Like the ancient Greek playwrights, William Kentridge begins his chamber opera’s retelling of the Cumaean Sibyl’s myth in medias res — in this case, in the middle of the dictionary at the letter M. Redactions and marks build and build across the dictionary pages, a visual prelude like a musical one. Then they suddenly disappear, leaving the “stage” to unmarked pages from the letter A, a thunderclap announcement in all caps bold and then an explanatory statement slightly reduced in volume with a lighter type face and uppercase with lowercase letters. What is going on?
Because performance of the opera was curtailed by the pandemic beginning in 2019/2020, we have only a few short clips from a trailer and filmed rehearsals to guess at how a live performance might have unfolded: this short clip posted by Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, this one from Quaternaire, this one from The Red Bridge Project and this version posted by the Centre for the Less Good Idea. A description from the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg tells us that the performance consists of a series of six short scenes. From the Red Bridge Project, coordinating the commission, we have Kentridge’s description of four of them:
A scene in the waiting room for the Sibyl. A scene about which is the right decision and which is the wrong one. How do you know which is the chair that will collapse when you sit on it and which is the chair that will support you? Is the plane that you’re rushing to catch the one that will crash or do you relax and not catch that plane and take the next one − and in fact that is the one that crashes?
Judging from the videos and description, it is presumptuous to declare that the book and opera begin in medias res. Almost anywhere in the out-of-order pages or chaotic rehearsal scenes of performers snatching at and reacting to the scattered leaves of books, typescript and so on is the middle. But if the left-to-right reading convention of the Western codex prevails, the text to be sung continues to rumble along in the codex after the thunderous proclamations. The chorus or speaker seems to falter, admitting to having forgotten the message and losing the moment of its delivery. All the while, the libretto is being joined on the left by gradually forming images of leaves (a maple and an oak), an allusion to the leaves on which the Cumaean Sibyl would write the predictions of fate she had sung but which would be scattered and whirled by the wind before the supplicant could claim his or her rightful leaf.
As occurs in Kentridge’s other bookworks, these gradual formations draw on the flip-book tradition, introducing that other recurrent media in his work — film — as well as performing an echo of the projections in the to-be performed opera. As the leaves assert themselves, the speaker’s confidence returns in all caps, a larger face and some bold. And while the speaker quickly recedes into lowercase and a lighter typeface, only able of being reminded “of something I can’t remember”, a leaf begins to metamorphose into a tree, an ampersand and then a dancer. Metamorphosis is that mythical translation of one being or object into another. Metaphor is that figure of speech that uses one object to remind us of another. “Etc., etc.” is what we say when we can’t remember or be bothered to complete a statement or series of examples. What Kentridge offers here is unquestionably not mixed metaphor but rather metaphor-mosis.
The metamorphosing ampersand recalls an illustrative example from another of Kentridge’s favored media — sculpture. As Kentridge puts it:
The turning sculptures I’ve made in the past have all been ones which have one moment of coherence, when the different components of the sculpture align. From one viewpoint they turn into a coffee pot, a tree, a typewriter, an opera singer. And then, as the sculpture turns, the elements fragment into chaos. — from The Red Bridge Project site, accessed 21 July 2021.
Ampersand (2017) William Kentridge Bronze, 85 x 82 x 54 cm, 87 kg Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery
Even though there is a speaker/singer for the libretto, the dancer has the central role in the opera. Performed by Teresa Phuti Mojela, the dancer casts her shadow over the projected pages and seems to “dance” the prophecies. Kentridge notes in the book’s afterword that he has added images of her to stand in for her projected shadows. As this sequence in the codex shows, the dancer/Teresa Phuti Mojela is the Sibyl.
In addition to containing the libretto, serving as part of the setting for the actual performance, presenting the central player and the Sibyl’s transformation into her, demonstrating the dancer’s performance (when flipped like a flip-book) and exemplifying the key props (prophecies on leaves), the codex also reflects the collaborative creative effort that Kentridge extols in describing the opera’s preparation:
… when we had our first workshop in Johannesburg, in which we brought together the singers, the pianist, a dancer to be the Sibyl, costume designer, set designer, videographer, the editor of the animations I’ve been drawing, we discovered very quickly that the magic of the piece was in the live performance of the music. At this point the project became possible to do only if we could have these singers on stage.
William Kentridge : Lexicon (2011) William Kentridge Cloth boards, sewn bound. H234 x W177 mm, 160 pages. Acquired from Specific Object, 2 May 2021. Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection. Permission courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery.
The first work by Kentridge I ever saw displayed was 2nd Hand Reading (2014) at the Museum Meermanno (The House of the Book) in The Hague. The exhibition was called The Art of Reading and had been curated by Paul van Capelleveen. Curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Meermanno, he felt strongly that the challenges of artist books cannot be understood “under glass” and insisted that each work be touchable. So under his supervision, I was able to flip through 2nd Hand Reading and also watch the projected animation of stop-motion images across the pages being flipped. While the forward motion of the animation offers a narrative, its substrate — pages of the Shorter Oxford English dictionary on historical principles — contradicts any notion of logical beginning, middle and end: the drawn-upon pages are not in the original’s paginated or alphabetical order.
