The year 2019 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ximena Pérez Grobet’s Nowhereman Press. To celebrate, she has issued the catalogue below illustrating twenty-five of her works. (Books On Books declares a treble interest, having provided twenty-five words for the opening page and owning two of the works in the catalogue.)
The catalogue itself demonstrates this artist’s ingenious engagement with what the critic Gérard Genette called “seuils” or the “thresholds” of the book — its features such as cover, binding, edges, the page, title page, preface, index, colophon, typography, printings, etc., that make up “this fringe at the unsettled limits that enclose with a pragmatic halo the literary work” (quoted by Richard Macksey in his preface to Genette’s Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. xvii).
For example, the catalogue opens right-ward rather than left-ward — despite the false hint to open it left-ward given by the “almost” quarter-paperbound appearance of the front cover. Inside is the catalogue’s true spine, with its externalised sewing. Turning the inner cover and first page to the left reveals that each recto landscape page holds a photo of a double-page spread from one of the twenty-five works.
These are the catalogue’s first reminders of Pérez Grobet’s playful embrace of the “book” as her chosen form of art. Only a few pages in, though, and her serious — political, thoughtful and philosophical —side shows itself. The page above shows the first and last pages from 2.10.1968 – 2.10.2018 (2018), which commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre that occurred in Mexico City.
The work Dis-Cover (2019) pictured above and below exhibits Pérez Grobet’s play with the paratext of the book — in this case, select two- and three-dimensional aspects of the book: the cover, fore-edge and double-page spread. The title splitting across the French fold opening enacts one pun while the trompe l’oeil effect inside, done with the simplest of papers and bindings, enacts another.
Another and richer example of the depth of Pérez Grobet’s work is words (2016). In its colophon, she makes a statement that is both finishing touch and starting point to words: “The word is possible considering the space of the letter.” Rather than follow the tradition of the “fine press” edition, Pérez Grobet appropriates Wallace Stevens’ poem “The house was quiet and the world was calm”, breaks it into lines and letters, and creates an original work of book art.
In depicting a reader becoming “the book”, speaking its words “as if there was no book” and wanting to be “The scholar to whom his book is true”, Stevens’ poem seeks to lead us to “The access of perfection to the page”: a state of mind and situation. The state of mind is that in which the truth of meaning is as much a pose, perception and act of the body as it is of the mind. The situation is the threshold of object and subject, of being and the possibility of meaning, where the summer night we feel is “like the conscious being of the book” and where the act of perceiving meaning is simply being there, “leaning late and reading there”.
Pérez Grobet’s work challenges the reader/viewer to re-enact this. As the pages turn, the poem explodes into letters scattered across the recto pages. The letters “T”, “h” and “e” that first separately appear suggest a linear decomposition — a letter by letter representation of the poem. But “The” is followed by “o”, other random letters and even a comma — each dispersed in different patterns across its allocated page.
What’s more, the seemingly indecipherable book can be opened in more than one direction and read. Along the mountain folds of the open spine, the poem appears line by line.
Book or object, which way to read it? Which way to open it? Whichever way, the texture of the Cordenons paper combines with that traditional font of the periodic table (Helvetica) to provide a reassuring background for the mental and tactile challenge.
As an object — in its structure and its placement of text, especially Stevens’ text — words embodies both the sense of Pérez Grobet’s statement in the colophon and the sense of the poem. The possibility of meaning (the word) rests in the space of the letter and at the threshold between the physical and idealised fact of the cover, spine and page, on the one hand, and our physical and mental acts as readers/viewers, on the other.
The catalogue has twenty-two more works — equally engaging with different structures, colors, papers, type, techniques and content. More than enough to warrant another solo exhibition, and as always with book art, the challenge will be how to let the readers/viewers engage with the possibilities before them.
The British Library and Maggs Bros Ltd (with Designer Bookbinders) have separately delivered a profusion of book arts and book art events for the month of May: from the BL, talks associated with the exhibition “Writing: Making Your Mark” and the series “Artists’ Books Now”; from Maggs Bros and DB, workshops and displays associated with London Craft Week (8-12 May).
At the British Library, I peered through the glass at the Diamond Sutra (868 AD). The distinctiveness of the portraits and the density of the carving rival that of 15th century Renaissance frescoes and Durer’s prints. Even if photography had been allowed, the vitrine and lighting would not permit my camera to capture the details, and reduced in size from the original, the postcard below barely does. Alternatively, a visit to the BL’s website yields a zoomable image by which you can judge the distinctiveness and density yourself.
If, counting from the time of Lucy in the Olduvai Gorge, the 5000 years of writing and reading makes for only a tiny sliver of the anthropocene, the era of reading books represents so far a sliver of that sliver. Belinda Jack, a Fellow and Tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, talked for a brief hour about the history of the reading “half” of the equation. Jack’s Reading: A Very Short Introduction is built on the premise that, unlike the writing half with its artefacts of bone, rope, clay, bamboo, stone, paper and screens, this other half’s history proceeds only through indirect evidence of what we do with the written, by speculation about our reaction to it.
Although she did not mention making art in, with or from books, it was impossible not to think of the “glass free and photos allowed” exhibit of bookbinding and book art at Maggs Bros Ltd, Bedford Square, only 20 minutes’ walk from the BL.
Two works by Midori Kunikata-Cockram were on display: Hawthorn (2019) and African Grey Parrots (2010). You can find other examples of her bindings in the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings. The two examples shown here, however, could be pulled from the shelf, opened, closed and examined. If you zoom in on the left-hand panel above, you might see that one of the stamens of the hawthorn blossom floats above the petal. That kind of attention to detail makes this work of otherwise muted colours a vibrant thing you can feel with your eyes.
Meeting Mark Cockram at the exhibit was welcome serendipity. Not only did he tell me about African Grey Parrots’ being Kunikata-Cockram’s response to their keeping a parrot during a friend’s vacation, he pointed out the meticulous registration within pages and across the recto to verso pages. The feel and appearance of the cover’s vellum is just as breathcatching.
The pages of Cockram’s oversized contribution to “psycho-geography” feels like they had been pulled off hoardings to be bound in the sidewalk-grey leather. At a more textual end of the spectrum is his on-spec binding of this edition of A Clockwork Orange, signed by Anthony Burgess. The way the title spreads across the back cover, spine and front cover almost forces a handling of the book — turning it over from front to back then back to front — and, in the process, feeling the collaged textures of the boards bound to the spine.
The weight of the garish boards holds the book open for a comfortable reading of the 1960s text block — as if they were saying, “Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well”.
The BL’s exhibition continues through 28 August. Exhibitions at Maggs Bros Ltd are shorter lived but can be spotted by following them on Instagram.
This tale comes from J. S. Kennard’s short 1901 tome on the colophon — that last page at the end of a manuscript or book. The colophon has served many purposes: giving the title of the work, identifying the scribe or printer, naming the place and date of completion or imprint, thanking and praising the patron, bragging, blaming, apologizing, entreating, praying and much more. Examples can be traced back to clay tablets and forward to websites.
