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.
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.
The [artists’ book] movement had its beginnings with a few individuals (conceptual artists Dieter Roth, Hansjörg Mayer, and Ed Ruscha immediately come to mind), but in the area of structural experiment and invention only one person seems to have been markedly influential (albeit seriously ignored): Hedi Kyle.
Alastair Johnston, “Visible Shivers Running Down My Spine”, Parenthesis, Fall 2013m Number 25.
While Alastair Johnston’s 2013 interview with Hedi Kyle is a rich one and welcome, it is inaccurate to say Hedi Kyle has been seriously ignored. After all, in 2005, the Guild of Book Workers awarded her an honorary membership, and Syracuse University’s Library invited her to deliver that year’s Brodsky Series lecture. In 2008, the Philadelphia Senior Artists Initiative recorded her oral history and posted her artist’s statement along with an extensive list of prior exhibitions, honors, professional roles and board memberships stretching back to 1965.
And now, in 2018, Laurence King Publishers has brought out the eagerly awaited The Art of the Fold by Kyle and daughter Ulla Warchol, which is the immediate impetus for this essay. The authors aim their book at artists and craftworkers, but there is a secondary audience: anyone interested in book art or artists’ books or origami — and learning how better to appreciate them.
On picking up the book, the first thing its primary and secondary audiences should notice is the folded “dust jacket”. Why the quotation marks? Just look:
This innovative, subject-appropriate cut, fold and print can set the reader on a hunt for precursors such as Peter and Pat Gentenaar-Torley’s Paper Takes Flight/Papier op de Vlucht, designed by Loes Schepens, where the multilayered dust jacket has small envelopes attached to hold paper samples from the contributing artists, or Doug Beube’s Breaking the Codex, designed by Linda Florio, where the dust jacket includes a perforated bookmark, whose removal implicates the reader in a bit of biblioclasm and challenges Western parochialism.
The Art of the Fold‘s clean, balanced design (Alexandre Coco) and excellent diagrams (authors) mesh well with the text. While this integrated clarity in the introductory section on Tools, Materials, Terminology, Symbols and Techniques will be appreciated most by artists and paper engineers, the secondary audience of library/gallery curators, aficionados and collectors will benefit from the description and comments in particular on materials, terminology and techniques. Knowing these points about an object of book art enhances appreciation of it and improves its handling, presentation and preservation.
Following this introduction, Kyle and Warchol provide 36 sets of detailed instructions across 5 sections:
This double-page spread introducing the accordion structure shows off the the diagrams’ clarity, a feature throughout the book. Also in this spread are two important statements in the verso page’s final paragraph:
The accordion fold as an independent component is our focus point in this book…. Let us start with a brief visual display of a variety of folding styles. Hopefully they will inspire you to grab some paper and start folding. (p .28)
The focus on structure “as an independent component” is a strength and weakness. The strength is self-evident in the thoroughness and attention to detail. The weakness? More than occasionally, the authors make asides about the meaningful interaction of structure with content and, occasionally, with other components (type, color, printing technique, etc.). Some exemplars selected by the authors would have been welcome. The artist’s and reader’s challenge is to provide their own examples of how the structural component might work with different types of content, mixed media and other components that combine to deliver the artistic object.
The second statement — the exhortation “to grab some paper and start folding” — illustrates an unalloyed strength of this book. As towering an authority and figure in the book arts and book art as Hedi Kyle is, she and her co-author go out of their way again and again to keep readers open to playing with the techniques and structures and finding their own inventiveness and creativity. For those content to collect or curate, both statements push them to look for or revisit outstanding examples and inventive variants of the structures elucidated. After this section, a browse of Stephen Perkins’ accordion publications, a site running since 2010, would be a good start.
This double-page spread introducing the section on Blizzard structures delivers that blend of the anecdotal with essential engineering-like detail that is characteristic of the authors’ style throughout. Having explained how this family of folded structures that bind themselves got its name (a fold discovered in a daylong fold-a-thon due to a blizzard’s shutting everything down), the authors dive into the proportionality so key to getting them right. Perhaps because of its non-adhesive, origami-centric nature, the blizzard book structure generates more than its fair share of kitsch exemplars. When blizzard books do come along that rise to the level of art — integrating structure, content, printing, typography, color and other components of bookmaking in an artistically meaningful way — they stand out all the more. One such work took first place in the 23 Sandy Gallery’s juried exhibition in 2015, “Hello Hedi”:
Next to The Accordion section, the One-Sheet Books section has the most models. It is also the section that most addresses that challenge mentioned above:
A book folded from a single sheet of paper, including covers, offers a unique opportunity to consider the content and cover as one comprehensive design exercise. We explore the coming together of printing, layout and folding. (P. 94)
Given this opportunity, some treatment of imposition would have been useful, especially for the Franklin Fold and the Booklet Fold Variations. For the Booklet Fold Variations, one could lightly pencil into the book’s clear diagrams the usual markings and enumerations as below.