Compared to 2nd Hand Reading‘s 800 pages, Lexicon at 160 pages provides a small reminder of the experience. Bound in a green satin-sheen cloth, Lexicon begins as a facsimile edition of an antiquarian Latin-Greek dictionary. The dictionary’s browned pages and antique languages perform the role of drawing surface or projection screen for a flip-book metamorphosis. In scrawly black ink drawings, an Italian coffee pot emerges from the gutter and starts to tilt and turn.
Gradually the pot changes into a black cat, striding from right to left. Not the direction in which Western reading and narratives usually proceed. In its transformation and movements, the cat seems to pivot on itself as it turns and strides across the Latin and Greek like Rilke’s panther behind its bars until it turns back into a coffee pot. Or does it?
That drawing in the center certainly looks like the coffee pot, but as the pages turn, the cat returns to stride from left to right, expanding then shrinking until it is swallowed by the gutter.
The reference to Rilke’s panther is actually Kentridge’s, made ex post facto in the next book in the Collection.
Six Drawing Lessons (2014)
Six Drawing Lessons(2014) William Kentridge Cloth boards, sewn bound. H x W mm, 208 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 23 March 2019. Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection. Permission courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
You rarely see a clear dustjacket. Of course, if it has type printed on it, you can see it. Still, it is rare, and in this case — in light of Kentridge’s film artistry — transparently ingenious.
The six lessons — Kentridge’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard — begin with an extended riff on Plato’s allegory of the cave. Variations on the riff recur throughout — applied to film projected from behind the audience, to a stage design of The Magic Flute as the bellows of a tripod camera, to transformations and metamorphoses and to the mining caves under Johannesburg. Kentridge’s interpretation of Plato’s cave reminds me of José Saramago’s interpretation in A Caverna (2014) and Guy Laramée’s homage to A Caverna. All three address “the great cloud of unknowing“, a kind of knowing by not knowing — but without God.
A Caverna (2012) Guy Laramée Portuguese-Spanish dictionary carved. Wood and velvet plinth, wood-framed glass cover. H260 x W276 x D226 mm Acquired from William Baczek Fine Arts, 12 September 2017.
What’s remarkable is how Kentridge brings so many variations, seeming tangents and media in the lectures into coherence. Or perhaps not so remarkable given that he manages it across his body of work and the multiple media in which he works. In breadth of stuff and raw material to hand and in his head, Kentridge himself identifies Picasso’s studio practices and work as an influence. Although not mentioned, Anselm Kiefer’s works such as Das Lied von der Zeder – Für Paul Célan (“The song of the cedar – for Paul Célan”, 2005) and his studio at La Ribaute, near Barjac in France, come to mind in these lectures. Likewise another artist called to mind is Xu Bing, especially his Landscape/Landscript (2013) and massive junk assemblage Phoenix (2008-15) among other works. Both Kiefer and Xu use the book as a medium with which to fuse language or text with the visual. All three artists confront similarly dark, raw cultural inheritances. Kentridge’s lectures, especially Lessons Two and Three, make plain his apartheid inheritance and its presence in his art.
Circling back to the book as artistic medium, the fifth and sixth lessons provide an important insight that underscores Kentridge’s artistry there. “Lesson Five: In Praise of Mistranslation” reproduces Rilke’s “Der Panther” and Richard Exner’s translation of it in full. In that same lesson, Kentridge presents us with a montage of the feline transformations and names the works from which they come, one of them of course being Lexicon.
Before going back to Lexicon for the cat, the reader/viewer would do well to wait for Kentridge to expand in the sixth lesson on the lines describing the panther’s walk around his cage as “a dance of strength round a centre where a mighty will was put to sleep”. He writes:
There is no avoiding it. …it is the circle in the studio, the endless walking around the studio, … Again here we go back to Rilke’s panther, and the radical insufficiency, the radical gap in the center. There has to be some gap, some lack, which provokes people to spend 20 years, 30 years, making drawings, leaving traces of themselves. It has to do with the need to see oneself in other people’s looking at what you have made.
With that, remember the cat — metamorphosing from the Italian coffee pot that slips from Lexicon‘s gutter, prowling from right to left, turning back into the coffee pot, striding from left to right and then being sucked into the center. Can you ever look the same way at the gutter of a book?
Kentridge, William. 2012. Six Drawing Lessons, Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University. Six videos from the Mahindra Humanities Center, posted 14-15 January 2020. Lesson 1, Lesson 2, Lesson 3, Lesson 4, Lesson 5, Lesson 6. Accessed between 1 April 2019 and 21 July 2021.
