Artist Breathes Art into the Linen Hall Library

Artist-in-Residence Laura Graham opens a 'Door', the first in a series of art installations

This month sees the beginning of an ambitious and innovative series of events and installations taking part at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, entitled Breathe Various. Running from now until June, it is the brainchild of onetime solicitor, now artist in residence, Laura Graham.

The first of these installations is called 'Door'. It is an eye-catching 7ft x 3ft pair of lips, superimposed on a light-box and hung above the entrance to the library. Upon further inspection, the lips are comprised entirely of various translations of the word ‘door’. 

‘A key idea behind the ongoing exhibition is communication,' Graham explains. 'So I decided to take the mouth as the object. It is through the mouth that we breathe and communicate. In a sense, it is where consciousness comes from. Without the mouth we wouldn’t be here.'

The idea of communication also ties in with the many languages used in the 'Door' piece. However, the translations also connect with the library in another sense. When researching the august institution, Graham was shown a rare hand-written book by librarian John Killen. It was, she says, a great source of inspiration.

The Lexicon is a wonderful book,' says Graham. 'Basically a man took lots of words and translated each of them into about 20 different European languages. It is a very rare, beautiful book, not out on the actual library shelves.

'I thought I would like to create something that reflected this multicultural awareness. I also wanted to make sure I was reflecting Ireland’s nature and the fact that it has got so many different indigenous elements involved.’

There are therefore a number of key elements clearly at play within 'Door'. The mouth is a vehicle for communication, the many languages a display of multiculturalism, the light-box a metaphor for the Age of Enlightenment (during which the Library was formed in 1788).

Graham also sees the library as a metaphysical doorway, a portal to a richer life. ‘Each time you open a book, you’re opening a doorway. Each time you see someone, each time you have a conversation, another doorway has opened. You’re never the same again. You’ve gone through something.’

The artist is also keen for the themes to permeate the rest of the Breathe Various events, the next of which is a Parisian inspired discussion forum. Graham is enthusiastic about her plans to bring more people into the library.

‘I’m going to do a philosophy café,' she adds. ‘In the 1990s a philosopher named Marc Sautet developed this idea of having philosophical debates in cafés for two hours each Sunday. We can’t do that, but the proposal is we have a group of different people come, artists and intellectuals, to talk with people who are out shopping or just walking around the city centre. Anybody who wants to come in, or has an interest in discussion, reasoning or logic is welcome. You just need a willingness to engage.’

The third complementary event scheduled as part of the ongoing exhibition will bring art from the streets of Belfast into the library. It is a display of performance art, inspired by books selected by Killen. Graham describes the artists she is welcoming into the Linen Hall as ‘some of the best international performance artists, living right here in Belfast, ready to use the library as a venue to create work'.

Finally, June will see the construction of 'Breathe IV', the final installation. This will be entitled the 'Liberty Tree' (or 'Libertree', Graham is as yet undecided), a pewter sculpture that will pay homage to another hidden slice of Belfast history.

‘I learned through the library that there were liberty trees planted in the City Hall area,' Graham explains. 'I thought this was brilliant, that the people here, who had very little, planted trees to support the people of France [during the Revolution] both emotionally, spiritually and politically. I thought this was a beautiful idea and loved that multicultural sense of support.

'My 'Liberty Tree' is going to be silver with a red branch, which ties in with the Red Branch Knights of Ulster mythology. It is made of pewter and branches, and this holds further significance, but I’m waiting to develop the idea further before I reveal any more!’

While Graham may be keeping some of her cards close to her chest, one thing that she is keen to point out is the love she feels for the Linen Hall Library, and all it provides for the people of Belfast.

‘There is something so nurturing about this place, about both where it has come from and where it is going. The kind of heart it provides for the city centre makes it a very special place, and I’d like everybody to feel the same sense of comfort and privilege that I have when I come here. It really is a privilege.’

As well as being an intriguing interactive exhibition, Breathe Various is a great chance to celebrate one of Belfast’s true treasures. The Linen Hall Library is open to the public Monday – Friday 9:30am – 5:30pm; Saturday 9:30am – 4:00pm.