Everyone has an unread book. A book that piqued your interest when you visited a bookstore but never got the time to read. A book that you received as a gift but isn’t really your cup of tea. A book whose first few pages you skimmed but have decided, for some reason or other, to put aside.
Having an unread book, tucked away somewhere in our homes, is a deeply psychological phenomenon that revolves around desire, the attraction to things we might not need, and the issues of consumption. Reflecting on these notions, artist Heman Chong collaborates with Collection Manager and Registrar Renée Staal on an ongoing, thought-provoking project called The Library of Unread Books. The project touches on the notion of having forgotten or abandoned texts that hold the promise of knowledge, but remain untouched by their owners.
Beyond the page
The Library of Unread Books is a traveling public reference library that is hosted at art spaces and museums around the world. The work was born during Heman Chong’s residency at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA) in Singapore in 2016. With a strategically-located studio that allowed for public engagement, the artists thought that it was a perfect moment to launch The Library of Unread Books. For the duration of the six-month residency, the studio opened its doors to the public as a reference library. The project has since made appearances in other cities, including Manila, Utrecht, Milan, Prague, and Dubai.
The Library of Unread Books consists of an edition of 9 works + 1AP (Artist Proof, which is a copy kept by the artist). The first edition, containing over 3000 books, was exhibited as part of the Singapore Biennale 2022 and has been collected by the Singapore Art Museum. In July 2023, the library opened its doors in Penang, Malaysia at the art gallery Blank Canvas, whose owner collected the work. As of early August 2023, the Penang edition—which I visited—has received over 2250 books and will continue to grow over the course of the exhibition.
The city of George Town in Penang is lined with traditional shophouses, and one of them is home to Blank Canvas. Renovated to cater to contemporary art projects and programmes, the gallery is clean and sleek. Upon entering the library at the Blank Canvas, an array of tables set against the left wall greets you. On top of these tables are stacks of unread books. Chong describes it as a “sculptural space” because one can view the stacks as objects occupying the space. On the right side of the room is a large pedestal that also holds a few stacks of books, with enough space for visitors to also sit and read.
But why a library?
The installation revolves around collecting and making available the unread books donated by individuals, which turns these private possessions into a collective pool for public access. Therefore, prior to each project, an announcement would be made, inviting the public to donate their unread books.
This results in a unique collection of books that would often relate to the library’s location. In Penang, for example, apart from predominantly English books, some texts are in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Also present are books on Southeast Asia, reflecting the region Penang is situated in, and some specific books on Malaysia.
Upon donating a book, the donor receives a library card from the artist, which serves to identify the donor and acknowledge their donation.
A whole new world
Most notably, what sets The Library of Unread Books apart from traditional libraries is its absence of curation, categorisation, or sorting systems. The books are not arranged in any particular order; visitors are encouraged to freely pick up any book that intrigues them based on its title or cover, read it, and return it to any stack on the table. This disorderly approach challenges the conventional institutional curation or algorithmic systems we encounter in today’s world.
For example, a stack could contain a Lonely Planet travel guide, a biography, and a literary fiction all at once. As Chong explained,
“The library does not resist the public rearranging the books. It is a ‘messy’ space that does not follow any system.”
Despite that, the work’s inventory and signature stamps on each book keep track of the donations and their donors.
The work’s collection, numbering close to 5000, also serves as evidence of the information excess prevalent in today’s society. Its creators address this by redistributing the surplus of knowledge through the format of a public library. Payment and registration aren’t needed to enter and consult the books; access is completely free.
Beyond serving as a democratic space where people can engage with all kinds of literature, a library also serves other valuable social and leisure functions. In fact, visitor seek out libraries for free air conditioning; however, unlike shopping centres, one doesn’t have to spend money to benefit from being in a library. Accessible to any visitor, these books encapsulate their previous owners’ abandoned hopes and dreams of reading them, and can now be read by someone else.
Last but not least, beyond serving as a repository of unread books, The Library of Unread Books can also function as a meditative space for visitors to slow down, take a break, and catch their breath amidst the hustle and bustle of their routines.
It is a room to contemplate in—not solely on the books it houses, but also the myriad of other thoughts that often go unexplored in our daily lives. As Chong poetically says, “It is an oasis that you can come into anytime.”
The Library of Unread Books is open at Blank Canvas, Penang from 8 July – 3 September 2023. Click here to find out more.