Through abstraction and symbol, Louisa Boyd‘s art focuses on sense of place and our intrinsic connection to nature. The titles of three of her artist’s book series – Infinity, Landscape, and Mapping – and those of the book art in them – Aether (2013), A Walk (2001), and Cartography I (2014) – reflect that focus. How she manages abstract imagery and symbol across her range of material and techniques – paper (including hand-marbled paper), book structure, printmaking (block, screen, letterpress), watercolor, metalwork, leatherwork – adds to that unifying focus through a rightness of choice but also introduces a breadth of originality and variety.
In Aether, the crayon work, cutting and metalwork are applied with a three-dimensional sense wedded to an obvious understanding of the possibilities of the page and double-page spread. The stop-motion animation video tour of Aether (click on the image below) makes you wonder if Boyd conceived the work as a flipbook in the first place. There is no wondering, however, about the place of human existence in relation to the aether. In the video, look at the lower righthand fore-edge of the book.
A Walk illustrates Boyd’s skill with freestanding three-dimensional sculpture, a skill that has grown in The Flight Series (more later on two of its works from 2009) and The Paper Manipulation Series, from which the work Flare above comes.
Her use of abstract markings and the Turkish map folding technique in Cartography I demonstrates again her careful marriage of abstraction, symbol and technique.
The etching printed on each of the three internal folded pages is an abstract that nevertheless evokes mapping, which the form and fold of the pages reinforces. Each Turkish fold page can lay flat to be viewed individually, or as pictured above and below, the book may be viewed as a sculpture.
The video tours (links embedded the images of Aether and A Walk above) represent Boyd’s search for what she calls “a bridge between traditional and contemporary media”. So far, that exploration reflects the artist’s rootedness in the book arts and traditional skills and processes of drawing, printing and painting. It is intriguing to think what effect a bit of influence from Helen Douglas or Amaranth Borsuk might have on Boyd’s bridge. The use of stop-action video for Aether hints at an instinct for what Douglas calls “visual narrative”.
A professed recurrent theme in Boyd’s book art is “restriction and freedom”. Although it arises from periods of city dwelling and lack of access to the countryside, imposed by the UK’s 2001 “foot and mouth” epidemic, it manifests itself in the more “traditional” spur of constraint of form and structure that goads an artist’s imagination. Flock (2009) and A Walk bear close resemblance, but note the difference in invention whereby the former plays with the book form by placing the bird imagery at the edges, spirals the paper tearing upwards and gradates the watercolor from dark to light (like a flock dispersing) and the latter deals with the “restricted” walk by blending the watercolor with tearing and tunneling.
Take Flight (2009) frees its bird imagery even more fully from the structure of the book and occupies space as a fully three-dimensional work.
Although Multifaceted returns to the theme of different views that was the intent in A Walk, it tilts the theme more toward the abstract side of Boyd’s work. In this, Multifaceted is more akin to the works in The Paper Manipulation Series: Flare (2013), Whorl (2013), and Pleat (2013). It almost purely plays with the concept of differing perspectives. Again, techniques and form express concept with a simple rightness. This double-sided leporello is designed to be viewed from four different angles. The display of photos here cannot offer the intended perspective (pun intended): the viewer needs to circle the piece to view its facets. That word “facet” is tooled on the interior pages four times, the clue as to how the book should be read.
The abstract imagery evoking landscape or skyscape – whether juxtaposed vertically or horizontally – plays with viewpoint. Even the print technique on the interior pages plays with viewpoint: they are prints of an etching inked up both in relief and intaglio. Breaking free of the ultimate restriction of the book, the pages are not attached to the cover, allowing the piece to be read in four different directions. These features of the work and the seeming absence of that human figure from Aether throw it back on the viewer’s necessary engagement to establish fully the human connection: by engaging with Multifaceted – “reading” it – the viewer enacts the human place in the aether around the work.
Since graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2001 and winning the Paperchase Future of Design Award (2001) and receiving a high commendation from the judges of the New Designer of the Year (2001), Boyd has exhibited in 46 venues. Her 47th is the most significant so far: inclusion in the John Ruskin Prize Shortlist Exhibition at Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, UK (21 June – 8 October, 2017). If this book artist manages to continue her sure-handed forging of concept, material and method, the Ruskin Prize Shortlist Exhibition will not be her last significant exhibition.
