The 20th century poet Ezra Pound espoused the view that the best way to understand and critique literature was by juxtaposition of works from different periods. Here is an attempt at that approach applied to the art of Jukhee Kwon and John Latham, but the critic might have better selected Kwon’s Libro Libero (2013) to make the point about “releasing … energy and celebrating freedom”. Kwon’s own thoughts about Libro Libero lead in a different direction though.
The work of Libro Libero was done with a Christian nun’s book. I am not so religious a person, but I understand that religion is about life. How we come and how we live and how we die. And every belief has a strong link with something invisible and oneself visible … (we live in the body) … you can say the connection between the soul and body.
So I made the bookwork to be producer and receiver. Pages are coming out (producer) and the scrolled papers are below them (receiver). The shredded paper is falling and settling on the scrolled paper boat (it looks like a boat or if you will a bowl). The falling paper is fragile but in the boat or bowl it becomes solid and safe.
Email to author, 26 September 2018, edited for brevity.
At the October Gallery in London in January 2019, I had the chance to see a similar bookwork. The difference drives home the use of the book as material — like clay or stone for sculpture, oils or watercolour for painting. But it is freighted, manifold material.
It brings paper, cloth or leather, and ink; it brings content. As in Libro Libero, Kwon turns another book into an active composite — the covers opened to spill out pages, cut and braided into ribbons, the last of which have been dipped into ink. Or, per the title, is it the covers opening, the pages unravelling and braiding, the ink of the words draining into a pool of darkness into which the ribbons are dipping? Rather than the lighter spiritual association suggested by the former’s title, shape and action, Dipping into Darkness implies a blacker interpretation. Or perhaps that is too Western a perspective. Is the breviary at the pinnacle of the work the result of the brush-like shape’s dipping into the ink of contemplation?
If the chance to view and contemplate Kwon’s art arises, take it.
The Gaudier-Brzeska exhibition, the finale before Kettle’s Yard would close for years, had drawn me to Cambridge. I spent hours there. Exhausted, I was walking back to the train past the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had read somewhere that Xu Bing would have a small solo exhibition at the Fitzwilliam.
I own a copy of Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point – a pictographic account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker – and I had seen Book from the Sky at the Odd Volumes exhibition of Yale’s Allan Chasanoff Collection. So I took a chance.
After first not recognizing my mispronunciation of Xu Bing and then hunting through some brochures, the attendants at the information desk directed me downstairs to a room of Chinese porcelain just outside the museum shop. Among the glass cases of blue and white: Bird Language (2003), four brass and copper birdcages, containing toy birds that sing at the clap of your hands. The mesh of two of the cages are composed of words in the Latin alphabet, the other two in Xu Bing’s faux Chinese calligraphy. According to his site, “The words are questions that people have asked Xu Bing about art, and his answers.”
They remind me of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Bird Swallowing a Fish, just a question of timing and the juxtaposition of two artists fascinated with a union of the animistic and mechanistic? Maybe it is these few other degrees of separation: Gaudier-Brzeska’s catalyzing effect on Ezra Pound in 1913, Pound’s creative misunderstanding of Chinese calligraphy, Pound’s disputably indisputable influence on the author of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), whose birds are “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling … set upon a golden bough to sing ….”, and now Xu Bing’s toy birds that require the body not the “Soul [to] clap its hands” and let the birds do the singing.
Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky must have been even more impressive in its Metropolitan Museum display (2013/14) than its partial form at the Yale Gallery (2015) as shown above, but that’s part of the pleasure of conceptual art. Whether billowing overhead on scrolls suspended from the ceiling and walls or juxtaposed in their bound book form with their wooden case, these hand-bound deliberately indecipherable, meaningless Chinese calligraphic forms printed from hand-carved wood blocks sing in the mind and soul. But what is that song? We have the impression of meaning, an impression conveyed by graphic gesture and the traditional containers of meaning. But there is a slippage between the impression of meaning and grasp of meaning. Perhaps that is Xu Bing’s song.
The Khan Academy’s socio-political take on Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky — comparing it to Ai WeiWei’s performance art of smashing a Han dynasty vase — may usefully decipher the song for some. I think it misses a more profound point that Charlie Bennett approaches in his Aestheticareview of Xu Bing’s installation version of Book from the Ground (just closed on 28 February 2016 at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester, UK). The interactive mixed-media installation recreated Xu Bing’s art studio, including double-page spreads of the book pinned up on a wall, over-sized blow-ups of the pictographs from the book and two computers for visitors’ use.
Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to [New] English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.
With its English and Chinese birdcages, Bird Language, too, echoes Introduction to New English Calligraphy. But in the viewer’s interaction with the latter, the meaning that emerges is not what the viewer “intends” by copying out pretty lines. The experience of “communicated meaning” or “almost communicated meaning” seems accidental or magical. Likewise in Bird Language, we know that the sensor activates the toy bird and suspect a connection between the “magically activated” songs and the word-mesh cages. We suspect meaning. We know the artist’s hand formed metal letters to form metal words in two different languages. We suspect that each cage forms a narrative. We suspect there are differences in the narratives from the difference in round and square cage, English and Chinese cage. For some, that experience of suspicion might be frustrating; for others, delighting.
