Bookmarking Book Art – Appreciating Xu Bing

Xu Bing: Thought and Method 
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) (尤伦斯当代艺术中心)
21 July through 18 October 2018, Beijing

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.

Lu Xun
From A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, prepared by Patricia Buckley Ebrey et al. Accessed 2 August 2017.

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]

Lin Jiabin, “Xu Bing: Constructing a Closed ‘Circle’“, CAFA Art Info, 25 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

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.

Grace Ignacia See, “‘Xu Bing: Thought and Method’, an Artistic Career that Spans More than Four Decades“, The Artling, 26 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

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.

Tianshu/Book from the Sky (1991)
Xu Bing
From the Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery
Fore edges of the four volumes
Close-up of the container and its catch mechanism, which is repeated on the other edge.
Book from the Sky (1991)
Xu Bing
View of installation

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. 

John Cayley. Tianshu: Passages in the Making of a Book (London: Quaritch, 2009). Pp. 1-2.

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, 20122014, 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.

Front and back of Background Story: Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains (2014)
Xu Bing
Photo credit: Joy Lidu Yi

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 …. 

Sue Wang, “Xu Bing’s ‘Background Story: Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains’ Opened at Inside-Out Art Museum“, CAFA Art Info, 29 May 2014. Accessed 4 November 2018.

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.

An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy (2000)
Xu Bing

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. 

Book from the Ground (2000)
Xu Bing
From the Hanes Library, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
Notice the difference in size. On the left is the “Chinese” edition; on the right, the “English”. Why the quotation marks? There are no differences in the icons in which the narrative is written! Of course, the book trade being what it is, the traditional trim sizes are one cultural difference Xu could not erase.

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 NatureThat 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 , then the traditional character , then, finally, into a small flock of birds soaring toward the gallery’s skylight.

Photo of the Day: Xu Bing Hangs Birds from the Sky at INK StudioRADII China, 26 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

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.

Red Book (2000)
Xu Bing
From the Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery 

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.   

Grace Ignacia See, “‘Xu Bing: Thought and Method’, an Artistic Career that Spans More than Four Decades“, The Artling, 26 July 2018. Accessed 2 August 2018.

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.

Enid Tsui, “Chinese artist Xu Bing’s Beijing retrospective reveals his attitudes to China and Western art, but don’t call him a pessimist“, South China Morning Post Magazine, 11 August 2008. Accessed 2 September 2018.

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”.

Locations of works

Book from the Sky

Ghosts Pounding the Wall

Background Story

An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy

Tobacco Project

Phoenix

Dragonfly Eyes

Bookmarking Book Art – Emily Martin

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.”

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Emily Martin wrapping up her stay as Printer-in-Residence at the Bodleian Library
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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.          

“The ballet dancer enters furious with the choreographer.”

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 P22 Blox and member of the “repertory group”
The bear’s entrance and exit

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.

Bookmarking Book Art – Saving the John Jarrold Printing Museum

Litho stone featuring the St James Mill building in Norwich. Image: JJPM
From Print Week, 26 September 2018

The John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich, England, is one of the few working print museums in the world. Here’s a selection of ten from among its hundreds of holdings: 

  • Star wheel etching press. Wood & Company, West Smithfield, London. 1858. No.1250. Donated by Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham, June 2010. 
  • Albion. Hopkinson & Cope, Finsbury. 1845. No. 1900. From Mr Gott of Watts & Rowe, King’s Lynn.
  • Albion. Hopkinson. Jonathan & Jeremiah Barrett, executors of R. W. Cope, Finswbury, London. 1840. No. 1273. From William Booth, Woodbridge.
  • Columbian. Probably George Clymer. c.1845. Was purchased new by Jarrold & Sons Ltd, and was their longest serving machine. (Lent to the Norwich School of Art for the Caxton Quincentenary).
  • Stanhope. 1825. Donated by Cambridge University Press. 
  • Side-lever lithographic hand press. Hughes & Kimber. ex Norwich College of Art & Design.
  • Top lever lithographic hand press. D. & J. Greig, Lothian Road, Edinburgh. c.1840. 24 x 17 in. Presented to John Jarrold Printing Museum, May 1999 by Geoffrey Dunn, 22 Henry Drive, Leigh on Sea, Essex, SS9 3QQ.
  • Ratcliff direct lithographic press. John Ratcliff & Sons Ltd, Wortley & Leeds. 1927. Double demy. Donated by Curwen Studios, London. Thought to be the only surviving example.
  • Furnival stop-cylinder. 1984. Double demy. Donated by H. Hawes, Elmswell.
  • Heidelberg one-revolution cylinder press, c.1950. Donated by Jarrold & Sons Ltd. Heidelberg. Schnellpressenfabrik A.G. Heidelberg, Germany.

The developers aiming to tear down the building that houses the John Jarrold Printing Museum have mooted keeping some of the older printing presses now there and using them as mood or accent pieces for the café to be built as part of their residential development plans. 

Anyone caring to comment can do so on the Norwich City Council planning site.

Bookmarking Book Art – Monique Lallier

Monique Lallier: A Retrospective
Guilford College Art Gallery

North Carolina can be a quiet state of hidden gems. Particularly those of the book arts, book art and publishing variety. The art gallery fronting the library on the Quaker-founded Guilford College campus in Greensboro is one such gem. Within that gem for the next two months is another.  The Gallery’s director and curator Theresa N. Hammond has marshaled its collection of Monique Lallier’s bindings and dozens of others from around the world for a retrospective on forty-six years of work by Lallier.

Lallier’s roots are in the tradition of fine French binding, which goes back to the practice of book buyers’ purchasing unbound books and taking them to their favorite specialist binder for customized binding, most often in leather. Lallier has written here about the technique in detail. While it is true to call Lallier a bookbinder, it misses what the displayed works say she is: a sculptor and artist of the book. For anyone lucky enough to visit Guilford College Art Gallery, the comments and photos below offer a handful of pointers to details and background supporting that statement. The exhibition catalogue including an insightful essay by Karen Hanmer as well as multiple views of the works displayed and several outside the exhibition will clinch the argument.

Be sure to take in all angles provided by the mirrors behind many of the works.
Theresa N. Hammond, the Gallery’s director and curator, reflected here behind La Lune (1971) and its swiveling “phases of the moon”, rounds coated in eggshells of differing colors.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Lallier’s artistry is her innovative use of materials: eggshells in La Lune (1971), her own hair in L’Eloge de la Folie (1974), translucent agates in Portes Sud (1979), silver in Histoire de Minnie (1982), wires from old telephones in Lignes (1986) and pewter in The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s (2002).

L’Eloge de la Folie (1974)
Rarely does Lallier use on the cover an image from within the book at hand. Here is one of the exceptions. The cavorting monks from Erasmus’ satire come from Albert Dubout’s 1951 illustration of the classic. Lallier, however, couldn’t resist using her own hair to form their tonsures.
Portes Sud (1979)
Note in the reflection the light coming through the agate embedded in the cover.
Histoire de Minnie (1982)
In the exhibition, be sure to look at the back cover where Lallier has used the silver piece, embedded in the front cover, to stamp the back cover.
Lignes (1986)
This is Lallier’s only collaboration from scratch. For a Montréal exhibition whose organizers set the theme of “lignes” or lines, she conceived the cover design. Sharing only blank pages and not the design, she then asked Claude Péloquin to provide text and illustrations on the theme.
The “telephone wires” attached to the front cover are loose and manipulable by the reader — a tongue-in-cheek form of interactivity with lines of communication in the pre-Web age. 
The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s (2002)
Visiting a Parisian builders’ store with a friend selecting decor items, Lallier was entranced by sheets of pewter and its varying thicknesses. She bought some. The inspired result above sits alongside another in the exhibition — The Enchiridion of Epictetus (2003); be sure to look at the reflection of The Enchiridion to spot the use of pewter in the interior.

The odd materials chosen are frequently highly apropos of the book in question. In the catalogue, take a look at Le Papier, Le Livre (2015), which has embedded pieces of a wasp’s nest, entirely in keeping scientifically and historically with the subject. In 1719, the French naturalist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur published an essay to the Royal Academy of Sciences on the natural history of North American wasps and hypothesized how man could adopt their natural papermaking industry.

Another element of Lallier’s work to look for is the form of binding — not just the covers but the interior structure. Despite the glass cases protecting these items, it is easy to spot and enjoy the structural features, for example, the book in the form of a distinctively shaped Southern lady’s fan for The Birthday (1990). The catalogue shows a dos-à-dos (back-to-back) binding of the volumes of Pilgrim’s Progress (2003), a daring rebinding of a rare 18th century production. The Friends of the Library at University of Alberta made the courageous right decision.

