Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors must arms themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
I am sitting in the Rare Book Room in the Library of Congress, looking at a book on alchemy that was published in 1676 in Hamburg, Germany. The book is by Edward Kelly (1555-1595) and is titled Edouardi Kellaei tracatus duo egregii De lapide philosophorum. It is displayed on a clear acrylic stand. It is quite small – smaller than a DL envelope – and the pages are brown and brittle, some heavily scarred with random, curvy patterns where moths or worms have eaten little channels into the paper. The text is in Latin, so I really can’t understand it with the exception of the odd word here and there. On some pages there are pencil notes, and on others, notes made in a sepia coloured ink, and on others still they are written in red ink. The book is lit by a beautiful brass lamp that has little star decorations all around the base. Opposite me, working on her computer, is an elderly lady. Further back, towards the windows, a man stares at a computer monitor. All is quiet. The only thing I can hear is my pencil scratching on the pages of my little notebook.
It is not really the book I wanted – I wanted one with lots of engravings (like a child not ready to move on from picture books), but I don’t mind. I am in the biggest library in the world and I’m looking at a book that is about 350 years old. It took about 5 minutes or less to find it and hand it over to me and I am allowed to turn the pages – no gloves, no special instructions – which is the most extraordinary thing about what I am doing right now. I’m in the biggest library in the world, looking at a rather tiny book…
There are illustrations on some pages and I write intently in my little notebook, describing what I see in intimate detail. I do this so that I actually look like I know what I’m doing with the small Latin book I requested, but also because it enables me to concentrate and focus on the experience of being in this reading room. It is an absorbing exercise because, while the images in the book are tiny and rather crudely engraved, they are also very detailed. Most of them are enclosed in a circle, no more that 4cm in diameter, and I am stunned at how much information the artist has managed to include. For example, in one image, there are nine tiny figures, all unique, seven of them standing on hills or mountains in the background and two standing below in the foreground. A number of miniature putti are blowing winds of change from the edge of the circular border and, scrolled across the middle is the word HERMAPHRODITA with some mystical symbols on either side.
I arrived here almost unintentionally – or at least not in any consciously planned way. I had been to a docent led tour of the Library of Congress in the morning – it is such a stunning building – one of the most beautiful I have ever seen – and the docent explained how to get a membership card. You have to go to the Madison, a huge, rather austere, bureaucratic looking building which is across the road from the showcase Jefferson, and go to Room 401 to register as a researcher. Straight after the tour, I did just that.
I was expecting a huge queue at Room 401, but I was the only one there. It took about five minutes to fill out some forms on paper and on a computer, have my photo taken and be handed a plastic card with a reader number and a rather unfortunate photo of me, looking all puffy and pasty. Once I have my card, I spend time with an older lady who is sitting under a sign that says Research Advice, Highly Recommended. She asks me how she can help and I tell her I want to see some books on alchemy that include original engravings. We have a conversation about the fate of libraries and then she sends me down to the basement to follow one of the underground tunnels that is part of a network between the United States Capitol and the 3 main buildings that make up the Library of Congress.
I get lost trying to find the tunnels and I get lost in the tunnels. And I get even more lost in the corridors that I have to take once I’m out of the tunnels. None of the pathways I take is particularly clearly marked, and the lifts I have to take to get from basement to cloak room to reading room, have doors that look just like room doors and so everything starts to look unnervingly similar. The big main underground tunnels have the shiniest polished concrete floors I have ever seen and are divided down the centre – one side for pedestrians and the other for library trolleys and equipment. On my first visit, the tunnels are rather quiet; on my second, they are extraordinarily noisy, filled with the squeaking clatter and clamour of giant trolleys being pushed from one building to another. I can’t see what is in the trolleys, but I am guessing they are filled with books.
When I finally find my way to the main reading room entrance, after cloaking everything I have in my possession except my wallet, my brand new library card and my pencil and little notebook, I am faced with the task of having to ask for a book from one of the research assistants. I don’t actually have any information with me – that is all back in my hotel room because I didn’t think I would be doing any research today – and so I’m in a slight fluster. I want to look as though I know what I’m doing, but I actually don’t. I ask the man at the desk if they have a copy of anything by Fludd, who was a physician who wrote extensively on Alchemy in the 1600s, illustrating his books with lavish engravings that depict his vision of the creation of the world. I can’t remember Fludd’s first name and when the research assistant asks if it is Robert Fludd I am looking for, I stupidly say no, I don’t think so. (But in fact Robert Fludd is quite correct – I had simply never noticed his first name in the books where I read about him.) In the end, I just request a book randomly that was published in the 1600s and is on the topic of alchemy, in the hope that it will have some illustrations worthy of contemplation.
I am sent upstairs to the rare book room, which has beautiful red leather doors decorated with brass studs, and go to the readers inquiry desk where I go through another procedure, filling in forms with my name and my home address and my phone number and my library ID. I note that behind the desk area there is a bank of monitors that shows multiples views of the reading rooms via surveillance cameras. The librarian is a heavy set man with a rather sardonic sense of humour – it is hard to know whether he is being friendly or mocking – but he arranges for the book to be delivered into the main part of the reading room, which is accessed by unclipping dark red velvet ropes that are strung across the entrance.
I am shown to a very specific table. There is the acrylic stand and the tiny book sits rather disappointingly in the centre of it. I had really hoped for something bigger, with more pages.
And so I have to make the best of it. I carefully open the little book and marvel at the fact that it is published in 1676 in Germany and I am here, in Washington DC, in the biggest library in the world, turning its pages and delighting in its tiny illustrations. I start taking notes, my pencil rapidly and excitedly scratching across the page. It doesn’t matter at all that I am not looking at a book by Fludd.
* * *
I arrived in Washington DC on a Thursday afternoon, just at the start of a heat wave. I travelled here specifically to visit the Library of Congress because it is the biggest library in the world and the experience of visiting it is highly significant to my art practice and the project I’m undertaking while on my Australia Council Residency. Of course, I am also here to see the other tourist attractions – the museums and monuments and government buildings. I’m staying at the Capitol Hill Hotel, directly across the road from one of the three buildings that collectively make up the Library of Congress. It’s a very pleasant neighbourhood that feels more stereo-typically American than New York, with attractive terraced houses and tree-lined streets that look like the setting for a movie. All the buildings are low-rise rather than high-rise because there is a law that no structure, with the exception of the Washington Monument obelisk, can be higher than the Congress building, which is just two blocks from where I am staying. Everything here is also intensely green. I hadn’t realised how much I miss greenery until I saw all the green trees and fields on the way here from the bus window. New York has parks, of course, dominated by wonderful Central Park, but there is something about seeing trees without buildings surrounding them, that is inexplicably comforting. The sky, the light, the world, all look different here.
I have just enough time to briefly visit the Library of Congress after my arrival, but it is on my second day I take a docent led tour of the Jefferson building and then end up in the Rare Book Reading Room. The Jefferson, opened in 1897, is truly magnificent and on that first visit, I am staring upwards almost the entire time trying to take in the elaborate paintings, mosaics, sculptures, lead light windows and marble work that decorate this stunning building. It is awash with rich reds, blues, golds and greens and feels more like a palace than a place of learning. But up until fairly recently, the library was far from the showcase it is now. The interior was neglected during the mid 1900s and many of the beautiful decorations and wall panels had been covered by false ceilings and partitions. The docent told us that people were even allowed to cook in here and the marble columns were not gleaming and white as they are now, but covered in a greasy black grime that had built up over many years. The renovations were conducted in two stages, one starting in the 80s, the other in the 90s. So the splendour of the building as I experience it now is really very recent.
There are a number of excellent exhibitions on in the library. I visit one on the Civil War that includes a ‘Hay Draft’ of the Gettysburg address and the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated; another that traces the history of American mapmaking and features the first map of America made by an American; a third called Hope for America which features memorabilia associated with Bob Hope and other political satirists, and a fourth about musicians George and Ira Gershwin.
