In the middle of a shelf in Diane Stemper’s Ohio home, Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages sits bookended, on the left, by two books about Francis Bacon and, on the right, by a small monograph on Pierre Bonnard and another book Art and Culture of Japan. The books are not organized alphabetically or chronologically. When she pulls the book out, it feels perfect, not too thin or thick, its dimensions and weight ideal for carrying in a shoulder bag. It has a feeling of secrets and importance.
Since discovering Stemper’s work at the Center for Book Arts (New York, 2014), I have wanted to talk to her about the themes and material that drive that work. Art and science, paper and glass, the universal and the particular, ink and watercolor, the physical and the spiritual. We finally arranged it in medias res, and she agreed to this oblique approach to her mind and art.
BoB: As you open Art and Beauty to its mid-point, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?
DS: Well, not sure if you mean inside of the room I am in or the memory it conjures, so I will go with memory. The words “cathedral”, “Chartres”, “vestibule”, “allegory” take me from the immediate space of my front room to the interior of a European cathedral or even perhaps as a child to the pews of St. Paul Cathedral in Minnesota during midnight mass. There is the fragrance of incense, the dark light of an imposing building, chanting and mystery. There are also the many hands of craftsmen chipping away at stone, painting glass and the laborers who put it all together and probably were not treated all that well.
Then there is that word “parabolic” and Eco’s explanation of Aquinas’ description of the arts as being literal, that the poetic image and its meaning were in the mind of the “reader” and that this association was a “matter of habit” – this reminds me that I and my viewers have different habits of mind, from the museum visitors I once toured who loved Impressionism and were hostile to Rothko, to the viewers responding to my specimen series – “why are they dead, did you kill them, that’s icky”. Surface literalism can be a matter of what one is familiar with and fearful of what one does not understand, but it can also be a “way into a piece” if the viewer is willing.
BoB: At the end of his book, Eco sums up his explanation of how the medievals looked at art with this startling statement, “They saw the world with the eyes of God”. What of today’s viewers of art and, in particular, those who look at your art?
DS: When originally picking the book from the middle of the middle shelf and then opening it to the middle, that sentence you mentioned — “The association of an image with a certain meaning is a matter of habit” — leapt out. Eco was referring to the ability of people of the Medieval period to read an image as if it were a literary text, for example, knowing instantly which animals or colors represent which biblical figure or story. However, I am reading Eco’s words from my 21st century vantage point, where there isn’t necessarily a concrete set of universal meanings assigned to objects or colors that every person understands and knows.
He also writes that the medieval mind loved a puzzle, that it was part of public discourse to figure out symbols and the inherent meaning within images. That there was adventure in the act of discovery. And another phrase that struck me: “Grasping reality through sense knowledge.”
Today’s “matter of habit” is problematic when viewing art. For some of my pieces, in particular Universal Sample and my drawings and prints of specimens, the viewing can be rather cursory, a knowing, habitual glance that says, “oh I see what that is”. The glance sums up the object in very simplistic terms. In this case, for the viewer, the specimen represents death or some distasteful high school experience of dissecting a small creature, and nothing more. It is possible to look at visual art not just with visual sense but in partnership with other physical sensations conjured by the image. Looking at the work as if there is more than meets the eye, that there is an underlaying sensibility to the image that references another experience or feeling or bit of knowledge, a smell, a sound…or that of the animal or that of the instance in which the animal finds itself, or the moment that a curious person finds such an animal. Imagining that moment — “What was it like?”
So, I hope that people will approach my artwork with imagination and not as a matter of habit — to look at my work as if it is a bit of a puzzle, not a straightforward statement or concept but more of a string of thoughts, feelings and visual and sensate information to be arranged and rearranged to come to some sort of conclusion or idea about the meaning, however uncertain that may be.
BoB: Do you recall the circumstances of the book’s purchase? What were you doing when you decided to buy it?
