Bookmarking Book Art – Diane Harries

Legacy (2018)

Legacy (2018)
Diane Harries
Venetian blind book. Monoprint, screenprint and collage. Closed: H107 x W233 x D25 mm; Open: H1000 mm. Unique.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Look at the circular and triangular pieces making up the clasp for this work Legacy (2018) by Diane Harries. Don’t they appear to be made of marble or some other polished stone? They actually come from coconut husk, shaped, polished and dyed. The only indigenous plant from the palm family in New Zealand is the nīkau, and the coconut trees present on one of its islands were likely planted. “Some say that when Māori came to New Zealand, they looked in vain for a familiar tree and seeing the nīkau, compared it to the coconut tree of their Pacific homeland. One translation of ‘nīkau’ is ‘without nuts’, in remembrance of the coconut.”

The choice of material — this crafted seed — strikes a subtle note in a work inspired by Harries’ experience with the Gordon Park Scenic Reserve, a protected lowland forest once common to the Manawatu/Whanganui region of New Zealand. An expanse of land preserved by what threatened it in the first place.

As the thread unwinds from around the circular piece of seed pod and the triangular piece is laid aside, the subtle notes grow. The fashioned clasp is the same sort used to hold up or let fall a venetian blind. But here the clasp works in reverse from that for a venetian blind: the winding holds the book closed, the unwinding opens it. The thread winds around and through what appears at first to be an accordion book, but with the first turned page or panel, it is clear that this is venetian blind structure. A structure that modulates the movement of light and air. Our artifice can be deployed “to open or close” nature.

A collage of hand-printed images (monoprint and screenprint) sound the more obvious note that this work addresses our impact on nature. Images of leaves and a wire fence strung along posts. Alternating panels of living and dead trees — a healthy and exotic bunya pine and the native, dead kahikatea (white pine).

As the panels extend fully, other material and images come into play. Staves of musical notation appear — here on a panel with the living, there on a panel with the dead. Just as fickle as a pretty human artifact that in one context winds to close and in another winds to open.

Images of wandering thread contrast with the straight lines of real thread connecting the panels. Scraps of tarlatan with its loose weave constrast with densely woven rectangles of thread.

Did the venetian blind structure and seed-based material choose the images, or did the images choose the structure and material?The choice of material and structure can play an obvious or subtle role — or both, or none at all — in a work. When material, form, technique and metaphor play together like this, the work becomes art.

Artist’s Statement

The botanical history of Gordon Park Scenic Reserve provides a window on the social changes that have marked the region. European settlers cleared most of the native bush for farmland, but this tiny patch of swamp forest three kilometres east of Whanganui was saved by an enlightened landowner. Today as conservationists, we mourn the loss of native species everywhere.

The plants there today tell these stories of loss and invasion. Drainage of the area for pastureland has put native kahikatea (white pine) trees at risk during drought and some have died. Their bleached skeletons stand sentinel to this historically neglected status. Paradoxically, the exotic bunya pine (Australian native) nearby, is valued as a marker of the original homestead (now removed), and is officially recorded as Protected Tree #96. The stories are enmeshed in our history and changing values, indicated by the woven fabric in the book.

However, regardless of their social meaning, there is splendour in both of these trees, and the music is a whimsical appreciation of beauty in the face of mankind’s fickle imprints upon the earth.

Further Reading

Chinnery, Colin. “The Chinese pothi (fanjia zhuang)“. The International Dunhuang Project. Site last revised: September 2016. Accessed 30 October 2021. The venetian blind book structure derives from one of the earliest known methods of binding: the Indo-Chinese pothi or palm-leaf sutra.

Department of Conservation, New Zealand Government. Manawatu/Whanganui. Site last revised: N.D. Accessed 30 October 2021

Bookmarking Book Art – Yasutomo Ota

Even under the glass of vitrine or screen, Yasutomo Ota’s Die Forelle evokes by typography, image and structure a physical perception hard to shake.†

Die Forelle (2014)
Yasutomo Ota
Printed on 34 narrow laminated cardboard strips per sheet, which are held together by two threads, one on each side. Eighteen unnumbered pages H140 x 300 mm in box H160 x W340 x D50 mm. All photos with permission of the artist.

