Printed and bound in an edition of 7 copies, of which this is No. 4 and signed. Carbon paper pressure prints from collograph plates, pochoir and silkscreen on Kozo. Bound in four-hole Japanese stab binding covered in black/white Duo cloth with doublures of Arches Cover Black. Encased in Arches Cover Black, two pieces glued perpendicularly, one trimmed to form a slot and tab closing. Encasement H197 x W153 mm. Book H193 x W152 mm closed and H193 x 1007 mm open.
If we were looking for a “Banksy” version of Rachid Koraïchi, we need look no further than eL Seed.
In my new project ‘Perception’ I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences.
In the neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr in Cairo, the Coptic community of Zaraeeb collects the trash of the city for decades and developed the most efficient and highly profitable recycling system on a global level. Still, the place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated.
To bring light on this community, with my team and the help of the local community, I created an anamorphic piece that covers almost 50 buildings only visible from a certain point of the Moqattam Mountain. The piece of art uses the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the 3rd century …. el Seed
The words of Saint Athanasius referred to above are
‘إن أراد أحد أن يبصر نور الشمس، فإن عليه أن يمسح عينيه’
“Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”
As with Camus, Algerian sunlight is strong in eL Seed’s work. As it also is in Koraïchi’s Lettres d’ Argile (Letters of Clay) and other ceramic works and arguably in the copperplates for Les Sept Dormants. As with Koraïchi’s work, humanism, poetry and bridging cultures are strong in eL Seed’s work.
The pseudonymous artist has created more “straightforward” street art installations in Tunisia, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Paris, all marked by the curvilinear linking of word and image that so often characterizes inspired book art. This reverse ekphrasis that book art frequently plays upon literature is heightened by calligraphy’s tight binding of art and craft to text. Perception‘s anamorphic enhancement of this binding is brilliant.
The relationship between word and image is “antagonistic sympathy”, according to the English book artist Telfer Stokes (“The Why and How I Make Books“, JAB 3, Spring 1995). In the hands and eyes of Koraïchi and eL Seed, the relationship — if it is a struggle, an agon — becomes more that of sunlight on water, or wind through a wheat field.
In addition to the installations and his book Lost Walls chronicling his painting of 24 walls in 4 weeks during a journey through Tunisia, eL Seed has produced a colorful body of lithographs and sculpture.
In this sculptural work inspired by a poem from Nizar Qabbani, el Seed says his intention is to invite the viewer to walk through a “conversation between the poem, the language, the form and me”. This may remind you of the influence that northern Africa had on the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, and how it led to his meditative exhortation to architects in The Eyes of the Skin to pursue a visual experience that offers a tactile and haptic quality, that also appeals to the realms of hearing, smell and taste and yet does not neglect the conceptual and rational. That, too, characterizes inspired book art.
Likewise it is interesting how this lithograph and the “calligraffiti” appearing on those broken walls and buildings touch eloquently on another theme characteristic of much book art — how the passage of time touches us, how we try to touch the passage of time.
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.