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Shelf Portrait

Shelf Portrait

1,670 books, hung on racks and given away to gallery goers.

A disappearing archive

Red Head Gallery, 401 Richmond, Toronto, 2007


Shelf Portrait gallery
Shelf Portrait words


When my husband, Terry McAuliffe, died, it took almost two years to divest myself of most of his possessions.  His books were the last, and the saddest, to go.  There were many titles I would never read, but it felt as if his fine mind was leaving our house when I finally gave them away.


Who will do that for me, I wondered?  And did I want to burden someone with my possessions, especially my vast collection of 2000 or so books?  We had made our living room into a joint library, but now I was moving to a much smaller house.  The books suddenly seemed to be weighing me down.  Why don’t I just give them away, I thought?   The ones I never read I never would read. The ones I had read were a part of my psyche now, I didn’t really need the physical artefact.  So I decided to make an exhibition of them, and let people come and have a piece of my psyche, a piece of my mind. I called it Shelf Portrait, a Disappearing Archive.

The books were hung on strings on stands that looked like ship’s rigging. I made wall sized catalogues of the archive.  People could find the books on the lists that they were taking, and sign them out, so the catalogues became the archive of the archive. For some reason, this project generated a great deal of media interest – no fewer than five CBC radio interviews, and half page articles in the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and the National Post. Five hundred people came to the opening, and since the Red Head Gallery only holds 50 people at a time, we had to give people timed slips of paper.  They could take up to four books, sign them out on the wall catalogues, and then take pictures of themselves with disposable cameras.  When the books were all gone, I pinned these photos to the strings.


I thought it would make me sad, but in fact it was a joyful experience to share myself through my books, to create, and then divest, a self portrait of my mind.

—Robin Pacific

Shelf Portrait media

CBC Arts Tonight Radio Interview with Eleanor Wachtel

"Eye Candy" by David Balzer
Eye Magazine, January 4, 2007.

On Saturday, Jan. 6, conceptual artist Robin Pacific carries out what might be described as Walter Benjamin’s worst nightmare: she is giving away her entire archive of 1,670 books, which took her 30 years to collect. That’s right: hundreds of books are free for the taking—books that have been culled by a sharp, creative mind and that have probably been exceedingly cared for and mulled over. To anyone prone to hoarding, the gesture is tantalizing (free books!), cringe-inducing and poignant: because as every collector knows, a collection is not just a gathering of things, but an extension of the self, a part of one’ soul. To underscore her sacrifice, Pacific has included a bookplate in each book that reads “This book is a gift to you from Robin Pacific”; additionally, those who take something are required to sign a sheet and put it in place of the book. Participants are also encouraged to contribute to the event by picking up one of the disposable cameras on hand and shooting Pacific’s incredible shrinking trove. And so the books aren’t really free at all; takers leave with the responsibility of history; they’ll never feel as if the book is completely their own. For Pacific herself, the event becomes an artistic act: she is putting objects into the world that have been indelibly marked as her own. Part of her soul—despite its seemingly horrific material dispersal—will be in the good hands of approximately 1,670 strangers.

"Sharing her psyche, one book at a time" by Peter Goddard
Toronto Star, Jan 06 2007 

Carried along in the orgy of denial that comes with each New Year, I’ve met with one close friend determined to give away her silverware. Others are committed to kick all the usual fun habits or to go on all the usual not fun diets.

But Robin Pacific’s promise to give away almost her entire library of some 1,670 titles beginning today at Red Head Gallery until the month’s end strikes me as a far more extreme test of willpower than anything else imaginable. (Pacific plans to be at the gallery off and on throughout the entire exercise.)

As a multi-disciplinary artist with a strong interest in community-informed work, Pacific sees “Shelf Portrait: A Disappearing Archive” as a performance piece. The title alone gives some idea of the subversive cheekiness that goes into much of this artist’s work. “Uniform,” her sizeable 2003 video installation, had Art Gallery of Ontario uniformed guards reveal by way of video interviews that they shared anything but a uniform affection for their employer. 

“Shelf Portrait” consists of more than just art books, though. Subjects in the collection range from cultural theory to fiction to gardening, each forming only a part of “the portrait of an artist’s psyche,” as Pacific explains. 

“I could have taken the books to a second-hand dealer,” the 60-year-old artist tells me, “but that didn’t seem right. Because books are so precious, it had to be an act of giving. It’s like scattering my consciousness to the winds. Isn’t that what artists do with their art?”

At the very least. Earlier this year Nancy Nisbet dispensed with a tractor-trailer’s worth of household possessions and personal gewgaws during a continent-wide ride. The British Columbia artist described the act as “a performance of resistance” against the North American Free Trade Agreement. Other artists and non-artists alike in recent years have expressed various levels of outrage or anti-authoritarianism by way of messing around with a commodity-jammed culture. 

