Ruth Beale: Bookbed
31 January - 23 March 2014
Review by Beth Bramich
Peckham Library is a fantastic building, with its pastel green panelling, helter-skelter struts and great lolling orange tongue. As a piece of architecture it is striking, innovative and award-winning but, far more important that that, as a library it is intensively used. At a time when many libraries are under threat of closure, often attributed to their falling usage, it continues to be extremely popular with the local community. That huge tongue poking out from its roof is itself an important reminder of the true function of a library: to not just be a repository of information but to be the means by which that information is shared.
The newly rebranded Peckham Platform gallery, which also sits within Peckham Square, is far smaller than the library but no less architecturally unhinged. An angular, colourful building, with an alien-just-dropped-in-from-outer-space quality, it similarly sparks curiosity from passers-by, but has the added advantage of a shop-window style frontage that faces onto Peckham High Street, allowing the intrigued to try before they (metaphorically) buy. Ruth Beale has positioned the centrepiece of her exhibition ‘Bookbed’, which is a celebration of the Library above, in this prime position.
‘Bookbed’ is a bed re-fashioned into the shape of an open book with a curved mattress that undulates away from its central ‘spine’. It is wonderfully soft, a perfect place to sit, lie or curl up with a good book. Around the Bookbed the carpet is plush and blue and there are white fluffy cloud cushions strewn about. This is a dream-like space, perfect for play and child-friendly in the extreme. The bed as book is a neat allusion to the pleasures of reading, and symbolic of our relationship to the library books that we borrow, how they leave public spaces and enter our private, domestic settings.
The wooziness inspired by the presence of the bed is tempered by the thrum of activity on the other side of the gallery, a ‘low-fi, self-publishing station’ where visitors can clatter at a typewriter and take part in conversation. The station is a table big enough for a group to meet, ideal for collective activities. In the run-up to the exhibition Beale has collaborated with Peckham Library on a series of creative writing workshops for young people, which will continue here within the gallery during the exhibition. This juxtaposition of dreamscape and workshop represents one of the library’s unique properties as both a place for quiet contemplation and more active forms of learning. Alongside a series of events scheduled to take place in the gallery the station has also been given over to the public - in a way which was maybe once more common in local libraries but is now in decline - for workshops, discussions and reading groups to be self-organised by anyone who wants to.
The third element within the gallery is the ‘autodidact library’, a small but hugely diverse collection of books housed in a set of shelves which through the magic of creative woodworking has the appearance of yet another giant book, this one standing upright, its pages held open to you as you enter the gallery. Self-education, in its many guises, has been a running theme throughout Beale’s practice. Whether she is instigating a Festival of Amateurs in Elton or encouraging an intergenerational group to perform keywords that shape culture and society, there is a generosity in her acts of hosting, her imagination and playfulness. Here this small library, the spaces offered to read and write, and the talks and discussions about why these things are important, celebrate and support the activity of the local library, which as a utopian project to encourage self-betterment continues, within Peckham, to be a success story.