“I AM SEEKING TO UNEARTH A SOLUTION BEYOND THE CONVENTIONAL SYSTEM OF LANGUAGE FOR MAKING CONNECTIONS.” Masoumeh Mohtadi
Blindness (2020) Masoumeh Mohtadi Altered paperback, Persian/Farsi translation of Blindness by José Saramago. H210 x W145 x D20 mm, ۳۱۸ (318) pages. Unique. Acquired from Bavan Gallery, 9 January 2021.
As would be expected, the binding of this Persian trade paperback is on the right, but its front cover and copyright page promise the unexpected. Excising lines of text from every page in the book, Mohtadi then physically reweaves Saramago’s gripping tale of a pandemic of sudden blindness into illegibility, varied patterns and heightened tactility.
The flimsiness of the pages slows their turning. As does their frequent catching at one another as they turn. In the slow turning, different woven patterns appear — some suddenly, some gradually. Some patterns bring to mind the streets and cityscape the novel’s characters can no longer see. Some, the hospital warrens the quarantined inhabit. Some, the tradition of carpet weaving.
The excised and woven pages inflate the book as if it had been read and re-read. Closed, it compresses in the hand, feels airy and weighty at the same time; opened, it pricks at the fingers, casts shadow and light and drags the eyes to surface and depth simultaneously.
Mohtadi’s cutting, weaving, pasting and patterning appropriates Saramago’s novel in a thoroughly integral way. And for a Western reader, the Persian translation and script introduce another layer between text and mind that challenges perception and enhances appreciation of this work of book art. She succeeds in connecting.
The Black Page Catalogue(2010) Coxwold, UK: Printed by Graham Moss (Incline Press) for The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 73 numbered leaves in a matte black card box (H235 x W168 mm). The leaves are glossy cards (210 x 148 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a single-sheet folded pamphlet (“Printing the Black Page” by Graham Moss, Incline Press) and two cards, one of which is the invitation to the exhibition inspired by the ‘black page’, p. 73 of the first edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, held at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, North Yorkshire, 5 Sept.-31 Oct. 2009, and the other, sealed in an envelope, being the index of the contributors and their page numbers. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Collectors come up with the most ingenious reasons for acquiring things. In this case — along with astrological, numerological and other rational rationale — Rebecca Romney’s reminder that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is one of the earlier instances of book art led inevitably to my acquiring Shandy Hall’s The Black Page Catalogue. But it took time.
Several months after enjoying the Romney essay, I met Brian Dettmer in January 2015 by happenstance at a book art exhibition in New Haven, CT. As we chatted about past inspirations of book art, Tristram Shandy came up, so he told me of an upcoming event called “Turn the Page” in Norwich, UK, where I could more easily see some of his work — and one in particular having to do with Tristram Shandy. So in May 2015, I went.
Tristram Shandy (2014) Brian Dettmer Carved and varnished, two copies of the 2005 Folio Society edition of Tristram Shandy. H230 x W190 mm Commissioned by The Laurence Sterne Trust, Coxwold, UK. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The marbled page, an “emblem of my work”, p. 169. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) by Laurence Sterne Illustrated with wood engravings by John Lawrence. Set in ‘Monotype’ Plantin, printed by Cambridge University Press on Caxton Wove Paper. New York: Folio Society, 2005.
So a year passed. Another visit to “Turn the Page” was made. And as I was leaving, lo, a sign and small display came unto me:
Only a negligent collector would ignore such clear signs.
Parson-Yoricks-to-be can select their own favorites here.
Emblem of My Work (2013)
Emblem of My Work (2013) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Consists of a 24-page booklet and 170 numbered cards in a hinged blue paper-covered box (H160 x W105 x D60 mm. The leaves of this catalogue are bright white cards (152 x 92 mm) on which the artwork is printed; the reverse of each provides the “page” number and the contributor’s comments on the art. The booklet provides alphabetical and numerically ordered indexes listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 225, of which this is #79. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 1 October 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Volume III of Sterne’s work was the first to be handled by a publisher. Presumably the famous success of the first two self-published volumes helps to explain James Dodsley’s agreement to printing copies in which each page 169 and each page 170 showed uniquely marbled squares. Images from an original copy held at the British Library can be seen here. As Patrick Wildgust, director of Shandy Hall, explains in the booklet:
The central section of p. 169 was laid upon the marbled mixture in order that a coloured impression could be taken as cleanly as possible. This was left to dry and then reverse-folded so the other side of the paper could also receive its marbled impression. This side of the paper became page . As a result, the marbled page in every copy of Vol. III is different — each impression being a unique handmade image. In the text opposite on p. 168, Sterne tells the reader that the marbled page is the “motly emblem of my work” — the page communicating visually that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance.