But giving up your seven-year-old Braun coffee grinder in righteous anger is one thing. Giving away a favourite book is another. It’s like offering up a bit of one’s own secret code to a stranger. Providing a DNA sample to the RCMP seems less intrusive.

Strangers knowingly leaving books behind on benches or bus stops to be picked up by other strangers – a melancholic practice written about months back in this very section by colleague Malene Arpe – seems to me to be a gesture quite the opposite of Pacific’s “Shelf Portrait.” 

Her “Disappearing Archive” will never entirely free itself of her ownership. Each book has a bookplate saying: “This book is a gift to you from Robin Pacific.” Disposable cameras are being provided to record the dwindling remains of the collection. 

In contrast, the secretive book planters in Arpe’s story often preferred their anonymous status. They hope that the finder-reader will gain something from the exercise, that the found book will be a discovery, and maybe even an answer to the never-ending sameness of life.

“Shelf Portrait” only serves to conjure up new questions relating back to the original keeper of the book. And these questions “are probably every bit as important as the book itself,” as British author Nick Hornby notes in his recent book about his own bookish habits, Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt.

The passing of Pacific’s husband Terry McAuliffe, a former media executive, more than three years ago forced the artist to look at what was left of their shared life.

Following his “long, painful death,” as she says, “and its long, painful aftermath,” she came to realize the value of memory. “The books really are about my psyche but I’ve internalized them all. There was a time in my life when I would totally absorb a subject. I would read everything about Karl Marx, everything about Carl Jung. I don’t need to, now.

“I’ve kept some things. I gave some things to family and some to Goodwill. The last things I’m giving away are his books. It’s as if his mind and psyche were leaving the house.”

Back in 1992, after Ontario Court Justice Lorraine Gotlib refused to allow CBC-TV to show The Boys of St. Vincent, Pacific and McAuliffe rented a Toronto auditorium to show the mini-series about sexual abuse at a fictional Catholic orphanage. As a clerical sexual-abuse survivor himself, McAuliffe saw the screenings – although the series was already available on videocassette – as a way of putting the past in perspective.

“Shelf Portrait” continues the same process. Indeed, it joins together the way in which loss and absence have been treated in literature and in the visual arts, such as with Christopher Pratt’s painting.
Pacific is also aware she’s part of yet another tradition – the book as ready-made object, wherein the content is only part of a broader understanding of the object. As functional as “Shelf Life” is – “with its beautiful book racks,” as Pacific enthusiastically points out – the book giving has a thoroughly theatrical quality that goes with the controlled nature of the installation. 

The catalogue of the books on offer consists of sheets hanging on the Red Head Gallery walls. Recipients of books sign their names in the appropriate place on the catalogue, which provides the record of the activity. 

“My own work is about loss and mortality and grieving,” says Pacific, “and you don’t need books for that. You don’t need books to understand the transitory nature of life. 

“This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading. I continue to buy books. 

“But there’s a part of my life I’m willing to leave behind.”

"An Artistic Giveaway: Artist’s entire library up for grabs in new installation"

Brianna Goldberg, National Post, January 5, 2007.

Robin Pacific is giving away all 1,670 pieces of her psyche. 

The stanzas of Gwendolyn MacEwan, the pages of Jung, snippets of all the books that made Pacific who she is, are now part of an elaborate art installation.

Or is it a closing-out sale? Either way, Pacific says everything must go.

Starting Saturday the Red Head Gallery opens its doors to Shelf Portrait: A Disappearing Archive, Pacific’s lifetime library. Hundreds of books will be stuffed into eight towering racks, and many will clutter the floor.

But with any luck, the mess will be temporary.

Pacific wants every item to exit with a new owner over the installation’s three-week run.

“There were period in my life, many periods, when I would become passionately interested in a subject,” says Pacific.

“I used to call it my crocodile brain—I would just want to eat books. I would go into a bookstore or a library and it would almost feel like certain books would jump off the shelf into my hands. I think that time of my life is in the past. I’ve absorbed all that information, and it is what has gone into creating my psyche as an artist. Dispersing it is a way of sharing that psyche with the world.”

As gallery goers enter and take their souvenirs, all Pacific asks is that new owners note their selection on her wall-sized catalogue sheets and snap a picture of themselves with a disposable camera provided. The act of giving will thus be transformed into living art—not between artists, but between people.

“I’m always trying to dissolve boundaries and bring people together,” she explains of her democratic approach to making art.

“I think this sharp divide between those people who are called artists and those who aren’t is an artificial one. Everyone is creative, it’s just that in this society our creativity devolves into our consumer choices.”

