Jean Shin, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, 2023

Brooklyn Heights Library

Jean Shin's Something Borrowed, Something Blue is a permanent artwork at Brooklyn Heights Library that was commissioned on Brooklyn Public Library’s 125th Anniversary. Marking the inauguration of the newly renovated branch, the public work offers the people of Brooklyn a potent materialization and metaphor of knowledge in our contemporary life and the library as a living system.

Jean Shin’s hanging illuminated sculpture is situated on the prow of the building in the main reading room and is visible from all sides, from the ground and mezzanine levels.

Seemingly to defy gravity, the sculpture is an inverted, hanging tree with roots at the ceiling. It draws on symbolism of the tree as much as it comments on the materiality of knowledge in the pre- and post-digital age. As Shin has noted, trees are inextricably linked to the history of knowledge via the production of paper and advances in the printing press, yet even this history is preceded by the tree as a sacred symbol of knowledge in many ancient cultures.  In the present moment, the sacred symbol of the tree of knowledge is refracted through our awareness of the shared biological world being upended, thrown into disorder, by our human activity.

Her sculpture helps us notice how the very language used to describe library systems, links back to the shared metaphors of ecosystems and knowledge systems. Libraries, which pulse with human activity, have local “branches” that house shared books circulating among them. The sculpture also draws on the traditional rhyme “Something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new”. The adage from English folklore details what a bride should wear on her wedding day for good luck. In this context, the artworks’ title speaks to the social contract embodied by public libraries. With it, she alludes to the circulation of books (“something borrowed”), the colors and materials of the artwork and the BPL logo (“something blue”), outmoded forms of technology (“something old”) and emergent forms of knowledge and technology (“something new”) that define the library system and our world.

The canopy of leaves in the sculpture are made with denim-wrapped metal and light components. Electric cords wrapped in long strips of blue denim jeans and other deconstructed clothing are coiled with old electronic wires to form the tree’s root structure, trunk, and limbs.  The salvaged denim was sourced from patrons at each of the branches and the fashion industry.  Blue denim references the body, people, and the community with egalitarian and workerist associations. Shin invited each of the branch librarians and library-goers to donate worn jeans, as well as their old technology-- cables, cords, headphones, CDs, etc.-- to be used in the sculpture. Denim speaks to the mission of the library to serve the public, providing equity, access, and overcoming the digital divide. The sculpture brings us from the symbol of the tree of knowledge to the present, with this participatory collection process and choice of materials.

When seen from below, the contours of the leaves form the map of Brooklyn; each leaf represents a zip code and a neighborhood where Brooklyn Public Library has its local branches. Inscribed in illuminated, punched-out letters on each of the leaves is the title of the most circulated book in the year that the respective branch opened. In 1923, the year Washington Irving Branch opened, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran was the most popular book. In 1952, the year Sheepshead Bay branch opened, it was Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. In the momentous year of 1969, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the mainstay of Brooklyn readers. In this way, Shin captures the history of the Brooklyn Public Library system and of popular culture and literature.  Just as a tree’s growth is recorded in rings, Something Borrowed, Something Blue renders the data of the last 125 years of BPL book borrowing into a living record, a longitudinal snapshot of the communities of Brooklyn.

Visible from the mezzanine level, the topside of the sculpture’s leaves offers “something blue” in the form of indigo patterning.  The ancient Indigo color that comes from plants, has been largely replaced by synthetic dyes used in today’s denim. The indigo textiles were altered using traditional Japanese Shibori resist technique to dye natural Indigo fabric. Shin tightly tied the cloth with the donated cords, plugs and devices to create these unique designs on each of the leaves—another suggestion of the echoing imprint of technology. To the artist, the transformative process this fabric undergoes speaks to the lived experience of generations of immigrants that come to define and redefine Brooklyn.