ARTWORK + > Underground Library

|College of DuPage : Sept 2017|
|Space 151 : Living Proof : San Francisco : Jan–Feb 2018|
|Storm King Art Center : Indicators: Artists on Climate Change : May–Nov 2018|
|Sagehen Creek Field Station : Natural Discourse : Aug 2019|
|CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art : May 9 – June 6, 2021|

Underground Library is a project based around a collection of five decades of defunct, passed over or ignored books on climate change—from unread technical manuals to forgotten best-sellers. Sourced by the artist over the course of a year from thrift stores, free book boxes, used book stores and eBay, the library represents a printed history of individuals' and groups' calls to urgent action—which remain largely unheeded by a world enraptured by an economic death cult.

As carbon dioxide is added to our atmosphere by anthropogenic processes, our world warms. Left alone, fallen trees, uprooted plants and even our own bodies eventually return their borrowed carbon to the atmosphere—unless it is sequestered in some way, removing it from the carbon cycle.

Creating biochar reduces CO2 in the atmosphere by making this carbon-neutral process of naturally decaying organic matter carbon-negative. Traditionally created from wood using a low-oxygen pyrolization process which leaves behind a form of carbon, highly stable when buried, biochar provides a number of other benefits for plants and microorganisms. For Underground Library Kendler carbonized wood in another form—books. This unusual book-burning and burying creates a literal underground library, restoring use value by sequestering carbon for millennia to come.

The project exists both as a series of documentary photographs and as physical installations of the biocharred books buried in the landscape.

The first edition of the library was installed as a permanent artwork in the restored prairie at the College of DuPage in September 2017, where students assisted in a three-day process of firing the charcoal kiln, burying the books and re-seeding the prairie, while also learning about the endangered prairie ecosystem and impacts of climate change. The artist is grateful to the college’s Visiting Artist program and especially Mara Baker, David Ouellette, Justin Witte and prairie manager Remic Ensweiler as well as artists Amber Ginsburg, Sara Black for their support of this project. Watch a short video about the project in the DuPage prairie here.

From Art in America: "Other artists in the exhibition instead use emotive visual metaphors to embody our potential losses—to create memento mori for industrial civilization. Jenny Kendler’s Underground Library (2017–18) comprises ten books on climate change from the last five decades that the artist has collected and “biocharred,” or burned slowly in low oxygen to sequester carbon. The resulting jet-black shells offer a haunting elegy to books that have outlived their function. When the exhibition closes, they will be buried on the grounds at Storm King, thus preventing their carbon from entering the atmosphere."

From Hyperallergic: "Two of the quietest yet most compelling works in Indicators, David Brooks’ Permanent Field Observations (2018) and Jenny Kendler’s Underground Library (2017-18), exercise what agency is available to them in subtle and evocative ways. Elegiac time capsules intended for a deep future that has become estranged from its past, both works provide a keen sense of art’s capacities and limitations as an indicator. Perhaps not coincidentally, in an exhibition whose spacious outdoor grounds permit, even encourage, its artists to work at monumental scale, both artworks are comparatively mouse-like, almost invisible, in size and appearance.


Kendler’s Underground Library also stages the process of its own decay and disappearance in smart and subtle ways. For the long-term project, the artist alters used or discarded climate change books through biocharring, a process that sequesters carbon from the earth’s atmosphere. As sculptural objects, the charred books — crinkly stacks of warped and blackened paper — provoke dystopian jitters about book burning. Yet those burnt books not reserved for gallery display are buried underground in unspecified sites, where they provide benefits to plants and grasses, such as reducing soil acidity and feeding microbial life. Kendler’s repurposed and mostly invisible library combines aesthetic and conceptual suggestiveness with practical ecological touches."


Like Ellie Ga’s spookily taciturn gelatin silver print, Remainder (2010), portraying four shovels standing in a grey, horizonless expanse of snow, Kendler’s Underground Library and Brooks’ Field Observations manifest an almost archaeological interest in the objects that humans leave behind. Unlike Ga’s print, however, which depicts traces of the past as encountered during her Arctic expedition, Kendler’s and Brooks’ works compel the viewer to imagine what objects from the present will remain in the future, and in what ghostly forms. Both works are elegies for climate losses and changes to come.

Among the objects human beings produce, artworks seem some of the likeliest to persist, relatively intact, in the future. Unusual amounts of thought and care are put into both their making and their maintenance. As climate indicators, then, artworks offer clues about how our species understands its material legacy in an era when it has become increasingly difficult to imagine the exalted posterity such works were once meant to secure. Through feats of creative remembrance, documentation, and forgetting, the works in Indicators hint at how it feels to bear witness to the dawning awareness of your own decline.