Its presence on websites may be one of those decried skeuomorphic hangovers from book publishing, but perhaps the colophon has an underlying value or purpose to serve in both the analogue and digital worlds. The late Bill Hill, who wrote the 1999 Microsoft white paper “The Magic of Reading” and was an early contributor to online typography, suggested making colophons a compulsory standard for website design and asked:
Why not introduce the venerable concept of the colophon to the Web? Could it be used to drive a new business model for fonts which would benefit the font industry, web developers and designers – and the people who visit their sites?[Sadly this page at the Bill Hill’s site is no longer available.]
Fanciful? Perhaps, but not much more fanciful than Erasmus’ proffered explanation of the word “colophon”. His expanded edition of Adagia printed by Manutius in 1508 includes this adage:
Colophonemaddidit He added the colophon. This came to be used when the finishing touch is added to something, or when some addition is made without which a piece of business cannot be concluded. The origin of the adage is pointed out by Strabo in … his Geography, …
And here is Strabo from the Loeb Classical Library online:
As venerable a publishing custom as the colophon may be, it is more honoured in the breach than the observance. Book artists tend to be more observant, but not religiously so, and of course some works of book art might be disfigured by a colophon. Still, there are sound reasons why book artists should bother themselves with a colophon — even if it stands apart from the work. In her review of Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books (2017), India Johnson gives one of those sound reasons:
It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.
The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. “Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books“, CBAA, 1 October 2018. Accessed 3 October 2018.
If craft does figure in a work’s meaning, then the more we can see how it figures, the greater our ability to appreciate and understand the work. For conveying insight — what materials and from what sources, what processes, what tools, who contributed, where and when the work occurred — the colophon stands ready. But where does it stand?
A contemporary of Kennard, A.W. Pollard declared that, to be a proper colophon, it had to appear at the conclusion or summit of the work. Artful as are some of the manuscripts and books that Kennard and Pollard cite, none push the envelope in the manner that works of contemporary book art do. Which brings us to another reason for book artists to consider the colophon: inspiration from history or tradition.
The last page of the codex may be a rightful spot for placing the codex, but what if the bookwork’s shape is challenging or musing about the shape of the book? Finishing touches might go anywhere. Think of Van Eyck’s self-portrait hidden in a reflection in The Arnolfini Portrait, or that of Vélazquez in Las Meninas.
Historians’ diligent cataloging of the “hands” of the scribes has enriched the self-identifications in colophons and connected those craftspersons with additional manuscripts. Book artists who use calligraphy or involve calligraphers should ponder the implications of this tool historians use to identify scribes by the style of their “hands”.
What potential, meaningful “tells” in a work’s colophon might the book artist or calligrapher leave to enrich the work — and provide insights for historians and connoisseurs poring over the finishing touch?
The colophon’s underlying value or purpose warrants book artists’ thinking about recording it offline and online, though this might be stretching the definition of the colophon. Our enjoyment of Kitty Maryatt’s 2018 reconstruction of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay is certainly enhanced by the “colophonic” booklet she included with the work and the “About” page online.
Perhaps the story of the little “i” left over – the colophon – will prod the future historians of book art to examine bookworks and their artists’ websites for those finishing touches and stir artists to bestow that last finishing touch for the sake of the work’s soul if not their own.
Richard Gameson. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (See for the human interest: “I, Aelfric, wrote this book in the monastery of Bath”; “Pray for Wigbald”; “Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes”.)
Ming-Sun Poon, “The Printer’s Colophon in Sung China, 960-1279”, The Library Quarterly,43:1 (January 1973). (See for the 34 calligraphic inscriptions and the colophon to the Diamond Sutra: “On the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Hsien-t’ung [May 11, 868], Wang Chiek on behalf of his two parents reverently made this for universal free distribution.”)
A day’s visit with one hundred exhibitors hosted at the Arnolfini in Bristol leaves me reeling like a drunken sailor — drunk on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry. Appropriate given the Arnolfini’s location on Narrow Quay in Bristol’s floating harbour.
Lucy May Schofield talked to me about her “search for the indigo that is infinity”. The Distance of Us is only one of several pieces demonstrating how close she is coming. The Longest Day on her site is one among many by which to enjoy her progress.
Mick Welbourn took time to explain how his search among inks, paper and geometric shapes kept leading him from a unique work (oil-based) to multiples and back to uniques. These colours reminded me of the work of Sonia Delaunay.
Bodil Rosenberg, a member of the Danish collective CNG (Anna Lindgren, Bertine Knudsen, Birgit Dalum, Pia Fonnesbech, Susanne Helweg), appeared delighted that I was surprised by the colour and texture of Vandstand (“water level”). Somehow after the saturation of the paper with layer upon layer of paint, each page has a supple leather- or cloth-like feel — a coolness to the touch. I think Ken Campbell would relish Vandstand.
Caroline Penn’s works comprised by Notes from Chesil Beach made me reach out to pick up one of the pebbles on the page. The trompe l’oeil effect of turnable pages in the photos is enhanced in one variation by inclusion of an actual small gathering of pages. The role of trompe l’oeil in book art is one worth investigating.
Eileen White’s Haptic Narratives and her lumen prints for Printed Matter made a nice segue from texture to ghostly light. Printed Matter also looks forward to the “artistry” section here as book’s images are un-fixed and eventually fade away. To use the book form — the traditional form of permanent record — to present a language and reminder of material ephemerality: that is artistry.
Helen Douglas (Weproductions), fresh from exhibitions at Printed Matter in New York and Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, was displaying her 2017/2018 series Field Works as well as a new book Summer Alight. The photographic effects, the visual narrative and structure achieved in Douglas’s works define artistry.
Elena Zeppou’s Parallels first caught my eye because of its size, but closer inspection yielded appreciation of line — vertical as well as horizontal — and its union with text and form. Note how the lines of poetry read across the accordion.
Listening to Mandy Brannan talk about custom papers, French fold books and modified flag books is almost as good as handling them. The work30 St Marys Axe (inspired by the building fondly known as the “Gherkin”) was what first drew me to her table. It has two variations — Diagrid and Cladding — which reward repeated handling as well as regarding.
At the ArtistBooksOnline table, the shape-changer Inside/Outside by Susie Wilson kept me as busy as if it were a Rubik’s cube or paper puzzle with a medical mystery inside — or outside.
Puns, slippery words and slipperier concepts seemed to explode from Guy Bigland‘s table.
My inner metaphysician of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction and Post-Deconstruction found its element(s) at the Atlas Press.
AM Bruno, run by Sophie Loss, and of which John McDowall is a founding member, is always a rich vein of artistry. The works from the 2018 theme-driven project, Cover, appear in the box below but warrant a closer inspection at the link behind the word. John McDowall had a new book on hand: Time-lapses. As I turned the brilliantly white pages, each segmented into squares like a comic-book page but only one square in each page holding an old black-and-white photo, the title began to sink home. And then came the idea that all the meaning that could possibly explain any one photo, its relation to the other squares or to other photos or to the author or to the reader/viewer — all of it — has to take place in the empty spaces between.
Janet Allsebrook displayed a Duchampian box with the Delaunay-esque title Nichoir. Although the drift of this work (“waste time making your own useless nest box”) is echoed in her other works, the echo reverberates with a deeper tone — often political or philosophical. The variety of book forms is impressive.