Two favorites — one for page , one for  — artists with other works in the Books On Books Collection. Left: Ken Campbell. Right: Eric Zboya.
Paint Her To Your Own Mind (2018) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 147 numbered leaves in a brown paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (145 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (chiefly colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 200. Acquired from Shady Hall, 6 June 2018. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Page 147 of Sterne’s sixth volume of Tristram Shandy is blank. On the preceding page, he metaphorically throws up his hands over any attempt to describe the most beautiful woman who has ever existed and exhorts the reader: “To conceive this right, —call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand, —Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—‘tis all one to me—please your own fancy in it.” So, accordingly, Shandy Hall invited 147 artists/writers/composers to follow Sterne’s instruction to fill the blank page 147. From the 9th through 30th of September 2016, their efforts were displayed in the Shandy Hall Gallery, Coxwold, York.
The curious reader can choose his or her own favorites here.
The Flourish of Liberty (2019)
In Volume IX on p. 17, the reader reads Corporal Trim’s advice to Uncle Toby, who stands at the Widow Wadman’s threshold about to propose marriage:
Nothing, continued the Corporal, can be so sad as confinement for life — or so sweet, an’ please your honour, as liberty. Nothing, Trim — said my Uncle Toby, musing — Whil’st a man is free — cried the corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus —
The Flourish of Liberty (2019) Coxwold, UK: The Laurence Sterne Trust. Contains 103 numbered leaves in a gray paper-covered box (174 x 124 mm). The leaves are bright white cards (148 x 105 mm) on which contributed texts and illustrations (black and white, several in colour) are printed; the reverse of each provides the contributor’s comments on the text or illustration and the “page” number. Also enclosed are a “title page” and “index leaf” listing the contributors and their page numbers. Edition of 150, of which this is #133. Acquired from Shandy Hall, 26 October 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Although unremarkable in its production values, 13 March 1911 enters the collection as a brilliant composite with roots in OuLiPo, Grangerism and the collage technique, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and The Arcades Project and Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Book, Spiritual Instrument”. The date is the birth date of Smyth’s grandfather, and it is what confronts us in a photographic detail of a newspaper masthead.
From OuLiPo, Smyth takes the rule of constraint to guide his creation. The constraint is that the content presented must refer to events occurring on 13 March 1911 and in chronological order. Added to the constraint are citability of each source, which often takes Smyth to the Internet and Wayback Machine. Although focused on a single day in time, the writer, book and reader fly back and forth as if tethered together in a time machine composed of print and digital reference material.
Strictly with Grangerism, there should be a previously published book into and onto which the reader/actor inserts, pastes and attaches clippings relevant to the book in hand. Instead of a book in hand, Smyth has a date in hand to which the clippings accrue. And in keeping with this non-material target for Grangerizing, Smyth’s collage technique eschews visual and physical overlapping, rather it lies more in overlapping different types of sources of “data”: newspaper articles, classified ads, advertisements, Captain Scott’s journal, weather reports, obituaries, theater reviews and much more.
In a sort of reversal of Benjamin’s unpacking his library, Smyth packs snippets from history into this one book that turns on his grandfather’s birth date. It is not that Smyth can recreate him with all these snippets, or that the reader can ever know the man from those snippets — anymore than a reader of every single book in Benjamin’s library could recreate Benjamin or know him from doing so.
Like Benjamin in Arcades, Smyth is a collector of fragments by which he tries to make the past present. But Smyth’s time machine is also richly multi-dimensional — especially in its being digitally and print powered. What Smyth gives himself and the reader is an extended moment of recognizing the wide-flung welter around any of us at any time and the wryness, despair, amusement, inspiration and poignancy of trying to define, find and memorialize others (however close) or ourselves by that welter — however retrievable or citable the elements of it.
Finally, Smyth gives us one day’s proof of Mallarmé’s dictum: “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”. And so it ends up in the Books On Books Collection.
Information as Material (Smyth’s 13 March 1911 is a publication with IAM, which offers works from authors such as Derek Beaulieu, Francesca Capone, Craig Dworkin, Andrew Dodds, Sharon Kivland, Simon Morris and Nick Thurston).