But the most stunning exhibition I see is Jefferson’s library, a recreation of the 6,487 volumes that founded the Library of Congress. The library is circular and all the bookcases are enclosed in glass, front and back, so you can view the collection by walking around its perimeter, where you see the backs of the books, or from inside, where you can make out the titles. Jefferson sold his private collection of books to Congress in 1815, after the British had burned down the Capitol building and the Congressional library in 1814. A second fire in 1851 destroyed almost two thirds of the collection, but a conscientious cataloguer had maintained detailed records of every book in Jefferson’s library and this information was used to gradually rebuild the collection with original publications that exactly match the dates and editions of the books that were burned. There is no photography allowed, but click here to see images of this moving tribute to Jefferson’s collection of books.
After my docent led tour and my experience in the Rare Book Reading Room, I head out into the steaming heat of the early afternoon – it is about 35 degrees Celsius with 95% humidity and it is oppressive. I walk to the National Gallery of Art, which looks so very close on the map, but takes me about half an hour to reach. I wander along the north side of Capitol Hill, past the magnificent domed Congress building, past its gardens and a big pond, around a construction site, and down into a tree line avenue where I finally reach the Gallery, all the while trying as much as possible to stay in the shade. (I vow to take an umbrella with me the next day.) This National Mall area, where all the major museums are located, and which stretches from Congress right down to the Lincoln Memorial, is reminiscent of Canberra – the distances between the museums and monuments are vast, each site separated by great stretches of grass and trees and wide avenues lined with tourist buses with large dark tinted windows. In cooler weather, it would be very pleasant to walk from one attraction to another, because they are all in reasonably close proximity, but in the searing heat, everything seems to look further away and take longer to get to.
The National Gallery of Art is spread across two building – one built in neo-classical style with Grecian columns and flights of steps leading to the main entrance, the other a contemporary, angular building that I actually don’t visit, even though it houses modern art. The entrance foyer in the older building is dominated by an impressive marble rotunda with a fountain in the centre and a domed ceiling supported by Ionic green marble columns. People gather here and plan their visit, or just rest on the cool marble steps surrounding the fountain. The galleries on either side lead to beautiful interior garden areas. It is cool and calm and peaceful in this building and I am tempted spend the rest of the day here. I explore the highlights of the collection, which include a Da Vinci, Titian, Vermeer, Ingres, Rembrandt and Cassatt. I also spend a lot of time with the early Renaissance works, which I have become increasingly fascinated by over recent years.
I leave the National Gallery and, rather than going next door to the new wing of the building, I cross the grassy mall and visit the Hirschorn, which is one of the many museums that make up the Smithsonian, the largest museum in the world. The Hirschorn was designed by Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990) and built in 1966. It is shaped like a giant donut and actually resembles a war bunker from the outside, a huge circular structure with only a single slot-like window visible on one side, a Big Brother eye that watches over everything. Outside the park side of the building there is a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, a big, showy, black and white brush stroke. On the opposite side, which you reach by traversing the interior circular courtyard of the building, which features a large pool and spurting fountain of water, is the main entrance, marked by a large black Alexander Calder sculpture. The interior is simple and minimal with a small reception desk, a seating area, and escalators going up and down to the various floors. I go down first and descend into a Barbara Kruger text based work called Belief and Doubt, that completely overtakes the floor below. It is an instant wow moment – all the walls and the floor are covered in giant black and white and red statements about desire, faith, power and consumer culture.
There is only one other work on show down here and it is a very compelling three channel video work by Spanish artist collective DEMOCRACIA, founded by Pablo España and Iván López, both born in 1970. The video, called Ser y Durar (To be and to last) features a group of young men in red hoodies running about in a cemetery doing extraordinary acrobatics, leaping over tombstones, running up walls, spinning in the air before landing. I think of Marinetti and the Futurists as I watch these young men so defiantly and skilfully dance all over their forefathers. The Futurists claimed they would be useless by age thirty and wanted to destroy everything associated with the past, including museums and libraries, in their quest for all things fast and furious and futuristic. But the title of the work – To be and to last – doesn’t quite echo all the principles of the Futurist manifesto.
Upstairs in the Hirschorn I see some iconic works by Donald Judd, Doris Salcedo, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and other key names in the contemporary art canon. I have to admit, I sometimes get a little tired of seeing the same artists repeated in each major institution. The work is fantastic – there is no doubt about that – but I also hanker for greater variety.
