Breaking the Codex (2011)
Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex
Marian Cohn, ed. (New York: Etc. Etc. The Iconoclastic Museum Press, 2011). Acquired from the artist, 15 February 2014. Photo: Books On Books Collection
Jacket, outer and inner. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
Back and front covers. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
In an interview with Judith Hoffberg, Doug Beube spoke of experiencing
the whole book as an entity in itself, which can’t be done by reading line by line. The book’s not made to do that. Readers experience the totality of the book by building up linear movement, word by word, sentence by sentence, etc. and I’m interested in the book as a simultaneous experience. —Umbrella, Vol 25, No 3-4 (2002)
Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex (2011) documents the impression that, in pursuit of that experience, Beube has foreshadowed and/or echoed nearly every variation of book art in play from the 1980s to the early twenty-first century. Beube has been extraordinarily inventive with the book as raw artistic material but not only for the sake of that experience. Beube is a biblioclast and an ideoclast. His works have altered the codex form and deployed its “syntax” and its metaphoric identities to address recurring political, social and philosophical themes. The two small works in the Books On Books Collection lean more toward the aesthetic and philosophical themes, but the presence of Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex makes a handy reminder of the artist’s substantial body of larger ideoclastic works.
Empty Talk (2016)
Empty Talk (2016)
Altered book, plexi glass, acrylic box, wood. Framed, H286 x W232 x D51 mm.
Acquired from Kaller Fine Arts, 20 July 2017. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Views of Empty Talk. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
Empty Talk is part of the Speechless series, which derives from the work Cut ‘Shortcomings’ (2015). Beube describes the origin of the works:
‘Shortcomings’ is the original title of the graphic novel by cartoonist Adrian Tomine. It was published by Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal, Canada in 2007. The genre of this art form with seven to nine cells per page, in a gridded format, is drawn in black and white with ‘speech bubbles’ floating overhead of the characters in the book. In the Speechless series, an ongoing collage project, is the removal and outlining of the drawings and speech bubbles using an surgeon’s knife. Reducing the content to line drawings, the pages become veiled layers, a dissected essence of the story that the brain comprehends as both linear and abstract. Between the two, narrative and abstraction, it invites the viewer to literally read between the lines and pages. The final artwork is presented as four pages deep separated by 3/16th inch foam core. The backing of the meticulously cut mash-up of the collage is another version of ‘Shortcomings’ that is sliced into strips then stacked on top of one another. — Dougbeube.com. Accessed 16 April 2020.
Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Hanging on a wall in the collection, Empty Talk mesmerizes. It balances an abstract figure resulting from excision and collage against its pun and linguistic/visual jigsaw puzzle. That tension between abstraction and linearity harks back to Beube’s stated pursuit of “the book as a simultaneous experience” in tension with the reader’s linear experience of it. A kind of cross-eyed, twisted brain state.
Red Infinity #4 (2017)
Red Infinity #4 (2017)
Altered book. 152 x 83 x 57 mm. Acquired from SeagerGray Gallery, 7 April 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Red Infinity #4. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
The book from which Red Infinity is formed is The Word: A Look at the Vocabulary of English by Charlton Laird (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981). At play are at least three interlocking puns: “in the beginning was The Word”; the Möbius strip, a secular never-ending Alpha and Omega; and the symbol of infinity, a secular “world without end”. And the bonus fourth: take The Word as “red/read”. The surfaces of Red Infinity invite touch, but its fragility forbids it. Its weight less than a small bird’s nest, Red Infinity belies its weighty allusions. Here is infinity from the finite.
Looking Outside the Collection
Since Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex (2011), the artist has continued to create large numbers of individual bookworks, but another type of work has come to the fore: large dynamic multimedia installations: Melt (2014), Dis/Solve (2018) and Wash (2020). The first two still incorporate the book as artistic material, but the third moves away from it. Variously requiring participation or observation in the moment as with a performance, these works ironically remind us of Beube’s observation that
The codex is intractable as a technology; restricted from interacting with it by not altering its inevitable course, you read linearly from beginning to end. It is essentially inflexible. That is its built-in personality flaw; that is its elegance. — Dougbeube.com. Accessed 18 April 2020.
