Books On Books Collection – Bernadette O’Toole

Bernadette O’Toole follows in a long line of distinguished “serial hommageurs”: Ian Wallace, Jérémie Bennequin, Marcel Broodthaers, Kathy Bruce, Marine Hugonnier, Jorge Méndez Blake, Alastair Noble, Michalis Pichler, Raffaella della Olga and Joëlle Tuerlinckx. Like many of them, she extends her work across multiple media. Like all of them, she is driven by the metaphysics and motifs expressed in Un Coup de Dés.

Variant Sail (2015); As If (2016)

Variant Sail (2015) and As If (2016)
Bernadette O’Toole
Presentation box. H240 x W172 mm. Acquired from the artist, 1 April 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Bernadette O’Toole’s two small booklets first appeared in Sharon Kivland’s MA Bibliothèque and are now out of print. The presentation case in which they arrived conveys her recurrent practice or technique of recontextualizing. A copy or copies from an edition may be re-presented so as to create a new work or works. Variant Sail and As If constitute a case in point.

Variant Sail (2015)

Variant Sail (2015)
Bernadette O’Toole
Booklet, two-staple saddle-stitch. H190 x W130 mm, 24 pages. Edition of 25, of which this is #6.
Photos: Courtesy of Bernadette O’Toole. Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of artist.

The booklet Variant Sail contains reproductions of twelve digital prints (H38 x W57 cm). The prints were created by scanning and digitally manipulating each of the double-page spreads of Un Coup de Dés in Photoshop, producing twelve variants with each one foregrounding the gutter in a different way. The manipulation has made Mallarmé’s text faintly detectable but indecipherable and rendered the double-page spreads as entire blancs — variants, as it were, of the white spaces (les blancs) to which Mallarmé refers in his poem’s preface.

[From the NRF/Gallimard 1914 edition]

The ‘blanks’ indeed take on importance, at first glance; the versification demands them, as a surrounding silence, to the extent that a fragment, lyrical or of a few beats, occupies, in its midst, a third of the space of paper: I do not transgress the measure, only disperse it. The paper intervenes each time as an image, of itself, ends or begins once more, accepting a succession of others, and, since, as ever, it does nothing, of regular sonorous lines or verse – rather prismatic subdivisions of the Idea, the instant they appear, and as long as they last, in some precise intellectual performance, that is in variable positions, nearer to or further from the implicit guiding thread, because of the verisimilitude the text imposes. 

[A.S. Kline, “Mallarmé’s Preface of 1897“]

From Mallarmé’s marked-up proofs for his planned deluxe edition, we know that he viewed the double-page spread, not the single page, as the poem’s primary structural unit. Each of O’Toole’s blank double-page spreads can be seen as a voile alternative (“variant sail”), a phrase appearing on the NRF/Gallimard edition’s second double-page spread. With a different foregrounding of the gutter in each of her double-page spreads, O’Toole underscores both the variance within her Variant Sail and the important constancy of the double-page spread in the poem to which she is paying homage.

A bit more esoterically, the double-page spread suggests the quantity 2, an allusion to the result of thrown dice, their two faces up. It may also allude to the poem’s revolutionary versification, challenging French poetry’s Alexandrine, the traditional measure of 12 syllables usually divided into two hemistichs. It seem no accident that O’Toole has chosen a pattern of two-word titles for her booklets.

As If (2016)

As If (2016)
Bernadette O’Toole Booklet, two-staple saddle stitch. H205 x W140 mm, 16 pages. Edition of 25, of which this is #6.
Photo: Courtesy of Bernadette O’Toole; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of artist.

The prints for Variant Sail in turn inspired paintings (same dimensions) that are reproduced in the second booklet As If, which takes its two-word title from the poem’s central double-page spread, the one beginning and ending COMME SI (“as if”). Mallarmé’s words are no longer detectable. What is detectable instead is each brushstroke on the painted surfaces. It is as if the work As If appropriates the work Variant Sail, just as Variant Sail appropriates Un Coup de Dés.

“Appropriation” may not be the right characterization. Re-contextualizing, re-purposing or re-cycling perhaps. Consider where O’Toole goes next with these two other works not in the Books On Books Collection at the moment.

Variant Sail II (2016)

For Variant Sail (II), O’Toole incorporates an inventive sculptural work that she calls a “gesture”. In a black presentation box, a translation of Un Coup de Dés rests beside a small painted gesture, oil on plaster. Here is her description of the process by which a gesture is created:

The process of making the work involved tracing my brush-stroke into a bed of clay, pushing into the surface which proved resistant at first. Plaster was poured into the indent, casting the absent gesture [brush-mark]. Once the form had set, I separated it from the bed of clay and took hold of the object. The absent gesture [brush-mark] had become embodied. The form was simultaneously liberated from the mould, and from the limitation of the painting surface. It was cast out, recalling the Japanese practice known as, ‘flung-ink’, which Norman Bryson observes is ‘thrown’ as one throws dice. — [Interview with Josie Jenkins, 22 November 2020]

Variant Sail II has appropriated, re-cycled, re-purposed or re-contextualized the works Variant Sail and As If in several ways — by transforming the surface brushstroke into a three-dimensional object, by juxtaposing those two works (through the gesture) with the translation

A Rare State (2018)

A Rare State consists of 12 booklets (H38 x W57 cm), each with its own cover and title. Each encloses 12 loose interchangeable folios. Each captures images from different performative readings (by the artist) of Un Coup de Dés or from animated patterns of marks and numbers appearing and disappearing. Some of the patterns occupy the positions of Mallarmé’s text on his double-page spreads. Others appear in sequences of 1-6 within a square or diamond suggesting the face of a die.

False Mansion~1 and Towards this Ultimate Conjunction with Probability~1 from A Rare State © Bernadette O’Toole. Images and permission to display, courtesy of Bernadette O’Toole.

A Rare State expands on the idea of a numerical or mathematical principle at play — be it 1-6 on the face of a die, the 12 syllables of the Alexandrine that the poem explodes, the 2 of the double-page spread, or the 4 triangles constituting the face of a die across the double-page spread. This expansion is also an expansion of O’Toole’s technique of appropriation, re-cycling, re-purposing or re-contextualizing to create new artwork. It is as if her every thought emits a throw of the dice.

Variant Sail, Ex Libris Gallery, 2016. © Bernadette O’Toole. Image and permission to display, courtesy of Bernadette O’Toole.

Further Reading

Jérémie Bennequin“. 15 December 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Kathy Bruce“. 23 December 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Marine Hugonnier“. 8 April 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Jorge Méndez Blake“. 16 September 2020. Bookmarking Book Art.

Michalis Pichler“. 19 August 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Raffaella della Olga“. 8 December 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Cohn, Robert G. 1966. Mallarme’s Masterwork: New Findings. The Hague: Mouton. Contains the photographs that inspired Neil Crawford’s typographic translation.

Cohn, Robert Greer. 1965. Toward the poems of Mallarmé. Berkeley: University of California Press. See in particular for his analysis of the relationship between Un Coup de Dé and the sonnet À la Nue Accablante Tu (pp. 229-36).

Davies, Gardner. 1992. Vers une Explication Rationelle du “Coup de Dés”. Paris: Corti.

Kline, A.S., trans. 2007. “Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance). Poetry in Translation. © Copyright 2007 All Rights Reserved.

Meillassoux, Quentin, and Robin Mackay. 2012. The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

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