The entire experience in the Hirschorn, with the exception of the Barbara Kruger basement, is based on moving in a circular motion. There are windows on each floor that look down over the central, rather brutalist courtyard that really does feel rather Orwellian. I walk across it again in the immense heat, which has not given up its intensity even thought it is early evening, and head back across the grass to the National Gallery Sculpture Park.
I had been planning a quiet stroll through the NGA Sculpture park, but the place is completely packed with hundreds of people for a free jazz concert. There are security guards at the entrance and I make my way in past the crowds. All the grassy areas are packed with picnickers and the entire circumference of the large central pond is overtaken by people dangling their feet in the cool water. The music is great – an Afrofunk band called Chopteeth. I head for the café, buy some fruit salad and sit and listen for a while. Then I wander about and try to see some of the sculpture, but it is an almost impossible task because the place is so very crowded. I walk back uphill to the hotel, hot, sweaty and exhausted.
On the following day, I take a guided walking tour of the main Washington monuments. We meet near the Washington Memorial, a giant marble obelisk that is undergoing major repair and won’t be accessible by the public for some time. There are about fifteen of us in the group, including two Australians from country Victoria (whose names I sadly can’t recall). Our docent is Cecelia, a young woman in a bright orange t-shirt who is a superb guide. She is not only knowledgeable about the history of each site we visit, but adds personal stories about her own experience of these places. We see the White House from a distance and learn about the East and West Wings, and Michelle Obama’s herb garden. Then we walk to the Washington monument, which is currently covered in scaffolding to repair earthquake damage to its marble structure. It actually has a lift inside that takes you to a viewing room at the top. We walk to the World War II Memorial, then to the very moving The Vietnam War Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, that cuts into the earth in a huge V shape. It is particularly special for me to see this memorial in person, because I discuss it in lectures I give to undergraduates. We see the classical Jefferson Memorial from a distance and, finally, our tour ends at the most famous of all the monuments, the iconic Lincoln Memorial. From it steps there is a direct sight line across the reflecting pool, to the Washington obelisk and the Capitol beyond. There are tourists everywhere, outside all over the steps, and inside trying to get as close as possible to the three metre high statue of Lincoln for a photograph. It is amazing to be here, but because of the crowds it is also difficult to evoke the solemnity of events that have taken place on this site. It is here, in 1963, that Martin Luther King made his famous speech, ‘I had a dream’, to a crowd of 250,000 people.
It is so hot, I hail a ride in one of those bicycle buggies to the front of the White House, to a view of the building so often featured in news broadcasts. When I arrive, there are cameras there, recording a protest that is in full swing outside the high black iron gates. The protestors are rallying against the government’s policy towards Cuba and the imprisonment of five Cubans they believe were unjustly arrested for monitoring anti-Cuban terrorist groups operating in Southern Florida. People are blowing whistles, marching up and down with placards and chanting something I can’t quite make out. I take photos – it is not possible to get close to the famous fence, but it is actually much more fascinating to watch the protest instead.
Directly opposite the White House, on Lafayette Park, is Concepcion Picciotto’s peace camp against the use of nuclear arms. It is the country’s longest continuous protest, started by Concepcion back in 1981. She originally began the protest on the other side of the road, directly in front of the White House, but the National Parks Services moved her and her fellow activist, Thomas (who died in 2009) to the park side.
I then catch the metro back to Capitol South station for a tour of the Capitol Visitor Centre. I have to wait in a long queue for about half an hour with other people who have booked a free ticket as I have, and eventually, after being security scanned, we enter the building. We watch a movie about the establishment of the government called ‘Out of many, one’, the motto of the US government that also appears on most of its money. Afterwards, we are taken on a tour of the Rotunda and the floor below. The Rotunda is at the very heart of the building and its dome, with the golden Statue of Freedom on top, is the highest peak in the city (with the exception of the Washington obelisk I mentioned earlier). The walls of the Rotunda are covered in paintings that depict salient moments in American history and there are sculptures of significant people as well, presented to Congress by each state in the country. Official ceremonies are held here, including funerals and, notably, the public viewing of John F Kennedy Lying in State. The Rotunda is so large and so high, that if the State of Liberty were place inside, her torch would not touch the beautifully painted dome. Alas, the tour doesn’t include visits to the Senate or House, for which you need special passes from a Senator or Representative.