DS: I absolutely remember. I was living in London with my spouse and family as part of a study abroad program my spouse was leading. Each day, after all were at school or otherwise occupied, I would head out in pursuit of art, medical museums, natural history oddities or any number of things and on one day I went to the British Library to see an exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This was an exhibition of the several collections representing centuries of books commissioned by kings and queens and to my delight there were books on medicine, science and nature. After spending a very long time in the exhibition, I went to the gift shop where I found the Eco book. The extraordinary detail of the manuscripts I had just seen and the enormity of the exhibition itself put me in the mood to purchase the book.
BoB: As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general or when revisiting the Eco book in particular?
DS: In general, when I am reading a book versus the screen of a device, I enjoy the structure of the book and understanding the manner in which it is assembled. The type of binding, the quality of paper, the action of the pages, do they lay flat or do they fight. I find the term “perfect binding” ironic as I am reading a book where the pages are falling out. I typically notice the condition of a book, faded covers, mildew or wear on the edges. Books with these qualities I feel a bit sorry for as I wonder where their next home will be, probably not my local library or the used book store, since here in Ohio, we haven’t many of those. Maybe they will live a short while at the Goodwill Thrift Store and from there, the recycle bin. Books are a bit like an endangered species and I am at times concerned that the youth (I have one at home) are only relating to books as they are required to do so at school and not as a place of refuge, ideas and travel. It is hard for books to compete with the ever-present screen and digital speed of information and interaction.
The Eco book in particular is a pathway back to London, to other centuries, to a time when art was the screen of the day and to the Royal manuscript exhibition. The books in the exhibition survived over centuries; the hours and hours of skill, artistry and dedication it took to not only create the books but to also preserve them gives me pause. The Eco book itself is not a great work of craftsmanship as an object, it is, after all, bound as a “perfect binding”. Still, it has not fallen apart yet, so the binders must have used a better-quality glue. Instead, the Eco book is a vessel of ideas and murmurs of what it meant to have art and beauty in one’s life hundreds of years ago. What are my intentions when opening a book? To be lifted away from the present, to enter another time period or another person’s circumstance or to be visually transported.
BoB: Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?
DS: For my series on Darwin, all seemed to fall into a flawless moment. I happened upon dozens of petri dishes and had already been thinking about Darwin’s 200th birthday. It is an instance of form and content playing together without much conflict or negotiation. From that came many books that really seemed to define themselves both in structure and content.
My books built into petri dishes are a different viewing experience for people because the dish itself is so familiar and suddenly the viewer finds the dish in an unusual circumstance, that of being a book. People pause, take notice and naturally ask questions, they seem unleashed from any customary reaction or habit and are open to an idea. The dish is an entry to figuring out a puzzle and not a barrier, such as an image of a dead bird or a dissected lizard might be.
The first books (Cell: Compendium) were in direct response to various nearby communities that were pushing for “creationism” to be taught in the public schools. The petri dish is a universal item repositioned and viewers find it humorous, unique or “creative” and while some stop there, most people are prompted to go further. The recognition of the petri dish spurs and opens the door to more meaningful connections and interpretations.
Mostly however, when making my art work, initially the book structure is secondary, a simple vehicle for the content. Imagery, content, text and the oblique narrative story are primary and the development of the images and content are the key portions of my studio work. I use other books in my work, discarded textbooks and spines, for instance, that I take apart and rework. I also use books as reference, looking for a word or phrase, a bit of information to jumpstart a narrative about a topic I am interested in. I borrow science imagery to create and integrate with my own images. I am an observational artist and that includes observing via books as well as nature.
Once the content and images are in motion, the book structure comes into play and that is when the many possibilities of the structure interact with the content and it is really the most significant challenge of creating an artist book. I do not like to use book forms for the simple novelty of the structure or for the entertainment factor (for instance a pop-up or tunnel book) unless of course it really fits the topic. I want viewers to focus on the images and feeling or message of the work, so the book structure becomes, is, or should be a thoughtful object that houses an idea or an experience, it is in service to the artist, to the viewer, it invites the viewer in and then steps aside.
BoB: Let’s turn to Universal Sample in some more detail. I’d like to ask you to comment on the intersection between the words in Universal Sample (“universal” and “sample”, “chance” and “order”, “moment” and “decay”) as well as the intersection of the words with the prints, their color, the paper you used, and the star structure.