‘The 2017 exhibition has a theme of the “Artist as Polymath” and the jury have selected a shortlist of artists and makers whose works cross boundaries, take a multidisciplinary approach and bring together varying techniques and materials. As an artist who has been making artist’s books since my final year at university in 2000, I have found that such an approach to work has been essential to bring together concept and visual aesthetics.’
Since 1981, Scott McCarney has diligently extended the lineage through a series of alphabets designed in book form, where the letterforms depend upon the materiality of the book. The limits and possibilities of the book — its material, form and processes by which both can be handled — have inspired McCarney’s Alphabook series. According to the artist, all the Alphabooks (with the exception of numbers 3, 10 and 13) “are one-of-a-kind, and have not been shown much (if at all), so I’m not aware of them being illustrated anywhere“. Fortunately, Alphabook 1 (1981) appears in The Penland Book of Handmade Books: Master Classes in Bookmaking Techniques (2004), p.134, and Alphabook 9 (1985), which McCarney produced as a one-of-a-kind book of photograms in a residency at Light Work in 1985, appears in the Light Work Collection. McCarney describes his inspired manipulation of material, form and process in creating Alphabook 9:
I folded pop-up letterforms with unexposed photo paper in the darkroom and exposed it to directional light then developed, fixed, dried and flattened the prints. I made a book for Light Work for their collection that spelled out “LIGHTWORK” in the photogram alphabet, which can be seen in their database here: Light Work Collection / Artwork / Photogram Letter book .
Correspondence with Books On Books, 7 February 2020.
And WorldCat shows that Alphabook 13 (1991) can be found in at least three institutions. It was produced in an edition of 25 and consists of one volume (110 x 100 mm) in which the letter A gradually morphs into the letter Z.
With three of the series works now in the Books On Books Collection, the lack of illustration can be somewhat remedied.
Alphabook 3 (1986)
Alphabook 3 (1986) Scott McCarney Two volumes, each of 26 unnumbered die-cut pages and wrapped in translucent belly band. Edition of 300, signed but not numbered. Each volume, closed: H151 x W104 mm; open: H151 x W2195. Acquired from the artist, 14 August 2017. Photos: Books On Books.
Photos: Books On Books.
Unlike most others in the series, Alphabook 3 is a multiple of 300 copies.
Alphabook 10 (2015)
Alphabook 10 (2015) Scott McCarney Laser cut duplex papers hand bound with long stitch through slotted cover; housed in archival phase box. 56 unnumbered pages. 130 x 310 mm; in box 140 x 310 x 30 mm. Edition of 14, of which this is #11. Acquired from the artist, 23 January 2020. Photos: Courtesy of the artist
The codex form receives McCarney’s playfulness in Alphabook 10. The artist writes:
… The fore edge of each page is cut into geometric forms from black, white and cream toned duplex stock (two sheets of different colored paper laminated together). … Produced during a residency at The Institute for Electronic Arts, a high technology research studio facility within the School of Art and Design, NYSCC, Alfred University, New York, committed to developing cultural interactions spurred by technological experimentation and artistic investigations.
The handling of the cover and first page draw attention to the role that empty space, light and stock color will play throughout the book.
Photos: Books On Books.
The binding warrants a closer look as well. Outside and inside, the red thread, its pattern and function stand out.
Photos: Books On Books.
And notice how the thread calls out the textured surface of the paper.
Alphabook 13 (1991)
Alphabook 13 (1991) Scott McCarney Flipbook, created with a Macintosh IIcx running Aldus® FreeHand™️ software. H100 x W92 mm. 32 pages. Acquired from the artist, 15 February 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Photo: Books On Books Collection.
In correspondence with Books On Books, McCarney explains that the Alphabooks’ mismatch of numbering and chronology stems from discrepancies between dates of conception and opportunities to execute. This little flipbook was conceived and executed as a photocopy edition of 25 in 1991; of more importance here though is the coming together of computer-based typesetting, book structure and pun. As we know, the shortest distance between A and Z is not B to Y, but the points in A reconfigured into Z across 24 flipping pages. It is interesting to compare this transformation with Claude Closky’s calligraphic version De A à Z (1991).