Franz Schubert first wrote a song called Die Forelle, based on a poem of the same name by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. Schubert was later commissioned to turn it into a piece of chamber music, which resulted in the “Trout Quintet” (1819).

If you are lucky enough to live near one of the six libraries that hold a copy of Ota-san’s Die Forelle, you can take your phone and earbuds, cast your line for it in the quiet of the rare book section and listen to the music inspired by the poem printed across the pages made of thirty-four laminated cardboard strips held together by two rows of threads and wriggling in your hands like a fish and flowing over them like a stream.

Or failing such access, you can view the artist’s demonstration here. The book’s structure is based on the chikukan, originally a Chinese scroll formed of bamboo strips, written on vertically and linked by thread to be rolled up correspondingly. The Coptic binding, the type that reads horizontally and the printing on both sides of a leaf shifts the form from scroll to codex. Also, as the artist writes, “By using the alphabet on a panel intended for vertical writing brings a strong sense of the direction taken by the written word” (Correspondence with Books On Books, 9 November 2020).

Of course, the Asian printing tradition also included horizontal reading and printing on both sides of the scroll. Consider the dragon-scale binding of the Diamond Sutra re-created by Zhang Xiadong (demonstrated here).

Diamond Sutra, Dragon scale binding (2017)
Zhang Xiaodong
In 32 zhuan (seal) fonts, 152 x 382×160mm. Edition of 300, of which this #197. Acquired from Sin Sin Fine Arts (Hong Kong), 31 October 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Examples of dragon-scale binding in the National Library of China’s permanent display of the history of the book in China. Photos: Marcia Watt, reproduced with permission.

Balinese Bamboo Book”, Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Accessed November 10, 2020, .

Contemporary book art also holds vertical and horizontal variations on the related “Venetian blind” or bamboo book form. Consider the dynamic Diagram of Wind by Barbara Tetenbaum (demonstrated below) and Diane Harries’ Legacy (below).

Diagram of Wind (2015)
Barbara Tetenbaum
Letterpress printed texts and images cut into strips and adhered to Japanese ‘silk tissue’ (gampi). Sewn to cloth and wood backing. Supported by a wood wave-form platform and held inside a lidded box made of cloth and book board. Poem by Michael Donaghy: “Glass”. H17 x W10 x D3 inches, ten pages. Edition of 30, of which this is #. Acquired from the artist, 8 October 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Legacy (2018)
Diane Harries
Venetian-blind book. Photos: Reproduced with permission of the artist.

In all of the works above, form draws attention to itself but also inevitably back to the content. The reader/viewer marvels at the mechanics of each work and how its interaction with hand and eye creates a simile for its content. The unscrolling and fluttering dragon-scale binding demands a prayer’s concentration and contemplation. The “curveship” of the support, the segmentation of the Donaghy poem “Glass” into strips, and the stir and lift of pages under the slightest breath demonstrate the wave form that Tetenbaum investigated for three years. Panel by panel, connected by slender threads, Legacy draws together different pasts in Harries’s work. Likewise, the flipping, slipping, shuttering/shuddering of Die Forelle‘s pages re-create the trout in the brook. That is book art at its best.

† With thanks to Andrew Schuller for drawing attention to Yasutomo Ota.

Further Reading/Viewing

… in medias res … Barbara Tetenbaum“, Bookmarking Book Art, 18 August 2013.

Zhang Xiaodong“, Books On Books Collection, 1 December 2019.

Ambler, Charlie. “Yasutomo Ota Revives Book Art in the Digital Age“, Artsy, 7 July 2014.

Chinnery, Colin. “Whirlwind binding (xuanfeng zhuang)”, International Dunhuang Project, British Library. Posted 07 February 2007. Accessed 12 December 2019.

Donaghy, Michael. Collected Poems (London: Picador, 2014).

Ota, Yasutomo. From the POLA Museum Annex Exhibition, 2020, Ginza, Tokyo. Video of exhibition.