I first came across Noriko Ambe’s book art in 2013 through her site and MoMA’s Inside/Out. Two years later and preparing to attend the closing of Yale University Art Gallery’s special exhibition of Allan Chasanoff’s collection of book art, I spotted her Basic Sketch Book. The latter provided me with a way of making sense of what seemed like a slight contradiction of assertions in her artist’s statement and the MoMA interview.
Referring to the series Work of Linear – Actions, Ambe writes, “It looks like annual rings of a tree or topographical map or wave, but it isn’t. It is absolutely the traces of actions of a person, which is me.” So here is book art as abstract self-portraiture.
But in her interview with Hanna Exel and referring to the seriesキル –Artist Books Project, Ambe comments, “I am not trying to express myself or insert myself into the other artist’s work by cutting their catalogue …”. In that series, Ambe selected 24 artists’ books and catalogues, and, studying each carefully , excavated or rather drew by excision. Aren’t these “absolutely the traces of actions of a person” — Noriko Ambe?
Here is the list of works in the series:
His heart, his life: Andy Warhol
Collected Beauties: Damien Hirst
Art Victims: Damien Hirst
Prologue: Sugimoto + Foer
Sculpture: Richard Serra
Spiritual America: Richard Prince
Crash!: Takashi Murakami
Kiru- Cut : Egon Schiele
In the Studio: Arberto Giacometti
Current – War Cut: Gerhard Richter
Current – A Private Atlas: Gerhard Richter
In the bathtub?!: Jeff Koons
Diamond Dust Shoes: Andy Warhol
Warning!: Richard Pettibone
Sailing to…: Cy Twombly
Anatomy of Love: John Currin
Listning to Tom Freidman: Tom Freidman
Thoughts on Tom Freidman: Tom Freidman
Beautiful Inside of My Head Forever: Damien Hirst
Dots on Dots and Leyers: Roy Lichtenstein
To Perfect Lovers: Felix Gonzalez-Torres
A Study of Robert Therrein: Robert Therrien
Double sides: Girbert & George
Artists, Believe in Yourself.: Piotr Uklanski
In her series statement, Ambe elaborates:
The process of creation was divided into roughly three stages. First, I earnestly established a deep respect for the artists and verified what they expressed through their art. After assimilating that information I decided on the theme (title) that needed to be expressed. Through a filter, the filter being me, the work was made while cutting as though I was having a dialogue with each single page.
When cutting something from the back I didn’t know what kind of image would appear next. Each time I decided to cut away or to leave behind and the process continued to a point where the book was on the verge of destruction, and then following my theme I re-constructed. Finally, while I clearly remained in the work as a filter, the essence of the artist was emphasized. It became a collaboration for the first time when these two things were balanced.
She calls the results dialogues and collaborations. I see unique works of art. Literally taking tradition as her material, Ambe delivers book art with its own unmistakeable, individual style. Each interpretation through her eyes, hands and scalpel is a unique, new work and a self-portrait in an abstract sense.
“The book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented.” — Werner Pfeiffer, Book-Objects & Artist Books, online exhibition, Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
“The book, the idea of a book or the image of a book, is a symbol of learning, of transmitting knowledge … I make my own books to find my way through the old stories.” — Anselm Kiefer, publication entry for Brünhilde schläft, in Toledo Museum of Art Masterworks (Toledo, 2009).
Like Anselm Kiefer, though eight years older, Werner Pfeiffer grew up in the shadow of Nazi Germany. The works of both artists are rooted in the book and its peculiar place in that culture. Pfeiffer’s book-objects consist of deconstructed, dismantled library discards that are reassembled with glue and coated in gesso. “Gagged and tormented” (with nails, screws, rope and various physical distortions), the works are “symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act”, the real remnants of which Pfeiffer recalls from his earliest childhood.
