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Excavating Babel by Tina Hill. photograph © Martin-Everett

Excavating Babel by Tina Hill. photograph © Martin-Everett

Excavating Babel by Tina Hill

Telling Stories: Fringe exhibition at Electro Studios Project Space: 10/11 & 17/18 Nov 2012 reviewed by Xaverine Bates.

Books. Layers of paper, imprinted with text, in hundreds of languages, telling an infinite number of stories. Science books, history books, religious texts, fiction, fact, notebooks. Valuable objects, whose significance is shifting in a digital age, where tomes can be downloaded instantly at the click of a button, the entire works of Shakespeare taking up but a few megabytes on a kindle or iPad.

Excavating Babel by Tina Hill. photograph © Martin-Everett

Excavating Babel by Tina Hill. photograph © Martin-Everett

So often, paper books become too decrepit, too well-loved, too dog-eared and laboriously annotated, inevitably culminating in the same state as they were before they became books in the first place – as pulp. Meaningful pulp. Pulp that has history, that contains people’s emotional inheritances & a multitude of words – all pulverized together in an indistinguishable babble. Or Babel.

Tina Hill rescued over 2,300 books from the pulpers, withdrawn from libraries & found on the floor of the defunct Book Barn warehouse in Bristol, to turn them into a modern-day tower of Babel. Excavating Babel relates to the story in Genesis (11, 1-9), which tells how mankind collaborated to build a tower to reach heaven. God punished their hubris by making them speak different languages & dispersing them across the world, leaving them unable to communicate forevermore in their diaspora.

According to SIL International’s Ethnologue: Languages of the World, there are over 6,900 spoken languages. How aware we are now of these multitudinous languages in an age of 21st century migration, immigration, transmigration. In an age of digital revolution, where we hear online, translated from Arabic, Greek, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Hindi, Russian, Mandarin etc., about global social unrest, uprisings, Arab Springs, wars & revolutions occurring around the globe & in our very midst. Unrest caused, very often, by this very same lack of communication encompassing the allegory of Babel.

It is this loss of communication that Tina is alluding to in the first word of the title: Excavating Babel. The excavation is a comment on the fact that, despite our myriad forms of communication, we still fail to fundamentally understand each other as human beings. To reinforce this idea, Tina removed the book covers, in order to excavate each one, so that we are unaware what messages or stories each book contains or whether it is even in an intelligible language. She built text strata on the outside walls of the tower, which indicate verbal communication but are unrelated to the contents of the books on which they are found. The text strata are comprised of translations of the Genesis text by Babel Fish, Yahoo’s online translation service, infamous for mistranslations. From Babel comes babble – a meaningless, incomprehensible noise made up of words: a glossolalia, meaningful in its meaninglessness. The result is a geological construction, which documents its strata through the exposed spines, threads, golden leaved pages & incomprehensible text which runs through & around it.

Walking into the tower’s spiral is like entering a secret womb-like library. That intoxicating smell of books evokes memories of libraries, grandparents’ bookshelves, second-hand book shops, ancient books savoured year after year & preserved for the next generation. It feels safe, inviting, maternal. The sound is dampened. All is well within these silent pages. It doesn’t matter that the words can never be read – they spill out into the subconscious directly through the musty leaves. As Tina notes, “at the centre of Excavating Babel you are cut off from the outside by a wall of words you cannot read. The ultimate failure in communication is war; the reduction of homes, lives & civilizations to fragments & dust. The Tower of Babel was built in the ancient city of Babylon. On this important site after the invasion of Iraq, the Americans built a military base where they removed archaeological material to fill the thousands of sandbags that encircled the camp.” So the bricks of Babel, each one uniquely stamped, some of which remain in the British Museum today, became dust, which in turn became the dust-bricks with which American soldiers shielded themselves from the horrors of war through their makeshift sandbag walls. Around the external walls of Excavating Babel lies the ‘word dust’ which remained after Tina violently yet tenderly drilled through each & every book in order to scaffold them to make the structure solid. Saved from total destruction, the books have been violated to create a monument to literature, to learning, to language. The dust, she hopes, will form the basis of a future project, as the “symbolic of loss & destruction it also offers the potential for recombination into an infinite number of new sentences, new books & new, hopefully deeper levels of communication.”

On a personal level, books have always held an important place in Tina’s life. As a child, she owned only two or three books, which she treasured, read & re-read. However, she amassed many through her incredibly varied career as first a social psychologist, then a GP & now an artist. She received the 2009 Agassi Book Arts Prize awarded by The Centre for Fine Print Research as an MA Multi-disciplinary Printmaking student for Excavating Babel at UWE. The piece has toured the UK, first in the Solihull Gallery in 2010, then in Margate as part of the Pushing Print Festival in 2011, then in Gloucester Cathedral in March of this year, & now at Electro Studios in St. Leonards as part of Telling Stories: Hastings Fringe. The work took on a different significance depending on where it was housed: she felt it to be more at home in industrial spaces such as Electro, where the peeling paint & mouldering walls echo the soft beige browns of the books standing within them.

Tina’s work as a printmaker, her choice of texture & colour, her multi-layered surfaces are reflections of the key elements in her work: that of fragmentation, transmutations & stratification: they echo the processes of decay & dissolution, the imprints & stains of time.” This process has resonances in Excavating Babel, where time, order, disorder, strata & fragments all play a part in its 3D printed structure. As Tina herself says, “More than just reflecting the natural cycles of birth & death, construction & destruction, I am interested in – ‘new life from old’; how artefacts can be discarded as worthless by one society only to be sought after & conserved by another. In this my work draws upon archaeology, geology & museum artefact as sources of information & inspiration.”

Curator of the Telling Stories: Hastings fringe, Cathryn Kemp, said: “It is a privilege to bring Tina’s extraordinary work to St Leonards. Tina has an international standing & having Excavating Babel here at Electro Studios is a dream come true. Excavating Babel is part of a rich cultural environment & I hope to build on the links established with Bristol artists to take the Telling Stories: project into the future.”

Excavating Babel is on show this weekend – 17 & 18 November at the Electro Studios Project Space, Seaside Road, St Leonards-on-Sea TN38 0AL
Open on Saturday 17: 2-4pm, and Sunday 18: 12–4pm.
Tel: 07816 780159

You can see more of Tina Hill’s artwork on her website:

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Posted 10:13 Wednesday, Nov 14, 2012 In: Visual Arts

Also in: Visual Arts

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