Mudam Luxembourg. 11 – 12 Jun 2021. “Sibyl“. Announcement. Accessed 22 July 2021. “Waiting for the Sibyl, co-commissioned by the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and Dramaten – Stockholm and created in collaboration with choral director and dancer Nhlanhla Mahlangu and composer Kyle Shepherd, unfolds in a series of six short scenes, …”
From 21 June to 4 August 2019, the Glasgow School of Art hosted an exhibition curated by Vivianna Checchia based on and named after the artist’s book Political Animal by Johnny Rodger (text) and Prabhakar Pachpute (drawings). The event is particularly noteworthy as an addition to this list of large-scale works of book art.
With Pachpute’s involvement, Checchia transformed the gallery at 167 Renfrew Street in Glasgow into “a book”, its pages consisting of Pachpute’s A3 framed drawings, drawings directly on the gallery’s walls as well as 3D objects, and the curator’s notes/bibliography delivered as displayed copies of the works referenced. Walking and looking become “reading”.
Earlier “walk-through books” include Alison Knowle’s The Big Book (1968) and Anselm Kiefer’s The Rhine (1982-2013), but Political Animal, the exhibition, takes large-scale book art and what we mean by the book just that “little” bit further.
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018). Reviewed here.
Malaya, Vinutha. “Art of the Book”, Pune Mirror, 18 July 2019. Accessed 9 September 2019.
Daniel Knorr’s Expiration Movement (2017), an installation work for Documenta 14 held in Kassel, Germany and Athens, Greece, received good coverage in The Art Newspaper:
Knorr’s work in Greece, meanwhile, entails collecting discarded objects from the streets of Athens, then inserting and pressing them into books. They will be sold during the show and will finance the production of the smoke in the Fridericianum in Kassel.
Romanian Knorr is known for his eyebrow-raising political installations such as STASI Stones (made of Stasi documents pulped à la Dieter Roth, mixed with water and oil, and then displayed in Berlin). Those “litter press” books sold to finance the smoke machine atop the Fridericianum, built in 1779, one of the oldest public museums in the world, and host to documenta since 1955) further secure the added accolade “book artist”.
Like the many layers of meaning that book art can convey, smoke billowing from a chimney in Europe, in particular Germany, evokes several responses: concentration camps, book burning, a pope’s election. Also, books incorporating Athens’ litter allude to the protracted socioeconomic difficulties Greece has had in its relationship with the EU, again in particular Germany (both the debt and refugee crises). Knorr’s work has much in common with the atmospherics of the work of another eyebrow-raising artist, Anselm Kiefer, well-known for his book art.
Knorr’s production line creating the “litter press” books makes for quite a contrast with that over 500 years ago.
With apologies to the preacher: Of making many books [on books] there is no end.
With the choir of its forebearers, Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018) sounds an “amen” to that truth. The proliferation of degree programs in book studies covering the history of the book, the book arts and even book art ensures The Book will not be the last. What distinguishes Borsuk’s book are her perspective as an artist and the book’s breadth and depth despite its brevity.
The book has a long history of existential crises. What is a book? Is the end of the book nigh? For more than a century, those questions have returned again and again. The most recent recurrence stems from the ebook’s threat to dematerialize the book and the online world’s threat to take us into a post-text future. Even before these latest threats, book artists have long lived and worked with their own existential questions, a kind of higher existential calculus, or derivative of, the book’s crises: What is an artist’s book? What is book art? Stephen Bury, Riva Castleman, Johanna Drucker, Joan Lyons, Stefan Klima, Clive Philpott and many others in the last quarter of the 20th century dwelt on defining and categorizing book art.
Borsuk belongs to a later generation of book artists that has embraced these existential crises and recognized that the book’s existential crises are what make the book a rich medium in which and with which to create art — from bio-art miniature to the biblioclastic human-scale to large-scale installations and performances. Even to the digital.
Performance artist and academic as well, Borsuk brings that later generational and creative perspective to the existential question — What is the book? — and, with an artist’s perception of her medium of choice, displaces the old companion existential question — Is the end of the book nigh? — with an altogether more interesting one — Where next for the book?
To see where books might be going, we must think of them as objects that have experienced a long history of experimentation and play. Rather than bemoaning the death of books or creating a dichotomy between print and digital media, this guide points to continuities, positioning the book as a changing technology and highlighting the way artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have pushed us to rethink and redefine the term. (pp. xiii-xiv)
In The Book, the future is not far from the physical past. Where once we had text on scrolls, now we scroll through text (albeit more vertically than horizontally). Where once human consciousness changed with the invention of the alphabet and writing, now it may be altering with our reading and writing through networked digital devices. Like the many historians before her, Borsuk starts with cuneiform (those wedge-shaped accounting marks on baked clay), hieroglyphics and the invention of the alphabet to set the scene for the advent of the book and its ongoing physicality:
its shape (scroll, accordion, codex)
its material (papyrus, vellum, paper, charcoal or mineral-based watercolor and ink)
its manufacture (scribing, printing by woodblock and movable type, design and typography, illumination and illustration, folding into pages, methods of binding)
its constituent and navigational parts (cover, book block, title page, table of contents, page numbering, index).
