At The New Observatory exhibition, currently situated in FACT, one installation literally towers above the rest. A plain white bookshelf spans the entire room from the roof to the floor, the contents of its shelves equally austere: it is filled with blank white books, with the letters 168:01 inscribed on the spine of each. The effect is almost sterile, and it takes a few seconds to notice the donation stand quietly placed to its side.
A monument to the losses silently suffered by the population of Iraq after the invasion in 2003, Wafaa Bilal’s 168:01 addresses the destruction of the written word. Thirteen years ago, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost over 70,000 books in a looting fire. Today, students there still have few library resources to which they can turn.
The concept is simple, like the installation; pledge a donation at the stand, and it will go towards restoring the library at the University of Baghdad. For every $25 donation, one of the white books will be shipped to the donor, while a book requested by the university will take its place. The viewer is therefore part of the artwork, with the chance to be intrinsically involved. At the end of the exhibition, the collected books will be shipped to Baghdad.
The artist himself is no stranger to austerity. Born and raised in Iraq, Bilal was a prominent artistic dissident who was arrested during the tumultuous reign of Saddam Hussein; he eventually fled the country for a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia in 1991. There, he taught children art for two years, after which he relocated to the United States to study the subject himself.
Most of the political artwork Bilal has produced since has featured his own body or physical presence as a pivotal part of the installations. In Domestic Tension, he allowed strangers on the Internet to shoot yellow paintballs at him remotely; for ...And Counting, he had his back tattooed with names of Iraqi cities and dots representing casualties that occurred near those cities. He used red ink for American casualties, while Iraqi losses were tattooed in invisible ink which could only be seen under a blacklight - one of those invisible dots is for his brother, who died in 2004 in a US missile attack on Bilal’s hometown, Kufa.
168:01 is deeply motivated by the artist’s personal and political history, but the installation gains an even more poignant layer with this context. With this work, Bilal chose not to use his own self or body; in sharp contrast to his previous installations, he also eschewed the use of color. The loss of knowledge, the process of grieving and this work of restoration are the focus of 168:01.
You can find more information about The New Observatory and how to donate here.