A ballet of reading
Books are magical things. Those little words on the page offer the possibility of mental time travel, which is pretty handy when you’re sat opposite some gobshite on the bus. In essence, they create non- threatening barriers that enable a temporary reprieve from the world. This alchemical process is perfectly captured in Martina Conti’s choreography A Reading Sculpture, which celebrates the interaction between the human body and the book.
Conti is one of the one thousand artists in Nottingham taking part in the cultural tsunami that is World Event Young Artists. Her sculpture consists of six readers, each armed with a book of their own choosing who huddled together in the centre of Bonington, Nottingham Trent University. The gathered audience sat patiently at tables waiting for something dramatic to happen, but of course this was happening internally to the six readers. The silence was a little unnerving at first and members of the audience seemed a little unsure what to do. It was obvious: Get out a book and join them.
Kama Sutra for book lovers: What's your favourite position?
Five minutes on, one of the readers who made up the sculpture broke away from the pack and sat down on the floor to read. Members of the audience momentarily looked up to witness this movement before contentedly returning to their own books. When the rest of the sculpture sat on the floor to read, some members of the audience were so engrossed in their own novels that they didn’t even bother to look up to witness the changing dynamics of the group.
The reading sculpture slowly started to disperse and individuals spread out across the room. I was quite excited at this prospect as I was dying to see what books they were reading. I clocked a Carver, Sartre and Kafka. Then some of them began mumbling as they paced the floor, perhaps in disapproval of the person with the Stieg Larsson. I wanted to tap one of them on the shoulder and ask why they had chosen that particular novel and if they were enjoying it but of course I couldn't. I found this quite alienating and realised for the first time why my girlfriend gets so angry when I pack more books than clothes for our holiday away together.
As the sculpture dispersed further afield, the space between the readers was as intriguing as the books that they were reading, particularly when random strangers entered the equation. One person stopped dead in their tracks and was confusion personified: Why were there so many people walking around reading and why were people watching the readers read? Fortunately this was not an issue that troubled two workmen who, oblivious to proceedings, happily wheeled a trolly by that made a right racket. These functionalists had proper jobs to do. Not stand about all day doing nothing. The audience looked on in disgust. The university had magically transformed into a library.
Martina Conti poses in front of her dispersed reading sculpture
The sculpture felt like a slow-motion reading ballet. The trigger for each reader to move was finishing a page. To liven this up, the readers could be issued with a wider variety of books: novellas, large print etc. But this performance isn’t about speed or entertainment. Indeed, it’s a performance without a beginning or an end – the complete antithesis to the structural demands of a novel. Martina Conti has created the book lovers version of the Kama Sutra, displaying the physicality of reading in all of its glorious forms. And as far as this reader is concerned, you can’t beat the simplicity of the missionary position.
Out of all the literature events I've attended for WEYA, this is the one that got me thinking the most about books and it is the only one in which nobody spoke. Reading is changing thanks to digital technology, meaning more people are experiencing this solitary pleasure through Kindles and smart phones. Now there is not even a book cover to give clues to our personalities. If Conti’s sculpture had embraced this truism it would have been a far bleaker experience.
Facebook group: areading.sculpture
James Walker twitter: TheSpaceLathe