Pilgrim’s Progress (2003)
Dos-à-dos binding, showing the first part of the book, in which Pilgrim sets out on his journey in darkness, which Lallier marks with a black leather circle with a palladium dot at its center. 
Photo credit: University of Alberta.
Pilgrim’s Progress (2003)
Dos-à-dos binding, showing the second part of the book, in which Pilgrim arrives at the Celestial City, which Lallier marks with a gold tooling radiating from a gold circle. 
Photo credit: University of Alberta.

Some of the interior and exterior forms are more subtle. Lallier has made extensive use of the stub binding technique (see below), and there are several examples of cross structure binding (see below).

Look for this style of binding called montage sur onglets or stub binding that allows pages to lay flat or even be easily detached. Look for Le Chevalier Troyen (2014) and Inside the Book (2016), displayed side by side in the exhibition and showing this form of binding.
Le Livre des Origines  / The Book of Origins by André Ricard, 2005
In the exhibition, be sure to look closely at the spine’s deliberately exposed cross-structure binding in full goatskin leather. 

Le Livre des Origines is another one of those rareties where Lallier uses on the cover something from within the book. Stamped on the front, the phrase alternating in English and French comes from the text relating the Huron Nation’s creation myth as recorded in French by ethnologist Marius Barbeau, reinterpreted and rewritten by André Ricard. The alternating roman and italic presentation of languages reflects the book’s alternating pages of English and French. Note how the simple design in black and red with the diagonal onlays of green leather captures characteristic elements of the art of the Wyandot tribes, which can be explored here. A design philosophy of using imagination and craftsmanship in service to the book exemplifies itself again and again throughout the exhibition.

Which brings us to another characteristic of Lallier’s art to seek out: the painstaking handwork. For this, Pantagruel (2016) is worth a long look. Lallier once observed a student engaged in kumihimo braiding (the Japanese technique of using a disk to gather multiple threads of different colors into a single strand) and asked to be taught.  Inspired by André Derain’s illustrations of Rabelais’ riotous satire, she set out to use braids for the title’s letters, filled and surrounded with the colors from the illustrations. Some of the leather inlays are handpainted; all — even the smallest — are handcut, beveled, tucked in the covering leather and tooled. The series of process photos below — all courtesy of the artist — provide a look behind the scenes.

Pantagruel (2016)
Awarded one of 25 Silver Prizes at the International Competition of Designer Bookbinders (2016)

Shakespeare: Les Sonnets (2012) is another case in point of craftsmanship. Creation of this work began with a drawing (shown below) and then a maquette to enable Lallier to visualize the sculptural and aesthetic implications of multiple layers’ surfaces and edges being seen from all angles. The boards were cut out and lined with a green goat skin. The covering leather was also cut out and lined with green Japanese paper before covering. The doublures (linings of the book cover) received the same treatment before being applied to the inner boards.

Shakespeare: Les Sonnets (2012)

There is a sense of movement in this three-dimensional, sculptural treatment of the cover, which brings us to a final pointer for visitors. Lallier’s signature and most original technique — the front cover panel that swings open along the fore-edge to reveal a hidden design. 

Excerpts from the Humorous Writings of Leonardo da Vinci (1996)
The open panel reveals a geodesic dome in leather with gold and palladium tooling. With the panel closed, the front cover’s design echoes a Da Vinci machine.
Lost and Found (2014)
The illustrations inside the book come from previously lost engravings by Rachel Reckitt, some showing the blitz of London from which Lallier has drawn the inspiration for her hidden panel.
Vendredi ou la Vie Sauvage (2015)
Opening on layers on layers of carved foliage, the panel evokes the island on which Friday finds himself castaway in Michel Tournier’s version of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In the exhibition, stand on tiptoe or someone’s shoulders to see the top edge’s coloring. Extraordinarily it resembles flower petals submerged in water. 
Les Escaliers de Québec (2013)
Bound in black Morocco leather in the “drop spine” technique, this work unites the stair-stepping accordion form of the text with a gold-tooled title climbing the steps of the front cover panel, which opens on a hand-colored pop-up set of Escher-like stairs.

Lallier’s unity of design with the text by Luc Bureau and illustrations by Ghislaine Bureau celebrating the famous thirty sets of stairs between the upper and lower parts of Québec can hardly be excelled.  Except that she does — again and again — with the examples on display.  This retrospective resoundingly affirms Lallier’s intention always to serve the book in front of her. Go judge for yourself.