DS: First, let me say the entire book, the six images and the text, is meant to present obliquely a life cycle of early life forms. The images are inspired by my own source material comprised of many drawings of specimens that I did at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
The title, Universal Sample, is singular and expansive. A sample is one bit of something larger that is collected and taken from a whole and isolated, universal represents a larger inclusive whole. In this case “Sample” is not numbered or identified. It is in relationship to all else, is composed of and is evidence for all else.
Dispersal – Begins the book and alludes to creation.
Vestigial – Ends it and alludes to remains.
Chance – In part I feel the world is a chaotic place where the intentional can be overcome by chance and luck, circumstance and happenstance.
Order – This is about human systems (religious, scientific) within a chaotic world and about the molecular combining and recombining relative to evolution over millions of years which bring about reasonable order within an ever-changing environment.
When I place the words “chance” and “order” together, I am referencing religion as a human system attempting to bring order to chaos, to explain the inexplicable. The images progress from an unidentified plasma or bubbly life form to a life form that appears to be lizard like, one of the early animal forms on earth. One print shows three lizards, a trinity of sorts, impaled perhaps, especially as specimens might be. Floating, they represent the substance, atom, molecules, electrons, neutrons that I know exist versus the Trinity as espoused by Christianity that I am not so certain about. In this way, I am harking back to the root of an entire body of work that I have made that draws upon Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Moment and Decay are read together with the image of a frog, a frog that is decomposing, reordering and redistributing its cells. I want the text to key viewers into the idea of a space, gap, a line or moment when decay begins. The last print is of an imaginary cellular structure of a life form as it is releasing and redistributing entirely into another space whether that is air, dirt or water or the space beyond our stratosphere.
The book structure, font and print size and paper choices are all subject to various constraints, such as paper and press bed size, size of copper, or availability of type face at the printmakers cooperative where I do my printing. For this book, I worked the structure of the book, image and text placement and layout simultaneously with content development and made at least a few small mock-ups to help me see the possibilities, resolve problems and keep me on track. I like book structures that are straightforward and that are an entry to the images and content. Sometimes, as with the Cell books, the structure is integral to the content of the work. For Universal Sample, what was going to be a simple accordion changed as I saw that the images and text could offer different ways in which to view and read the book. The star structure which consists of a series of three-page short accordions sewn into a concertina spine is elegant, seems like a standard book, a good frame for the images and when opened it can go beyond being a standard book and be manipulated and reconsidered.
BoB: Where next with your art?
DS: I like anything that can be described as a collection, the more personal and odd, the better, and I find opportunities to visit natural history or medical museums when I can. Currently, I am finishing a book object that incorporates several of my drawings of backyard specimen finds. This work includes test tubes and refers to the challenge of birds to avoid hazards and remain undetected. I am also thinking about a series of artist books that somehow reveal the dozens, hundreds, thousands of birds that are housed in the drawers of collecting institutions.
BoB: With thanks to Diane Stemper for her time and reflection. To enjoy more of her work, see her site and also:
Diane Stemper received her B.F.A. in printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute and a M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts from San Francisco State University. Her work is included in the Artists’ Book Collections of: DAAP Library, University of Cincinnati, Ohio; Main Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Cincinnati, Ohio; Special Collections, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio; and the Lucille Little Fine Arts Library, University of Kentucky.
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
– On the Origin of Species, 1869, the final paragraph.
In disparate “entangled banks” and micro-climates around the world, book artists and Charles Darwin have evolved a symbiotic relationship. By date and place, here are some bookmarks on that evolution.
1995, Washington, D.C., USA
Carol Barton and Diane Shaw organized the exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book” for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Washington Project for the Arts. Barton and Shaw invited book artists to respond to works in the Heralds of Science collection in the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library. Among twenty-one other pairings, George Gessert was invited to respond to Charles Robert Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, London, 1859.