On Sunday I catch the train to Arlington Cemetery, America’s most significant military burial ground. I go because it is so famous, but I have no idea of the emotional impact it will have on me. As I approach the main entrance, I catch a glimpse of hundreds of white marble tombstones, and already I feel my eyes beginning to well. I book myself on a tour that transports you around the extensive grounds to the three major sites on a little open train-like vehicle. We stop at the John F Kennedy memorial, where he and Jackie are buried; at the Tomb of Unknown Solider, and the house of Robert E Lee. Along the way, we pass through acres and acres of immaculately tended grounds which are covered, as far as the eye can see, with the perfectly aligned white marble tombstones of American soldiers who have died in battle. I am moved to tears. It is a sublime sight – both beautiful and horrific. Almost half a million people are buried here and, on average, there are twenty seven funerals held every day.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded twenty four hours a day, I witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which happens every half hour during the summer. It is a remarkable sight. As one soldier is replaced by another, they perform a series of incredibly precise, ritualistic movements in which they check each other’s rifles over and over again. And they do this in full military regalia, in the searing heat, wearing white gloves, black shiny boots and dark jackets. The changing of the guard is followed by wreath laying ceremonies in which flowers are presented to the tomb by children from different middle schools.
Later in the day, towards early evening when I am back at the hotel, I do something really stupid. The weather forecast is for thunderstorms and, despite the fact that the sky looks threatening and I can smell the rain in the air, I just go ahead and catch the Metro to Federal Triangle. I am determined to go back to the White House and get a really good, close-up look of its back yard. I want to see Michelle Obama’s famous kitchen garden, and just take in the whole experience of seeing the most famous house in America. So off I go. When I get off the train, there is absolutely no-one in the vast Ronald Reagan courtyard where I emerge from the Metro exit, and the sky looks even more threatening, but it hasn’t yet started to rain so I keep going. Part of me says, ‘Turn back Brigita, just go back to the hotel’, but I am as obstinate as a bull and keep walking towards the White House, which is about three or four blocks away. The streets are almost completely devoid of people. I keep walking, going a little faster as I feel a few spits of rain hitting my face. Then, about a block and a half from my destination, the heavens just open up and within a few minutes, despite my umbrella, I am almost completely drenched from the waist down. Well, there is no turning back now – I just keep walking. I come across small groups of people who are coming from the direction of the White House, many of them without umbrellas or raincoats. We laugh at each other – it’s not cold, it’s just incredibly wet! I manage to take a couple of photos of the White House, barely visible in the steaming rain, and then make my way back to the Metro. By this stage, I am sodden. It takes me ages to dry out my clothes and shoes.
* * *
On my last day in Washington, I return to the library, this time armed with catalogue details of two of Fludd’s publications, and this time, I get to see what I wanted to see in the first place, a first edition of the Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atqve technica historia, in duo volumina secundum cosmi differentiam diuisa, published from 1617-21 with engravings by Johan-Theodri de Bry. The same Librarian who looked after me two days ago arranges for the book to be delivered to the reading room – he is much more friendly this time and we have a conversation about Fludd’s amazing illustrations. The book is hefty – both volumes are published in one – and must have at least 400 pages. It waits for me propped in a red velvet covered stand rather than an acrylic one. I am immensely excited.
I spend almost two hours with Fludd’s book, turning every page and examining every illustration. Some pages are quite clean and light, others are very brown and acidic. All of the engravings are just superb, and some look remarkably contemporary. The first image folds out. It is of a woman standing on a globe with the heavens about her and symbols over her breasts and pubis, reminiscent of the strange symbols the Mormons have on their special underwear! Beneath the woman, an ape sits on a globe holding another globe in his hands with the aid of a pair of calipers – these are extraordinary visions of Fludd’s view of creation! A second fold-out image shows Adam and Eve in the very centre of an earth that looks rather like a huge eyeball. The best image is the one the librarian mentioned to me as his favourite when we chatted about Fludd’s book. It’s on page 26 and is simply a mass of vertical and horizontal black lines that form a black square – a void – with the text et sic in infinitum (an so on indefinitely) written along each side of the image. It is an amazing engraving and I am inspired to draw one myself, but at a much larger scale. I will use the techniques I learned at the Drawing Centre workshop just before coming to Washington. (Interestingly, I note that many of the lines used in Fludd’s images are similar to the ones we did in the Drawing Workshop exercises.)
