In Jorge Luis Borges' "The Library of Babel," the universe is comprised of an endless series of hexagonal rooms positioned adjacent to one another. These rooms contain an infinite number of books, from the non-sensical and the biographical to the futuristic and beyond. Put another way, the library contains every book that has ever been or ever will be. The universe condensed into symbols and words.
This infinite Borgesian library edges a little closer to reality in French-Algerian artist Kader Attia's latest exhibition, "Continuum of Repair: Lights of Jacob's Ladder," now on view at London's Whitechapel Gallery.
The approach to Attia's infinite library starts with a passage into a square room that is both horizontally and vertically immense. Within it, a gigantic square stack of books, containing centuries worth of humanity's accumulated knowledge, across subjects as diverse as history, art, architecture, science, physics, and astronomy. Along a back wall, a series of busts of wounded soldiers, their faces deformed by the horrors of World War I.
Nestled within the squared-off bookshelves sits a square cabinet of curiosities. Inside the cabinet, find a number of astronomical or physics-themed books and objects. On one side of the cabinet is a set of stairs. After climbing the steps, and perching one's self atop them, the viewer can look down or up into two large mirrors.
Because these mirrors are positioned opposite one another, they create an infinite reflection of the bookshelves around them. Attia, hoping to evoke the Biblical Jacob's Ladder, placed an ultraviolet light at the center of the bottom mirror, in an attempt to transform the horizontal beam of light into "rungs of a ladder to infinity."
Viewing the infinite library and ladder, I couldn't help but see a metaphor for the Internet and its own potential infinity. And I wouldn't be the first to draw a parallel between the internet and Borges's library.
However stark it is, the echo of Borges here may be unintended. Attia is up to something else, according to Whitechapel Gallery's press release, or at least his own definition of infinity—one that bears stronger links to Borges' short story "The Aleph" (more on that later).
Image: courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery
"The installation is the latest chapter in Kader Attia’s research into the concept of repair, which he sees as an underlying principle of development and evolution in science and religion," writes Whitechapel curator Magnus af Petersens. "As Attia says ‘the biggest illusion of the Human Mind is probably the one on which Man has built himself: the idea that he invents something, when all he does is repair.’"
"Repair is a process that makes any existing system into a whole universe possible, from the microscopic to the cosmic or macro-galactic," continues Petersens, in a text accompanying the exhbiition. "Repair is a situation that enables two diﬀerent space-times, to reach each other, and then another, etc., in order to exist endlessly."
Why not be both things: Attia has one idea, and I have another, and every other visitor to the exhibition sees something else. The art as a function of the number of people who see it.
I disagree with Attia's theory that the biggest illusion of the human mind is the idea that man invents. To me, the biggest illusion of the human mind is that it conceives of any sort of reality at all.
Like the varied interpretations of a work of art, each person has their unique version of reality. Who are any one of us to say which one is correct, or if consensus reality isn't some hallucinatory trick produced by consciousness in this space-time we call the universe?
Researchers are still mapping out the illusive, hidden corridors of the mind. We know a bit about how it functions, but aren't even close to a total understanding of its inner workings. And, yet, like the universe itself, and even the internet, the human mind is an organ that unwittingly deals in infinity.
Image: courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery
There is the infinite interior world of the mind, and the infinite universe(s) that it can imagine through science and religion. Attia understands this, but his notion of "repair" gets in the way of the mystery of reality and consciousness, and the human mind's efforts to contemplate infinity. The word itself and the idea require too much explanation for it to have immediate impact on a visitor.
Repair is great for academia, for philosophy, but the average gallery visitor will be grasping for a foothold if they think too much about it. Which is unfortunate because "Continuum of Repair" is pretty wondrous to look at. It creates instant, thought-provoking reactions without any previous understanding of repair, and that is the installation's strong suit.
In "The Aleph," Borges describes a little iridescent ball of light that contains all events of the universe in simultaneous fashion and with perfect clarity. This might be the key to unwrapping Attia's idea of repair. If one were to view the universe and infinity through an Aleph, they'd understand that nothing is actually invented except for the way that each of us sees reality, or wanders through that library.