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.
Julia Chatfield, a young Englishwoman, brought the scrapbook in question to Ohio in 1845. Over 170 years later, Cincinnati bookbinder and conservationist Gabrielle Fox restored the centerpiece with fine wheat starch paste and reassembled the binding with goatskin leather. It is housed in the archives of the Ursulines of Brown County, founded by Chatfield. If the craft and artistry exhibited in the original is more than outstanding, it is then a reminder that the book art of the 20th and 21st century has its hidden traditions.
Ed’s books are a delight: witty and/or thoughtful ideas cleverly presented in unusual structures. Ed is a great believer in designing the form to suit the content, so no two books are alike. Some basic forms re-occur, but there are tweaks to the basic structures that individualize them for each version.
Miller’s review in Byopia Press is also a delight, providing multiple links and routes to information about Ed Hutchins as well as to other reviews of his work. Below are images of the catalog for Stand & Deliver, curated by Hutchins in 2003.
Engineered by Kyle Olmon and designed by John DiLorenzo, the catalog demonstrates great inventiveness in the pop-up structure and mechanism that nudges the two booklets from the left and right sleeves as the catalog is opened. Note also the use of colors to demarcate its sections that follow the themes Hutchins used to organize this exhibition: Intriguing Shapes, Revealing Folds, Uplifting Pages. And note the distinctive and subtle shifting placement of colors in the right-hand booklet: at the top on the orange page, a white bar that shifts to the right on the green page as an orange bar marks the end of the previous section on the facing verso page. For an exhibition that traveled to five different locations, a more appropriately and intricately mobile catalog could hardly have been devised.
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.
From Sexy Codicology (well, they must have thought the name would increase traffic). Accessed May 1, 2017 11:17 PM.
Scholars and programmers from all over the world are working together on providing a technology that give researchers, and heritage enthusiasts, a rich and uniform experience when viewing digitized heritage. Most of all, they want to make it possible that as many digital collections as possible all work in the same way, so that any image from any museum or library can be seen in any viewer online, together with any other manuscript or artwork that is IIIF compliant! Side-by-side!
The International Image Interoperability Framework (“triple I eff“) began its efforts in 2011. As of September 2018, over 100 universities, libraries, cultural heritage institutions and open source software companies are participating.
Some of those organizations hold book art collections. Imagine being able to examine an artist’s book “in the round”, to zoom in, to compare one artist’s flag book with another’s side by side. A query about whether any of those organizations plan to apply the technology to those collections has been sent.
Stimulating offers of paper art and book art abound in The Hague in June and July 2018.
Museum Rijswijk celebrates its twelfth Paper Biennial (12 June – 7 October). The Pulchri Studio hosts a major exhibition (1-22 July) for the founders of the Paper Biennial — Peter and Pat Gentenaar-Torley. In advance of the latter exhibition, I visited the Biennial and then the Gentenaar-Torleys in their studio as they were preparing for the show and, as it turned out, rushing to fill last-minute orders from the Middle East.
The Twelfth Paper Biennial
As you enter the Museum Rijswijk, the large paper chess set in the courtyard elicits a smile and, with the overcast, a cocked eyebrow — a good combination for this exhibition and museum. The building neatly combines contemporary and 18th century Dutch interior features that deceive the visitor into thinking it small then being surprised by the number of rooms. Cheerful (or somber) deception combined with delightful (or startled) surprise are a common thread in book art and paper art. So is looking back and forward. The 12th Paper Biennial is no exception in its fitting environment.
Eighteen artists are each represented by multiple works, enough in most cases to appreciate style and technique and to compare and contrast within each display as well as across the artists’ displays. While many items in the Paper Biennial 2018 are of the “stop you in your tracks” variety, perhaps my planned visit to the Gentenaar-Torley studio or the museum shop’s selection of the Genetenaar-Torley books from the first seven biennials had primed my eyes for the particular works below. Large but airy paper fabrications floating from the ceiling or wall. Abstraction melded with the figurative. Vegetal and handmade paper. Saturation of colors. Innovativeness. Although, missing was an example of Pat Gentenaar-Torley’s hallmark technique of painting with thin layers of colored pulp.