Next door was the artist of Zen book art — Julie Johnstone – Essence Press. In addition to extensions of her percentage tint series, she had on hand several explorations of breath, print and paper: each breath, a page; quietly breathing; five breaths; and ten breaths. Wherever they are, her books make a Zen garden.
Sarah Bodman and Arnolfini brought together a rich collection of talent and should be thanked for doing so and encouraged to repeat it in 2021. And to the artists mentioned — and those not — who took the time to share their thoughts on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry: Encore!
Magicienne des formes et des couleurs is how Art & Métiers du Livre (2002) describes Shirley Sharoff. The magic she makes reveals itself in a particular kind of fusion. One of structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft. It is a magic best sensed when handling or really seeing her work.
OVI: objets volants identifiés dans le ciel d’Italo Calvino (1988) Shirley Sharoff Graphic ‘big bang’ and typographic spirals with an extract from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, postface by Mario Fusco 4 color etchings printed by the Atelier René Tazé Edition of 74 on Vélin Rives Typography by François Da Ros in Cochin typeface In a silver-colored box of 26.5 x 37 cm Photos by Books On Books and reproduced with artist’s permisision
Brooklyn-born but resident and working in France for most of her life, Sharoff studied in Paris under Gotthard Johnny Friedlaender (1912-1992), learning his method of making color prints from two or three different plates. She came to the artist’s book in the 1980s through a friend who introduced her to a typographer with whom the friend was working: François Da Ros.
During my conversation with [Da Ros], I told him that I had an idea for a book but didn’t know how to go about it. It involved prints and an excerpt from one of Italo Calvino’s works. … that’s how my first artist book got started — and once I did that I thought “artist books” were so interesting that I just wanted to keep on doing it. — Artist’s correspondence with Books On Books, 18 December 2018
The result of that encounter was OVI (1988). The text came from Calvino’s Big Bang story “Sul far del giorno” (“At daybreak”) in his collection Le Cosmicomiche (1965) (Cosmicomics, 1968). Calvino’s story relates how the main character, Qfwfq, and his extended family, from a species we cannot identify, experience the cosmic Big Bang.
The story’s language, character and narrative deliver an astrophysical and micro-organic alchemy that falls in line with Calvino’s association with the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo) or “Workshop for Potential Literature”. OuLiPo’s participants seek and have sought new forms and structures for literature through play with the properties of language, word games or imposing constraints through mathematical or computational principles such as Boolean algebra or recursiveness. For example, Georges Perec wrote La Disparition (1969), a “lipogrammatic” novel avoiding any words containing the letter “e”. Raymond Queneau constructed Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), which is actually an interactive work of book art, confronting readers with 1014 different sonnets generated by the reader’s choosing one of 10 options per line, accessed by turning each line like a page.
OVI lifts this literary playfulness into a revel of intricate puns, played out in language, image, typography and structure or form. Sharoff discovered the Calvino story in Le Monde independently of her prints already underway, but it was the conjunction of the story with them that led her to “an idea for a book”. Although, like Friedlaender, Sharoff would illustrate books, the idea diverged from a mere illustration of the story or a livre d’artiste in the traditional sense. Like many book artists, Sharoff conceived a blend of image, text and form. The Sharoff/Da Ros execution of her idea re-presents, absorbs, reacts to, embodies Calvino’s fiction in a work that stands apart from it. It is the reverse of the usual ekphrasis we see when a literary text strives to re-present, absorb, react to, embody an urn, a sculpture, painting or print. Think of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”.
Instead of Unidentified Flying Objects (OVNI in French), the artist gives us OVI (“identified flying objects”), the first three of which are the letters “O”, “v” and “i” appearing through the “black holes” of the silver paper slipcase. As the black portfolio emerges from the slipcase, we see the i’s dot adrift as perhaps another object in the firmament. Through the holes in the slipcase, the same letters reappear printed on the inside of the slipcase but with the i’s dot no longer adrift (the “stars” aligned?). And this is just the start of the punning and play with structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft.
Encased in the trifold black portfolio are nine loose map-like folios.
Opened, the folios display selected text from the French translation of Calvino’s short story and four Sharoff prints. In three of the prints, the text swirls, construction-poem-like, around the multicolor images. Part of the folios’ magic here is Sharoff’s fusion of image with the substance of Calvino’s words, a Friedlaender-esque palette and the typographic and form-locking skills of Da Ros.
The first image looks like a macrophoto of a cell (or is it an image of the sun?) with numbers superimposed. The second image looks like a cloud nebula (or is it some multicellular life form with two flagellae?) consisting of everyday objects. The third image looks like an asteroid belt (or is it a paramecium?) made of a discarded aerosol can and other trash.
One of the four prints stands alone without text. The image is a cascade of large and small numerals, logic symbols, a gear, protractor and metallic-looking detritus landing in a heap.
One of the leaves deploys a Turkish map fold, opening to reveal a constellation of numbers, letters from the periodic table and terms from particle physics and astrophysics — an outstanding display of skill from Da Ros and entirely evocative of Qfwfq and his family’s bizarre tale of the big bang. It’s also a prescient reminder that a crater on the planet Mercury and a main asteroid belt were named after Calvino.
The separate folios echo the abrupt jumps in Calvino’s story. In the end, Sharoff succeeds with OVI in echoing how the story — despite those jumps, the bewildering and unpronounceably named characters and the teasing references to familiar and unfamiliar domains of knowledge — hangs together. The spiraling text makes the viewer turn and turn the opened folio to read the words — much as the story’s surreal yet familiar characters and their situations make the reader puzzle through the storyline. The prints present the viewer with familiar yet unfamiliar shapes composed of everyday objects or recognizable symbols. The tactility of the paper, the solidity of the slipcase and texture of the multicolored prints play off the intellectuality of the ekphrasis and scientific images and symbols in much the same way as the familiar familial relations play off the characters’ bewildering experience of the cosmic Big Bang.
Sharoff’s next major artist’s book — again with Da Ros — would be La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991). There is little if anything implying a Chinese or other oriental influence on printmaking or typography as practiced by Friedlaender or Da Ros, respectively. And until her visit to China in the late eighties, Sharoff’s work showed no such influence. When the influence came, it was concentrated in the one work. Sharoff was concerned not to respond to China in a typical Western artist way or to fall prey to traditions that neglected the hardship or grittiness she saw while teaching English to young Chinese bank employees. Sharoff hungered for a text that would fuse with the images coming to her in reaction to the remnants of the Great Wall, the summer palace’s maze, and post-revolutionary infrastructure.
She uses the words of the 1930s writer Lu Xun and those of her 1980s English-language students to bounce echoes of strife, ambivalence and paradox from the walls of her prints and artist’s book, a double-sided accordion in forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). Lu’s poem appears in Chinese calligraphy and translated into French and English, set in bold and equal in weight to the Chinese characters. Sharoff breaks the three versions across increasingly shorter segments of paper, layering the different languages like mortar and rows of bricks. In a different, smaller typeface — like fragments of modern brick — the English text from her language students, reflecting on Western culture and their lives, is interspersed along with eight prints. The “snail-shell” structure unfolds/unrolls in a way that both “sides of the wall” end up being read. The juxtapositions and structure draw the viewer repeatedly from the flatness of paper into the multiple dimensions of the bookwork.