Gessert’s response wasNatural Selection(1994), an artist’s book consisting of computer-printed handwriting and Cibachrome prints of the results of Gessert’s own experiments in hybridizing irises. Citing Darwin’s description of the breeding of pigeons for their ornamental characteristics, Gessert contends “that Darwin also recognized aesthetics as an evolutionary factor”. Since the 1980s, Gessert’s work and writings have focused on the way human aesthetics can affect evolution and the aesthetic, ethical and social implications. His work and that of artists/theorists such as Suzanne Anker, Eduardo Kac, Marta De Menezes, the Harrisons and Sonya Rapoport have constituted the bio art and eco art movements. A collection of his essays appeared as Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution in the Leonardo Book Series, published by The MIT Press in 2010.
2004, Manchester, UK
Inspired by Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Part I, and cell structures in biology texts, Emma Lloyd‘s Evolution Triptych sparks thoughts of fossils, woodcarved altarpieces or the tooled cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the code of life embedded in DNA structure and the code of information embedded in the codex.
The artistic technique here – carving the book as artifact – is prevalent in book art; see the work of Doug Beube, Brian Dettmer and Guy Laramée, for example. Lloyd’s treatment of the Darwin volume is the only one of its type in this collection of bookmarks. Given the influence of On the Origin of Species, though, it would be unusual if other “book surgeons” have not been similarly inspired by it.
2009, London, UK
Storyteller and book artist Sam Winston set about categorizing the words in On the Origin of Species and poet Ruth Padel’s Darwin, A Life in Poems (Chatto & Windus, 2009). He sorted them by nouns, verbs, adjectives and “other”. As Winston puts it, he “wanted to present a visual map of how a scientist and a poet use language – a look at how much each author used real world names (Nouns) and more abstract terminology (Verb, Adjective and Other) in their writings.”
To do that, he categorized the 153,535 words in On the Origin – a dot with a 4H pencil for the 50,567 words categorized as “Other”, a 2H pencil for the 38,266 categorized as “Noun”, an HB pencil for the 26,435 categorized as “Verb” and a 4B pencil for the 38,266 categorized as “Adjective”. The result – Darwin, a series of visual “frequency poems” on display at Le Gun Studio in London – is a book altered through the DNA-like pattern of its own words into a completely “other” scroll and into a topographical map of itself – guided by the artist’s hand and mind.
In the same sesquicentennial year, in the same city, Stefanie Posavec collaborated with Greg McInerny to issue (En)tangled Word Bank, a series of diagrams, each representing an edition of On the Origin of Species, and the work’s title alluding to Darwin’s “entangled bank” passage presented above.The pressed-dandelion-shaped chapters and subchapters are divided into paragraph ‘leaves’ with wedge-shaped ‘leaflets’ representing their sentences.
The sentences forming the ‘leaflets’ of the organism are of orange, senescent tones when they will be deleted in following editions. The green, growth tones are applied to those sentences that have life in the following edition. The tone of each colour is determined by its age, in editions, to that point. Through these differences in colouration the simplicity in structure in the early stages of the organism’s life develops into a complex form, showing when the structures developed to its changing environment. Around the organisms the textual code is provided, showing the changes in the size of the organism, and where the senescence and growth is derived in that code. A series of re-arrangements of the organism focus on changes at each level of organisation.
This is “structural infographic” as art.
2009, Boston, MA, USA
Across the Atlantic, Ben Fry, author of Visualizing Data (O’Reilly, 2007), created a similar work of art called The Preservation of Favoured Traces. Fry color-coded each word of Darwin’s final text by the edition in which it first appeared and used the data to build an interactive display at fathom.com demonstrating the changes at the macro level and word-by-word. Fry went on to produce a poster version and print-on-demand book version.
2009, Vancouver, Canada
Three thousand miles away that summer, Canadian poets Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott placed multiple copies of On the Origin of Species in various outdoor locations “not … to put the natural into the text, [but] … to put the text out into the natural world and see what happens to it” (p. 2). After a year, Collis and Scott photographed the results in situ and collected and used the some of the still decipherable words as found text for their volume Decomp (Coach House Press, 2013).
