The collection itself — letters, novels, books of hours, maps, sailing charts, marriage contracts (including one from 1476 for Ferdinand and Isabella’s eldest daughter), land grants, catechisms, scientific treatises and other documents dating back as far as the 12th century — fills the cavernous floor below, in a procession of dimly lighted shelves that can be peered at through small windows, giving the space the feeling of an aquarium or the nocturnal rooms of a zoo.
When the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster visited these basement stacks for the first time two years ago, the impression that came over her immediately, partly because the collection seemed at the same time so monumental and so cloistered, was “this Citizen Kane, Xanadu feeling,” she said in a recent telephone interview from Paris, where she lives and works part of the year. Sitting in the stacks amid the smell of dusty paper and buckram, she began to envision a kind of parallel library, as if the society’s could somehow dream itself a new existence.
And with help over the last few months from a team of painters and the society’s librarians, it now has, in a way. On Wednesday “chronotopes & dioramas,” an exhibition by Ms. Gonzalez-Foerster that is part of the Dia Art Foundation’s unlikely temporary partnership with the Hispanic Society, opens in a space next to the society that could almost be an annex to its library.The work presents a meticulously fashioned fantasy of a library in which shelves have become obsolete, and books, like examples of living creatures, are displayed in illusionistic dioramas that evoke those of the American Museum of Natural History. In this kind of library the Dewey decimal system has been replaced by a subjective method of categorization about as straightforward as Symbolist poetry. Franz Kafka, J. G. Ballard, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Gertrude Stein find themselves grouped together in the depths of the North Atlantic, as writers whom Ms. Gonzalez-Foerster sees as links between Europe and the Americas. Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño share company in the desert. And Paul Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop and the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade are classified under the tropical, their books displayed in a rain-forest diorama in which the ruins of a Modernist house can be seen peeking out of the undergrowth.