The old man had some trouble pushing the door open. It was a heavy door too, made out of cast iron & bronze. A duly imposing gate to this monumental villa, built with weighty and noble materials: “marble, polished granite, bronzes, wrought iron, glasses and precious woods”.
The door looked all the more massive for the frailty of this elderly visitor. But both did share an aura of formality and refinement, belonging to a bygone era.
Though looking pathetically shrunken in his grey suit, the old man was indeed impeccably dressed, and leaned on his umbrella as if it were an elegant dandyish cane.
The sumptuous villa hosted a contemporary exhibition "a book between chairs" . Dedicated to two objects which have been perfected throughout the ages, becoming essential companions of humankind: books and chairs.
It testifies to the resilience of the "book-as-concept" that it still can be the trendy subject of a contemporary art exhibition – investigating its uses, its texts and its materiality - with only little harking back to past glories. It also testifies to the sturdiness of the "book-as-object" that it can patiently endure various contemporary art mistreatments – such as having its words blotted or cut out, having its pages torn and turned into strings of beads, suffering burned holes, shredding and colouring etc etc.
And, finally, it testifies to my own irredeemable respect for traditions & books that I only got really excited in the room with precious books & manuscripts. Peering reverently into the dimly lit showcases: an illuminated bible (Latin), manuscript on parchment , southern Netherlands, 2nd half of 13th century. A Book of Esther, (bible, Hebrew) 17th century). Venerable Qur’an commentaries (15th C), A frail evangeliary scroll (Armenian) 18thcentury.
In another age I might well have been a scholar devoted to commenting on the meanings & revelations of a revered book. As it is, I’m an ever doubting sceptic, perhaps even a (reluctant) post-modern relativist. But however disabused I am, however resigned to the inexistence of final truths and irrevocable wisdom – books, for me, continue to carry an aura of authority and of relative permanence that no on-line resource can match.This is obviously not the attitude of the emperical scientist – it is rather the state of mind of a melancholy humanist, looking for wisdom in humankind’s age old libraries (and privately lamenting about how discredited erudition in the humanities has become – unable as it is to show the kind of practical results and progress produced by proficiency in natural sciences and technology).
But back to the exhibition, and back to the old man. He moved very slowly, almost gingerly through the rooms. He regularly sat down on an attendants’ chair, head bowed in concentration, guidebook on his lap – thus graciously offering the one iconic image that this exhibition oddly lacked: a man on a chair, reading.