Bringing together barriers/bridges — languages, cultures and political eras — the bookwork breathes its own original life into Lu’s text of ambivalence and paradox. It is an effect similar but on a different scale to contemporaneous works by Xu Bing: Book from the Sky (1991) and Ghosts Pounding the Wall(1990-91). The faint markings on the Arches paper of Sharoff’s wall, markings created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of an unidentified manuscript, echo the unreadability of Xu’s faux Chinese characters printed from his 4,000 hand-cut stamps for Book from the Sky. The red edge of Sharoff’s wall and the words of Lu Xun catch the echo of Xu’s and his students’ beating their ink-soaked mallets against the rice paper hanging on the Great Wall and invoke the ghosts of those who died building the wall. The execution of the unusual “forme en escargot” equals in exquisiteness and production value any of Xu’s works.
On first encounter, that snail-shell structure of this double-sided accordion book challenges the reader/viewer. Should the work be completely unfurled? Should it stand on its edge, or be laid flat then turned over? To try to read La grande muraille in those ways, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros. The snail-shell form, its multi-page spreads and the text demand that you read La grande muraille as you unroll it or, rather, as you unfold it.
With the book laid flat, the “page spreads” are easier to recognize, the text is easier to read, and the forethought needed for the “imposition” of text and images to deliver the sequential text, easier to marvel at. As each recto page is turned to the right, two new pages appear to the right. This unfolding approach to reading the book offers several intriguing “double- and multi-page spreads” and an experience of the texts and eight prints in the sequence driven by the text. When you have finished reading in this sequence, you will have read both sides of the scroll.
La grande muraille is a rare work, viewable at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague and these other locations. Almost as rare but still available from the artist is Impermanence subtile/Subtle Impermanence (2013), in which Sharoff continues her experimentation with structures. She returns to the cased portfolio and folios of OVI but introduces fraction folds (two-thirds, etc.), vertical flaps and an accordion structure with mountain folds. In collage-like manner, silhouettes and cutouts of modern everywoman and everyman move through their urban working and shopping environment. And vice versa, images of the environment behind the cut-outs move through everywoman and everyman!
Sharoff’s everyman and everywoman are in strife with the environment. The portfolio opens with a “collage of garbage” whose relationship to them becomes clear in the ways Sharoff works the fragment of Ian Monk’s poem “Tri selon Tri” (displayed in French and English) in, under and through her prints and book structure.
The cutouts of everywoman and everyman fill up with the photos of trash behind them. In the prints, they stroll entangled in bricks and clutter toward an outcome where “in this universe of base and yet subtle impermanence, we should give up on the old refrains and the four elements of earth, air, water and finally fire, and instead divide matter into four new categories, i.e., paper, plastic, glass and in the end everything left over — those things that finish up in their own trash can” — i.e., us!
Continuing with the elemental, paradox and structural experiment, La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013) takes up the challenge of the folded single-page codex. In each of the three volumes in the set, the pattern of folds and cuts is the same, yet the pattern’s interplay with the prints and bilingual content in each seems uniquely appropriate. A hat trick of book art magic.
The Poetry of the Universe consists of three aphorisms: Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”; Euclid’s “Parallel lines meet in infinity”; and Lavoisier’s “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”. As mentioned with La grande muraille, the execution is exquisite, and likewise, learning to read the work requires exploration.
The etchings in soft grey — an orange and its segments, a blossom and its petals, a walnut and its meat, and a tree and leaf — illustrate the aphorism, much as the typographic choices and arrangements and the breaking up of the sentence complement it. Sharoff makes the second and third volumes perform similarly but differently — just as a magician weaves a routine from variations on the same vanishes and productions of a coin or other object.
As Comentale wrote in Art & Métiers du Livre: ”magicienne des formes”. La Poésie de l’univers is as rare as OVI and La grande muraille. It can be viewed here and here.
The most extensive essay on Sharoff’s work can be found in Paul van Capelleveen’s Artists & Others(2016). It comments on La reparation (2001), The Waves (2003), Les amazones sont parmi nous (2005), Bruits de la ville (2007), Impermanence subtile (2013), La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013). He addresses La grande muraille (1991) in Voices and Visions (2009). The special collection at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Netherlands is one of the few where several of Sharoff’s works — including La grande muraille — can be seen and handled in one place.
Christophe Comentale’s essay captures the delight of exploration and discovery in the encounter with Sharoff’s art.
Shirley Sharoff, entre France et Etats-Unis, présente une pluralité d’inspiration consommée entre l’estampe et le livre devenu un média, entre unique et multiple. […] Magicienne des formes et des couleurs, Shirley Sharoff ne cesse de remettre en cause, par besoin autant que par défi personnel, tout ce qui pourrait ressembler au début d’un système de lecture, de vision, figé et donc clos. L’impossibilité de savoir -qui vaut aussi pour elle- de quoi sa prochaine oeuvre-livre-manuscrit-tableau-dépliant, ou tout cela à la fois, sera fait est assez excitant. La présence de textes sentis par affinités sensorielles, personnelles, avec des écrivains non encore classiques, autant de raisons d’apprécier de pénétrer dans cet univers où le conformisme est inexistant.
Christophe Comentale, “Shirley Sharoff, des livres a tenir debout et des estampes a voir aussi”, Art & Métiers du Livre, n°231 (Aout-Septembre 2002), p.63.
Staff in Special Collections at the University of San Antonio libraries caught this sudden slant of sunlight on insect-damaged pages. It makes a good start for a serendipitous trek across conservation, book history and book art.
Those dry tunneled pages tear easily with turning, compounding the loss with further damage. To forestall such damage, the areas of loss could be filled page by page with Japanese paper (kozo or gampi) or with paper pulp. The Smithsonian’s book conservation lab illustrates the former method here:
The mending with Japanese paper reminds me of passages in A Degree of Mastery, where the author describes mending rare books with kozo paper under the eagle eye of the late Bill Anthony. The mending with paper pulp though recalls the painstaking art of Pat Gentenaar-Torley.
Three centuries before the paper in the San Antonio book was printed, bound and readied for damage in the centuries to follow, parchment — sturdier as it was — had its inherent flaws and elicited peculiar remedies for tears and loss. Erik Kwakkel’s site and books illustrate and celebrate several examples of what he calls “the beauty of the injured book”:
Dreamcatchers spring to mind. What were the thoughts caught in words now missing on these pages, words slipped from the dreamcatching pages? Our medieval “dreamcatcher” conservator seems to have in mind more than the principles of modern conservation — perhaps something more akin to kintsugi.
Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is a Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy behind the technique is to recognize the history of the object and to incorporate the repair visibly into the new piece instead of disguising it.
Several centuries later, confronted with an 18th century volume of Horace, UK bookbinder Kathy Abbott was similarly inspired. Her story is recounted in Flash of the Hand (13 December 2015) and Skin Deep (Spring 2017).
Whether this is “conservation binding” is a debated point. According to Jeff Peachey, it is “very creative repurposing of existing binding elements that add a new layer of meaning to old books, which is, I submit, more properly considered book arts” [Correspondence with Books On Books, 13 August 2018].
