Image for 168:01 Artist’s Installation and Book Signing
Image for 168:01 Artist’s Installation and Book Signing
Image for 168:01 Artist’s Installation and Book Signing
Image for 168:01 Artist’s Installation and Book Signing

168:01 Artist’s Installation and Book Signing

VCUarts Qatar Library

In February,1258, a Mongol attack led by Hulagu Khan overran the city of Baghdad. For some thirteen days, more than one hundred thousand invaders battled with hastily-assembled, and grossly-underpowered Abbasid defenders. While indiscriminately killing the citizens of the city, the Mongols also laid siege to the institutions that formed its cultural core. According to stories from the time, the books from the Grand Library of Baghdad – hundreds of thousands of them – were thrown into the Tigris River to create a bridge for the invading forces. For seven days, it is said, the Tigris flowed bluish-black with the ink from their pages. Seven days – 168 hours – later, their leaves washed clean of centuries of knowledge, the river returned to its previous state.

In April, 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq, history repeated itself. Looters set fire to libraries and cultural institutions across Baghdad. The National Library and Archives, a priceless historical collection said to number in the hundreds of thousands, was torched and looted. A fire set in the Library of the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts, led to the destruction of some 70,000 volumes. 

Decades later, these institutions maintain skeletal collections for interested scholars.

Wafaa Bilal created 168.01 to both commemorate and attempt to repair these assaults on knowledge. Consisting of pristinely-white volumes lining library shelves representing the depleted volumes in the bed of the Tigris, the installation asks viewers to both contemplate the immeasurable loss of cultural history, and to participate in its restoration. 

The title refers to the second after the last drop of ink flowed from the plundered collections, when the clear waters of the Tigris were restored.  Over time, the idea is for the ghostly “library” to transform into one replete with words, images, and knowledge. 

As the river was restored, so will the library in Baghdad.

The artist will be present, and signing copies of the symbolic books.

Image Credits: Wafaa Bilal, 168:01, 2016 to present, courtesy of the artist, photograph by John Dean.


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