All of the images, which I have only seen in reproduction previously, are stunning – so much more beautiful than I imagined they would be. They are rather crude, actually, but just so evocative and so reflective of an extraordinary imagination. There is a richness and immediacy of the use of line that I find very moving, as if I can see both the engraver and Fludd drawing these images with their hands. Sometimes, the dark centres of the orbs that feature in so many of the images look as if they are concealing hidden figures or mistakes that had to be carefully scratched over. All of the etching lines are very fine – I can’t emphasize this enough – you can see every hand made mark.
The book is really an encyclopaedia of sorts and is divided into many different chapters. One is on military precision and includes beautiful diagrams of triangular and diamond shaped formations using little round circles, sometimes in combination with numbers. These seem like contemporary abstractions. There is a chapter on vision and sight that includes fantastic illustrations of how perspective works, and eyeballs that float in the sky observing objects from specified distances.
It is time for a lunch break before I tackle the second book I requested, Fludd’s English translation of the Mosaicall philosophy, published in 1659. I go back to the corridors and tunnels of the Library of Congress and, with the help of a senior cataloguer, find the caféteria on the 6th floor of the Madison building. This is a huge place, open to the public, with windows all along one side that have nice views over Capitol Hill. I sit at a table with Debbie, who works in copyright, and she explains the sort of things she does in her division. She goes into a lot of detail about her job and even shows me the copyright symbol in a novel being read by the woman at the next table. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I was once a librarian.
After lunch, I spend about half an hour with Mosaicall philosophy and then head for the main domed reading room, the showpiece of the Library of Congress, which I have thus far only seen from a visitor viewing area.
I choose desk number 328. I’m sitting in the outermost circle of desks, which form concentric circles around the librarian’s reference area in the middle of the room, directly below the huge and magnificent dome. Other people in the room are working on laptops or writing by hand – some are simply reading. A man with words tattooed over his face marches in quickly, makes a full circle around the room and then vanishes. I open my laptop and start writing.
It is so rich and lush in here that it is hard to know where to start. I look upwards. The domed ceiling has another dome within it, with its own little columns holding up a trompe l’oeil image of a woman and a child holding a book as they float in the heavens. Below is a circular painting of key nations that have contributed to world culture and knowledge: Greece, Islam, Rome, Judea, Egypt, Italy, America, France, England, Germany, Spain. It is not entirely Eurocentric, but it is predominantly so. Russia and Africa do not appear, nor China, India, or any other Asian countries.
The marble pillars that hold up the walls are pink and amber and purple with gilded Corinthian tops. Statues of significant cultural figures stand on the upper balcony – Plato, Homer, Solon, Henry, Moses – what do we think of these choices now?
I start writing – clickety clack, clickety clack… If I lived here, I think I would come every day just to sit and write, because it feels so focussed in this room. Although there is noise in the background, the concentration of the readers and researchers is actually much more prominent.
I spend an hour writing and then head back through the tunnels to the Madison Building, take some photos of the amazing globe on the second floor, and collect my bag from the hotel. The woman at reception asks if I would like a cab. I was going to walk to Union Station, which would take about 20 mins or so, but the sky looks threatening and I don’t want to repeat my previous night’s experience when I got caught in the huge thunderstorm near the White House, so I take the cab. As we start driving, it starts to rain.
A travel tip. Take the train to Washington from New York – don’t take the bus! I booked a seat on the Bolt Bus service, which departs just a couple of blocks from Greene Street, costs only $20, and has excellent online reviews. All the same, the bus was delayed by an hour because the air conditioning wasn’t working and we had to be transferred to a second bus about 30 minutes into the trip. While the seats were quite roomy, I got the last seat, right next to the toilet. The train cost $82 for Coach Class, but the seats are comfortable and spacious, and you have a little fold down table and power for your computer. There is also a café car.