The very concept of finding requires that something must at first be lost, left behind or forgotten, temporarily elsewhere until it is once again called into the spotlight in the excitement of its having been found.
A second-hand bookstore is a temporal holding space, a halfway house for words waiting to complete their promised transaction from person to person. A bookstore like this one is a magical elsewhere for ideas, until they are rediscovered and passed on once again.
The road to rediscovery is often serendipitous, a consequence of a strange journey that leads from this to that. Surrendering to the search means opening up to possibility of the unexpected.
When I first stepped into the Hard to Find bookshop a couple of months ago, I was inspired. Here was a bookstore with all the whimsical charm you could dream of: the shelves a winding maze of cramped passages through the main area, stairs with the slightly too tall steps leading up to the mezzanine where the books reach up to meet the now dangerously low ceiling. The stairwell to the upstairs is lined with rose pattern wallpaper cracked to show the hessian layer beneath and undulating loosely across the walls distorting the proportions of the hallway. The walls of the front rooms over-looking the street carry the bleeding brown of past water damage.
Everywhere books, books, books, cramming the shelves, windowsills, on mantelpieces, on each step of the main staircase, piled on the floor two deep in places, knee high in others. And on the rare wall spaces, and in between shelves, on the end of shelves, on the banisters, the railing, the poles holding up the mezzanine, and even in places on the roof the crazy ephemera… bookmarks, cuttings, photos, postcards, photocopies, handwritten instructions on scraps of paper, and art.
It looked for all the world like a scene from a book. The kind of place you would knit together in your imagination, but never actually see in real life. I went home and dreamed about it, and became obsessed with the notion of holding an exhibition in that unlikely place.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that the shop itself was a work of art, but how could I get people to reconsider it in this light given that they were more likely to take it for granted as a shop? The exhibition needed to include works of art that were inspired by books, research and storytelling. Rose and Alexa (whose work holds parallel themes to my own) were on board as soon as I described my ideas. We didn’t know if it would work, if we could pull it all off, but we thought it would at least be a very interesting experiment.
At first I thought that the artwork would operate as a MacGuffin, (to steal some film lingo) that is, an interchangeable plot device around which the action revolves; in this case the thing that the viewer must look for, which in the process renders the shop visible as an artwork. In order to find something one must search, and in that search be exposed to many more unexpected findings along the way… this the experience that The process of finding attempts to illustrate. Trying to find the artwork in the bookstore would mean coming across and examining other works of art or ephemera, or being disrupted by book titles: a personalised journey of discovery.
It is the role of the artist (through the artwork) is to ask the viewer to look at something in a different way. During the exhibition, we hoped the uncertainty created by the layering of artefacts would encourage the viewers ask themselves “is this the art?” and to perhaps conclude (regardless of what they are looking at) that it is. The artwork is the exhibition. The artwork is the participating viewers’ own experience.
On the other hand it might seem strange to suggest that sixteen artworks are just an elaborate artifice to make the viewer look. I’m not suggesting that the individual works should be dismissed as meaningless, and here the MacGuffin analogy falls apart because actually there are at least two possible levels of engagement in the exhibition:
Firstly, in the search for the artwork the viewer is required to look closely at the shop in order not to miss anything, and in the process makes their own discoveries within the shop.
Secondly, the artwork itself reflects the idea of finding. Whether it was, for example, Alexa’s found and photographed text, Rose’s found DVD collection that also evoked lost motivation, or my accidental watercolour created by water damage to a book, they are all about discovery. These works are evidence of the artists’ own search and the exciting moment of encounter which is paralleled during the exhibition by the audience looking for the work.
The preview night was a pretty strange experience, but one in which viewers for the most part took child-like glee in, clutching the artwork list like a treasure map, some even doggedly checking off the artworks one by one determined to trace them all. There was even an unanticipated level of collaboration between viewers, as they asked each other for help or gave directions, and jubilation when a new work was found. One of my friends commented that it created camaraderie between people who might not otherwise have talked to each other. And many people returned home with their own discoveries in the form of books.
I went back again this weekend, during regular hours, a guide to my family who couldn’t make the preview night. The atmosphere had returned to that of a slightly irregular bookstore, and the artworks were swallowed up within, absorbed into the identity of the shop, disrupted only with a couple of kids running around (to the tolerant bemusement of the patrons) yelling: “Aunty! I found another one!”