Sep. 23—A library is a gateway to other worlds, as well as other views of planet Earth. A library is also a staple of academic life. But, across the globe, access was limited during most of the pandemic. Classes were held remotely, and many educational institutions had to temporarily shutter their doors.
"Early on, there was this hope that the pandemic would bring the world together," says Subhankar Banerjee, Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair and professor of art and ecology in the University of New Mexico's Department of Art. "That did not happen. The pandemic split up the world rather than bringing it together."
Banerjee, who founded UNM's Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities in 2020, was integral to a creative exhibition project aimed at building conversations and connecting communities in the wake of the pandemic. Co-curated by Banerjee and Jennifer Garcia Peacock of Davidson College in North Carolina, the project, a Library, a Classroom, and the World — which runs through Nov. 27 at two venues in the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy — was developed as a direct response to the pandemic's fracturing affects.
"Our guiding principle was to bring the world together," Banerjee says.
And the fact that a Library, a Classroom, and the World is included at all marks a milestone in UNM's outreach. It's the first time it's been invited to participate.
The invitation came in June 2021, from the European Cultural Centre in Venice, after the impact of Banerjee's efforts to bring awareness to the world's biodiversity crisis with Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande, a previous collaborative project between 516 Arts in Albuquerque and UNM. The project was spearheaded by Banerjee and was a broad-based, multi-venue, exhibition and presentation series. Spanning several Southwestern states and Mexico, it called attention to the multitude of regional plants and animals threatened by extinction.
The project caught the attention of former New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, who co-authored an article on the crisis with Banerjee for Scientific American ("We Must Mobilize to Avert a Lonely Earth," Scientific American, Oct. 20, 2020).
And, together, they developed a biodiversity webinar series in the fall of 2020. The interest led to the establishment of the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities, and the Biennale project was completed under its auspices.
A Library, a Classroom, and the World is part of a larger, multi-venue Biennale exhibit, Personal Structures — Reflections, which was developed by the European Cultural Centre. UNM's contribution is in two parts: the Library, located inside Venice's Palazzo Bembo (Riva del Carbon, 4793-4785, 30124, Venice, +39 041 2413683, palazzobembo.com), which is the same spot as the 15th-century Bembo Library, founded by the father of influential humanist Pietro Bembo. The Classroom is located in the Giardino della Marinaressa, a public park along the Riva dei Sette Martiri, the waterfront of the Venice Lagoon.
"What I've found is that people stumble on things [there that] they would never have planned to, and for me, that was the exciting part," says Susanne Anderson-Riedel, chair of UNM's Department of Art. "It was a chance to engage with a community that was not a dedicated contemporary art focused group."
The entire UNM/Davidson project is part of the Biennale's city-wide footprint, which allows for hundreds of satellite exhibitions, placed at venues next to the osterias along the Grand Canal, and nearby one of the cities most popular attractions, the Rialto Bridge, which is where the Palazzo Bembo is located.
The Library contains four shelves that are short in height, with angled surfaces for reading while standing. They are modeled on the only two surviving dwarf bookcases in the Old Library at St John's College, University of Cambridge. The original shelves date to the 17th century.
"What happens when you engage, there is a dialogue with your own thoughts and discoveries," Anderson-Riedel says. "The words are on the walls and the artwork is on the Library shelves. You kind of redirect yourself."
The team behind the project consisted of artists, scholars, carpenters, graphic designers, a master printer, a master gardener, and an architect. In addition to Banerjee and Peacock, famed multimedia artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation of Montana, contributed a series of prints of flora and fauna. The prints were created at UNM's Tamarind Institute in collaboration with master printer Valpuri Remling. They were produced as a two-part folded book in homage to Aztec codices.
Other artists involved include Las Cruces, New Mexico-based Chicano cartoonist Zeke Peña and Albuquerque-based artist Alexandría Zuniga de Dóchas. Peña contributed The River (Remix), a comic that illustrates moments in the life of a stretch of the Rio Grande which runs through the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Zuniga de Dóchas, a trans-femme Latinx artist worked with Banerjee and conservationists at the New Mexico BioPark Society to create six illustrations on the theme of biodiversity, including one based on the Cuban gar, one on Southwestern fireflies, and another based on trillium.
"That was probably my favorite part about this project, working with a group of people that were so passionate about these fish, plant, and insect kin," Zuniga de Dóchas says. "The driving force behind those images was trying to depict them in a way that sort of expands our definitions of kin, so that maybe we can better take care of these different life forms on Earth, especially those that are further away from humans — or smaller, or even hard to look at."
In regards to the latter, the Cuban gar is a homely tropical fish found in fresh waters, but its conservation status is considered threatened.
"It's understandable that there's not a larger conversation around the conservation work being done with it, because it's not a cute panda or a polar bear," Zuniga de Dóchas says of the gar. "But I tried to depict it in a way that conveyed a sense of relation to it, or a sense of whimsy, care, and warmth. Hopefully the viewers can pick up on that. I wanted to make the biodiversity crisis accessible to a wider audience."
The Classroom, in the Giardini della Marinaressa, is in a space created by a ring of flower beds, arranged in the shape of Venice, which is shaped like a fish. In recognition of the medieval city's numerous species, including the bird, fish, and invertebrates of the lagoon, two flowering plants (Ceratostigma and Loropetalums) and two grasses (Festuca and Miscanthus) were planted in the flower beds, which will provide nourishment for a number of species and a more intimate setting for visitors as the plants grow.
As for the World, it need not be viewed as a separate component, alongside the Library and Classroom. In addition to the idea of all three being places of learning, is the notion that all three are one and the same. Hence, an outdoor classroom in Venice with a view to its canals and its trade routes out to sea. The Classroom is a place to connect with others and engage.
"The emphasis they put on the exhibition is about that," Anderson-Riedel says. "How do we engage with the world?"
—a Library, a Classroom, and the World
—Through Nov. 27
—Palazzo Bembo, Riva del Carbon, 4793-4785, 30124, and the Giardino della Marinaressa, Venice, Italy
—Free admission; +39 041 241368 (Palazzo Bembo), ecc-italy.eu (European Cultural Centre) and personalstructures.com