Again, a few selected photographs of examples of One-Sheet Books that achieve the coming together of content, design, printing, layout and folding would have been welcome.
The double-page spread above with which the Albums section begins exemplifies the book’s quality of photography (by Paul Warchol, Ulla’s husband). Like the “dust jacket”, the crisply photographed Panorama Book structure (upper right) and the pages that explain it will send readers on a quest to make their own or hunt for outstanding examples such as these by Cathryn Miller and Cor Aerssens, a long-time friend and correspondent with Kyle.
A cautionary, or perhaps encouraging, note though: the fact that some structures can enfold others will frustrate readers with strict classificatory minds and exhilarate the more freewheeling. The Phelps’ Blizzard Book highlighted above includes in its sections items exemplifying the Flag Book and Fishbone structures. Aerssens’ Memories is even more so an integrated variant of the Panorama Book structure, featuring as it does panels within panels, two 8-leaf booklets bound into front and back with paper hinges, and mylar folders holding pressed flora from Aerssen’s northern Dutch environs.
The Enclosures section presents fascinating structures, not all of which are suited “to fit many of the projects in the previous chapters”. For example, the second-most fascinating form — the Telescoping Ziggurat, shown in the lower left corner of the recto page above — looks incapable of enclosing any of the other 35 structures. The authors acknowledge it is “less of a book and more of a toy — a stimulating and curious object whose inherent mathematical quality mesmerizes as it spirals inward and outward”. The most fascinating form, however, is as much a book as stimulating and curious object: the Sling Fold structure.
This structure looks suited to enclosing scrolls or narrow, collapsed accordion books of diminishing height, and its mechanics invite playful integration with content and variations of color, typography or calligraphy, printing method and materials.
It would not do to conclude a review of this book without touching on the Flag Book structure, for which Kyle is so well-known. It is found in The Accordion section. The outstanding works implementing this structure are legion. Here it is below in all its glory, which is exceeded only by the Two-Sided Flag book in the pages following it.
The Art of the Fold should become an instant classic. If readers are tempted to “grangerize” their copies with photos and clippings of favorite examples and variants, they would do well instead to create one of the authors’ album structures in which to keep them. There could be many editions of this classic to come.
The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century is a testament on where this art made of letters has been and where it goes. We have put a sharp focus on the word ‘new’ in our title, exploring how image manipulation, cut and paste, digital text and the internet have all influenced work in this area. One of the most exciting strands can be seen in the work of James Hoff and Eric Zboya who use algorithms and viruses to form work in which text is in the back – rather than foreground; the ghost of the machine of visual poetics. This isn’t a book that could have been made through simply surfing the web. We asked all 106 contributors to suggest names of poets or artists that we should consider for the book. Visual poets spiralled into more visual poets. We have looked at well over 500 possible candidates. Enjoy the knowledge with us.
The National Library of the Netherlands advises, “for [Shirley Sharoff’s La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)] to be read, the book first must be rolled out”. And that is what I did, using the large table in the Special Collection’s seminar room.
Enjoyable as that was, enjoying it again with the video afterward, something seemed awry. As the Chinese poem by Lu Xun, its French and English translations and text from Sharoff’s language students unrolled, interpersed with her prints, the text seemed to have gaps, or so I thought. So I returned a second time. Perhaps if I re-shot the video. Perhaps if I took more stills and close-ups. Perhaps if I shot the rolling up as well as the unrolling.
No doubt, the second effort added to the pleasure. Looking at the videos and stills, I can again feel between my fingers the Arches paper and engravings’ impressions on it. But still I detected gaps, seeming mismatches between the French and English. I wondered to what degree they
followed the Chinese text or whether some of Lu’s text had been omitted. So, I returned a third time, and then came my “ah hah” moment. Unrolled, La grande muraille looks like a double-sided leporello or accordion book like this one: In Mexico by Helen Douglas.
