Oct. 22, 2010
'Paper has a memory': Library hosts book artist Pfeiffer
Werner Pfeiffer's work is designed to make people feel uncomfortable.
The artist, who spoke in Olin Library Oct. 20, "destroys" books to express the dangers of censorship. The lecture opened the Cornell University Library's exhibition of his work, which will run through February.
Addressing the crowd of about 100 people, Pfeiffer described his childhood in Nazi Germany and its role in his life as an artist. Books, which he called a "refuge" during his violent early years, were censored, banned and burned in public.
"Schoolbooks were heavily censored" even after World War II, he said. "Having lived through it, we'd experienced what they were trying to keep from us. People had died for what was hidden behind those black bars."
That experience translated into book-centered art for Pfeiffer. His book-objects are real books, covered with an unforgivingly hard, white gesso, and they involve literal depictions of violence. Some are bound with ropes, sprouting teeth, sewn up with red thread, or shot through with spikes, nails, screws or bullets.
"These objects are metaphors for censorship made concrete," University Librarian Anne Kenney said in her introduction. "Pfeiffer's work is profoundly moving and disturbing, examining uncomfortable and important truths about human rights and offering tribute to those who have had their voices silenced."
Pfeiffer also addressed the role of the book in society, noting, "there is a handwringing as we mourn the loss of books to technology." But people fail to realize that "one technology pushes another out of the way over and over throughout history."
To conclude his talk, Pfeiffer assembled and disassembled his creation called "Out of the Sky," which commemorates the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. As Pfeiffer spoke, he constructed two towers from a case the size of a large shoebox, which folds out like a book. Paper squares printed from the original woodcut become two towers, each about 6 feet high, with black and white images of people and names of the victims.
About five years after the 2001 attacks, Pfeiffer came up with the idea of building "Out of the Sky." So far, he has created 52 of the pieces, one of which is on display in the Kroch Library exhibition and will remain part of Cornell's permanent collection.
"Remember that paper has a memory," he said as he began disassembling the towers. "This action is more unnerving than the building; the whole structure just disappears . ... It's not only the building, it's the taking down that hits the nerve of what happened -- it goes into something like an urn with ashes."
Cornell's library is the last stop on the tour for Pfeiffer's traveling exhibition, which previously appeared at Smith College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto. It will be on display through February in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections' Hirshland Gallery, Level 2B, Carl A. Kroch Library.
The lecture and exhibition were sponsored by the Stephen E. and Evalyn Edwards Milman Exhibition Fund.
Gwen Glazer is a staff writer for Library Communications.