Various Small Books (2019/20)
Various Small Books (2019/20) Scott McCarney Photo: Books On Books.
Various Small Books (2019) Scott McCarney Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
The 2019 edition was conceived for a fundraising exhibition at Artspace in Richmond, VA. Both the 2019 and 2019/20 editions consist of 35mm slides documenting various of McCarney’s bookworks. Consisting of different slides, the two editions of Various Small Books are unique, and since the slides are bound together and cannot be projected, the images of the books appear small indeed.
Various Small Books (2019/20) Scott McCarney Photo: Books On Books
Courtesy of the artist, the inclusion in Various Small Books (2019/20) of slides documenting Alphabook 4, Alphabook 6 and Alphabook 10 makes the 2019/20 edition particularly apropos for the Books On Books Collection.
“Scott McCarney, Special Edition”, Contact Sheet, No. 164 (Syracuse, NY: Light Work, 2011). Exhibition catalog, which kicked off the conference “Photographers + Publishing”, 3-5 November 2011, Light Work and Syracuse University.
Home Sweet Home (1985)
Home Sweet Home (1985) [Not in collection] Scott McCarney Paper in accordion binding with decorative and marbled paper-covered boards and paper-covered slip case. 11 5/8” x 9 1/2” x 1 3/4”
Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1995)
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street, 1853. Indulgence Press, 1995. Type composed in 12 point Bulmer on the Monotype System and printed by Wilber Schilling on Arches MBM mould made paper at Janus Press. Calligraphy by Suzanne Moore. Ochre-coloured endpapers handmade by MacGregor & Vinzani. Wilber Schilling created the frontispiece photo as a Kallitype print from a negative generated in Adobe Photoshop. The binding, also by Schilling, is cloth over sewn boards and, over the cloth, an embossed print of details from the frontispiece photo. Edition of 100 of which this is #71. H320 x W158 x D14 mm. Acquired from Indulgence Press, 17 December 2015.
Neo Emblemata Nova (2005) Daniel E. Kelm Box: H96 x W109 x D102 mm closed. Booklet cover: H72 x W79 mm closed, H72 x W224 mm open. Booklet: H72 x W78 mm. Möbius strip: each tile is H70 x W70 mm; the strip extended is 1000 mm. Edition of twenty-one, of which this is #18. Acquired from the artist, 20 October 2018.
Opening the work.
Booklet about the work and its creation.
Inside the top of the box.
Closing and returning the Möbius strip to its box requires considerably more dexterity than reading; so much so that the booklet included provides instructions.
The Anatomy Lesson (2004)
The Anatomy Lesson (2004) Joyce Cutler-Shaw Middletown, CT: Robin Price, Publisher, 2004) Limited edition of 50, of which this signed copy is the binder’s copy (Daniel E. Kelm). Acquired from the binder, 20 October 2018.
Twelve signatures of handmade cotton text paper, the central ten signatures each made up of one sheet H356 x W514 mm and one sheet H356 x W500 mm glued to the 14 mm margin of the first sheet, for a total of ninety-six pages, each measuring H356 x W253 mm. Binding of leather covered boards (a hologram embedded in front cover) with an open spine, taped and sewn into a reinforcing concertina structure: H361 X W259 mm. Contained in engraved steel box: H370 x W326 x D44 mm.
Detail of sewing and internal view of reinforcing accordion structure. For a description of this type of structure, see Hedi Kyle’s The Art of the Fold(London: Laurence King, 2018), pp. 82-85.
View of the doublure, which is part of the reinforcing concertina structure.
Cover page of second signature.
Second signature open to double-page spread.
Second signature open to four-page spread.
“Bieler Press”, in Book Art Object, ed. David Jury (Berkeley, CA: Codex Foundation, 2008), pp. 116-17.