Monique Lallier: A Retrospective runs from 29 October through 6 January 2019 at The Guilford Art Gallery on the campus of Guilford College. For more background on Lallier’s work, there is a series of interviews with Erin Fletcher of Herringbone Bindery here.

Bookmarking Book Art – Katerina Kyselica

Field Notes (2018)
Katerina Kyselica
Photo credit: Katerina Kyselica

Field Notes was commissioned by the Václav Havel Library Foundation for its 2018 “Disturbing the Peace, Award for a Courageous Writer at Risk“, presented to the Chinese author, writer, musician and poet Liao Yiwu (aka Lao Wei) on 27 September 2018 at the Bohemian National Hall in New York. Across nine loose leaves, the typewritten words and lines of the poem are dispersed, arranged among fields of regimented rows of vertical strokes, drawn on handmade Losin paper. The drawings could represent anything: a field of grain, a tower block with windows, or marks on a prison wall to count the days. The loose format of the book allows readers to arrange the drawings or compose the text in an order as they see fit, although a colophon presents the full poem in its intended order. 

Kyselica’s website provides more views of Field Notes as well as views of her other artist’s books: American Colonies (2016), Code Red (Nicholas and Alexandra)(2016), News About Nothing (2015), 2×2 (2013) and untitled (2012).

What is striking about Kyselica’s works is how she combines a collage of book art techniques in each work to create a unified, unique effect.

Bookmarking Book Art — Ed Ruscha

Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) Ed Ruscha Opened and described by Cathy Chambers.
Giulio Maffei, Edward Ruscha's The Sunset Strip, 1966, 2015
From his series Le Vite dei Libri (The Lives of Books), Giulio Maffei provides a clever catalog entry on the Sunset Strip.
Display of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) at “Pliure: La Part du Feu”, 2 February – 12 April 2015, Paris. Photo credit: Robert Bolick.
Reflected in the lower left hand corner is the display of Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires; in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451; and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s La bibliotheque en feu (1974).

 At 79 he is still breaking fresh artistic ground. He pads through his studio, followed by his shaggy rescue dog Lola, to a table where he opens a large flat cardboard package. Inside is a horseshoe-shaped length of clay with a series of laser cut metal letters sticking out of it, like birthday candles on a cake. The letters read: “WEN OUT FOR CIGRETS N NEVER CAME BACK”. It’s funny, baffling and characteristic of an artist who says he aims for “a kind of ‘huh?’ ” effect with a lot of his work. It is also something new. Once cast in bronze it will become, Ruscha says proudly, his first sculpture.

Ben Hoyle, “Ed Ruscha, the pop painter with ‘the coolest gaze in American art’“, The Times, 25 February 2017.

Ben Hoyle’s easygoing interview with Ed Ruscha introduces his work as the heart of the British Museum’s exhibition “The American Dream: pop to the present” (9 March 9 to 18 June 2017).  That is a bold assertion as the show included Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg and others recognizable to anyone who was briefly awake in a college art history class — even as long ago as the 70s. But, back then, not so much “Ed Ruscha”. Hoyle’s article – with its paragraphs’ casual packing in of news, telling descriptive detail and sharp observations (whether his or others’) of Ruscha’s art – makes a persuasive case.   

Abigail Cain’s comments in Aperture on the Harry Ransom Center’s 2018 exhibition Ed Ruscha: Archaeology and Romance, which uses 150 displayed items to focus on 16 of Ruscha’s books, contextualizes Various Small Fires neatly. Quoting the Center’s photography curator Jessica S. Macdonald, Cain writes:

… lack of artistry is one of the hallmarks of Ruscha’s artist books. “The photographs of gas stations are bad photographs on purpose,” McDonald noted. “He’s trying to do the opposite of what a photographer trying to make an artistic photograph would be doing.” In a 1965 Artforum interview concerning his second book, Various Small Fires and Milk (1964), Ruscha explained that it didn’t even matter to him who took the photographs. “In fact, one of them was taken by someone else,” he said. “I went to a stock photograph place and looked for pictures of fires, there were none.” 

Abigail Cain, “Unpacking Ed Ruscha“, Aperture, 27 September 2018.

Ruscha on the future of the artist book:

I am wide awake when I see artist books. Here are people using actual ink on paper in the eventual age of total digital. For this reason I am retaining my hope and expectation of more books.