The extensive and well-documented work of Mark Cockram, book artist, master bookbinder and founder of Studio 5 Book Arts in London, bridges the debate. Cockram’s first venture with kintsugi occurred by accident, falling out of a separate, deliberate experiment to collaborate with nature — by burying books with the help of friends around the world and by submitting them to tanks of insects with the help of forensic entomologist Amoret Whitaker. Marc Webb (Park Light Pictures) captures Cockram’s original intent and results in this video created to accompany Cockram’s and nature’s works of art displayed at Pestival (2010). Cockram’s first kintsugi work, entitled Kintsugi (2013), came as a response to cracks appearing after freeze-drying the cover of one of sketchbooks buried in a garden in Bangkok.
So pleased with the outcome of the accident, Cockram produced Kintsugi 2 (2018).
Another work of kintsugi-by-accident is Michele Emerick Brown‘s Miscellany, which began as an entry to the 2016 Guild of Book Workers’ binding exhibition. Sewn with a link stitch and of German paper case construction, it consists of printing examples from the bookbinding and restoration program at the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts, as it was known back in the 70s. Of more interest, its boards are made of Rockite (a concrete mix) and marble dust.
After its not being accepted to the GBW exhibition, Brown writes,
I decided to enter it in the Artistree exhibit. I have a cottage in NH and thought I’d drop it off the same week-end I was meeting some friends. I took it out of the bag to show them, turned, tripped and dropped the book. Each board broke in several pieces. Very traumatic. It seemed like this book wasn’t meant to be exhibited.
After a couple of weeks I decided to glue it back together using construction adhesive and thought I would use gold leaf to highlight the cracks. While I was thinking about how to do it (what kind of glaire to use etc), someone told me about kintsugi. I ended up using gold acrylic (Golden). I went ahead and submitted it and it was accepted.[Correspondence with Books On Books, ]
Another “kintsugi book artist” is Lorenzo Perrone. Much like Werner Pfeiffer, Perrone has focused on the book as unreadable object and, as his site called “Libribianchi” implies, almost completely white.
Evident from this video about Perrone and this one about Pfeiffer, Perrone’s work is more romantic in a literary sense. His recent adoption of bronze and installations adds an elemental, alchemical, even phenomenological feel to his oeuvre. As he puts it, “Before, water was enough to make paper malleable, now I need fire to make bronze compliant.” Despite the disappearance of text in Perrone’s works, they still perform that ekphrastic act of book art and send me back to re-read — this time Bachelard’s Water and Dreams and Fragments of a Poetics of Fire.
Like the pleasure of kintsugi, an increase of enjoyment in something elemental, something fusing the past with the present, the broken with the re-created and the head with the heart.
The seventh biennial Codex book fair and symposium in Berkeley and Richmond, California have come to a close. Of what use it is now to explain how to enjoy them, you be the judge. Your first step is to read the story in Mark Twain’s Roughing It of “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”. Being the story of a story — book art being so self-reflexive and all — it is the best way to commence:
Every now and then, in these days, the boys used to tell me I ought to get one Jim Blaine to tell me the stirring story of his grandfather’s old ram—but they always added that I must not mention the matter unless Jim was drunk at the time—just comfortably and sociably drunk.
Not to advise drink before the fair.
For the start of this Codex, rain and mist hover outside the hangar. The polished concrete floor looks wet but isn’t — so first-time visitors step to avoid slips that won’t really occur. The old-timers though stride from table to table arms wide, bussing each other on the cheek or humping crates around and placing and re-placing their works for the right effect. Arriving early to watch adds a certain enjoyment.
At last, one evening I hurried to his cabin, for I learned that this time his situation was such that … he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk—not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder- keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. … On the pine table stood a candle, and its dim light revealed “the boys” sitting here and there on bunks, candle-boxes, powder-kegs, etc. They said: “Sh—! Don’t speak—he’s going to commence.”
‘I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois—got him of a man by the name of Yates—Bill Yates—maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon—Baptist—and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west.
‘Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson—Sarah Wilkerson—good cretur, she was—one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was—no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all—it was a galoot by the name of Filkins—I disremember his first name; but he was a stump—come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary …
Which reminds me of Emily Martin and her politically biting King Leer —
There is plenty more somber work to go around: Lorena Velázquez from Mexico has followed up her powerful Cuarenta y tres with Exit, her hope in our turbulent times;
Barcelona’s Ximena Perez Grobet has 2.10.1968-2018on display, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City; Sue Anderson and Gwen Harrison from Australia offer Phantomwise Flew the Black Cockatoo, an indictment of a cruel welfare system; and there is Islam Aly from Egypt with Inception, Bedaya, inspired by stories and journeys of refugees. Book art everywhere wears its heart on its cover.
Still, book artists are a convivial bunch and cheerful in their internationality. On Monday evening, Mary Heebner (Simplemente Maria Press) and her husband photographer Macduff Everton are in the Berkeley City Club’s off-limits members’ room settling down to a bottle of Santa Barbara red, and here come upstate New Yorker Leonard Seastone (Tidelines Press), Anglo-German Caroline Saltzwedel (Hirundo Press), Irishman Jamie Murphy (The Salvage Press) and Geordie David Esslemont (Solmentes Press). Macduff is launched on a tale about running into Queen Elizabeth on her horse-riding visit to Ronald Reagan’s ranch, when David remembers rounding down a path in the Lake District during an art residency to find Prince Charles legging it up the same — by which time Macduff has just returned from his room with a bottle of single malt — which reminds Caroline of a stormy weather hike along Hadrian’s Wall, where Macduff diverts onto a tale of nearly being blown off the same and making his shaky, near-death way back to a bed-and-breakfast for a hot bath and terrible food from the grumpy owners, which launches Leonard onto the story about his local Russian butcher/grocer/refugee who refuses to sell him salad but insists on providing chiropractic services one day and adopts Leonard as his only friend in the US with whom he can have true political debate. Jamie still wants to know why the Russian wouldn’t sell Leonard any salad.
Speaking of greens — Robin Price’s prototype for Witnessing Ecology: the agave plant book again displays that thread of social concern, but this work and Price herself draw attention to another thread of enjoyment to pursue: the recurrence of collaboration among book artists. One artist leads to another.
As with the now-famous The Anatomy Lesson by Joyce Cutler-Shaw, Price has joined forces again with Daniel Kelm on the agave plant book, Kelm also collaborated with Ken Botnick on the long-gestating Diderot Project on display here just a few tables away, Botnick collaborated with the novelist and translator William Gass on A Defense of the Book, who in turn with the photographer Michael Eastman — who lives over in Oakland — created the digital-only book Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time. Whatever the medium, the book just naturally encourages collaboration — and chance. As Price’s book Counting on Chance implies and as so many book artists echo — as does Jim Blaine —
‘… There ain’t no such a thing as an accident. When my uncle Lem was leaning up agin a scaffolding once, sick, or drunk, or suthin, an Irishman with a hod full of bricks fell on him out of the third story and broke the old man’s back in two places. People said it was an accident. Much accident there was about that. He didn’t know what he was there for, but he was there for a good object. If he hadn’t been there the Irishman would have been killed. Nobody can ever make me believe anything different from that. Uncle Lem’s dog was there. Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog? Becuz the dog would a seen him a coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’t appinted. A dog can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence. Mark my words it was a put-up thing. Accidents don’t happen, boys. Uncle Lem’s dog—I wish you could a seen that dog. He was a reglar shepherd—or ruther he was part bull and part shepherd—splendid animal; belonged to parson Hagar before Uncle Lem got him.’