Former science teacher and now botanical artist and bookmaker, Kelly Houle embarked on a 10-year plan to create an illuminated and scribed copy of the first edition of On the Origin. Where medieval scribes and rubricators had abbots to preside over them and their book art, Houle has University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Jerry A. Coyne and several other academics. As she notes about her process, the past techniques have also yielded to present concerns:
Today many artists still practice the tradition of illumination using medieval and renaissance-era materials and techniques. While many of these have stood the test of time, there are more earth-friendly materials than those used in the past….
The Illuminated Origin of Species will be written on hot-pressed Fabriano Artistico paper made in Italy. It is the best paper in the world for both calligraphy and botanical art. These are extremely smooth, beautiful, and durable papers. They are chlorine-free, acid-free, and 100% cotton. No animal by-products are used in the sizing. Combined with Winsor and Newton watercolors and gouache, this paper will be perfect for the demands of The Illuminated Origin.
To mimic the play of light on various shiny and iridescent surfaces in nature, I am using 23k gold foil, shell gold, and interference watercolors, which contain small flecks of mica to produce an iridescent effect. These metals will distinguish The Illuminated Origin as a truly “illuminated” manuscript. — Kelly M. Houle, “The Making of a Modern Illuminated Manuscript“
Houle aims to complete her work in 2019,On the Origin‘s 160th anniversary.
2009, Farnham, Surrey, UK
Between its hardback covers lined in marbled papers, Angela Thames’ Darwin’s Poetic Words has distilled the often liturgical, poetic passages of On the Origin of Species.
Between 2009 and 2013, Thames created four more artist’s books besides Darwin’s Poetic Words, based on excerpts from On the Origin of Species. In this focus and technique, Thames takes and interprets portions rather than the whole of the source as do Houle, Collis and Scott, Fry, McInerny and Posavec, Winston, and Lloyd in their differing ways.
Poor Man (2009-13) is the only exhibit in this survey that demonstrates the pop-up technique in book artistry, but as evolutionary biology and fossil-hunting have shown, who knows what undiscovered forms are out there.
2012, New York, NY, USA
Following in their tradition since 1984, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (“Kids of Survival”) seized on Darwin’s “Tree of Life” diagram
and “jammed” to produce a series of paintings and preliminary works in ink and watercolor on pages of the book to create ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES (after Darwin). Eighteen students, aged 13 to 16, worked with Rollins on the preliminary studies, one of which appears below, that preceded the 2013 exhibition of paintings at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery.
The large-scale paintings consist of almost all of the 360 pages of On the Origin fixed to canvas and ink-stamped over and over with the “Tree of Life” image, which had been cut into 60 handstamps. Rollins described the concept of the works in an interview for Brooklyn Rail:
The whole book is 360 pages but we don’t ever want to be literal so it’s not all of the pages. They’re there to inspire. It’s like an opera. The libretto inspires the music. You can watch an opera in a language you don’t know, without reading. It’s the same with our work. It’s about a visual correspondence with the text. The work is not about something. That’s why you can’t get hung up on interpretation. That’s a big issue, especially with so much politically engaged art. We want to create a situation, learning machines, so everyone is learning in the process of making and then hopefully the audience will be inspired too. Maybe they will pick up Darwin or continue with the idea. These are catalysts for action.
In a video interview with ArtNet, Rollins also refers to the K.O.S. jamming process -reading aloud from the book in a studio setting, discussing it with students and seeking inspiration from the text – not as a school lesson or classroom exercise but as a kind of séance, an assertion that touches the essence of “reverse ekphrasis” in book art. Rather than the literary work or book capturing the spirit of a work of art, the work of art captures the spirit of the book.
2013/14, Oxford, OH, USA
At the University of Puget Sound (2013) and Center for Book Art in New York (2014), Diane Stemper exhibited her Darwin-inspired book art that explores “the intersection between the natural world, daily living, science and the collective and individual experience of landscape”.
Hand bound, printed and produced in her Plat 21 Studio, in Oxford, her Galapagos Map (2013), Darwin’s Atlantic Sea (2014) and Universal Sample (2014), these works have an eerie physical presence. At the Center for Book Art, I have seen and, with the kind permission of Alex Campos, the curator there, touched the works. The intaglio printing and richly textured creamy paper still communicate themselves even across the digital divide.