To read La grande muraille as the double-sided leporello it appears to be, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros (her typography and print collaborator) in putting together this forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). 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.
Reading the text
Now that the so-called gaps in the English and French texts were resolved, I wanted to understand how the English and French matched up to the Chinese text. For that, I asked help from two acquaintances in The Hague: Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song. They obtained a copy of Lu Xun’s text, traced it through the photos I had taken and found that the three languages run almost in parallel as the work unfolds.
“Almost” because the order of the languages is not alway the same. On pages one and two, we see the French and English titles but must wait until page five before the Chinese title appears. Then, on page six the order changes: English first, then French, then the corresponding ten Chinese characters. On pages seven and eight, this order is maintained. Later, with the turning of page fifteen, the French comes before the English and Chinese; the first Chinese character aligning to the French and English (其) appears on page seventeen. Then, as page seventeen is turned to the right, the order changes back to French then English on page eighteen, but on page nineteen, it moves to French first then Chinese. The book’s textual conclusion on pages fifty-six through fifty-nine runs Chinese, English, then French.
The juxtaposition and weaving of the three languages often seems painterly as if intended to evoke the layering of the bricks and the intertwining vines and foliage along stretches of The Great Wall. Here is the uninterrupted Chinese text:
Even though following the forme en escargot results in having reading both sides of the scroll in the end, Sharoff also uses it to play with the notion of intended sequence. Completely unrolled and standing on its edge, the work echoes the Great Wall. The tint of red along the top edge recalls the blood spilled in the Great Wall’s construction. The prints echo the Great Wall’s bricks, the vegetation in its crumbling gaps, even the gates. The completely unrolled work is an intended sequence, also — an invitation to walk the wall. Coming upon each of the eight copperplate engravings in the unfolding sequence is a different experience than walking up and down the “outer wall” and then the “inner wall” to see them. Five are on the outer wall, three on the inner.
Reading the form “in time”
As the force of the snail-shell binding resists the unscrolling and pulls the standing pages inward, the work has another echo: the eroding maze in the Ancient Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) outside Beijing. The faint markings on the paper, created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of a manuscript, amplify the echo.
Although Lu’s text does not mention the maze, Sharoff introduces contemporary text that, alongside the interweaving Chinese, English and French of Lu’s text, evokes a maze-like, time-travelling effect. The autobiographical texts from the English-language students she taught at the Central Institute of Finance and Banking (1987-88) reflect on their childhood and adolescence in the Maoist era and their recollection of representations of foreigners in books and television. These “new bricks” in their modernness and fracturedness interrupt the flow of Lu’s prose praising and cursing the Great Wall. Yet, in their segmentation and placement, they also physically echo the prints and reinforce Lu’s expression of the paradox in the construction, fragmentation, reconstruction and erosion of the real Wall.
Sharoff’s La grande muraille is a treasure that rewards repeated visits and contemplation: not only for itself but also as a parallel or forerunner.
La grande muraille’s physical impetus (The Great Wall), the seemingly decipherable/indecipherable characters on the Arches paper, the wry paradox of Lu Xun’s observations, the socio-political-cultural implications of the “new bricks”, the work’s innovative form and the pulling of past and present together parallels the work of Xu Bing and his play with language across East and West. His Book from the Sky first appeared in 1988.
Sharoff’s use of Lu’s contemplation on The Great Wall also foreshadows Jorge Méndez Blake‘s Capítulo XXXVIII: Un mensaje del emperador / A Message from the Emperor (2017?). The title refers to an anecdote in the story “The Great Wall of China” by Franz Kafka, a contemporary of Lu Xun. The narrator tells the reader how the emperor has dispatched from his deathbed a message to the reader, entrusted to a herald who, struggling as he might, cannot escape from the confines of the palace to deliver the message — yet which we the reader await hopelessly and with hope.
What more should we expect from art?
*For help and permissions, thanks to Paul van Capelleveen and the staff at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, and Shirley Sharoff, Paris. For help with the Chinese and calligraphy, thanks to Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song.
It took a long look at the development of Ioana Stoian’s work to show me the relationship of trompe l’oeil to book art — and to appreciate how an artist can invent herself.
