Books On Books Collection – Rutherford Witthus

Skip for Joy (2021)

Skip for Joy (2021)
Rutherford Witthus
Dragon-scale scroll bound to bamboo rod. H306 x W477 mm, 11 panels. Edition of 5, of which this is #1. Acquired from the artist, 18 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Rutherford Witthus’ work is strong, quiet, broad and distinctive. It blends Eastern and Western traditions of the book arts. It joins the blackletter fonts of the Cistercian monks with the typography of Hermann Zapf. It joins John Cage’s chance-determined selection in the creation of art with a group of physicists’ fascination with the crumpling of paper. It experiments with abstract art and Japanese fore-edge illustration and binding. It offers a meditation on Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque through an intricately folded reprinting. The artist’s eclectic appreciation of  the work of Sappho, Walt Whitman, St. Francis, Gilles Deleuze, Søren Kierkegaard, Ernst Haeckel, Robert Herrick, Miguel de Unamuno and others finds an impressive unity across his body of work. Skip for Joy is the first of his works to be added to the Books On Books Collection.

Compounding its compelling structure, Skip for Joy displays accumulating lines of text one by one until there are ten lines of text on the tenth panel. For each line, Witthus draws its words and expressions from an entry in Roget’s Thesaurus. As each panel grows in width to play its part in the dragon-scale binding, each line grows, too, repeating words and adding more synonyms from its entry in Roget’s. Compounding the scaling of structure and text, Witthus varies his lines in color and position. Starting with the phrase “skip for joy” in orange on the first panel, he then adds the phrase “grit one’s teeth” in violet on the second panel beneath the orange line; then “desire” in red on the third above the orange line; then “do up and do” in turquoise on the fourth; and so on.

Second panel

Third panel

Fourth panel

What does Roget’s Thesaurus have to do with dragon-scale binding? The scroll’s first phrase and title provide a clue: an imperative to play. Anyone interested in playing with the dragon-scale (or whirlwind) binding usually goes to the site of the International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online. Among its descriptions so far of the forty thousand works found in the Buddhist cave library near China’s Dunhuang on the western edge of the Gobi desert in 1900, there is this passage:

Old Chinese accounts of whirlwind binding are very rare. However, there was a trail of clues left by a Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) rhyme dictionary called Kanmiu buque qieyun (Corrected rhymes), by Wang Renxu. … From the earliest accounts from the Song dynasty up to the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1911), references to whirlwind bound books have always been connected with this text. … / Several examples of what is believed to be whirlwind binding have now been discovered in the Dunhuang collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library. Most of these have not been rebound, so it is possible to get a clear impression how these manuscripts were bound and why they were bound in this manner. IDP

Where Western reference works are organized alphabetically, the Qièyùn rhyming dictionary is organized phonologically. But that phonological organization is complex: starting first by grouping characters according to the five tones, then grouping them into rhyming groups according to a character’s initial consonant, and then into groups according to the rhyme of a character’s final consonant. And determining those rhymes requires instructions — the fanqie method that explains via other characters how a character entry should be pronounced. In short, organization by phonological similarities — of tone, initial rhyming consonant and final rhyming consonant.

So to follow the lead of the dragon-scale bound Qièyùn, Witthus picks an English-language reference work whose entries offer plenty of content based on similarities — such as synonyms. Skip for Joy is playful art. Its “rhymes” are the repetitions and synonyms in a line of text. Its lines of text jump into the panels where they will and in whatever color that suits. In the tenth panel, the seventh line even breaks into a dragon-like undulation.

Tenth panel

As the dragon-scale scroll returns to its archival box, its colors and undulating line unite with the dragon in the box’s silk onlay.

Further Reading

Nif Hodgson“. Books On Books Collection. 27 October 2021.

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

Chinnery, Colin. “Whirlwind binding (xuanfeng zhuang)“. The International Dunhuang Project. Site last revised: September 2016. Accessed 21 October 2021.

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