Pfeiffer’s artist books on the other hand run the gamut of foldouts, scrolls, flexagons, walk-in environments and rely on traditional bookmaking craft: handset type, letterpress printing, sophisticated binding as well as original print techniques such as wood cuts or linoleum blocks and etchings on archival papers. The emotional range of Pfeiffer’s art is also wide — humorous, playful, piquant, simultaneously angry and sorrowful, concerned. The overriding concerns are straightforwardly explained in the text to the online Cornell University exhibition.
The first schoolbooks I can remember, leftovers from the previous regime, were heavily “edited.” They were books with words and sentences blackened out. Chapters were deleted; entire pages were missing. This was information declared unsuitable for a post-war generation, a generation who six months earlier had been practically obliterated by the events now deemed unfit to be read about. Part of what they had lived through, their own history, had been blocked out, hidden behind those black marks.
Measured by the perceived fears an innocently bound codex seems capable of instilling, the book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented. And yet we find ourselves at a threshold where its power and influence seem to be waning.
… As in the past, we find at the core of our current socio-political realignment the process of communication…. The new cultural footprint is a set of digits and their application, made possible by the microchip and the speed of electricity….
My book-objects have their origin partly in this ambiguous realm, a period of change as radical as it is dramatic. Superimposed over this perceived uncertainty is my personal concern about censorship. By making books which are deliberately mute I try to raise questions. Words are lost; they are no longer important. The books take on new forms; they become provocative statements. No longer instruments for reading they become sculptures, they become Book-Objects.
As with all superior sculpture, Pfeiffer’s works make the hands twitch to touch and manipulate them. In a few exhibitions, that interaction has even been encouraged. There is something inherently haptic about his book art (for example, Zig Zag and Abracadabra) and his book-objects (for example, Drawing Blood), which can be enjoyed vicariously in these videos: Youtube 1, Youtube 2, Youtube 3 and Youtube 4.
Kiefer’s materials are more varied, more monumental than Pfeiffer’s, and his concerns are decidedly not straightforward. Considering his sprawling studio complex at Barjac, in southeastern France, and its towers and installations, to say that Kiefer’s oeuvre extends beyond book art is an understatement. But for Books on Books, his most moving works — even those in which the book’s material presence is greatly subordinate — remain tethered to book art. The ache to touch Kiefer’s art, however, is different from what you feel with Pfeiffer’s. What little playfulness there may be in some of Kiefer’s earliest pieces is overshadowed by monumental works evoking an urge and dread at the same time.
You feel it walking up the stairs in the Royal Academy, looking up and seeing the sculpture Für Fulcanelli – die Sprache der Vögel, its great wings of beaten lead spread and rising above you. Between the wings, the body is made of a stack of elephant and double elephant folio books lying flat (or rather gathered folios made of lead like the wings). Interleaved with the closed and open books are rusted metal folding chairs with wooden seats and backs, the kind found in city parks. Thick metal wedges that appear to be wood are inserted at various points to balance out the angular, tilting pile. Separate and lying before this huge bird is a carved wooden snake, elongated and heading right to left as you view the work. The pages of the books curl and fold and roll up as if sodden or aflame. Some are rusted. The bottom-most book has lead binder boards, water stained and looking like marbled paper. Not all of them have binding boards, but all are spineless. You want to touch but know that if you do, your fingers will come away with some alchemical residue of history that will not come off and may burn the skin.
Pfeiffer’s works from a major exhibition in 2011 at Cornell remain on view online. Another major exhibition followed in 2012 at Vassar College. A new exhibition is scheduled for February 2015 in Toledo, Ohio. More about it in The Blade.
A major retrospective of Kiefer’s art at the Royal Academy of Art concluded in December 2014, coinciding with an hour-long BBC program. An interview with the artist and several podcasts are available on the RA’s site, and the rich and extensive exhibition catalogue provides articles exploring the complex themes of Kiefer’s art.
Still anonymous and still a mystery, the MBAE has given BBC Scotland an interview by email.
Below are past links on the Mystery Book Artist of Edinburgh, including links to ten videos on the MBAE’s first ten gifts to Edinburgh. For those wishing for more than digital proximity to the MBAE’s work, GiftEd is the name of the book published last in 2014 about the ten gifts.