Stoian’s apprenticeship as an artist began with the decorative arts in 2004 in Lower Normandy, France, and has taken her to New York (MoMA), Cologne, Vienna, Salzburg, Minneapolis, Ostende (Belgium), Kadoide (Japan), Amsterdam (the Stedlijk) and, as of 2015, back to Minneapolis, where she is a Jerome Foundation fellow at the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts.
Stoian’s time as an assistant artist with the Scottish painter Lucy McKenzie, starting in 2008, honed her skills in deceiving the eye with faux woodgrain and faux marbling. For example, see McKenzie’s 2008 installation at MoMA, 2009 installation at the Ludwig (Cologne), 2011 installation at the Galerie Buchholz and 2013 installation at the Stedelijk. One may wonder whether Daniel Buchholz’s roots in antiquarian books or the Stedelijk’s in artists’ books prepared the ground for Stoian’s artistic direction toward book art and paper art, but book art and trompe l’oeil joined spectacularly in 2014 when Stoian had the chance to work with Tauba Auerbach in 2014 on the completion of Auerbach’s Wood and Bent Onyx. Stoian handpainted the fore, top and bottom edges of the book blocks in watercolor pencil and paints to match the color and grain of the prints of wood and marble digitally offset on pages of Mohawk superfine paper. As a technique, fore edge painting dates to the 16th century, and the “vanishing” variety, where the painting appears only when the pages are pressed and fanned out, dates to the 17th century. Over time, a standard type of press developed to hold the “canvas” of page edges evenly fanned to accept the painting.
Despite this established history of fore-edge painting, Stoian had to fall back on a mastery and technique that come from her apprenticeship work, inventiveness and meticulousness. These books were very heavy and the pages were very thick …. There was absolutely no way to fan the pages. I went through the book, page by page, and made marks of where the wood/ marble veins were located.
Then I clamped the book so that water wouldn’t seep in and using my ‘map’, I recreated the wood/ marble. As you can imagine, it was challenging to match the inside spreads. I had to constantly unclamp, verify that I was matching the spreads, re-clamp, paint, wait…
I used both watercolour pencils and paints. Needless to say, it’s very hard to erase watercolour without using lots of water and saturating the page. I had to be careful with every single brush stroke I made.
There is something Zen-like about trompe l’oeil in the attentiveness to detail, to material, to execution. But there is more. To mangle a Zen saying: Trompe l’oeil is more than a pointing at the moon; those who gaze only at the pointing will never see beyond — never see the beauty of the moon, never see the beauty of the pointing. With the best of trompe l’oeil, that moment in which the eye is fooled recurs again and again for the attentive viewer. In its recurrence, the work of art alternates between the self-referential (the mind drawn to the pointing) and the mimetic (the mind drawn to the pointed at).
So it is not surprising that Stoian has “always been interested in Japanese art and culture”. As early as 2008, origami appears in her commercial decorative work. She is the author of two books: Origami for All with her partner Eric Gjerde (2013) and The Origami Garden (2016). In reviewing both books for The Fold , Jane Rosemarin commented:
… as I paged through her first book, “Origami for All,” I eventually began to understand that Stoian is an artist who has chosen origami as her medium. Her work is not hard to fold, but it has a consistency of style and a real beauty.
Recognized not only for their origami, Stoian and Gjerde were invited in 2013 to exhibit their paper art at the prestigious Salon des Artisans et Métiers d’Art, held at La Propriété Caillebotte in the village of Yerres outside Paris. While Gjerde’s folds explicitly explore the mathematical (for example, Voronoi tessellations and hyperbolic paraboloids), Stoian’s explore shapes more suggestive of the oriental: cranes and flowers as in Strelizia (2010).
Where Gjerde’s interest in his material has led him to bio-art (paper grown from bacterial cellulose), Stoian’s has hewed to traditional papermaking, which figures consistently in her work: for example, Hidden Within (2010). In 2012, that interest in traditional
western papermaking had turned eastward:
After discovering western papermaking, I became fascinated with thin, strong sheets, which obviously led me to washi – the Japanese paper made from mulberry. I naturally had the desire to go to Japan and see how this paper was made.
It so happens that a friend of mine, Tomoko Fuse (a very talented and well-known female origami artist and perhaps the most published origami author in the world), was at a paper folding event in France. I casually mentioned that I wanted to go to Japan to learn papermaking. Next thing I know, she had very kindly organised for me to spend a month with Yasuo Kobayashi, master paper maker and owner of Kadoide Washi – an offer I could not refuse.