From interview with Stephanie LaCava, “Artist Books/Artist’s Novels (Vol. 5): Ed Ruscha”, The Believer, 20 February 2017.

Bookmarking Book Art – Hanne Stochholm

Danish artist Hanne Stochholm‘s “assemblages”, which garnered first prize in the 7th International Artist’s Book Triennial Vilnius 2015, have cousins far afield — geographically and chronologically.

Remake (2015) 
Hanne Stochholm
Reproduced with permission of the artist
Talks (2005) 
Hanne Stochholm
Reproduced with permission of the artist
Small Talk (2005)
Hanne Stochholm
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Geographically, this merging of book and metal finds common cause in the US (see Andrew Hayes’ works) and Israel (see the work of Neil Nenner and Avihai Mizrahi, represented — as is Hayes — by the Seager/Gray Gallery).

Offset (2013)
Andrew Hayes
Cover Story #4 (2017)
Neil Nenner and Avihai Mizrahi

Chronologically, the hold that books and metal have had on one another reaches far past the moveable type of Gutenberg’s Bible and Master Baegun‘s earlier Jikji.

Those metal “feet” embedded in the front and back covers kept the bottom edges of upright books chained in lectern libraries from wearing out.

Of course, those 11th century metal fittings probably passed unnoticed by studious readers. Not so with these studious artists in the 21st century whose imaginations have seized on the contrast of materials to recast the book object as an art object.

Bookmarking Book Art – Irma Boom on the future of the book

Fore-edge of Shelia Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor  by Nina Stritzler–levin and Arthur C. Danto
(Yale University Press, 2006)
Designed by Irma Boom

“AM: How would you sketch the future of the book?

IB: The book has a great future. In the statement in my little red book [Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book] I talk about the renaissance of the book. It is already happening now. … 

At a recent event, Massimo Vignelli claimed ‘The book is dead’. …

I was shocked when Massimo repeated that sentence, I read it everywhere. But the printed book does not need any defender. It has survived 600 years or so. The way information spreads depends on the inventions of that time; paintings have survived, photos, and the book is another form.

Anne Miltenburg, “Reputations: Irma Boom“, Eye Magazine (Summer 2014). From 

Bookmarking Book Art – Kim Anno

From www.kimanno.com. Accessed 23 September 2018

The Albertine Workout is a collaboration between artist Kim Anno and poet Anne Carson. 

Albertine is Albertine Simonet, the central love interest in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The Workout explores her character in text and image.  The illustration above touches the biographical note that, according to Proust, the Albertine character was based on Alfred Agostinelli, sometime chauffeur and typist for Proust.

The images resting in the burgundy Solander box on Anno’s website are well worth a look. (Carson’s text not seen.)

Bookmarking Book Art – Leonardo Ulian

Atlas 004 – Vertical Space Order (2015)
Leonardo Ulian
Books, microchips, copper wire
190 × 36 × 41 cm

At the base of this sculpture is The Times Concise Atlas of the World, and at its top, The Observer’s Book of Manned Space Flight (No. 48). These two elements of the piece resonate with its rocket-like thrust, metallic gantry-like frame and micro-chip nodes, as does the textbook on projective geometry. Euclidean geometry describes shapes “as they are” while projective geometry describes them “as they appear”.

It is hard to suss what Walter Starkie’s picaresque travelogue about life with the Roma (Raggle Taggle) or Cyril Connolly and Jerome Zerbe’s picture book on 18th century French “pavillons” or Yehiel Dinur’s autobiographical novel of his post-holocaust life in Israel (Ka-Tzetnik 135633, House of Love) have to do with the rest of it.

Art composed of found elements is like that, I suppose. Just enough connectedness to suggest order and intentionality, just enough disconnectedness to suggest disorder and randomness. Ulian’s other works, incorporating electronic parts soldered together in “microchip synapses” and “technological mandalas”, however, imply other tensions — between technology and the human, the digital and the spiritual.  Or in the case of his Contrived Objects (wooden tennis rackets, microchips and copper wire), between the physical and the artificially cerebral.

Ulian’s more recent work has changed from that of 2010-11 (A fragile forest and From zero to one).  Even though some of the themes, materials and techniques are the same, the more recent works (those noted above) are more focused, self-contained, polished, static and perhaps decorative. I suspect there may be another cycle and even more engaging art coming from this artist.