On entering the most spacious room, my eye was caught by Mathilde van Wijnen’s Ruimte. In English, “ruimte” translates variously as space, room, area, place, capacity, location, aerospace, range, wideness, spot, compass and largeness. Under Van Wijnen’s hand and tools, it also translates into rhythms of light and shadow, evoking an expanse of dunes.
Another of Van Wijnen’s work in the same room plays with light in a different way: Helios.
The shifting metallic sheen and trompe l’oeil effect of Mathilde van Wijnen’s Helios (2014) and, in different rooms, of Lei (2016) and Bouten (2016) are mesmerizing and made me retrace my steps more than twice.
I like it that the technique is not very obvious and it remains mysterious. I also like to hear about my black works that people think it is made of a different material than paper, sometimes leather or fabric. (Correspondence from Mathilde van Wijnen, 20 June 2018)
Another artist in the show capable of making the abstract tangible is Annita Smit. Her piece called Frivool is a good example. In English, “frivool” means frivolous, light-hearted, flighty, shallow and flippant. In Smit’s hands, calque or tracing paper becomes all of that and more — a feathery embodiment of those Dutch winds that swirl every which way.
Smit’s material and colorful works reminded me of Beate Hoffmeister’s similar use of telephone directories (featured in the second Paper Biennial book put together by the Gentenaar-Torleys) and the textural effects achieved by Pavlos (featured in the sixth Paper Biennial book).
Comparing/contrasting this earlier work with that of Smit is like comparing the techniques and palettes of the Impressionists with that of Hundertwasser.
Andy Singleton sticks to white for all of his pieces in the show.
What is special about this paper is its ability to absorb water without damaging the paper. … The process I use to create the forms is called wet folding. I cut each piece of paper to the shape I want, this spray the paper with water to dampen the material. This allows me to manipulate the paper in ways that would be difficult when dry without damaging it. I then dry the paper rapidly with a heater (hair dryer or electric fan heater) to hold it on position. The paper is now set in its new form. (Correspondence from Andy Singleton, 22 June 2018)
As with many of the artists’ works in the show, Andy Singleton’s are clustered in different rooms. While this curatorial approach might irritate some, I found that it worked to lead me back and forth to spend more time with the individual works. The smaller wraith-like productions by Singleton on the floor above sent me back downstairs for another look at the large Silk series, where I was reminded of Katrin Zutter’s Tranquillity from the third Paper Biennial book (2000).
Throughout the exhibition, works draw attention to their material in differing degrees and with differing intentions. Angelique van der Valk’s is one of the more organic, almost raw in degree, and takes us back to the origin of paper and, by extension, culture: vegetable papyrus.
The Groente Abstract (Vegetable and Abstract) series are a result of many experiments. Every kind of vegetable has its own intrinsic qualities and the way of treating each material differs….The tension between abstraction on one side and the organic forms of this material on the other hand, is what I find most interesting. It reflects, to my mind, the way we live: culture on the one hand, nature on the other. I strive for harmony between these two, or to make their tension and friction visible. (Correspondence from Angelique van der Valk, 21 June 2018)
Fittingly entitled Tijdloos Papier/Timeless Paper, the fourth Paper Biennial book (2002) carried a guide to making vegetable papyrus. Gentenaar’s inclusion of such an article follows naturally from his own early sculptures’ borrowing from plant shapes.
My inspiration is a plant bud, which, in spring, unfolds into a leaf. A compact folded form feeds itself with water and turns into a great spacious form. In autumn, this leaf falls off of the tree, the water evaporates and a small web of fibers curling around the spine is the new form.
Peter’s leanings toward nature/abstraction and Pat’s, as seen in the 2017 Suzhou exhibition, would certainly lead them to cheer on Jocelyn Châteauvert’s process and her contributions to the Paper Biennial 2018.
As to the process, understand that I am the papermaker and thus determine a number of aspects such as fiber, sheet thickness, translucency and color. I also have to anticipate shrinkage. As the paper for this had fiber beaten for 4 hours, there is at least 30% shrinkage. I use this aspect to create structural integrity in the piece without having to introduce other materials for support. So all the necks of the birds actually hold the piece up. (Correspondence from Jocelyn Châteauvert, 21 June 2018)
Only on exiting through the museum’s shop did I notice how the early Paper Biennials’ books explicitly and ingeniously showcased paper samples such as Nepalese lokta paper (as above), handmade abaca, Japanese washi paper and many other varieties of handcrafted paper. Later on, I learned that from the start in 1996 with Voelbaar Papier/Tactile Paper (1996), all seven books included “papier monsters” (paper samples).