Chance, luck or accident — if you are to enjoy this book fair, you need to count on them, not just allow for them. How likely was it that in pursuit of Mary Heebner’s Intimacy: Drawing with light, Drawn from stone, I would be caught up with that crew in the off-limits members’ club?
Or if I weren’t staying a good walking distance from the symposium, how would I have come across a hummingbird in the cold of February after being delighted with Sue Leopard’s Hummingbird?
Hagar is a common Nordic name. But how likely was it that Twain would use that particular name in his California mining-camp story and that Codex VII is hosting “Codex Nordica”? Mark my words it was a put-up thing.
That not one of the symposium presenters introducing us to “Codex Nordica” is named Hagar should not be held against the organizers. Their choices — Åse Eg Jørgensen (co-editor of Pist Protta, Denmark’s longest running contemporary artists’ journal), Tatjana Bergelt (multilingual, of German-Russian-Jewish culture and settled in Finland), Thomas Millroth (art historian from Malmö) — are entertaining, informative and good humoured (proof at least for the Danes that they can’t all be Hamlet or Søren Kierkegaard). What they have to say and show speaks to book art’s uncanny rhyming across geographies and times.
With every issue the outcome of guest editing, artists’ contributions and a mandate to be unlike any previous issue, Pist Protta is a cross between Other Books and So, the collaborative, gallery-challenging venture of Ulises Carrión in the last century, and Brad Freeman’s US-based Journal of Artists’ Books.Printed Matter has faithfully carried every issue of Pist Protta, so there is little excuse to be unaware of it and its liveliness. Fitting for someone who thinks of herself as a collage of cultures, Tatjana Bergelt’s barfuß im Schnee-álásjulggiid muohttagis (“Barefoot in the Snow”) is a photo-collage of old maps, satellite maps, poetic texts, landscapes and portraits of the Sámi, the dwindling inhabitants of the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Murmansk Oblast. It reminds me of UK-based Nancy Campbell’s Vantar/Missing.
Both works delve into the vulnerable and disappearance — be it culture, gender or environment. Vantar‘s cold diptychs recording the mountain snow cover and barely perceptible signs of life in the ghost town Siglufjörður chime with Bergelt’s final slide:
The bus from the symposium in Berkeley to the fair itself in Richmond is another chance for chance to play its role. One day I’m sitting next to Amanda Degener (Cave Paper), who delights in our common acquaintance with Ioana Stoian and Eric Gjerde; the next, it’s Jeanne Drewes (Library of Congress), who introduces me to Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress), who regales us and the collector Duke Collier with tales of the British artist Ken Campbell. But the terrible thing about chance is that it takes up so much time and, at the same time, shows you what you wish you had more time for.
Or to Russell Maret discussing his work Character Traits and Geoffroy Tory’s Champ Fleury: The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face (1529):
Sam is kind enough to introduce me to his colleagues at ARC Editions (Victoria Bean, Rick Myers and Haein Song). Individually and together, they are forces to watch. Myers’ An Excavation, which I’d had the pleasure to see previously in The Hague, can be partly experienced in these videos, and Song’s fine bindings and artist’s books must be seen. Bean’s symposium talk is on Check, her portfolio of typewriter prints featuring fifty writers, from Oscar Wilde to Joan Didion, and the checks they wore, and on Flag, the follow-up series of artist’s books that takes a writer from Check and uses colour, cloth and typewriter prints to explore an individual work by that writer.
Check and Flag illustrate that bright enjoyable thread that shows up again and again at Codex and book art at its prime — the integration of letter, image, material, form, process and subject in a way that self-consciously calls attention to them yet yields a work of art that simply is — on its own terms.
Which, if you have read “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”, ought to remind you that
… Parson Hagar belonged to the Western Reserve Hagars; prime family; his mother was a Watson; one of his sisters married a Wheeler; they settled in Morgan county, and he got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to ‘tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece.
‘She wouldn’t let them roll him up, but planted him just so—full length. The church was middling small where they preached the funeral, and they had to let one end of the coffin stick out of the window. They didn’t bury him—they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument.
With its 222 exhibitors here weaving the threads of book art and the book arts, Codex VII is a monument to enjoy. As for that old ram, you will have to read the story — and prepare for Codex VIII.
For most of us, the only glimpse of the 2018 Beijing exhibition Xu Bing: Thought and Method will have come from online articles, screen shots and a short film or two. By noting commentaries contemporaneous with the exhibition and linking them to older related articles and books, Books On Books aims to enhance appreciation of the exhibition and Xu’s work as well as findability of the latter. Throughout, where known, links to institutions holding Xu’s works are provided.
May 2018 saw the first announcement of the Xu Bing retrospective, his “most comprehensive institutional exhibition” to date, according to Sue Wang writing for CAFA Art Info.
July 2018, just before the exhibition’s opening, Helena Poole’s article arrived to guide the reader on what to expect from the exhibition. One of its useful observations is the influence of the printmaking tradition of Lu Xun on Xu’s early prints. Although not a printmaker himself, Lu stimulated the tradition with his activist writing and encouragement of woodcut printmaking in the journals of the Morning Flower Society (朝花社) founded in 1929. In Art in Print (May-June 2016), the reader can find a useful background on Lu Xun and a selection of images from the New Woodcut Movement that will deepen Poole’s guidance.
Also helpful to a better appreciation of the prints are two online displays of images (more than offered by Wang and Poole): ArtThat eLite and RADII China’s “Photo of the Day”. Both displays enable us to see that, while Xu’s early prints — for example, The End of a Village (1982) — reflect the New Woodcut Movement style, his later work is at once more subtle and abstract than that of the early revolutionary periods and yet still evocative of the figurative, the diurnal and strife. The subtlety lies in the shift from the depiction of workers’ strife to the strife between sense and nonsense or language and concept, between cultures and their languages, and between the individual and polity.
Just after the exhibition’s opening, two excellent overviews of Xu’s career and art appeared in July. Sue Wang followed up her May announcement with a translation of an essay by Lin Jiabin expanding on the exhibition’s title Xu Bing: Thought and Method. Rather than focus on any one work, Lin Jiabin digs into the artist’s thought and method. Among Lin’s several useful insights are these:
Xu Bing adheres to the essence of simplicity and wisdom of eastern culture, and also faces the world in a broader sense. His works are forward-looking and vigilant; at the same time, his works under the guise of dislocation, multi-level social issues and cultural thinking sway and excite each other. [Emphasis added]
… the new work is an excavation and extension of something that is valuable in the past and that was not fully realized. It actually has a “cue” effect. Xu Bing said, “As long as you are sincere, no matter what form these works are, big or small, no matter how early or late, actually the final relationship between them is like constructing a closed system.” [Emphasis added]
Through the transformation of old artistic languages and the creation of new languages, the artist provides the audience with a variety of channels for entry and exploration. [Emphasis added]
The second overview — Grace Ignacia See’s “UCCA Presents …” in The Artling — takes a more descriptive and linearly developmental view following the exhibition’s division into three sections, “a direct reflection of the turning points in [Xu’s] artistic context and processes”.
