit of a London junkie myself. I love the diversity in London. My studio is in East London, Broadway Market. So I'm in that kind of area and I live in the East End anyway, I live near Victoria Park, so and there's a lot of diversity here. Even on my street alone, people from everywhere on the planet you can think of and that's what I like. I enjoy that."
  • The British Library can be seen in the Old Reference Library, Brighton Museum, May 3 – 25 2014.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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