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Carb Loading: California's golden, high-octane history is wittily referenced in 'Golden Gate,' one of 33 public art pieces at the new library.

Biblio Art

The new San Jose Public Library includes some aesthetic surprises

By Michael S. Gant

ON THE FIRST, unofficial day of business at San Jose's new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, I had an experience that probably can't be duplicated. Entering the lobby at Fourth and San Fernando, I plunged into the crowded ground floor and worked my way up the library's eight levels, until I found myself nearly alone on the pristine top story.

The main floor, with its central, four-story atrium, has the feel of a grand concourse in a big-city train terminal, an effect heightened by the LED read-out above the circulation desk that tracks the total of checked-out books as if they were departing trains (24,000 and counting by midafternoon). The space benefits from the fact that it is two-faced, with doors at diagonally opposite corners leading both to downtown and to the SJSU quad. This flow-through design is a frank acknowledgment that the project seeks to meld in a concrete way city and gown.

Escalators lead to the second, third and fourth floors, which contain the public library's collection. A literal and symbolic stop occurs with the ceiling that caps half the atrium and marks the beginning of SJSU's portion of the library.

By moving upward, I had ascended from the bustle of the library's public, civic commons to the more rarified volumes of the university's collection. The library's experiment in literary democracy posits that two collections, two staffs, two budgets, two cultures really, can co-exist. The true test of that idea will come with the influx of SJSU students in the fall as they mingle with the public users. In the meantime, I felt a bit like Burgess Meredith's character in that famous Twilight Zone episode where he's the last man on Earth and doesn't care because he's got the library all to himself.

My journey was also something of a treasure hunt, as I went looking for the bits and pieces of Recolecciones, the public art project created by North Carolina artist Mel Chin and a team of collaborators. Rather than pouring all of his team's energy (and the city's money) into a single monumental sculpture, Chin decided to salt the library with 33 different artworks. As Chin, who was on-site checking on some last-minute installations, put it, "rather than immediate gratification, we wanted to trigger connections."

One of the best pieces, Golden Gate, frames the fifth-floor entrance to the special collections rooms. Mounted on glass shelves as if in a transparent vault, 88 gold-painted carburetors form a rectilinear archway. As Chin explained, "They are like the rows of golden Buddhas at a Buddhist monastery." The carburetors also connect our state's elemental birthright to our passion for cars.

Less immediately readable is the seventh-floor Owl of Minerva, a wood sculpture of the bird of wisdom sitting in a niche near the philosophy collection. The reference to the German philosopher Hegel is highly allusive, perhaps too rarified to parse without the aid of a cheat sheet.

Rather than force attention by depositing the works on pedestals for museumlike contemplation, Chin has designed temporal and conceptual gestures. In the theater section, an overhead light fixture in the shape of the Globe Theater projects across a wall, once a day for about 15 minutes, a cluster of lights--called, Chin explained, "constellation Willy," and based on a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Less successfully, in one aisle of the poetry section, overhead sensors trigger the sound of pages turning when you pass underneath. This is too clever--and ultimately, too distracting--to last. I suspect that some librarian will find the off switch.

The parts of Recolecciones can be checked off using a guide from the information desk, but that linear approach robs the works of their crucial surprise factor. The pieces are best experienced as individual discoveries over time. In that way, they are like the library's books themselves, constant sources of new insight.


The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library grand opening takes place Aug. 16, 10am-4pm.


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From the August 7-13, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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