The first section:
Book from the Sky (1987-1991), Ghosts Pounding on the Wall (1990-1991), and Background Story (2004-present) allow viewers to observe the means in which Xu’s meditations on signification, textuality, and linguistic aporia have been evoked;
The second section:
A, B, C… (1991), Art for the People (1999) and Square Word Calligraphy (1994-present) project his explorations of hybridity, difference, and translingual practice through his works;
The third section:
his more recent works Tobacco Project (2000-present), Phoenix (2008-2013), Book from the Ground (2003-present) and his first feature length film Dragonfly Eyes (2017), exist as commentaries on economic and geopolitical changes that have contributed towards China’s societal evolution and the world’s in the last hundred years.
Tianshu or Book from the Sky, consisting of four volumes enclosed in a fastened wooden box, is a challenge to find, almost as much a challenge as being in the right place to see its installation version. The greatest challenge for a Westerner, however viewing the work, is grasping a Chinese viewer’s perception of it. How to imagine markings that, at first, look like the characters of the roman alphabet and even seem to form combinations that look like words and sentences but, on closer inspection, are not any letter, word or sentence known or knowable to the Western eye. Xu carved 4000 wooden stamps for characters that look like Chinese characters but are not and proceeded to have the four volumes printed under his instruction — as well as scrolls and wall hangings for installations.
For a lengthier description and appreciation of Tianshu, John Cayley’s commentary and lecture are only surpassed by his book, where he writes:
[Tianshu is] not an object. It’s not a painting or a sculpture or even a book as such. It’s a configuration of objects and materials that represent a concept and provide some evidence or record of the development of the concept and the making of its constituent elements. You can’t possess it. You either have to find some elaborate way to acquire a personal record of the work or you have to take part in a process that allows the installation to remove itself into a museum or major gallery where this representation, beyond an individual’s acquisitive capacities, can be preserved for collective curated culture. In a sense, I’m helping you to ‘own’ the Tianshu by writing this.
Given the challenge of tracking down locations to visit where Tianshu has been acquired, Cayley’s “help” is welcome. The Beijing exhibition’s installation can be seen at the 4’04” mark in the UCCA video.
Although nicely illustrated in See’s article, Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990) needs a bit more commentary for a fuller appreciation. According to Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen in The Art of Modern China (2012), the work was Xu’s response to the criticism that Book from the Sky demonstrated he had lost his way “like ghosts pounding the wall” (p. 258). It’s also worth noting that these two works have in common the process of turning one form of work into another.
Just as Book from the Sky consists of the four volumes in a wooden box yet is also an installation with scrolls and wall panels repeated in multiple venues, Ghosts Pounding the Wall began as the performance by Xu and his students wearing bright yellow jackets, stenciled with characters from Book from the Sky, and rubbing ink on rice paper fastened piece by piece across a one-kilometer stretch of the Great Wall and also is the installation. The latter is nicely shown in See’s article and can also be seen in the UCCA video at the 5’20” mark. Xu’s performance was one of “ghosts pounding the wall”; the installation, one of the ghostly impressions from that pounding of the wall. This characteristic or method in Xu’s art is one to watch for in almost all of his work.
Background Story, the third work in this section, is an installation and as such only fully accessible when in situ like Ghosts and later works. It first appeared in 2004. What appears to be a Chinese landscape printed on rice paper secured in a long row of joined-up lightboxes extending across the space of the host gallery is actually formed of shadows cast by objects on the other side of the lightboxes, which are open to view. Over time, the installation has developed as a series, with each version being based on a different ancient Chinese landscape painting. Usually the painting belongs to the institution where the work is installed. Four of the versions can be found at these links to videos and a slide show: 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015. The 2018 version can be found in the UCCA video at the 6’16“ mark.
In the meantime, another earlier essay from Sue Wang provides useful insights on experiencing the version based on the painting “Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains” by the Yuan dynasty painter Huang Gongwang. This version appeared in 2014 in Beijing as jointly organized by the Inside-Out Art Museum, Jing & Kai, the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media at Cornell University, Life Bookstore and SDX Joint Publishing Company.
Wang also includes an interview with Xu about the process and intent of Background. The work marks a departure from Xu’s traditional materials: ink, paper, print, characters and language, but as Xu points out to Wang:
… whether using ink or not isn’t the issue at the core, while the most important thing is what the artist wants to express. It is necessary to think of what material does well in the presentation of the expected effect and the words of the artist. It may be a new language that no one speaks, it is a new language of the time, so it is in need of finding a new way of speaking ….
The second section of the 2018 Beijing exhibition brought into focus Xu’s deepening thought about language and culture when confronted with English and the art scene in the US and elsewhere in the West. See’s article highlights A, B, C… (1991) and Square Word Calligraphy (1994-present) as examples of Xu’s “explorations of hybridity, difference, and translingual practice through his works”. One of those works is An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy (2000), a woodblock hand-printed accordion book with ink rubbings and wood cover. It is a textbook written by Xu Bing for users to learn the square word calligraphy writing system invented by the artist himself. The “installation version” consists of a classroom set up for learning and practicing the system.
Columbia University has produced a video of one such installation, which demonstrates the fun of interacting with art. For most of us, though, an easier means of interacting with square word calligraphy and owning a bit of Xu’s art is to purchase the children’s songbook shown below.
Another book by Xu, related to this third section of the Beijing exhibition and available for purchase, is Book from the Ground(2014), telling a day in the life of Mr. Black, an office worker — told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life. Xu’s playful but serious, to-and-fro treatment of language, meaning and cultures is another recurrent characteristic of his work.
Full appreciation of Xu’s signature interest in language — text and art, culture and meaning — would have sent the attendee in Beijing back from section two or three to section one to look at Book from the Sky again.
Serendipitously, another Xu exhibition was running nearby at INK Studio in Beijing at the same time: Xu Bing: Language and Nature. That show’s curator, Dr. Britta Erickson, is also the author of The Art of Xu Bing: Words without Meaning, Meaning without Words (2001). Her book covers many of the works in sections one and two and delivers insightful, plain-language readings of them that add considerably to the appreciation of Xu’s art. Again, as with the UCCA retrospective, Radii China delivers some outstanding photos from the INK Studio exhibition, and its briefest description makes the reader hunger for more as well as an actual visit:
… a selection from his The Living Word series in which the Pinyin Chinese word for bird, niao, transforms over a series of serial sculptures into the simplified character 鸟, then the traditional character 鳥, then, finally, into a small flock of birds soaring toward the gallery’s skylight.
A visitor could have hardly hoped to take in the UCCA and INK exhibitions in less than several days.
Xu’s conceptualism, genius for planning and meaningful attention to the detail of material recurs again and again in his work. He has a deft wittiness and patient, opportunistic eye, ear and even nose for enriching his artwork after the fact. Section three’s strong odor of tobacco must have underscored that to visitors.