But Borsuk reminds us — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — the book as human artifact exists in a social, political, technological, economic and even ecological context. Who is allowed to make it, how it is transacted, how and where we use it, how we perceive and speak of it — all have affected the physicality of the book object and are reflected in it.
In the first half of The Book, Borsuk steers us through these interdependencies to a turning point. That turning point is where the pinnacle of the book arts — Beatrice Warde‘s and Jan Tschichold‘s vision of the book as a crystalline container of content — and the book’s commodification combine to cause the book’s physicality to disappear because it is so taken for granted, leaving us with “the book as idea”.
With the perception that books are ideas bestowed on readers by an authorial genius whose activity is purely intellectual, the book’s object status vanished for much of the reading public as we raised a glass to happily consume its contents…. Even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work. (pp. 106-9)
At this turning point — where “the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (p. 112) — the second half of The Book introduces book art. It is telling that the longest chapter in the book begins the second half, that it is called “The Book as Idea” and that it comes before any extended engagement with the digital dematerialization of the book. It is a wry pivot: the artistic genius supplants the authorial genius; what the latter takes as invisible background, the former re-makes as self-regarding foreground. As Borsuk shows and her book’s cover neatly demonstrates, works of book art are inevitably self-referential and self-aware.
As such, works of book art
have much to teach us about the changing nature of the book, in part because they highlight the “idea” by paradoxically drawing attention to the “object” we have come to take for granted. They disrupt our treatment of the book as a transparent container for literary and aesthetic “content” and engage its material form in the work’s meaning. (p. 113)
Rather than offer a chronological history of book art to explore what “artists’ books have to teach us about a path forward for the book”, Borsuk offers “flashpoints” that represent “the energies motivating artwork in book form”(p. 117). These “flashpoints” are William Blake, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha and Ulises Carrión. Following these flashpoints, Borsuk organizes the rest of the chapter into “key themes that recur throughout artists’ books of the twentieth century: spatiotemporal play, animation, recombinant structures, ephemerality, silence, and interactivity” (pp. 146-47).
Oddly, Blake as flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes. Rather Borsuk notes three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” that Blake and his work represent: centering or re-centering the production processes on the author/artist; using the book as a sociopolitical and visionary platform; and redefining, developing and challenging the relationship between word and image.
Blake refers to himself as “The Author & Printer W. Blake,” making clear the union of creativity and craft in his work. (p. 121)
Blake’s engagement with the social issues of his day, and his use of book form to respond to child labor, urban squalor, and slavery, established an important trend in both artists’ books and independent publishing—the utility of the book as a means of spreading social justice. (pp. 121, 124)
Blake used his craftsmanship to develop the relationship between word and image (p. 140)
One need not look far among twentieth and twenty-first century book artists for resonance with those themes. That Blakean union of creativity and craft resurfaces in artists such as Ken Campbell (UK), Cathryn Miller (Canada), Pien Rotterdam (Netherlands), Barb Tetenbaum (US) and Xu Bing (China) — some of them even to the point of carving or setting their own type, making their own paper, pulp printing on it themselves or binding the finished work themselves. Vision and sociopolitical observation have risen up in the works of artists such as Doug Beube (Canada), Julie K. Dodd (UK), Basia Irland (US), Diane Jacobs (US), Anselm Kiefer (Germany) and Chris Ruston (UK). Blake’s redefining the relationship of word (or text) to image often reappears in book artists’ abcedaries and their children’s books such as A Dictionary Storyby Sam Winston (UK). As for emulators of Blake in technical innovation, consider the analogue example of Australian Tim Mosely’s works created with his patented pulp printing process, where the “ink” is actually colored pulp, or the digital example of Borsuk’s work Between Page and Screen, where the pages contain no text—only QR codes that, when scanned with a webcam, activate the text’s appearance on the reader’s browser screen.
For her second flashpoint, Borsuk selects another visionary, Stéphane Mallarmé, who like Blake was reacting to his own perceived Satanic mills draining poetry of its spirituality. Mallarmé’s Satanic mills dispensed rigid columns of newsprint to the masses and bland expanses of poetry and fiction set by Linotype machines in the neo-classical Didot font. With his famous visionary dictum — “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book” (p. 135) — Mallarmé nudged the book toward pure concept and opened its mystical covers to the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists, Vorticists, Lettrists, Conceptualists and biblioclasts. With spatiotemporal play — mixing type sizes and fonts, breaking up the line and even breaking the page — Mallarmé used text to evoke image and, in his view, remake the book as a “spiritual instrument”. His post-humous book-length poem Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), published in 1897, embodies that vision and continues to cast its flashpoint light across multiple generations of book artists’ efforts. From Marcel Broodthaers in 1969, we have his homage to Un Coup de Dés. From Jérémie Bennequin in 2014, we have his serial “omage” to Broodthaers’ homage. And, most recently, we have the 2015 new bilingual edition A Roll of the Dice by Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno, for which Borsuk provides a perceptive reading.