Perhaps the Gentenaar-Torleys’ books made it possible for the twelfth Paper Biennial to assume its viewers would appreciate implicitly or simply take in stride the variety of paper types used by the exhibition’s eighteen artists. But for this viewer, that assumption just gives reason for another revisit, and the Paper Biennial 2018 does reward a lingering visit.
In my case, however, the lingering made me late for my visit to the Gentenaar-Torley studio.
A Visit with the Founders
Despite the size of The Netherlands, each locale seems more spacious than possible. Like the country and Museum Rijswijk, the Gentenaar-Torley studio seems to hold more space than it should contain. From the quiet of the “front house”, as Pat calls it, she led me to noise of saws, drills and industrial-size fans whirring. Shaking her head at the noise and activity, she explained that the Address Downtown Hotel, Dubai, which reopened in early June, had placed a rush order for 10 sculptures, reduced it to 5, then ordered 12 more, and just as those had been dispatched, a Qatari order delayed a year due to the blockade was reactivated — all in the midst of preparing for the Pulchri Studio exhibition. A workman with saw and drill was preparing the crates for the shipment to Doha. Peter drying a piece for the retrospective was the source of the whirring fan’s noise. Suspended by twine, the piece could have been a cloud or massive version of Pat’s koi caught in a net over the large custom-built vacuum table.
This is the constant state of affairs at the Gentenaar-Torley studio. Consider these events from May 2017 through June 2018:
Exhibition at the Suzhou Jinji Lake Museum (April-June 2017)
Installation at the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie, in Paris for the Iris van Herpen Couture Collection (January 2018)
Installation at 1355 Peachtree, a building with mixed businesses in Atlanta, Georgia (March 2018)
Inclusion in the Jinji Lake Biennale, Suzhou China (May-June 2018)
The Pulchri Studio exhibition — “Is beauty only skin deep” (July 2018) — will include older and newer works. That title is equally appropriate to each artist although in different ways. Starting with layers of dyed paper pulp clinging to large frameworks of bamboo or raffia palm, Peter coaxes a two-dimensional sheet into a three-dimensional object.
Pat, on the other hand, coaxes a sense of three dimensionality from layers of dyed pulp, applying them wet on wet and, literally, working backwards, up from what will be the top layer of the painting to the next layer, then the next without disturbing the fibers that she has nudged into the shapes she wants in each layer. Think of it as the reversal of the steps in oils or frescoes in which first comes the background, then layering upwards and ending at the top.
In those different ways, surface breeds depth from within which beauty rises.
I made my second visit to the studio on the day Peter, Trude (daughter) and Pim (son-in-law) were loading a truck with the works for the Pulchri Studio. Pat had the task of preparing the price list but took a break to allow for photos of the “well-ordered chaos” of the works remaining for transport.
Among the items readied for the Pulchri Studio were other items destined for different locations. This one scheduled for installation in one of the Holland America Line cruise ships reminded me how lucky one might have to be to see the works from the Gentenaar-Torley studio. Other installations have been commissioned by the TUI cruise line, the top-floor restaurant in Disney World’s Hotel Four Seasons and Yas Mall in Abu Dhabi. If you live in Atlanta, Georgia, you can see Ruby Takes Flight at 1355 Peachtree Street, NE.
Better luck still if you are within striking distance of The Hague. Along the linden-lined Lange Voorhout, the Pulchri Studio stands at number 15, and in its large Mesdagzaal, the exhibition runs from 1 July through 22 July. Art sometimes requires that you make your own luck.
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. The texts had 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 Xun’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 Xun’s text does not mention the maze, Sharoff introduces contemporary text that, alongside the interweaving Chinese, English and French of Lu Xun’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 Xun’s prose praising and cursing the Great Wall. Yet, in their segmentation and placement, they also physically echo the prints and reinforce Lu Xun’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 Xun’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.