Bookmarking Book Art – Yasutomo Ota

Even under the glass of vitrine or screen, Yasutomo Ota’s Die Forelle evokes by typography, image and structure a physical perception hard to shake.†

Die Forelle (2014)
Yasutomo Ota
Printed on 34 narrow laminated cardboard strips per sheet, which are held together by two threads, one on each side. Eighteen unnumbered pages H140 x 300 mm in box H160 x W340 x D50 mm. All photos with permission of the artist.

Franz Schubert first wrote a song called Die Forelle, based on a poem of the same name by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. Schubert was later commissioned to turn it into a piece of chamber music, which resulted in the “Trout Quintet” (1819).

If you are lucky enough to live near one of the six libraries that hold a copy of Ota-san’s Die Forelle, you can take your phone and earbuds, cast your line for it in the quiet of the rare book section and listen to the music inspired by the poem printed across the pages made of thirty-four laminated cardboard strips held together by two rows of threads and wriggling in your hands like a fish and flowing over them like a stream.

Or failing such access, you can view the artist’s demonstration here. The book’s structure is based on the chikukan, originally a Chinese scroll formed of bamboo strips, written on vertically and linked by thread to be rolled up correspondingly. The Coptic binding, the type that reads horizontally and the printing on both sides of a leaf shifts the form from scroll to codex. Also, as the artist writes, “By using the alphabet on a panel intended for vertical writing brings a strong sense of the direction taken by the written word” (Correspondence with Books On Books, 9 November 2020).

Of course, the Asian printing tradition also included horizontal reading and printing on both sides of the scroll. Consider the dragon-scale binding of the Diamond Sutra re-created by Zhang Xiadong (demonstrated here).

Diamond Sutra, Dragon scale binding (2017)
Zhang Xiaodong
In 32 zhuan (seal) fonts, 152 x 382×160mm. Edition of 300, of which this #197. Acquired from Sin Sin Fine Arts (Hong Kong), 31 October 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Examples of dragon-scale binding in the National Library of China’s permanent display of the history of the book in China. Photos: Marcia Watt, reproduced with permission.

Balinese Bamboo Book”, Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Accessed November 10, 2020, .

Contemporary book art also holds vertical and horizontal variations on the related “Venetian blind” or bamboo book form. Consider the dynamic Diagram of Wind by Barbara Tetenbaum (demonstrated below) and Diane Harries’ Legacy (below).

Diagram of Wind (2015)
Barbara Tetenbaum
Letterpress printed texts and images cut into strips and adhered to Japanese ‘silk tissue’ (gampi). Sewn to cloth and wood backing. Supported by a wood wave-form platform and held inside a lidded box made of cloth and book board. Poem by Michael Donaghy: “Glass”. H17 x W10 x D3 inches, ten pages. Edition of 30, of which this is #. Acquired from the artist, 8 October 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Legacy (2018)
Diane Harries
Venetian-blind book. Photos: Reproduced with permission of the artist.

In all of the works above, form draws attention to itself but also inevitably back to the content. The reader/viewer marvels at the mechanics of each work and how its interaction with hand and eye creates a simile for its content. The unscrolling and fluttering dragon-scale binding demands a prayer’s concentration and contemplation. The “curveship” of the support, the segmentation of the Donaghy poem “Glass” into strips, and the stir and lift of pages under the slightest breath demonstrate the wave form that Tetenbaum investigated for three years. Panel by panel, connected by slender threads, Legacy draws together different pasts in Harries’s work. Likewise, the flipping, slipping, shuttering/shuddering of Die Forelle‘s pages re-create the trout in the brook. That is book art at its best.

† With thanks to Andrew Schuller for drawing attention to Yasutomo Ota.

Further Reading/Viewing

… in medias res … Barbara Tetenbaum“, Bookmarking Book Art, 18 August 2013.

Zhang Xiaodong“, Books On Books Collection, 1 December 2019.

Ambler, Charlie. “Yasutomo Ota Revives Book Art in the Digital Age“, Artsy, 7 July 2014.

Chinnery, Colin. “Whirlwind binding (xuanfeng zhuang)”, International Dunhuang Project, British Library. Posted 07 February 2007. Accessed 12 December 2019.

Donaghy, Michael. Collected Poems (London: Picador, 2014).

Ota, Yasutomo. From the POLA Museum Annex Exhibition, 2020, Ginza, Tokyo. Video of exhibition.

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