I spent a magical month in the mountains, during the Kozo harvest (December) and had an amazing time learning from a great master.
Yasuo Kobayashi is a fifth-generation papermaker but also a writer and philosopher, whose unique views on papermaking warranted his inclusion in the American Folklore Society’s sponsored report on apprenticeship and papermaking. Yasuo Kobayashi told the report’s author, Aimee Lee: “I wanted the kozo to tell me what kind of paper it wants to become, not to force it to be what I want. This is not typical for papermakers. I want kozo to be my teacher.” When asked to elaborate,
… Kobayashi compared bunka (culture) and bunmei (civilization). “Bunka is what you think from your heart.” In contrast, bunmei’s goal is to develop constantly, exemplified by the western desire for progress: people do not want today and tomorrow to be the same—they want things to be less difficult and more convenient. This mindset cannot translate to making real paper. His grandfather’s and father’s lives were not very different. His father’s and his lives were a little different. But his son’s and his lives are so different that it is hard to relate across that rift. He sees two roots for the future of paper: growers and makers. Real kozo goes with the heart but is inconvenient and does not follow progress. Kigami [paper] comes from the root “to be born,” and this word also relates to breathing. When born, paper is like a child: weak, but growing stronger over time until it dies. He knows that his point of view is rare, but also said people must balance bunka and bunmei, rather than to go absolutely one way or another. Today, the balance is too heavy on the professional side, so he tries to balance this by leaning towards the growing side.
Stoian’s jump at the chance to learn from him is consonant with her “journeyman’s” approach to her artistic development. Note that the visit to Kadoide Washi precedes the work on Wood and Bent Onyx for Tauba Auerbach in 2014. The methodical diligence required in making washi and the resulting appreciation of the properties of paper re-present themselves in Stoian’s mapping of the grain and perceiving what the works and the paper “wanted”. The impressive fore-edge work with Wood and Bent Onyx now seems inevitable, rising from a combination of technique and deep appreciation of color, material, form and structure in the service of illusion. In her own work, Stoian strives toward bunka, which is evident in works like Strelizia and Hidden Within, where the form and color her handmade paper takes combine to convey feeling — or “heart” as Kobayashi might put it. Her aim has become even clearer during the Jerome Foundation stage of her “journeyman’s” journey.
Stoian received the Jerome Foundation Mentorship grant for 2014/15 at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts to create an artist book — an extraordinary artist book. The mentorship program offers emerging artists the resources to create a book, fusing together newly acquired skills with aspects of their own artistic practice. The grant provided one year of 24-hour access to the Center’s facilities, a mentor, and a series of introductory workshops on paper making, letterpress printing, and book binding.
Responding to her new wintry environment, Stoian embarked on l’hiver (2014), a new work consisting of 80+ individually hand-made and dyed pieces of paper. L’hiver is reminiscent of Hidden Within (2010) in its pursuit of a harmony of color, structure, and form. The former is perhaps more open than the latter and lets each part’s snowflake-like uniqueness assert itself.
The congruence and continuity of those two works do nothing to prepare the viewer for Nous Sommes (2015), the artist’s book that follows them. While Nous Sommes continues Stoian’s aim of harmony among color, structure and form, while its intensity of colors harks back to the stencil work for Lucy McKenzie’s Stedelijk exhibition in 2013, the structure and form Stoian chose marks a bold departure.
The cover and binding of Nous Sommes has the feel of a Solander box. The book opens in a particular order of lifting the triangular flaps, one of which displays the “Table of Contents” and another the colophon.
Nous Sommes has nine “chapters” or differently sized, shaped and colored slipcases whose material matches that of the cover and binding. The chapters fit precisely together (tangram-like), but the order of their reading lies with the reader’s choice of color, shape or size. The video provided by Stoian and Gjerde offers one of many readings of the work.
Within each chapter is a precisely fitted paper structure to be “read” by unfolding, positioning, displaying, contemplating and, in conclusion, returning it to its chapter/slipcase.
Commenting on Strelizia, shown earlier, Stoian writes,
I am interested in intuitive color experiments; this work represents the flow from mood to colour, with the final form of the paper manifesting itself from these captured emotions.
