Whitney McVeigh Interview with Donatien Grau Getty Villa, 2018 Plato in LA: Contemporary Artists' Visions, Getty Villa

Donatien Grau: When we first began having a conversation about Plato, you mentioned that he directly tied into your “library of ordinary life” project. Could you describe that project, and what you perceive as its Platonist aspect?

Whitney McVeigh: My concept was to create a space and place of knowledge. I’ve been collecting books for many years: electrical manuals, physics and mathematics textbooks, books on telegraphy, ship building, and home keeping, dictionaries, pictorial reference books, children’s encyclopedias. The idea was to form a collective language that would enable a wider referencing and a return to fundamental values through the archive. I became interested in Plato’s writings and interpretation of knowledge several years ago, especially his ideas around “recourse to fiction” and the unseen. He explores the use of symbols and shadows to understand our beliefs and connect us to wider meaning. Divine Rules, the library’s title, is from Theaetetus, the dialogue where Plato refers to divine wisdom through both internal and external sources. The collection is a dedication to ordinary human life, tracing history and celebrating universal human truths. My interest lies in a library that sees beyond Plato’s notion of “becoming to being” and truth as brought to us through time. He refers to the “cultivating of a garden,” and the books and collection have grown and evolved, gradually forming a new language. Books were written differently before the Internet; there’s a sense that the authors knew they were limited to a print run. Some of the prefaces sound like metaphors for the broader aspects of life. Divine Rules is a philosophical work. There are approximately nine hundred books in the collection.

DG: What would be the Platonic truth of this library?

WM: That it holds universal truths. Plato distinguishes between representation and visualization, and seeks transformative ways of accessing truth. The books in this collection act as symbols or souls, and vehicles to expand our beliefs—through the physical nature and age of the objects, and the knowledge contained inside. The library remains closed, but this notion of “hidden laws” provokes thinking through association; collectively, the books transcend the visible into the invisible. Plato refers to gathering multitudes of disciplines to understand knowledge in the practice of philosophy. In many ways, the library represents this through the amassing of books.

DG: Expand our beliefs, or expand our knowledge?

WM: Both, in the sense that we expand our beliefs to expand our knowledge. It comes back to visualization: a philosopher or an artist might work with objects in order to lead to a wider, more abstract truth. In “And Yet the Books,” the poet Czeslaw Milosz refers to books as “derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.” In the library, Elements of Electricity and Magnetism sits next to the Encyclopedia of Needlework. The juxtaposition of these titles starts a new conversation.

DG: But how do you connect something like that to Plato’s writings?

WM: As I said, Plato seeks and interprets knowledge using symbols and metaphysical thinking as a way of furthering understanding. He saw artists and craftspeople as producers of images that reside in the realm of thought. Similar to Carl Jung, he believed that to learn truth is the soul remembering what it learned before birth, and that the “exercise of our senses upon sensible objects” is a way of reclaiming that knowledge. In many ways the same can be said of an object or a book—that it takes on layers, becoming its true self over time. The library was formed intuitively and seeks to remind us of all that connects us as humans—that fundamentally we share human values and the need to learn in order to expand our lives.

DG: Where do you find the books?

WM: The books were almost all acquired in the UK. I’ve visited the same man in the early morning for years; he clears homes of the deceased, and unpacks from the back of his van onto the street. There’s a significance in rescuing the books. Just as a drawing brings us something real and tangible through its making, an object reveals itself through its history. Collectively as a library, a new space is (re)generated, a new form and context. The library addresses reinvention.

DG: Have you always been an avid reader?

WM: Yes, in my twenties I was a great reader of fiction and these days am more focused on nonfiction. On every trip I’ve taken, books have been a source of comfort—and not only for their content. A few have traveled with me over the last ten years, and in each country they come to, they take on added meaning.

DG: There seems to be a close connection between the library and mortality. What about the immortality of the soul? I’m thinking here of Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.

WM: My interest lies in time and accessing beyond through visual methods in order to understand and deepen our connection to life. In Phaedo, before Socrates is forced to die, he refers to a dream in which he’s told to cultivate and make music. He talks about the study of philosophy as the pursuit of life and “the noblest and best of music.” In the end, he composes a piece that will live on beyond his death. Socrates sees the soul as the purest form of truth and describes sight and hearing and the physical body as “inaccurate witnesses.” The library can be approached as a composition, a metaphor for truth, the books acting as composites, or vehicles for and to knowledge. Particle physicists believe that energy never dies and that every grain of sand holds the memory of everything that it’s come into contact with. Knowledge is formed through layers, and Plato understood this through our projected senses. When we die, this is the ultimate truth, extending out without any need for the physical. In our lifetimes it’s the physical that triggers and enables widening stories.I recently visited a monastery in the north of Ethiopia where pilgrims traveled to die. Their skeletons remain alongside a tomb belonging to a saint. I experienced an energy that I’ve taken with me, a spirituality suspended somewhere between mountain and rain, past and future, that exists only in the domain of visual memory. It was a truth I’d never encountered—another layer to life. The library remains closed but we are witnesses to its history.

DG: What about Plato’s thinking on writing and its relation to the object of the book itself, for instance in the dialogue Phaedrus?