Where Mallarmé’s flashpoint enlisted his vision alongside the cry “épater le bourgeois” from Baudelaire and other late nineteenth-century poets, Ed Ruscha’s later flashpoint illuminates a democratic counterpoint, a Zen-like vision and a very different way of changing the relationship of text to image. Ruscha’s self-published photobooks were cheap and distributed outside the gallery-controlled channels of art. As Borsuk shows — directly with Ruscha and indirectly with the many book artists influenced by him — the text is restricted to the book’s title, which interacts with a series of deadpan photos and their layout to deliver a wry, tongue-in-cheek work of book art. Ruscha’s spatiotemporal play manifests itself across the accordion book format and out-of-sequence juxtapositions. Ironically Ruscha’s works now command thousands of dollars per copy, and one has more chance of seeing them in an exhibition than in a roadside stop’s rack of newspapers, magazines and mass-market paperbacks.
Mexico’s Ulises Carrión — polemicist, European bookshop owner, conceptual artist and Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints — is a counter-flashpoint to Ruscha. Where Ruscha reveled in self-publishing commodification, Carrión sneered at the book in its traditional commercial form. Where Ruscha has resisted the label “conceptual artist”, Carrión played the role to the hilt. Where Ruscha’s work has elicited numerous homages (see Various Small Books from MIT Press in 2013) and achieved a high profile, Carrión’s work, much lower in profile, has provided a more compelling range of hooks or influences on which to hang many different manifestations of book art (or bookworks as Carrión preferred). In fact, Borsuk’s six stated key themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” come from Carrión’s manifestos (pp. 146-47).
The first theme — “spatiotemporal play” — comes from Carrión’s initial definition of the book as a “sequence of spaces”, which Borsuk traces to tunnel books, pop-ups and even large-scale constructs, the latter illustrated by American Alison Knowles‘ inhabitable The Big Book (1968). One more possible future of the book implied by spatiotemporal play manifests itself in Borsuk’s own augmented-reality (AR) works, those of Caitlin Fisher (Canada) and Carla Gannis’ Selfie Drawings (2016), in which portraits on the hardcover book’s pages animate and change when viewed through smartphone or tablet.
Borsuk takes the second theme, that of “animation”, from Carrión’s dictum: “Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment— a book is also a sequence of moments”. As her several examples illustrate, much book art is cinematic. Borsuk’s exposition of Canadian Michael Snow‘s Cover to Cover (1975) comes closest to reproducing the experience I enjoyed of “watching” that photo bookwork from cover to cover several times at the now closed Corcoran Art Gallery. Borsuk is quick and right to remind that the cinematic future of the book has been with us for a long time, even before the cinema. She bookends her exposition of Snow’s book and and the text animation of American Emmett Williams‘ Sweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s TheReadies (presumably pronounced “reedies” to follow Brown’s comparison of his scrolling one-line texts with the cinema’s “talkies”).
A forgotten modernist, Brown declared the obsolescence of the book, predicted a new form of reading and technology to enable it, an optical projector emitting text into the ether and directly into the eyeball. But what does this tell us about the future of the book? Borsuk notes Craig Saper‘s resurrection of Brown’s Roving Eye Press and how he even put together a website that emulates Brown’s reading machine. In her phrase describing the machine’s effect of “turning readers themselves into a kind of machine for making meaning” (p. 168), Borsuk hints at a future of digitally interactive books, which she takes up in the next section and more extensively in the next chapter. At this point, however, the reader could use a hint of practicality and skepticism. Linear-one-word-at-a-time reading, however accelerated, eliminates affordances of the page, ignores graphics and strains against the combination of peripheral vision and rapid eye movement we unconsciously (even atavistically?) deploy as we “read” whatever we see. Although in the next section Borsuk does bring on more likely examples of the book’s future exploitation of its cinematic affordances (manga, graphic novels and children’s books), this section’s treatment of animation misses the chance to cite actual recent successes like Moonbot Studios‘ The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2012) and others.
Once into the third theme — “recombinant structure” — it is clear that Borsuk’s chosen Carriónesque themes overlap one another. Like the cinematic, the recombinant structure manifests itself in accordion books. It extends, however, to something more interactive: volvelles (or medieval apps as Erik Kwakkel calls them), interactive pop-ups, harlequinades (flap books) and more. Borsuk uses Raymond Queneau‘s harlequinade Cent mille milliards de poèmes ( One hundred thousand billion poems, 1961), Dieter Roth‘s slot books and works by Carolee Schneemann to illustrate book art’s celebration of the concept. The fact that Queneau’s book is still easily available on Amazon vouches for book art’s predictive qualities. The example of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (Éditions du Seuil, 1962), “a box of 150 leaves printed on only one side that the reader is instructed to shuffle at the outset”, goes Queneau one better —ironically. In 2011, Visual Editions reissued Composition No. 1 in print and app forms. Alas, the former is out of print, and the latter is no longer available for download.
Borsuk draws her fourth theme — ephemerality — from Carrión’s dictum:
I firmly believe that every book that now exists will eventually disappear. And I see here no reason for lamentation. Like any other living organism, books will grow, multiply, change color, and, eventually, die. At the moment, bookworks represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books. (p. 145)
To illustrate, Borsuk begins with the physical biblioclasts — those who in Doug Beube‘s phrase are “breaking the codex“. They include Beube himself, Bruce Nauman (see above), Brian Dettmer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Marcel Duchamp, Dieter Roth and Xu Bing. While some of these artists reflect a twenty-first century surge of interest in altered books and book sculpture, “facilitated by the overarching notion that the book is an artifact not long for this world” (pp.82-84), others have taken a more generative archaeological approach — erasing or cutting away a book’s words to reveal another. Examples include Tom Phillips‘ A Humument (1966-2014) and Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes(2010). Phillips’ bookwork serves multiple purposes for Borsuk’s arguments. Not only does it represent the book art of “erasure”, its success across multiple editions, digital formats and presence in art galleries supports her notion of book art’s predictive qualities.
There is a variant on her theme that Borsuk does not illustrate and is worth consideration for her next edition: the self-destructing yet regenerative work of book art. Examples could include American Basia Irland‘s series ICE BOOKS: Ice receding/Books reseeding (2007-), which gives a formidably tangible and new meaning to “publishing as dissemination”; and Canadian Cathryn Miller‘s tail-chasing Recomp (2014); and Argentinian Pequeño Editor‘sMi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.
The last section in this chapter expands on the fifth theme — silence — drawn from Carrión’s statement:
The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Every book of the new art is searching after that book of absolute whiteness in the same way that every poem searches for silence. Ulises Carrión, Second Thoughts (1980), pp. 15-16.
Among her several examples are Pamela Paulsrud‘s Touchstones (2007-10), which look like stones but are books sanded-down into stone-like shapes, and Scott McCarney‘s 1988 Never Read(Opposed to Ever Green), a sculpture composed of stacked library discards that narrows as it ascends. Paulsrud’s, McCarney’s, Irland’s and Miller’s works are what Borsuk calls “muted objects”, but they speak and signify nevertheless:
Muted books take on a totemic [metaphoric] significance…. The language of the book as a space of fixity, certainty, and order reminds us that the book has been transmuted into an idea and ideal based on the role it plays in culture…. Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form. (pp. 193-95)
Borsuk is a superb stylist of the sentence and expository structure. The words above, concluding chapter three, launch the reader into Borsuk’s final theme of interactivity and her unifying metaphor: “the book as interface”. Owners of Kindles, buyers from Amazon, perusers of Facebook — we may think we know what’s coming next in The Book and for the book, but Borsuk pushes the reader to contemplate the almost real-time evolutionary change we have seen with ebook devices and apps, audiobooks, the ascension of books to the cloud via Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and Google Books, and their descent to Brewster Kahle‘s physical back-up warehouse (to be sited in Canada in light of recent political events) and into flattening ebook sales of late. Chapter 4 is a hard-paced narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play.
Borsuk reminds us:
Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)
Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.
At this point, an earlier passage from The Book should haunt the reader:
Artists’ books continually remind us of the reader’s role in the book by forcing us to reckon with its materiality and, by extension, our own embodiment. Such experiments present a path forward for digital books, which would do well to consider the affordances of their media and the importance of the reader, rather than treating the e-reader as a Warde-ian crystal goblet for the delivery of content. (p. 147)
Borsuk convinces. Art, artifact, concept — wrought by hand and mind, hands and minds — the book is our consensual tool and toy for surviving beyond our DNA. So now what? Metaphor, hints and historical flashpoints may illuminate where we have been, how it shows up in contemporary books and book art and where we may be going with it. In ten or one hundred years though, how will a book publisher become a book publisher? Given the self-publishing capability today’s technology offers, will anyone with a file on a home computer and an internet connection consider himself or herself a book publisher? Borsuk thinks not:
The act of publication — of making public — is central to our cultural definition of the book. Publication might presume some cultural capital: some editorial body has deemed this work worthy of print. It might also presume an audience: a readership clamors for this text. But on a fundamental level, publication presumes the appendage of elements outside the text that help us recognize it as a book, even when published in digital form. (pp. 239-40)
How will future book publishers learn to master the appendage of these elements outside the text (the paratext) that make a book a book “even when published in digital form”? Borsuk’s commentary on the ISBN as one of these elements sheds oblique light on that. She points to the artist Fiona Banner’s uses of the ISBN under her imprint/pseudonym Vanity Press — tattooing one one her lower back, publishing a series Book 1/1(2009) consisting of sixty-five ISBN’d pieces of mirrored cardstock and then collecting them in a photobook entitled ISBN 978-1-907118-99-9 in order to deposit those one-offs with the British Library as required by the UK’s Legal Deposit Libraries Act. What can a future ebook publisher deduce from this?
That the use of a globally unique identifier (GUID) matters.
The backstory of the transition from ISBN10 to ISBN13 and that of ebooks, ISBNs and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) might provide interesting fodder. The notion that the book industry was running out of 10-digit ISBNs was a red herring used to convince industry executives to adopt the more widely used format of unique identifiers overseen by GS1. The real reason for moving to ISBN13 — reduced friction in the supply chain — was too hard to sell. About the same time, some major publishers proposed incorporating the ISBN into the DOI for an industry-standard ebook identifier. The DOI offered an existing digital, networked infrastructure already being used by most of the world’s scientific, technical and medical journals publishers. It is an offshoot of the Handle System, established by Robert Kahn. Sad to say, few book publishers adopted the DOI for their ebooks; still fewer used the DOI’s application- and network-friendliness to enable their ebooks to take advantage of the network’s digital affordances.
The DOI shares with the ISBN a feature that Borsuk points out as a limitation to more widespread use: it is not free. A significant percentage of ebooks exist without ISBNs, much less DOIs. If a digital GUID is to be used in ways that help us recognize the identified digital object as a book, future book publishers and their providers of a network ecosystem supporting ebooks, linking with the print ecosystem and reducing friction in the supply chain still have wide gaps in commerce and knowledge to close. Perhaps this particular paratextual element is unnecessary for the book’s digital future, but until those gaps are narrowed, the ecosystem for eBooks will remain balkanized by Amazon, Apple, Google, Lulu and the more digitally literate denizen of the print publishing industry. In the meantime, as Borsuk’s examples throughout her book show, there are boundless other print and digital affordances with which publishers, authors, editors, designers, typographers, developers and readers can play as they continue to shape the book.
The Book‘s publication month, June 2018, is auspicious, being the same for the Getty Center’s exhibition “Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists“, June 26 – October 28. The Center and MIT Press would do well to have stacks of The Book on hand. The Book will also serve as an excellent introductory textbook for courses on book art or the history of the book. And by virtue of its style and artist’s perspective, Borsuk’s book will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in this essential technology of civilization and its growing role as a material and focus of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The passage here, rendered by blind embossing on lead and metal paint, comes from Primo Levi’s essay on lead in his book The Periodic Table.
It reminds me of Anselm Kiefer’s lead books with wings (The Language of the Birds, 2013), which you can read about here: http://wp.me/p2AYQg-Lu. It’s a curious, leaden but uplifting, fitting but outrageous conjunction: Van Zanten’s personal grappling with depression, the concentration-camp survivor who ultimately succumbed to depression and suicide, and the Nazi-saluting artist who asserts that history is a weight that must be borne and embraced and lead is the only substance that is weighty, “alchemical” and mutable enough to bear it.
Van Zanten’s appropriation of Levi for her project “Depression” is somewhat less outré than Sylvia Plath’s appropriation of Jewishness in “Daddy”, which is barely less outré than Kiefer’s Nazi salutes. But all three are essential, outrageous and shocking appropriations, just as the appropriation of books as “just another material” with which to create art is essential, outrageous and shocking.
In her note in BookRiot, Nikki Steele takes Brian Dettmer’s TED talk remark that books are created to relate to our human scale and builds on it elegantly, if all too briefly, by bringing together the installation works “Literature versus Traffic”, “Scanner”, “Book Cell”, “Singularity”, “Biographies” and “Contemporaries”. She’s not the first to provide a Pinterest– or Flickr-style burst of “ooh, look at this”, but unlike her predecessors, she makes the point worth pondering: this art that is not on a human scale evokes wonder and awe.
This challenges and expands on Dettmer’s point that people are disturbed by book art because we think of the book as a body, a living thing. As John Milton said, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself”. That was in the context of book licensing laws that led to the confiscation and destruction of unlicensed books. Still, Milton would probably react as angrily to individual works of book art, and he might view the installations as if they were on the scale of the massacre of the Waldensians in the Piedmont.
Dettmer’s justification of book art that books “also have the potential to continue to grow and to continue to become new things”, that “books really are alive”, leaves us still squirming on the hook when Steele asks, “what happens when artists explode the scale and take books much, much larger?”. If you think cutting up or destroying a book is sacrilegious, what is your reaction to the 10,000 splayed in the streets of Melbourne by Luzinterruptus or the equal number cast by Alicia Martín into frozen defenestrations in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain or the even greater number in Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books, installed for documenta in Kassel, Germany?
Miltonic eruption? Or Steele-ish delight, awe and love of the art?
Let’s raise the stakes and confusion. What if the books used in the single-volume work and installations were the Koran, the Bible or the Torah? Art and ethics are rarely happy bedfellows. Is there such a thing as “responsible art” that does not run afoul of the principle of the creative spirit or the integrity of art? Is art wholly without cultural, ethical or social contextual obligations?
This is why I like book art. It provokes just by coming into being. Its existence and appreciation are hard won.
“The book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented.” — Werner Pfeiffer, Book-Objects & Artist Books, online exhibition, Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
“The book, the idea of a book or the image of a book, is a symbol of learning, of transmitting knowledge … I make my own books to find my way through the old stories.” — Anselm Kiefer, publication entry for Brünhilde schläft, in Toledo Museum of Art Masterworks (Toledo, 2009).
Like Anselm Kiefer, though eight years older, Werner Pfeiffer grew up in the shadow of Nazi Germany. The works of both artists are rooted in the book and its peculiar place in that culture. Pfeiffer’s book-objects consist of deconstructed, dismantled library discards that are reassembled with glue and coated in gesso. “Gagged and tormented” (with nails, screws, rope and various physical distortions), the works are “symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act”, the real remnants of which Pfeiffer recalls from his earliest childhood.
Pfeiffer’s artist books on the other hand run the gamut of foldouts, scrolls, flexagons, walk-in environments and rely on traditional bookmaking craft: handset type, letterpress printing, sophisticated binding as well as original print techniques such as wood cuts or linoleum blocks and etchings on archival papers. The emotional range of Pfeiffer’s art is also wide — humorous, playful, piquant, simultaneously angry and sorrowful, concerned. The overriding concerns are straightforwardly explained in the text to the online Cornell University exhibition.
The first schoolbooks I can remember, leftovers from the previous regime, were heavily “edited.” They were books with words and sentences blackened out. Chapters were deleted; entire pages were missing. This was information declared unsuitable for a post-war generation, a generation who six months earlier had been practically obliterated by the events now deemed unfit to be read about. Part of what they had lived through, their own history, had been blocked out, hidden behind those black marks.
Measured by the perceived fears an innocently bound codex seems capable of instilling, the book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented. And yet we find ourselves at a threshold where its power and influence seem to be waning.
… As in the past, we find at the core of our current socio-political realignment the process of communication…. The new cultural footprint is a set of digits and their application, made possible by the microchip and the speed of electricity….
My book-objects have their origin partly in this ambiguous realm, a period of change as radical as it is dramatic. Superimposed over this perceived uncertainty is my personal concern about censorship. By making books which are deliberately mute I try to raise questions. Words are lost; they are no longer important. The books take on new forms; they become provocative statements. No longer instruments for reading they become sculptures, they become Book-Objects.
As with all superior sculpture, Pfeiffer’s works make the hands twitch to touch and manipulate them. In a few exhibitions, that interaction has even been encouraged. There is something inherently haptic about his book art (for example, Zig Zag and Abracadabra) and his book-objects (for example, Drawing Blood), which can be enjoyed vicariously in these videos: Youtube 1, Youtube 2, Youtube 3 and Youtube 4.
Kiefer’s materials are more varied, more monumental than Pfeiffer’s, and his concerns are decidedly not straightforward. Considering his sprawling studio complex at Barjac, in southeastern France, and its towers and installations, to say that Kiefer’s oeuvre extends beyond book art is an understatement. But for Books on Books, his most moving works — even those in which the book’s material presence is greatly subordinate — remain tethered to book art. The ache to touch Kiefer’s art, however, is different from what you feel with Pfeiffer’s. What little playfulness there may be in some of Kiefer’s earliest pieces is overshadowed by monumental works evoking an urge and dread at the same time.
You feel it walking up the stairs in the Royal Academy, looking up and seeing the sculpture Für Fulcanelli – die Sprache der Vögel, its great wings of beaten lead spread and rising above you. Between the wings, the body is made of a stack of elephant and double elephant folio books lying flat (or rather gathered folios made of lead like the wings). Interleaved with the closed and open books are rusted metal folding chairs with wooden seats and backs, the kind found in city parks. Thick metal wedges that appear to be wood are inserted at various points to balance out the angular, tilting pile. Separate and lying before this huge bird is a carved wooden snake, elongated and heading right to left as you view the work. The pages of the books curl and fold and roll up as if sodden or aflame. Some are rusted. The bottom-most book has lead binder boards, water stained and looking like marbled paper. Not all of them have binding boards, but all are spineless. You want to touch but know that if you do, your fingers will come away with some alchemical residue of history that will not come off and may burn the skin.
Pfeiffer’s works from a major exhibition in 2011 at Cornell remain on view online. Another major exhibition followed in 2012 at Vassar College. A new exhibition is scheduled for February 2015 in Toledo, Ohio. More about it in The Blade.
A major retrospective of Kiefer’s art at the Royal Academy of Art concluded in December 2014, coinciding with an hour-long BBC program. An interview with the artist and several podcasts are available on the RA’s site, and the rich and extensive exhibition catalogue provides articles exploring the complex themes of Kiefer’s art.