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Lucerne dishes up literary food for thought

The exhibition's centrepiece is a "Bonsai Potato" sculpture. Rémy Markowitsch

If an element of surprise is essential to the success of an exhibition, visitors to "Bibliotherapy" at Lucerne's art museum are in for a treat.

Its centrepiece is a large illuminated sculpture of a potato, which may be aesthetically pleasing, but at first sight it seems to have nothing to do with an exhibition about books and reading.

“Bibliotherapy meets ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Der grüne Heinrich'” – to give its full title – was conceived by Swiss artist Rémy Markowitsch, who also sculpted what he calls the “Bonsai Potato”.

But what is bibliotherapy, and come to think of it, what on earth is a bonsai potato?

No dictionary will answer either of these questions, so swissinfo put them to Markowitsch.

“One example of bibliotherapy is where it is used as therapy for children who’ve had a traumatic experience they don’t want to talk about,” Markowitsch said. “By reading books aloud with them they are helped to talk again.”

“Another example is in Cuban cigar factories, where someone is hired to read books out loud to relieve the tedium of the workers’ jobs.”

Reading room

Markowitsch went to great lengths to create an exhibition dedicated to a subject which fascinates him.

He made video recordings of 260 people reading excerpts from three books in their original languages. His next step was to edit the recordings – each reading lasts an average of five minutes – into a continuous, seamless narrative of the full texts.

Each reader chose a specific location to read an excerpt. The mixture of accents, ages and backgrounds of the male and female stimulate the eye but never detract from the narrative.

The result is projected onto five large video screens around the room, in what the museum describes as “synchronic video recordings”.

Literary marathon

As in a relay race, the sound is passed like a baton from one screen to the next, with the visitor moving on to another screen every five minutes to follow the narrative.

But for anyone planning a visit, be warned – it’s a marathon relay race. “Der grüne Heinrich” (Green Henry), by 19th century Swiss writer Gottfried Keller is over 900 pages long and the recording lasts 38 hours.

It is therefore highly unlikely that anyone would want to sit through an audiovisual reading of the entire book – even if the museum gave permission.

The two other books are “Robinson Crusoe” – a swift read at 14 hours – and Gustave Flaubert’s “Bouvard et Pécuchet”.

Going Bonsai

It was Flaubert’s novel which inspired Markowitsch to create the Bonsai Potato.

He says the lit sculpture is based on an “English folly” mentioned in Bouvard et Pécuchet (the same initials BP) which is a potato-shaped rock in their garden.

Markowitsch says the potato serves both to provide a kind of reading lamp and represents the spiritual nourishment of the books, while its bonsai nature is a source of reflection or meditation.

It stands on a floral patterned floor painting by Michael Lin which blends perfectly with the sculpture.

The exhibition is in Lucerne until April 27.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Bibliotherapy is related to helping people solve their problems by reading books aloud.

The three books featured on the video screens were read in their original languages by over 260 people. The recording of one of them, Green Henry by Gottfried Keller, lasts 38 hours.

Forty-six-year-old Rémy Markowitsch grew up in Zurich, and worked first as a journalist and photographer in Lucerne. After living and working in Berlin for several years, he is now living in London as a scholar of the Swiss firm Landis & Gyr.

Markowitch has collaborated with Paris-based Michael Lin since they met in 1999 while both were working in Hong Kong.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR