Immersed in the Literarium: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Splendide Hotel

In August 2014, at the beginning of our sabbatical year in Madrid, we visited the Palacio de Cristal in the Parque del Retiro. At that time, the exhibition in the Palacio organized by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, was Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Splendide Hotel.

It wasn’t until last year, however, that I read the book to accompany this exhibition, published by OneStar Press: 1887: Splendide Hotel.

The book divides the Madrid work into various sections. Here is the table of contents:

Books – Livres

Carpet – Tapis

Characters – Personnages

Cristal

Dreams – Rêves

Hotels

Music – Musique

Notes

Objects – Objets

Quantum – Quantique

In the Notes section, Gonzalez-Foerster includes an early description of the Madrid project:

madrid 23.10.13
in the splendid hotel there is only one room
but its very large, very central and transparent
almost like a stage or an aquarium, a literarium
its full of ghosts and guests
rimbaud and rizal in conversation
about colonialism and poetry

Re-reading this now, I am struck by the word literarium following the word aquarium. This not only describes the way that you encounter the Splendid Hotel as an environment of books, scattered throughout the exhibition in Madrid, swimming through the hands of readers in their rocking chairs.

But it also brings to mind the artist’s 2009 exhibition Chronotopes & Dioramas, in which books can be found in aquatic settings.

The aquarium/literarium description now makes me think of another immersive environment of books: the opening of the third book of Cicero’s On Moral Ends:

I was down at my place at Tusculum, and wanted to consult some books from the library of the young Lucullus; so I went to his country-house, as I was in the habit of doing, to help myself to the volumes I needed. On my arrival, seated in the library I found Marcus Cato; I had not known he was there. He was surrounded by piles of books on Stoicism; for he possessed, as you are aware, a voracious appetite for reading, and could never have enough of it; indeed it was often his practice actually to brave the idle censure of the mob by reading in the senate-house itself, while waiting for the senate to assemble, — he did not steal any attention from public business. So it may well be believed that when I found him taking a complete holiday, with a vast supply of books at his command, he had the air of indulging in a literary debauch, if the term may be applied to so honourable an occupation.

Marcus Cato not only spends his leisure time swimming in books, but by reading in the senate-house, he shows an even more intense immersion. (One could say the same of Gonzalez-Foerster’s obsessions with books in her art practice). Yet, unlike the association between the aquarium and literarium of the Splendide Hotel, Cicero’s metaphors of literary immersion is one of the banquet and Cato’s ‘voracious appetite’ for Stoicism. At the same time, both ancient author and contemporary artist share a fantasy of the total immersion in books as that of leisure in the setting of a scene for a broader investigation. For Cicero it would be a conversation about the ultimate moral good and aim of life, for Gonzalez-Foerster it would be focused on colonialism and poetry.

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