Bibylon is a celebration of democracy, collaboration, education, culture and everyone’s future, namely the children of the world. A library collection that demonstrates our international differences – different nations and cultures – and our shared and universal sameness – the care for our children’s education.

Promoting discovery at face value the art installation Bibylon inevitably instigates debate on demography, democracy, integration, the nation, and the people that physically populate these emotionally loaded concepts.

In “The Nation in Children’s Literature (Kit Kelen, Bjorn Sundmark, 2012)”, the researchers posit that “The emergence of modern nation-states can be seen as coinciding with the historical emergence of children’s literature, while stateless or diasporic nations have frequently formulated their national consciousness and experience through children’s literature, both instructing children as future citizens and highlighting how ideas of childhood inform the discourses of nation and citizenship.”

Bibylon is a positive art response to political disobedience; a testimony of art’s essential place in society as an instigator of change and critical action for the benefit of the people. As the artist states “Contemporary art isn’t something anyone in particular desires, it’s what everyone in general requires – at which point art becomes societal.

In 2021 Sweden celebrated 100 years of democracy at a time when democracy was no longer considered self-evident: only 2 years earlier, in 2019, the municipal council of Sölvesborg, a small city in the Southern part of Sweden, decided to stop buying books in foreign languages for its school libraries, an indisputable violation of the national library law. It renewed the debate on integration politics, where the scientific point of view remained firm, namely that it’s easier for immigrant children to learn a local language when they get the opportunity to start reading in their (foreign) mother tongue.

All the hundreds of books that constitute Bibylon came from generous donations; from the foreign embassies in Sweden, representing Sweden’s international relations, and from the Astrid Lindgren Company, representing Sweden`s export of culture abroad. Two sides of the same coin, separated by the conventional borders of nationhood. The act of voluntary donations circumvented financial motives in the project, but inevitably hit the deep-rooted fragility, namely the lack of supervision, at the core of democracy and its representation par excellence: the library.

Belgian-born Thierry Mortier (1974), moved to Sweden in 2018 where he now works and lives. He initiated KVADRENNALEN, PLATFORM FOR CONTEMPORARY ART TO RESPOND TO POLITICAL THREAT (2022), a leaderless, decentralized, transdisciplinary, and nationwide artists’ movement, during election years, advocating art’s essential place in society. In his practice, Mortier connects relations – his art material of choice – to take shape i.e. to generate forms. Forms that include but are not limited to paintings, sculptures, videos, installations, interventions in the public domain, undefined. While tackling big societal questions such as political governance, economy, religion, or identity, Mortier’s entry into those subjects invariably remains focused on the very nature of art in society.

Bibylon (2023) was conceived by Thierry Mortier and produced in collaboration with Weld, independent platform for experimental processes and knowledge production, with funding from the Swedish Arts Council.

Bibylon Project Team

  • Thierry Mortier
  • Lies Lecompte, artist assistant
  • Anna Koch, project supervisor, Weld
  • Nina Øverli, Weld
  • Esbjörn Grip, designer mobile bookcase
  • Emelie Appelholm-Bergbohm, communication strategist

An open call was launched at the end of 2022 to find a Designer to design and manufacture the mobile bookcase for the Bibylon collection.

Bibylon Mobile Bookcase Team

All the books in the Bibylon collection came from generous donations by: 

Sweden has five official minority languages: Finnish, Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish), Yiddish, Romani and Sami. Next to the embassies and the Astrid Lindgren Company, the Sametinget, the Sami parliament in Sweden which shares the follow-up responsibility for minority policy, was also invited as a donating partner. Bibylon was presented as an attempt to create the largest foreign language children’s books collection, which in its formulation hit upon something instrumental to understanding one of the core issues of minority languages: How can a language, spoken in the territory of a nation-state, be considered as foreign when that language existed in the territory long before the nation-state was set up?

Please read the statement by Hanna Karolina Schimmer, librarian Sami library/Sami parliament

Inspired by events in Sölvesborg’s municipality in 2019*, Bibylon invites us to reflect on connected issues that still spur ongoing debates in Sweden and the rest of the world, such as the connections between immigration and economy, in particular in countries with declining populations due to drops in birth rates and spikes in aging workforces. It highlights the difference between language and culture with recurring examples in the collection where language, as a technology of communication, is shared by different nation-states without it resulting in a shared culture. It puts long-term societal perspectives in opposition to short-term election rhetorics for example the research on integration and mother tongue education. And, it also asks us to consider if neutral objectivity, understood as unbiased, is at all possible. Bibylon is a continuous balance between positive and negative perspectives that are unapologetically ignored by the children enjoying its beautiful stories, in their mother tongue.

* After a political shift in the 2018 elections, Sölvesborg was one of the first municipalities to come under the direction of the Swedish Democrats party, which drafted a 220-point program for the municipality opposing national recommendations and good practices such as stop buying public art in line with the recommendations of the national cultural policy goals, changing the rules around official flagposts’ use, resulting in no longer allowing rainbow flags on official flagposts, as well as requesting edits, in violation to the national library law, to the local library plan, resulting in no longer buying foreign language children’s books for the school libraries.

Although set up as a traveling artwork that functions as a library collection wherever it lands, Bibylon does not try to address a concrete or acute issue of libraries. It is a public monument for what libraries represent in society: open access to all. Access to resources, education, entertainment, and more. The Swedish library system, even when facing its own issues today, does not need art to help in its concrete working, but it can use art’s ability to manifest the invisible, to manifest what is generally assumed.

The Swedish library system is robust and formidable in its reach and resources:

Working with The Library is not a novel art idea; throughout art history, numerous artists have tackled the concept of the library from all different perspectives, with very different set-ups and executions. A selection of international and Swedish artists’ work with “the library” at its core below:

Research article by Clare Qualmann UK: The artist in the library, 2017