2014, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and London, UK
Simon Phillipson completed a variorum edition of On the Origin of Species, in which every verso page is the evolved or amended text and the recto page is the final text from the the Sixth edition.
The verso pages are completely printed in a special metallic bronze ink. The recto is printed in a combination of black and bronze ink. The bronze highlighted words in the recto correspond to the evolving or amending text in the verso. Very reminiscent of, but distinct from, Ben Fry’s The Preservation of Favoured Traces (see above).
2014, Minneapolis, MN
Vesna Kittelson is an American-Croatian artist based in Minneapolis. Her résumé cites public collections ranging from Tate Britain and Minnesota Museum of American Art to Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Armenia and the Modern Museum of Art in Croatia. In 2009, she spent time at Churchill College, Cambridge University, where she learned about the life and marriage of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood. Subsequently she created four artist books titled Mrs. Darwin’s Garden depicting primitive-seeming plants imagined as flora that Darwin might have seen from the deck of the Beagle. The names of the plants are made-up Latin names or variations on those of contemporary plants.
These abstract images are imagined plants for Mrs. Darwin’s garden. They are illustrations of named floral specimens that never existed in reality. In Mrs. Darwin’s Garden they are presented as if they correspond to data derived from Darwin’s experimentation in his greenhouse. In this book I replaced the 19th C methods of botanical drawing with pouring paints to incorporate the contemporary notion of valuing an accident, followed by drawing with brushes and pencils to gain control and give the images a place and time in the 21st C.
2014, Grasswood, Saskatchewan, Canada
Jonathan Skinner (Warwick University) wrote in his preface to Decomp (see above):
Writing rots, meaning flees. … Yet the book is written to locate (some) meaning here. Would it make any difference to leave Decomp itself in the wilderness? Probably not.
Book artist, papermaker and co-founder with her husband David Miller of Byopia Press, Cathryn Miller reviewed Decomp in 2013. If not prompted by Skinner’s preface, Miller must have felt how appropriately evolutionary it would be to attempt to replicate the Decomp experiment by substituting the result of that experiment for the subject of the replicating experiment. Thus, in January 2014, Miller nailed to a tree “a book based on letting brand new copies of On the Origin of Species rot in various locations”.
For over twenty months, Miller monitored and husband David photographed the book’s weathering. That, however, was not the transformation that would result in an altered book and possibly a work of book art. Nature had some ironic appropriateness in store for Miller, Skinner, Collis, Scott and all of us. The blown pages were visited by Bald-faced Hornets, who digested them á la John Latham and his students but regurgitated them as cellulose with which to build a large nest.
In the context of book art, the nest offers a curiously serendipitous digression. In 1719, the French naturalist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur published an essay to the Royal Academy of Sciences on the natural history of wasps. In the passage below, he hypothesizes how their natural papermaking industry could be adopted by man.
In 2015, Miller presented the results as Recomp in her blog at Byopia Press. In September that year, however, critics (raccoons, the artist thinks) visited the work and deconstructed it.
Might this prove that, to paraphrase the last paragraph of On the Origin, “by laws acting around us…. from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals [and their art], directly follows”? If so, that makes raccoons and critics equal laws of nature.
2015, Umeå, Sweden
Johannes Heldén’s work Field is book, visual art and installation all in one. Heldén’s is perhaps the darkest variant on Darwin’s theme here.
It consists of interactive landscape animations on a floor touchscreen of 20 sqm,
a series of sculptural mutations of the Eurasian Jackdaw*,
an ever-changing soundscape and an interactive screen wall with a text responding to the changing DNA of the bird
– as the ”code” of todays species is slowly lost, so is the code and context of language. The gaps in the text correspond to the shift in the DNA sequence, prose turns into dark poetry, connections and meaning changing for each iteration.