Xu’s Tobacco Project trilogy, which began in 1999, incorporates Red Book (with Chinese and English inscriptions on each cigarette from Mao’s little Red Book), the floor sculpture Honor and Splendor (composed of 660,000 Fu Gui cigarettes) and several other related works. For an earlier in-depth piece on the Tobacco Project (and extensive illustrations), the reader can go to John Ravenal’s description in Blackbird (Fall 2011, Vol 10, No. 2). As the curator who organized the Tobacco Project exhibition in 2011, Ravenal’s perspective is unique. Like John Cayley, Ravenal also produced a book — Tobacco Project, Duke/ Shanghai/ Virginia, 1999–2011 (2011).
Introducing another of Xu’s major works — Phoenix (2008-13), not in the exhibition — See argues, contrary to Lin Jiabin, that Xu has been on a path to a shift in focus:
Phoenix (2008-13) and Dragonfly Eyes (2017) further highlight Xu’s … shift towards the economic and geo-political, where the first comments on China’s breakneck development and the latter dramatizes the role of individuals within the framework of an ever-expanding surveillance network.
See’s comments on these works closing section three of the Beijing exhibition miss the presence of a tension in them — or rather tensions present in all of Xu’s works from the very beginning. In a way, those ongoing tensions support the analysis of Lin Jiabin and how Xu’s works “sway and excite each other”.
August 2018. Enid Tsui surfaced the primary tension a few weeks later — worth the wait for the artful weaving of her own observations with Xu’s comments — in a “long read” in the South China Morning Post Magazine. That tension is between, on the one hand, the exquisite and, on the other, the cynical, the pessimistic, the ugly and anger. For Tsui, the anger is most evident in “Xu’s latest, and most bizarre, work … Dragonfly Eyes (2017)”:
His team edited 10,000 hours of surveillance footage into an 80-minute feature film loosely structured around the story of a man running after the woman he loves. There are no actors or cameramen. … Xu used only clips that were never meant to be seen in public. Film critics were baffled. Xu says the work is, once again, about how we are shaped by culture. The scenes in Dragonfly Eyes hardly fill you with joy: beauty parlours selling cosmetic surgery packages; aggressive customers in a shop; drab, anonymous streets. Scenes of terrible natural catastrophes or accidents add to the general atmosphere of doom. There is an uncustomary fury here about the state of the world, beyond the film’s obvious reference to how we are all being surveilled by invisible, all-seeing eyes.
The exquisite shows in the attention to detail and exactitude of execution. There are other tensions at play within and across Xu’s works: cynicism vs idealism, pessimism vs optimism, tranquillity vs anger, sense vs nonsense, meaning vs meaninglessness, beauty vs ugliness. But if The Beijinger‘s regular arts columnist, G.J. Cabrera, is right in his August article extolling the accessibility of Xu’s art,
… the exhibition is rife with examples of how Xu’s witty thought processes can find technically challenging ways to address questions about linguistic processes or historical circumstance, which resonate not only in his homeland but also worldwide. The content is surprisingly accessible and not at all obscured by the dense narrative which could easily hijack the content when dealing with such deep themes.
G.J. Cabrera,”State of the Arts“, The Beijinger, 29 August 2018. Accessed 2 September 2018
then shouldn’t those tensions be able to shape our appreciation of the works without explanations from articles and essays like this one and those above? If we are attentive enough, yes. Xu’s works are clever and beautiful enough, sometimes appalling and shocking enough, almost always playful and serious enough to make the viewer pause and attend — to hear Xu’s works say, “Language, the things of our cultures and their differences are not always what they seem”.
Emily Martin likes to leave the order of reading or viewing her new book up to chance and the reader. She sees it as part of her creative process. Call it “designing chance”. Order of Appearance: Disorder of Disappearance, the book at the culmination of her talk and time as the 2018 Printer-in-Residence at the Bodleian, illustrates the paradox perfectly. This work is one of several springing from Shakespeare’s plays — in this case, the springboard being the famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
The gatefold cover opens left then right to reveal a set of signatures (folded and gathered pages) sewn to the lefthand crease and a set sewn to the righthand crease. The lefthand signature presents an empty stage; the righthand signature, a stylized stick figure of the leading lady, who is exiting to wild applause. Other characters in Martin’s Order/Disorder or Appearance/Disappearance include the leading man, the clown, a mime, an improv artist, a ballet dancer and, of course, the bear. They can enter and exit one by one or in pairs and in any order and sequence the reader chooses.
Martin forms the characters’ figures from P22 Blox, a set of modular shapes that she uses to great effect conveying expression and attitude with changes in posture and gesture. The characters are not without their subtleties. The clown’s feet are larger than any other figure’s. The close observer will note that, side by side, the leading lady is slightly shorter than the leading man and has one other subtle biologically distinguishing feature.
The bear’s scene above — like any scene or sequence of ordered/disordered entrances/exits — however chosen or varied by the reader — is very short. On the left, “The front half of the bear enters roaring incoherently”; on the right, “The backside of the bear exits through the audience”.
Slapstick and whimsy play an important part in Martin’s books, not without bite. By “designing chance” into her works, she implicates us the readers and viewers in the biting. The “P22 Blox repertory performers” made an earlier appearance in Martin’s Funny Ha Ha Funny Peculiar or Funny Peculiar Funny Ha Ha(2017), which has plenty of bite. Funny Ha Ha is a dos-à-dos book (two books sharing the same back cover) — what else could it be for her conflicted response to Shakespeare’s comedies, individually enjoyable yet easily mixed up in her head due to a certain sameness of plot and
… So much mistaken identity, gender confusion and various other contrivances while romping their way to a fifth act wedding or two. Even more problematic are the decidedly unfunny themes that are common in many of these same comedies such as hypocrisy, sexual harassment, intolerance, sexism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism.
Funny Ha Ha also uses the slice book technique, which, as with the flexible order/disorder of Order of Appearance, inveigles the reader — enjoyably and uncomfortably, back to back in the former’s case — in creating new readings and meanings as the top and bottom halves of the pages turn independently of one another.
Martin’s earlier forays with Shakespeare left less to chance for the reader/viewer. For Desdemona, In her Own Words (2016), we have Martin’s collection and reordering of the few words given to the character in a strongly affecting stop motion animation, which appeared in 2015 as a boxed book. Martin’s The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet (2012), awarded a silver medal at the Designer Bookbinders’ International Competition in 2013, is her book art’s earliest engagement with Shakespeare. There she uses the carousel book structure to set several scenes in the round, each with a repetition of the play’s Prologue chorus slightly adjusted with the insertion of modern equivalents for the setting of Verona. Think Rwanda or Serbia, and why not? All the world’s a globe, as the carousel implies. Forthcoming in the Shakespearean suite may be the best yet — which is a high bar — a spiralling interpretation of King Lear’s descent into madness.
Martin’s talk is entitled “Visual Metre and Rhythm: the Function of Movable Devices”. The illustration of volvelles, lift flaps, harlequinades, tunnel books, rivet-and-tab movables and pop-ups ranged beyond the Bodleian’s sources; it was obvious that Martin had made good use of the time allocated for research during her residency. Presumably as with the talk by Russell Maret, the 2017 Printer-in-Residence, Martin’s talk will be posted on the Bodleian site. In the meantime, a visit to her site will not only provide an impressive range of movables and pop-ups but also demonstrate their function as serious artist books.
For those wanting a closer look or hands-on experience, Order of Appearance can be seen in motion here and will be available for purchase at CODEX 2019 in Richmond, CA and from her site.