On further reflection, I think Xu Bing’s art challenges that modernist “union” of the animistic and mechanistic. With the sound-activation of digital birdsong and software-translation of words into pictographs, Bird Language and Book from the Ground (the installation) offer the slippery intersection of the animistic, the mechanistic and the digital. Intersection is not always union, if by “union” we mean equivalence, meaning and clarity. “Made in China” birds are not swallowing or regurgitating brass symbols. Animistic and mechanistic input to digital translation or replication do not always yield union — equivalence, meaning or clarity. But in Xu Bing’s hands and mind — in their intersection with our hands and minds — they yield a suspicion of union. They yield art.
The British Library‘s “Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts” blog is a reliable source of visual delight and provocation to think about the interplay of the print and digital worlds. It also prompts the application of Ezra Pound’s critical technique of juxtaposing works, demonstrated so well in his The ABC of Reading.
I have read A Degree of Mastery from cover to cover twice. Once in New York between 2002 and 2005 when I was teaching “Professional Book and Information Publishing” at NYU and wanted readings to help provide students with a sense of the history, art and craft of the book. The second time here and now in Windsor looking for the “right something” to include in “Books On Books.”
On both occasions ebooks and digital publishing pervaded my thoughts, but only on the second time around did these questions and observations I want to raise now shape themselves as they have.
Annie Tremmel Wilcox weaves a memoir of her apprenticeship under the renowned bookbinder and conservator William Anthony. She weaves it with her diary entries, excerpts from an exhibit brochure “Saving Our Books and Words: The Conservation and Preservation of Books,” newspaper articles, correspondence, passages from “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” by Toshio Odate, step by step descriptions of mending torn pages and crumbling leather spines and plainspoken observation of fellow workers, conference attendees, librarians, government officials posing with restored documents, children making “books” from striped computer paper with wallpaper sewn on for covers and, of course, Bill Anthony, the “Johnny Appleseed of bookbinding.”
“Weaves” is the precise word for the structure of her book’s narrative, and it would be the right word for her ebook, if there were one. As I re-read it, this game of word substitution yielded questions that make this memoir a useful means to bookmark the evolution of the book.
Writing about some of the tools she learns to use — lifting knives, translucent bone folders, the spokeshave and others — she says of Anthony’s, “His tools were smarter than mine. They knew the correct way to cut paper or pare leather. By using them I could feel in my hands how the tools were supposed to work.” (48) For Wilcox and her reader, Bill Anthony is the master “shokunin,” craftsman or artisan. And when she quotes from Odate “For the ‘shokunin,’ utility and appearance must be enhanced by the tool’s ‘presence,’ that is its refinement and dignity….,” this reader asks,
What are the tools of the ebook maker? From whence comes their refinement and dignity — their “presence” — with which the “shokunin” imbues his creation as a result of his commitment to his craft? In what tools of the ebookmaker does “the spirit of the tool that records the ‘shokunin’s’ ability through the years to face the uncertainties of life, to overcome them, and to master the art of living” reside?
Too Zen? Perhaps.
An English grad student, Wilcox relished handling the University of Iowa‘s Sir Walter Scott Collection, its Leigh Hunt Collection and The Works of Rudyard Kipling. Confronted with earlier slapdash and botched work on certain volumes of the Kipling, she writes, “Certainly these volumes of Kipling are found on the shelves of numerous libraries across the country, but the integrity of ‘these’ volumes as a complete set has been lost.” (179) What constitutes the “integrity” of an ebook or its constituents? Are ebooks so “immaterial” that such a question is nonsensical?
The author’s apprenticeship included collaboration on the exhibit “Saving Our Books and Words.” In addition to coauthoring the exhibit’s brochure, Wilcox contributed to completing Anthony’s special project of developing for the exhibit a unique collection of models demonstrating “the evolution of the codex – the form of the book as we know it.”(181) In the brochure she touches on the immateriality and materiality of the Center’s work: “Simply defined, preservation is the attempt to save the intellectual content of books while conservation is the attempt to save both the intellectual content and its vehicle — the covers, paper, endbands, etc. The former is concerned with saving what the human record contains without regard to the forms it winds up in. The latter focuses on the artifact itself, attempts to save this book, this sheet.” (192)
What is the “form” of the ebook as we know it? Is the ebook as much “vehicle” as “content”? What are its equivalencies to the page or to what “binds” the “text block”? What does it mean to “conserve” an ebook? Of a digital copy, what are the materials; what is the artifact to be conserved?
Wilcox ends her memoir with the completion of her “masterpiece,” the restoration of the incunabulum that Bill Anthony assigned her before his death and which she completed after it with the help of “The Restoration of Leather Bindings” by Bernard Middleton, author of the standard text “A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique.” The work assigned was Pope Pius II’s “Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum,” printed by Johannes De Colonia and Johannes Manthen in Venice in 1477, which when restored was “not a deluxe edition, but … had great integrity.” In the year 2547, of what will the preservation and conservation of today’s e-incunabula consist? Will some apprentice conservator understand the “form” of these ebooks “in the cradle” and, master of smart tools, restore them to their integrity?
With Ann Tomalak’s essay, perhaps we can see that future through her present lense on the past. Give it a read.