… we have a trick that we call language. Actually, we have many kinds of language, each of which is based on a formal system of codes and/or symbols through which we represent states of the world. Frank R. Wilson, The Hand (2000)
Weaving Language: Language is Image, Paper, Code & Cloth (2018)
Weaving Language examines the poetics of weaving traditions through historical research as well as contemporary practices. Attempting to dismantle and rebuild commonplace understandings of the history of writing, Weaving Language focuses on fiber-based forms as a longstanding but often overlooked medium for record keeping, storytelling, and poetry. The book is both a mapping of instances that exemplify textile poetics from the beginning of time to the present day, as well as a creative experiment in utilizing textile as code. Capone invites the reader to experience textile as something to be read, along with its tactile and visual functions. — from the book jacket.
Sadly, Weaving Language: Language is Image, Paper, Code & Cloth (2018) aka WL II is only a third of the trilogy sought after for the collection (the other two are out of print). Its brilliant content and typography make the absence more acute. As its table of contents shows, WL II is also composed of three parts. Initially the first part seems to be a chronologically organized commonplace book with a rich collection of quotations from primary and secondary sources (citations in gray), with some guiding comments interspersed from Capone. But with the source material printed in black, the citation lines in gray and author’s comments in blue, the feeling turns to that of holding a patchwork quilt or the Bayeux tapestry of weaving’s history. The image below provides an example of the color-coded typography, including the single and apt exception in red.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Capone’s choice not to reproduce an image of Elizabeth Parker’s sampler stitched in red (see below) but rather to use type and red ink draws subtle and effective attention to how the book’s own visual motif underpins the way Capone weaves her choices of content together into a unified fabric.
Linen, embroidered with red silk in cross stitch (c. 1830) Elizabeth Parker (1813-89) H858 x W744 mm. Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum, Textiles & Fashion Collection, T.6-1956.
The second part — “Woven Codes” — begins like a “how to” book with a key page followed by examples. Structurally more profoundly, it links to the first part’s concluding quotation of a quotation: the poet Susan Howe citing Gertrude Stein’s “Sentences” notebooks, in which she wrote “Think in stitches”. The link is made by coding three selections from Stein’s Tender Buttons into three forms — gridded writing, an erasure poem and then a woven draft. Again, aptly, Capone chooses for her samplers “A Cloth”, “A Paper” and “A Drawing”. The next two pages — one illustrating the grid-based coding of Braille, one showing the method of tying coded Quipu knots — also reach back into the first part to pick up threads introduced by citations of Joyce Carol Oates and David Antin.
The last page of this black-and-white section of “Woven Codes” alludes even more subtly to the first part. The page’s text describing the illustration below it reads
The weaving of alternating S and Z twisted yarns results in a historically sturdy cloth composition.
Among the patchwork sources in the first part, there is a brief quotation from one of Roland Barthes’ lectures in which he “introduced the metaphor of ‘unthreading’ for the act of describing”. Could the weaving of “S and Z” yarns refer to Barthes’ S/Z, the seminal structuralist deciphering of codes of meaning in Honoré de Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine”? Only if “historically sturdy” is tongue in cheek, as the post-structuralists would have it. Allusion notwithstanding, this illustration of sturdy woven cloth sets us up for the more colorful concluding section of “Woven Codes” in which Capone demonstrates the color coding of various verse forms such as the sestina (below).
By pairing the drawn plan with the front and rear views of the woven sestina from Dante and then pairing a right-reading setting with a reversed setting of the poem in color-coded type, Capone underscores her equation of language = image, paper, code and cloth.
The third part of the book — “Weaving>>Writing” — brings all of the elements together in reverse: fabric comes first and is translated into words. It is a reversal that depends on Weaving Language I: Lexicon, in which Capone set out the code where “fiber informs pronouns, weave structure informs verb, interlacing and tapestry techniques are prepositions, color informs nouns & adjectives, and any two colors beside each other result in conjunctions”.
Five of Capone’s woven>>written poems are followed by five works by artists Ruth Laskey, Alicia Scardetta, Tauba Auerbach, Kayla Mattes, and New Friends (Alexandra Segreti and Kelly Rakowski). As individually whole works, they are not illustrated here. To view them, buy WL II from its publisher Information as Material or a bookstore or consult a library. As mentioned, WL I is out of print, perhaps hampering a fuller appreciation of the ten woven>>written poems. With WL III also now out of print, perhaps Information as Material will come to the rescue and make it possible for Books On Books to complete its set of the trilogy without dropping a stitch.