And so Pacific says Shelf Portrait is both an act of art and an act of generosity. But once you get a few tomes into Pacific’s psyche, you see that it’s also an act of closure.

“After my husband died, I spent three years going through his things. Keeping some things, giving some things away, taking things to the Goodwill. And the last things I gave away were his books. That was the hardest thing to give away. I thought, “Well, why don’t I give mine away, and do it meaningfully? So it’s also a way of saying goodbye to the past and looking towards the future.”

Saying goodbye to a lifelong book obsession is no small task. The compulsion to collect and digest literature has been with her since she was a girl—accounting for her staggering collection of reads.

“When I was a child, we could only take four books out a week from the library. So I would get the thickest ones I could find, and then I would ration them out so I wouldn’t sit down and read them all on the first day.”

But despite her longtime fiction fervour, Pacific has no regrets about shedding her library with the show this week.

“Once I was ready, I was ready,” she says with conviction. “I’m ready to let them go.”

The rich and diverse collection includes vast selections of French philosophy, Marxist orthodoxy and troves of Canadian theatre, fiction and poetry. Some of them have never been opened. Others are worn thin with attention.

And with each storyline, great swathes of Pacific’s equally rich and diverse life are played out: her PhD in English literature, her foundation of the Pelican Players political theatre group, her paintings, her installations, her world.

Well, almost all of it. Pacific has in fact stowed away a few choice pieces of her collection.

“I did keep a few. I kept first editions of Canadian poetry, I kept some books that had been gifts with strong sentimental value. I kept books that my friends had written. And I kept my Shakespeare and Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Those are the ones that have shaped my thinking the most.”

"A Collection for the Taking: An artist eager to sever links to the past prepares to give away her treasured books"

Alexandra Shimo, Globe and Mail, January 6, 2007

Artist Robin Pacific is about to give away what she has spent the past 30 years collecting. Her books – all 1,670 of them—will be available for the public to take away, free, at a downtown Toronto gallery starting tomorrow afternoon.

“My books are a portrait of my psyche,” says Ms. Pacific, 61, as she set up her art exhibition, Shelf Portrait, for tomorrow’s opening. “When I pick one up at random, a whole period of my life comes rushing back: people, places, what I was doing, who I was at that particular point of my past. Giving them away is a means of putting my consciousness out into the world, and isn’t that what all artists do, regardless of the medium?”

As a former professor of English, Canadian literature, theatre and women’s’ studies who has taught at the University of Toronto, York and Ryerson, Ms. Pacific’s personal library includes fiction, critical theory, biographies, philosophy, psychology, travel and gardening.

There are rare books, including the first novels of Roch Carrier, and out-of-print books such as those by Canadian poet Elizabeth Brewster. Classics include Virgil’s Aeneid, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. There is even some humour and chick-lit.

Shopping bags will be provided to cart the books away.

Attendees will be able to scroll through a list detailing each of the books, which spans 21 pages, each 1.2 metres squared, displayed on the gallery’s four walls. Each book bears the inscription: “This book is a gift for you from Robin Pacific”. Disposable cameras will be available so gallery-goers can take photos of the disappearing archives.

“There’s been a lot of interest by the public,” said Peter Kingstone, director of the Red Head Gallery. “Most people just can’t believe that someone would give away all their books. I know that I—and many people agree—think of my collection as a portrait of me. I can look through my collection of books and see the movement of my ideas and where I’ve gone and where I came from. The idea of divesting myself from it like Robin is doing seems to be quite radical, scary and exciting.”

Like Mr. Kingstone, Ms. Pacific believes her book collection provides a self-portrait and a connection to her own past. However, recent tragic events—the deaths of her husband three years ago, and two close fiends within the past year—have prompted her to sever that link.

“I feel weighed down by the past,” she says, standing among wooden shelves where the books are hung form their spines on string, like laundry hanging out to dry.

“I think by the time you reach my age there’s an awful lot of it. It’s a lightening and liberating feeling to let go of some of it.”

In 1992, the Toronto-based artist co-founded Art Starts, a free program for local residents to make art and theatre collaboratively.

Since opening fifteen years ago, the program, paid for by both government and private-sector sources, has taught thousands of Torontonians from very diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, she said.

In 2003, Ms. Pacific organized Uniform, an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in which the gallery’s security guards put their own work and words on display.

Ms. Pacific’s latest work is typical of her history of generous acts, according to fellow Toronto resident and close friend, Spencer Higdon.

“Her generosity is legendary, so it does not surprise me that she’s giving away her life’s collection of books,” Mr. Higdon said. “She’s always done things in a big way.”

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