Theme and Permutation (2012) Marlene MacCallum Hand sewn pamphlet, images custom-printed in offset lithography on Mohawk Superfine, text printed in inkjet, covers inkjet printed on translucent Glama. H235 × W216 mm Edition of 100, of which this is #54. Acquired 5 October 2018.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Theme and Permutation is one of a series of artist’s books inspired by the experience of living in Corner Brook’s Townsite area on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland. Between 1924-34 the pulp mill built 150 homes to house the mill management and skilled labourers. Over a period of 10 years, I have photographed in several homes, all the same type-4 model as the one I live in. These homes vary in condition from close to original in design and décor to highly renovated. This project gave me the rare opportunity to record the evolution of interior aspects of these homes. It has been the context to explore the paradoxical phenomena of conformity and individualization that occurs in a company town. Having grown up in a suburban housing development, my earliest memories of home is that of living in a space that is reminiscent of my neighbors’. Each artist’s book explores a distinct facet of image memory, multiplicity, sequence and offers the viewer a visual equivalence of the uncanny. Theme and Permutation is a response to the permutations and variations of the type-4 Townsite House. Digital tools were used to translate the original film source of eight different window images from five houses. The sixteen offset lithographic plates were custom printed in twenty-nine separate press runs. Each image is the result of a different combination of plates. The structure is a sewn pamphlet with translucent covers. The viewer enters the body of the book with a tritone image of a single Townsite window. As one moves into the piece, new window images appear and layer over each other. The images become darker and more heavily layered towards the mid-point. The center spread has an inkjet layer of two text blocks printed over the offset litho images. The text speaks of the history of the homes, the architectural permutations and economic shifts within the Townsite area. The ensuing pages continue to provide new combinations of window layers, gradually lightening in tonality and allowing the individual windows to become more distinct. A third text block provides a personal narrative. The piece concludes with a tritone image of one of the Townsite windows in original condition.
Chicago Octet (2014) Marlene MacCallum Hand bound artist’s book with folded paper structure, letterpress and inkjet printing, H166 × W78 mm closed, H443 x W293 mm open Unique. Acquired 5 October 2018.
Photos: Books On Books Collection
Chicago Octet is a work of visual poetry by eight masters of book art. If they were performing music (and you can almost hear the music of Michigan Avenue), MacCallum would be their performing conductor.
The piece I created, Chicago Octet, had several collaborative components. The letterpress printing consisted of a word selected by each participant printed on one of Scott [McCarney]’s folded structures. The images were a digital layering of every cityscape photograph that I made and then inkjet printed on top of the letterpress. The final folded structure was designed by Mary Clare Butler. The case was designed and built by Scott McCarney, the front cover embossment was by David Morrish and Clifton Meador.
Otis Artist Book Collection. “Conrad Gleber ‘Chicago Sky Line’”, 27 January 2014. Gleber’s work is an interesting one to compare with Chicago Octet. Chicago Sky Line (1977) is a fan book of photographs secured at a single point by the binding and, when spread clockwise, reveals the sky above Chicago and, when spread counterclockwise, shows the Chicago “skyline” below clouds and sky.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nicholas Dames’s readable New Yorker piece presents telling episodes in the history of authors’ use of the chapter in non-fictional and fictional works — from Cato the Elder, Pliny, the Venerable Bede, Caxton, Fielding, Gissing and others.
Latin capitulum, Spanish capítulo, French chapitre, Czech kapitola, German Kapitel, Romanian capitol, Italian capitolo, English chapter: is it anything different in the digital age? The page can “disappear”, scrolling down a window, replaced by a percentage of book completed. What about the chapter?
The following paragraph from Dames is telling when juxtaposed with the final chapters of Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018), which brings to bear on the history of the book and its elements the perspective of an artist; reviewed here.
Like the momentary lifting of a pianist’s fingers while a chord still resonates, the classic novelistic chapter evokes time by dwelling in a pause rather than a strong ending. We feel time in the novel by marking it out into bits, but only bits that have no strong shape, that fade or blur into one another in the recollection. The greatest practitioners of the chapter have preferred to cast their divisions as fleeting caesuras with lingering aftereffects, scarcely memorable in their specifics but tenacious in the feeling they evoke. (italics added) Situations yielding silently to new configurations, feelings fading imperceptibly or stealing upon us, shifts in the atmosphere around us: time in the novel is made up of these chromatic transitions, and the usual name for them in the history of the form is the chapter.