William Dean Minter, Senior Book Conservator in the Digitization and Preservation Department at Pennsylvania State University drew my attention to these images. At first, they reminded me of passages in Annie Tremmel Wilcox’s A Degree of Mastery, in which she describes mending rare books with kozo paper under the hawkeye of the late Bill Anthony. Then, dreamcatchers sprang to mind. What were the images, sounds and thoughts caught in words now missing on these pages, words slipped from the dreamcatching pages? But book artist Esther Kibby, who teaches photography, graphic design and web design at the Art Institute of Dallas in Texas, came up with the most telling association: kintsugi.
Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is a Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy behind the technique is to recognize the history of the object and to visibly incorporate the repair into the new piece instead of disguising it. The mastery of the book restorer is to invisibly repair the book. Our “dreamcatcher” restorer seems to have in mind the kintsugi philosophy and lets the repair draw attention to itself and creates “a new piece”.
In the hands of a book artist, such a technique could generate ironic expressions of biblioclasm: the restored book that is no longer a book? Or echoes of Walter Benjamin’s presumption of and preoccupation with the modern world’s fragmentary nature? Or the pain and sorrow of Al-Mutanabbi Street?
Or a tongue-in-cheek answer to those horrified by the destruction of “the book”?
When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful. —Barbara Bloom
Late afternoon before the long worn wooden benches in the Bodleian’s Convocation Hall, 500 years after the death of Aldus Manutius, Oren Margolis served his audience well, providing them with a richer appreciation of the “finest printed book of the entire Renaissance”* – the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili – and of its publisher Aldus Manutius.
Drawing our attention to the more sculptural qualities of Venetian Renaissance printed books over the Florentine and to the evidence of the humanist agenda that drove Manutius, he led us to the page where Poliphilo (lover of all things, but in particular Polia, the ideal woman pursued to the end of the book) stands before a carving that foreshadows the Aldine Press device: a dolphin entwined around the shank of an anchor. The Aldine Press device was inspired by a similar image on an ancient Roman coin given by Pietro Bembo to Aldus, who wrongly associated it with Augustus and his proverb Festina lente (“Make haste slowly”) and adopted both for his printing and publishing business.
Erasmus praised Aldus, saying that he was “building a library which knows no walls save those of the world itself”.
For all of 2015, the world enjoyed a multitude of celebrations of the contribution of Aldus Manutius to publishing, printing and the book. After Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer, Aldus Manutius was perhaps the most important printer of the Renaissance. His portable books are still here, although locked away or displayed under glass, no longer so portable. Until now.
The Manutius Network 2015 provides a running list, links for some of which are provided below, including the online exhibition associated with Margolis’s talk. See also below, added in May 2016, the belated exhibition “Aldo Manutius: The Renaissance in Venice” at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
Helen Douglas has been kind enough to forward the notice above of her most recent work – In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James. Based on her invited residency in Mexico City, this concertina book takes the viewer through Edward James’ jungle garden Las Pozas, its buildings and staircases, James’s surreal imagination and, best of all, Douglas’s own imaginative experience of them. See the interview at BookArtBookBlogthat preceded the work’s unveiling at the London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel Gallery and Berlin Art Book Fair.
When I go to Weproductions, the website of founding partners, Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas, it is like taking a walk in Yarrow, Scotland, or taking the measure of paper samples between forefinger and thumb, or browsing in a bookstore, or lingering in an art gallery. Two of Helen Douglas’s works in particular elicit this: The Pond at Deuchar (2013) and A Venetian Brocade (2010).
Was it London Book Fair where I first saw this bookwork, appwork, scrollwork … this work of art? What you see above leads you to the app. Clive Philpott’s postscript to this work, featured on Weproductions and published by the Tate, offers all the background and appreciation of the work you need to read. Read it, then go to The Pond at Deuchar*, lean forward and trail your fingers through its waters.
A Venetian Brocade equally makes the act of looking tactile and the act of touching insightful. The work reminds me of this passage from Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992):
… bipeds go ape about shopping and dressing-up in Venice for reasons not exactly practical; they do so because the city, as it were, challenges them. We all harbor all sorts of misgivings about the flaws in our appearance, anatomy, about the imperfection of our very features. What one sees in this city at every steep, turn, perspective, and dead end worsens one’s complexes and insecurities. That’s why one—a woman especially, but a man also—hits the stores as soon as one arrives here, and with a vengeance. The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it, to be on par. This has nothing to do with vanity or with the natural surplus of mirrors here, the main one being the very water. It is simply that the city offers bipeds a notion of visual superiority absent in their natural lairs, in their habitual surroundings. That’s why furs fly here, as do suede, silk, linen, wool, and every other kind of fabric.
If you are lucky enough to buy one of the few remaining copies of A Venetian Brocade, you will see and feel how it leads to In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James. Appreciation of that double-sided leporello work’s extension of the Douglas’s concept of Visual Narrative and its kinship with James’s surrealism can only be enhanced by viewing The Secret Life of Edward James, George Melly’s documentary film from 1975.
But having indulged the surreal elements, think back to the pond at Deuchar, think back to the Tate’s association with Douglas’s work, then consider this work also held at the Tate:
Here is a narrative of art across time and place to touch by looking and, by looking, to be touched by.
An update (30 April 2017) covering Douglas’s Winter: Celestial Mountain(2015) can be found here.
*Deuchar is pronounced “dew-ker”, the “k” as in “loch”.