Portrait of the Artist as a Vanishing Library
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Portrait of the Artist as a Vanishing Library

On Saturday, at 401 Richmond’s Red Head Gallery, artist Robin Pacific began giving away her entire personal library of 1,670 books in a conceptual art installation called “Shelf Portrait.” If you heard about this over the last couple of weeks and it occurred to you that a well-publicized giveaway of free, interesting books in downtown Toronto on a Saturday might draw a bit of a crowd, well, you were right. Torontoist is happy to report that the same thing also occurred to the show’s organizers, and they were well prepared for Saturday’s mob scene. They distributed tickets with times printed on them — 50 tickets per half-hour interval — sparing attendees from having to wait in line all afternoon. (I showed up at 1:30 and snagged a 3:00 ticket.) Pacific also imposed a 4-book-per-person limit, ensuring that the show wasn’t cleaned out by the end of the first half-hour.
Inside, the gallery is festooned with books, hung over cords like strings of Christmas cards. On Saturday it was crowded, but surprisingly quiet. Attendees drifted slowly around the room, gazing intently at the covers and slipping books into their shopping bags. Only a fraction of the entire collection is on display at a time, meaning that there will be plenty of “good stuff” on reserve right up until the supply runs out completely. (Staff continuously replace the disappearing books with fresh ones.) If you’d like to peruse the entire list of titles, they’re all printed up alphabetically and by category on huge charts on the wall; when you make your selection, you have to find your titles on the wall and write your name down next to them.
It’s a great show. Obviously, getting free books is fun, but “Shelf Portrait” is a thought-provoking work of art as well. Many of the books are well-thumbed paperbacks with tremendous literary and cultural value, but very little monetary value: if Pacific had donated them to Goodwill, they might go for fifty cents apiece. It got me thinking about the economics of culture. Isn’t it weird that we live in a society where Paris Hilton’s CD will set you back $17.99 at a downtown music store, but you can pick up a novel by a Nobel laureate for next to nothing? Books can also have a lot of personal and sentimental value, so for those of us who hoard and accumulate them, the idea of giving a whole collection away in one sweeping gesture is scary and liberating. And it’s also, incidentally, just really nice of Pacific to do.
Shelf Portrait runs until January 27. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 12-5.
Photo by Nadia Halim.