David Dernie and Olivia Laing
Perfect bound softcover. H256 x W210 mm, 48 unnumbered pages. Edition of 100, of which this is #88 and signed. Acquired from the artist, 27 August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Shipwreck, a collaboration between artist/architect David Dernie and writer Olivia Lang, first appeared as an installation at the Cambridge School of Art’s Ruskin Gallery (3-19 November 2016). There are three works one might consider here: 1) the installation as event and environment, 2) its accompanying book presenting two parallel narratives, one composed of Laing’s text and the other of images of Dernie’s collages displayed at the exhibition and 3) Dernie’s essay juxtaposing those images with pages from Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard.
In his extensively illustrated textbook Exhibition Design, Dernie asserts that exhibition-making is an art in itself — “synonymous with image-making, communication, and the creation of a powerful experience”. Like the “book of the movie”, the exhibition catalogue rarely rises to that powerful experience. More rarely still does it surpass the exhibition. Unlike movies that can be purchased or rented, exhibitions are time-limited experiences. Even if revisited multiple times, an exhibition will close, move on and be replaced by another. The catalogue or online website may be the only media that document an exhibition. Attendees and non-attendees will experience them differently, and without that documentation, the exhibition as a work of art belongs only to the memories of its attendees and organizers.
Shipwreck is not a catalogue of the exhibition. More like an artist’s book, it juxtaposes a literary narrative with a set of prints. There’s no indication that the text was performed in the exhibition hall — live or recorded. If it was, then the attendees may have the memories to recall to make Shipwreck a satisfactory reminder of the event. Whether attendees and non-attendees find Shipwreck “the book” satisfactory as a standalone work is problematic given the third work to consider.
In his essay in Buildings, Dernie describes the collages as
Working in the tradition of the collage novel, and with original engravings from the popular French newspaper Le Grande Illustré (1904), [they] work with the thematic structure and spatiality of Stéphane Mallarmé’s revolutionary poem Un Coup de Dés written a few years earlier. (P. 324)
Like the poem, the collages are heterogeneous and their protagonists are “found”, both in terms of their scale and detail, in the dramatized newspaper of the period. The engravings are a snapshot of the terrible uncertainties, reported disasters and social unrest that colored Parisian life at the time. The re-invented figures, scenes and architectural settings are offered as spatial analogues to the poetic passages, exploring the non-perspectival space of the text, its content and poetic imagery as much as its solipsism and incoherence. (Pp. 330-31)
Drawing his collage material from Le Grande Illustré and analogizing the collage to Mallarmé’s imagery and use of the page’s non-perspectival space, Dernie replays in an original way what the Cubists, Futurists and Dada-ists learned from Un Coup de Dés and Mallarmé. In Total Expansion of the Letter (2020), Trevor Stark has laid out clearly how the collages of Picasso and Braque traced their technique back to Mallarmé. As for what they incorporated from the newspapers, however, the avant-gardists turned to the text of headlines and articles rather than illustrations. Dernie’s result is more reminiscent of Max Ernst’s surrealist novels than the Cubist collages of 1912.
Photos: Books on Books Collection.
The collages are clearly not simple illustrations of Mallarmé’s poem, but as Dernie points out, they work with the poem. Only in Dernie’s essay, however, can the pairings with pages from Un Coup de Dés be found and enjoyed. The eye moves from collage image to the shape of the text, from the verse and its images back to the collage, and back again.
From “Elevating Mallarmé’s Shipwreck”, pp. 334 and 337. Reproduced with permission of the author.
From “Elevating Mallarmé’s Shipwreck“, pp. 331-32. Reproduced with permission of the author.
Were it not for the limited edition state of Shipwreck, the reader/viewer might be tempted to obtain a spare copy of Un Coup de Dés from the publisher Gallimard, “grangerize” it with Dernies’ collages and gaze on it at leisure.
“Derek Beaulieu“, Books On Books Collection, 19 June 2020.
Dernie, David. “Elevating Mallarmé’s Shipwreck”, Buildings, 3, 2013, pp. 324-340.
Dernie, David. Exhibition Design (London: Laurence King, 2007).
Stark, Trevor. Total expansion of the letter : Avant-Garde art and language after Mallarmé (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).