All these pieces are connected: as you explore the landscape and trigger the glowing touch points with your body, time is rapidly speeding up (clouds move over the scene, trees wither away, a flood is coming), one by one the four bird sculptures in the installation will be ”activated” with light and sound, spiraling the species further down into mutations. At the end of the piece, no lights remain in the landscape, the sound is immense, all mutations have occurred, the last poetry dissolves into entropy. Then all fades to black.
Since Darwin’s theory encompassed extinction, perhaps Heldén’s vision is not so much a variant on Darwin as it is a pessimistic appreciation and warning about the impact of our interaction with the entangled bank.
2016, Guildford, Surrey, UK
Cathryn Miller’s “bio-book-art” and that of Collis and Scott stand at the collaboration end of the bio art spectrum, where the artist yields considerable control to nature in the creative process. At the coordination end of the spectrum – closer to domestication of species – stands Dr. Simon F. Park’s bio-book-art – The Origin of Species – perhaps “the first book to be grown and produced using just bacteria”. Presented at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the small book has pages made of bacterial cellulose, produced by the bacterium Gluconoacetobacter xylinus (GXCELL). Its cover is even printed with naturally pigmented bacteria.
Although Park’s science-driven process for paper manufacturing and printing echoes the speculations of French naturalist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (see above), it seems to have much in common with the painstaking craft of handmade paper and hand letterpress printing. The first sheet of Park’s micro-organically grown paper took a little under two weeks to be generated and stencilled with his bacterial ink.
2016, Colchester, Essex, UK
It seems chronologically backwards to move from bio-book-art’s live media to Chris Ruston’s ammonites of The Great Gathering. As should be evident by now, however, the evolution of the symbiotic relationship between book artists and Darwin has been anything but a straight line. It has curved, circled and recursed.
Tim Rollins + K.O.S may have had their séance 30-50 feet away from Darwin’s lodgings in Edinburgh, but Chris Ruston brought her Darwin-inspired book art to an even more fitting venue: a church converted into Colchester’s Natural History Museum.
As the artist comments at her site:
The Great Gathering refers to our continued exploration of where we have come from, and where we are going. Combined the seven volumes tell an amazing story spanning 650 million years. Sculptural in form, each book reflects a moment of this journey. From black holes and dark beginnings, through ocean and sediment layers, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and recycled National Geographic magazines the work charts the inevitability of change.
They are a response to visiting Museum collections, in particular the Natural History Museum, Colchester and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences Cambridge. Fossils hold the key which have enabled us to unlock the story of our Origins – from the largest creatures to the smallest organisms. The 19th century saw an explosion of knowledge and understanding, culminating in Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. By piecing together the riddle of the fossil record, Darwin and his contemporaries began asking revolutionary and challenging questions, the results of which are still felt today.
Science and art are the presiding geniuses over The Great Gathering. In The sciences of the artificial (1969), Herbert Simon emphasized: “The natural sciences are concerned with the way things are” and engineering, with the way things ought to be to attain goals. Like the scientist, the artist, too, is concerned with the way things are. They are the raw material with which the artist works or to which he or she responds. But like the engineer or the designer, the artist is concerned with the way things ought to be:
how a solander box ought to be constructed to operate with the work and, in enclosing it, be “the work”;
what materials (photos from the Hubble telescope) ought to be used to reflect a moment in time;
how thread, tape and stitch ought to be to hold together a spine that will flex and spiral into the shape of a fossil;
how the color of the material ought to be juxtaposed with the material’s altered shape to carry meaning;
how the shift from content to blankness ought to be juxtaposed with the material’s altered shape to carry meaning;
how the selection and alteration of text ought to be made to show the fixity and flux of knowledge and ourselves;
and how our reflection in the mirror in Volume VII under the maker’s tools and the made thing ought to implicate us — the viewer here and now – in an ongoing process of making and remaking.
If you have come this far with these bookmarks on the evolution of book artists’ symbiosis with Darwin, note that today and every 12th of February is Darwin Day, marking international celebrations of the birth of Charles Darwin and his contributions to science. From today’s engagements and all those to come with the concepts of On the Origin of Species and (I hope) with these bookmarks, perhaps new discoveries and new creations of book art will emerge.