“… an environmentally sensitive sculpture that involves six selected books physically carved according to their theme. Once frozen, the ice functions to animate messages for social and political conditions, cultures of power or violence both physical and psychological, and those structures existing to support the inverse of the latter. Because Melt is subject to the weather, the anachronistic technology of the book is leveraged into the environment directly.”
Photos: Courtesy of artist.
“… an environmentally sensitive sculpture that presents two books that have been physically carved and frozen into blocks of ice. …One book is Arab and Jew; Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land by David K. Shipler and the other is The High Walls of Jerusalem by Roland Sanders. The word ABRAHAM is carved into the books A-B-R on the left side and A-H-A-M, on the other. As the ice melts, the water is captured by two steel plinths that drain into one tank. The water is dispensed into bottles with labels that read dis/SOLUTION.”
Photos: Courtesy of artist.
“…a collection of specially crafted soap bars etched with racial slurs and epithets. Carefully set onto a wall of soap dishes, this arrangement invites participants to wash their hands with a bar, letting the ink flow from the letters and mix with the white suds and lather.”
Photos: Courtesy of artist.
Fully experiencing either his dynamic or interactive installations re-enacts this linearity, this “built-in personality flaw” of the codex. Even accessing them by still image (online or offline in a book) or by moving image reminds us secondhand of this flaw. Perhaps the flaw belongs not only to the codex technology (there is no book present in Wash) but to any work of art “bound” by linear process and time. Whether caught by the experiencing, the image or merely the concept, we stand then to be implicated in what these three installations address: religious, environmental and political conflict and “othering” slurs — things of which we cannot wash our hands.
Barry, Rebecca. “Doug Beube’s Frozen Books Installation in Brooklyn Tackles Climate Change and Geopolitics“, Fine Books Magazine, 2 October 2018. Accessed 19 April 2020. Commentary on Dis/Solve.
Cohn, Marian (ed.). Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex (New York: Etc. Etc. The Iconoclastic Museum Press, 2011). “Etc. Etc. The Iconoclastic Museum” is a fictional mueseum invented by Beube in 1981 and curated by the equally fictional Art Gossip. This additional bit of evidence of Beube’s wide-ranging creativity is mentioned in the interview with Judith Hoffberg, entitled “A Cut Up and a Book Artist”, originally published in the journal Umbrella and included as a chapter in this book.
Frost, Gary. The Future of the Book (2000-2009). Available through the Wayback Machine. Accessed 19 April 2020.
In the Hoffberg interview, Beube mentions Gary Frost’s influence via his deep-seated knowledge of the history of the book. There is that, but there is also Frost’s ongoing exploration of the haptic nature of the book. Both strands of influence can be seen throughout Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex. But where Frost would seek the possibility of an ongoing link between the print and the digital — “In place of simplistic displacements a complex interaction of book formats surrounds us and continues to challenge our reading skills” (February 2006) — Beube finds a more sardonic and acerbic humorous split. A twisted phonebook dangled before his face in the photo entitled Facebook to create a self-portrait “both acknowledges and satirizes the intended community of computer users.”
Roalf, Peggy. “Doug Beube on Reading Art“, DART: Design Arts Daily, 8 July 2015. Accessed 19 April 2020. Interview in which Beube discusses the larger work Cut “Shortcomings” from which Empty Talk is derived.
Smith, Keith. The New Structure of the Visual Book (2003)
____________. The New Text in the Book Format (2004)
Beube’s aim at an experience of the wholeness of the book plays off a major theme in Smith’s two books: “Composing the book, as well as the pictures it contains, creates pacing in turning pages. Just as poetry and cinema are conceived in time, so is a book.” Both Smith and Beube are interested in the structure of the book, “the mechanical aspects of the book as a technology, and how it functions as a container of information,” as Beube puts it. But where Smith pushes the traditional form of the book to enhance the book experience that “Events depicted in writing unfold through time in space, alongside the physical act of turning pages,” Beube is “trying to solve the problem of experiencing the content of the book as a visual phenomenon, layering it and transforming it into a visual object.”