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 : Contact Traces : May 9–June 6, 2021|
|Neubauer Collegium : The Chicago Cli-Fi Library : Feb 22–Jun 10, 2023|

Underground Library is based around a collection of five decades of discarded, neglected or overlooked books on climate change—from unread technical manuals to forgotten best-sellers of decades past. These literary artifacts hold a printed history of urgent pleas for action, largely ignored in a world consumed by an economic death cult.

With several family members who run used book stores or collect rare books, Kendler has bibliophilia in her blood. Sourced by Kendler from thrift stores, free book boxes, used book stores and eBay, this library represents a printed history of individuals' and groups' unheeded calls to urgent action. The books also bear traces of their few readers, documented in Kendler’s photos: scrawls rebutting carbon calculations, airline tickets used as bookmarks, heartfelt margin notes—and notably, library cards marked with hardly a stamp, save the library’s “withdrawn”— showing their removal from circulation. Unread, these books became graves for the words they held.

Left alone, fallen trees, uprooted plants and even our own bodies eventually return their borrowed carbon to the atmosphere—unless it is removed from the carbon cycle via sequestration. Creating biochar is one way to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by making the normally carbon-neutral process of natural decay carbon-negative. 

Traditionally created by burning wood using a low-oxygen process called pyrolization, biocharring transmutes the carbon in organic matter into a highly stable form, able to be sequestered underground. When buried, biochar also provides a number of other benefits for plants and microorganisms, including increased water retention and bioremediation of pollutants.  

For Underground Library, Kendler chose to carbonize wood in another form—books. At the conclusion of each exhibition, the books are permanently buried at an appropriate chosen site. This unusual book-burning and burying creates a literal underground library, restoring use value to these unread volumes by sequestering their carbon for millennia to come.

The charred books also evoke memories of other, more dystopian book burnings throughout history, which fostered underground libraries of forbidden knowledge passed clandestinely from hand to hand. While Exxon and other fossil fuel companies may not have physically burned books on climate change, they circulated doubt through deliberate and planned campaigns of disinformation—a subtler means to keep these crucial texts from the hands of the public.

These authors, represented in Kendler’s library, worked to combat that doubt: to provide facts, to empower citizen action and to hold economic, governmental and corporate powers accountable. 

In the embrace of the earth, these volumes become memorials to the tragedy of an unheeded call to action—material legacy honoring those who, for decades, put pen to paper, even though no one was listening.

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 and 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.