A Sureal day in the Library & Video

A Surreal Day in the Library: Silent Cacophony in Hackney 11-11-13

By Nik Storey

Hackney based sculptor and ceramicist Maria Alvarez Echenique chose this location because the original library had been completely destroyed at about 4.30pm on the 4th of January 1945, when it received a direct hit from a V2 rocket, killing many people including library staff and schoolchildren.

After discussion with the staff at the library, Maria has decided to place her installation ‘Glimmers of Hope’ on the first floor, next to a memorial plaque to the two library assistants who had been killed in the attack.

We set the installation up between 9.30 & 10.30 on the morning of Remembrance Day. First we put six A4 photos, taken from the library’s ‘Hackney Archive’: five show the extreme bomb damage to the immediate area, one shows the old library in 1912, in all its austere neo-classical Victorian philanthropist optimism. They go on the upper half of the wall; we choose not to show them too neatly lined up, it doesn’t seem appropriate.

The main part of the installation is set on the floor, and despite intensive planning, it is the first time either of us have seen the full piece: two A0 enlargements of the destroyed library form a backdrop to broken pieces of blackened brick among which Maria’s fourteen dark ceramic figures are set. The figures have no visible limbs, but all have more or less complete faces with enigmatic expressions; the six half-size figures clearly have children’s faces. All the figures have graceful, sinuous, undulating bodies, as if they are strange new shoots rising up from the damaged earth. Something in the movement of their swaying growth seems both organic and optimistic; a sense that is heightened when one notices the subtle areas of black glitter on the otherwise ominous matt dark greys of the figures. I find the piece very powerful; the darkness of the devastation of war is clearly there, but somehow counter-balanced and even defied by these qualities of movement and light in the ceramic figures.

Having set the installation up, we stand back, waiting for library users, art viewers, friends, and the two minute silence. Just before 11am two elderly gentlemen arrive, they are veterans of the Second World War who have heard about Maria’s installation from their art teacher, our friend Eva. It is a moving two minutes silence stood with these two men, by this small, almost invisible memorial, and Maria’s ‘Glimmers of Hope’.

After we have observed the silence, Maria records the two veterans as they regale us with some their personal recollections. The surreal nature of one story about a bombed baked bean factory particularly resonates in my mind: “…tins of beans exploding, bang, bang, bang, bang!”

In my mind the whole day is starting to take on a surreal feel. The art teacher Eva has turned up to take photos, and a couple of her other students have come to see the work and tell us some of their families’ memories of the war and of post-war Britain. As one of the women is being interviewed by a friend of ours from Slovakia, there is an almost farcical, but completely deadpan, series of misunderstandings as our friend hears ‘Russian books’ instead of ‘ration books’.

The strange setting is also working to turn a surreal light on the event: we are on the first floor landing, a kind of no man’s land at the top of the stairs, just to one side of the lift doors, and by the passage to the ‘Adult Library’. The unexpected presence of Maria’s installation and our small group, on what is normally simply a path from A to B, is clearly proving slightly perplexing to the library’s regulars. Some cast a cursory glance at us, others just walk past, a few stop to look, and one or two stop to comment or ask a question. Clearly, most people here have their minds elsewhere, caught up in whatever it is that has brought them into the library. One man manages to knock over one of Maria’s sculptures on his fourth time of walking past the installation within ten minutes, but it’s not intentional it’s just that he’s miles away. This, coupled with the expressions on some people’s faces or some aspect of demeanour, starts me thinking about how public libraries are spaces of sanctuary or refuge for those who in some way fall outside of the mainstream paths of society.

As if on cue, an elderly man who has something of the dishevelled air of being homeless about him, pauses on his way past us, reads Maria’s explanatory note and asks her politely, “How can you have a SILENT cacophony? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms?” Maria explains the idea behind ‘Silent Cacophony’: how the sudden silence of a passing V1 rocket would herald its imminent fall and explosion. “Very clever, very clever…” mutters the man, and walks away, loudly and happily exclaiming over and over again, “Silent… Cacophony! Silent…Cacophony!”

Appreciative friends come and go, a few recall stories from their parents and their own memories of growing up in the war damaged Britain of the 1960’s; I remember similar things and we share distant experiences of playing on old bombsites, hiding out in derelict air-raid shelters, and hearing about unexploded bombs being discovered. An elderly Jamaican lady explains to us in an emphatic but kind way, that we must get an article about “all of this” into the next issue of Hackney Today (the free local council paper), “Because people should know about these things!”

Near the end of our allotted time of 4pm an elderly Turkish man, by his own admission a regular user of the library, takes time to look at everything. He thinks Maria’s ceramic figures look quite African, is generally appreciative of the installation and seems pleased to see something different in the library. He has quite a long discussion with me about recent and current wars in the Middle East; he tells me that he comes from an old Turkish military family and then says, “Occasionally there might be a ‘Just War’, but I tell you, almost all the wars are simply criminal”. I agree with him and he takes a ‘Silent Cacophony’ flyer.

I stand back and take one last look at Maria’s installation before we pack it away. Even as I’m thinking that it’s the installation that will stick in my mind, I’m also realising that it’s already inextricably linked to a surreal day in the library, full of friendship, shared memories, sadness, humour, eccentricity, and discussion.

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