WM: Phaedrus is relatively dense and analytical. It discusses the division of the soul but also touches on celestial life. Toward the end, Socrates introduces the origins of writing through the god Theuth. Again the debate is on truth of the soul, in this case the “living” word being superior to the written word—reality versus symbols. Theuth is an inventor of the arts in various forms and creates letters as symbols. One could argue, for example, that in the modern world we are frequently recording and documenting and not necessarily “experiencing.” One of the key moments in Plato’s writing on creative work and our response to it is here, where he describes painting and writing as having the “attitude of life.” He says that when we ask a question of a painting or a piece of writing, “they preserve a solemn silence.” The same could be said of an object that triggers our imagination. The silence can be challenging, but equally can unlock the imagination, enabling us to see further into dimensionless spaces, into life, truth, meaning, knowledge itself. As in Phaedo, Phaedrus looks at the confines of the body and our desire to escape and to satisfy, when in reality all human truth lies externally. Dante and other figures such as Arthur Rimbaud traveled through the depths of physical life and descriptive language in order to transcend and evolve into a fuller language that we relate to as humans. This is the work of the artist, and in fact Plato talks about visualization, truth versus imitation, becoming closer to the self through layers and sensory imagination. My research at the University of the Arts, London, Human Fabric, looks at the human being as a vessel and carrier of stories and memories and alludes to the layering of time and collective memory.

DG: Can you say more about how you relate Plato to different modern authors, from Rimbaud to Jung?

WM: I see all of these writers as gateways. The work of the poet is not dissimilar to Plato and his approach to how we perceive and reach knowledge. Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886) is a book I frequently travel with. In Ethiopia I made a pilgrimage of sorts to the ancient city of Harar, where he lived for a time—a city built between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries where men and women still wear traditional dress. I visited the museum dedicated to his work, and had a conversation with the curator about poetry as a means to uncover life’s truths. He loaned me an old copy of Illuminations from the library. I immersed myself in writing while there. Rimbaud traveled and used written language in the same way Plato talks about symbols as a means of arriving at or expanding knowledge. Jung comes to mind—his belief that images exist in us pre-birth and, as in Plato, his argument that our lifetimes are a way of finding images and relating from the psyche. And of course there are the Persian poets, like Rumi, and the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads, illuminated sages who investigate consciousness and understand the path to wisdom as sacred. Walt Whitman’s introduction to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) is a philosophical essay whose subject is not unlike what Plato talks about in Phaedo. He refers to the intricacies of nature and how small we are in comparison to the expansive universe above. I am interested in writers who use the medium as a vehicle to go deeper into existential life. Jorge Luis Borges understood what it means to transcend physical life through a language. His use of primitive symbols and the underworld has greatly influenced my thinking as an artist.

DG: How do Divine Rules, and Plato, tie into your broader artistic practice, which encompasses film, drawing, installation, and more?

WM: In recent years I’ve developed an approach to making that is relatively philosophical. It has evolved in response to materials found and collected over the years from countries I’ve visited and also closer to home. In 2010, in South Africa, I came across a book in a secondhand shop in Gauteng. I saw it was published in the UK in 1938; in it was inscribed a note from a man to a woman on the restorative powers of landscape. It is a religious text with illustrations of trees, and the woman had sought similar branches and pressed them into the pages. I’d been collecting books for some time, but this was the first time I became aware of the layers attached to a book: it was a window into the people’s lives through an object. This book is included in the library. I’ve returned several times to South Africa to the Nirox Foundation in the Cradle of Humankind, formerly an inland sea. The land has limestone caves containing the fossilized remains of ancient forms, animals, plants, and hominids belonging to our human ancestors. Just up from the foundation is wild bush land where there are caves, leopard tortoises, and stones layered as graveyards, arrangements that seem to belong to ancient civilizations. It is a powerful landscape. It was there that I created Archaeology of Memory (2010), a series of painted heads that reflect the texture of the stones with maps of a kind on their surfaces. As humans we need ways of connecting to see further, and nature produces another kind of truth. Recently, now that my children are grown up, I’ve focused on women’s lives, making the film Birth: Origins at the End of Life (2015), and a community-led project 1000 Coats (2017–18) in collaboration with the Social Responsibility department at University of the Arts, London College of Fashion. For the latter, I’m working with up to one hundred women from East London boroughs in a series of workshops to produce coats that will be gifted to children. The project aspires to cultivate, strengthen, and connect local communities; improve skills, aspirations, and ambition through group skills development; and bridge the gap between the arts and ordinary life in society.

Many of the books in the collection refer to home and domestic life. The library emphasizes a return to fundamental values and serves as a reminder that as humans, we have more in common than we think. In collecting these books, I have a sense that I am retrieving and acknowledging past lives and connecting them to something present. Divine Rules is a metaphor for collective memory and a voice for human truth.

DG: Many people argue that books are a form that is vanishing in our digital era. Perhaps it is the end point of the cycle opened by the myth of Theuth. What do you think is the relevance of the book today?

WM: Books of all kinds continue to be published by those who understand the form’s ongoing value in our culture. Writing is more alive than ever, despite the contemporary world’s increasing fragmentation. We live in strange times: technology, for many, leads to isolation, and this will inevitably impact long-term cultural memory. I believe that we, as humans, need to connect with tangible material—the fabric of things, nature, people. Haptic memory is memory triggered through connection. The library is commenting on a need to pay attention—not only to universal truths, but to time, layers.

Back to top