In Kandinsky’s footsteps, perhaps, this artist finds and aims to offer the spiritual in art. The title Nous Sommes suggests so. Whether the expression “we are” applies to the art object (self-referentially) or to its audience (individually or collectively), form, structure and colors assert community, inclusion and a fitting together.
We can look forward to Stoian’s next chapter as she has received a follow-on appointment from the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts: the 2017/18 Jerome Foundation Fellowship.
The Gaudier-Brzeska exhibition, the finale before Kettle’s Yard would close for years, had drawn me to Cambridge. I spent hours there. Exhausted, I was walking back to the train past the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had read somewhere that Xu Bing would have a small solo exhibition at the Fitzwilliam.
I own a copy of Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point – a pictographic account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker – and I had seen Book from the Sky at the Odd Volumes exhibition of Yale’s Allan Chasanoff Collection. So I took a chance.
After first not recognizing my mispronunciation of Xu Bing and then hunting through some brochures, the attendants at the information desk directed me downstairs to a room of Chinese porcelain just outside the museum shop. Among the glass cases of blue and white: Bird Language (2003), four brass and copper birdcages, containing toy birds that sing at the clap of your hands. The mesh of two of the cages are composed of words in the Latin alphabet, the other two in Xu Bing’s faux Chinese calligraphy. According to his site, “The words are questions that people have asked Xu Bing about art, and his answers.”
They remind me of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Bird Swallowing a Fish, just a question of timing and the juxtaposition of two artists fascinated with a union of the animistic and mechanistic? Maybe it is these few other degrees of separation: Gaudier-Brzeska’s catalyzing effect on Ezra Pound in 1913, Pound’s creative misunderstanding of Chinese calligraphy, Pound’s disputably indisputable influence on the author of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), whose birds are “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling … set upon a golden bough to sing ….”, and now Xu Bing’s toy birds that require the body not the “Soul [to] clap its hands” and let the birds do the singing.
Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky must have been even more impressive in its Metropolitan Museum display (2013/14) than its partial form at the Yale Gallery (2015) as shown above, but that’s part of the pleasure of conceptual art. Whether billowing overhead on scrolls suspended from the ceiling and walls or juxtaposed in their bound book form with their wooden case, these hand-bound deliberately indecipherable, meaningless Chinese calligraphic forms printed from hand-carved wood blocks sing in the mind and soul. But what is that song? We have the impression of meaning, an impression conveyed by graphic gesture and the traditional containers of meaning. But there is a slippage between the impression of meaning and grasp of meaning. Perhaps that is Xu Bing’s song.
The Khan Academy’s socio-political take on Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky — comparing it to Ai WeiWei’s performance art of smashing a Han dynasty vase — may usefully decipher the song for some. I think it misses a more profound point that Charlie Bennett approaches in his Aestheticareview of Xu Bing’s installation version of Book from the Ground (just closed on 28 February 2016 at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester, UK). The interactive mixed-media installation recreated Xu Bing’s art studio, including double-page spreads of the book pinned up on a wall, over-sized blow-ups of the pictographs from the book and two computers for visitors’ use.
Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to [New] English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.
With its English and Chinese birdcages, Bird Language, too, echoes Introduction to New English Calligraphy. But in the viewer’s interaction with the latter, the meaning that emerges is not what the viewer “intends” by copying out pretty lines. The experience of “communicated meaning” or “almost communicated meaning” seems accidental or magical. Likewise in Bird Language, we know that the sensor activates the toy bird and suspect a connection between the “magically activated” songs and the word-mesh cages. We suspect meaning. We know the artist’s hand formed metal letters to form metal words in two different languages. We suspect that each cage forms a narrative. We suspect there are differences in the narratives from the difference in round and square cage, English and Chinese cage. For some, that experience of suspicion might be frustrating; for others, delighting.
On further reflection, I think Xu Bing’s art challenges that modernist “union” of the animistic and mechanistic. With the sound-activation of digital birdsong and software-translation of words into pictographs, Bird Language and Book from the Ground (the installation) offer the slippery intersection of the animistic, the mechanistic and the digital. Intersection is not always union, if by “union” we mean equivalence, meaning and clarity. “Made in China” birds are not swallowing or regurgitating brass symbols. Animistic and mechanistic input to digital translation or replication do not always yield union — equivalence, meaning or clarity. But in Xu Bing’s hands and mind — in their intersection with our hands and minds — they yield a suspicion of union. They yield art.