Bookmarking Book Art – Shirley Sharoff

Magicienne des formes et des couleurs is how Art & Métiers du Livre (2002) describes Shirley Sharoff. The magic she makes reveals itself in a particular kind of fusion. One of structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft. It is a magic best sensed when handling or really seeing her work.

OVI: objets volants identifiés dans le ciel d’Italo Calvino (1988) Shirley Sharoff
Graphic ‘big bang’ and typographic spirals with an extract from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, postface by Mario Fusco
4 color etchings printed by the Atelier René Tazé
Edition of 74 on Vélin Rives
Typography by François Da Ros in Cochin typeface
In a silver-colored box of 26.5 x 37 cm Photos by Books On Books and reproduced with artist’s permisision

Brooklyn-born but resident and working in France for most of her life, Sharoff studied in Paris under Gotthard Johnny Friedlaender (1912-1992), learning his method of making color prints from two or three different plates. She came to the artist’s book in the 1980s through a friend who introduced her to a typographer with whom the friend was working: François Da Ros.

During my conversation with [Da Ros], I told him that I had an idea for a book but didn’t know how to go about it. It involved prints and an excerpt from one of Italo Calvino’s works. … that’s how my first artist book got started — and once I did that I thought “artist books” were so interesting that I just wanted to keep on doing it. — Artist’s correspondence with Books On Books, 18 December 2018

The result of that encounter was OVI (1988). The text came from Calvino’s Big Bang story “Sul far del giorno” (“At daybreak”) in his collection Le Cosmicomiche (1965) (Cosmicomics, 1968). Calvino’s story relates how the main character, Qfwfq, and his extended family, from a species we cannot identify, experience the cosmic Big Bang.

The story’s language, character and narrative deliver an astrophysical and micro-organic alchemy that falls in line with Calvino’s association with the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo) or “Workshop for Potential Literature”. OuLiPo’s participants seek and have sought new forms and structures for literature through play with the properties of language, word games or imposing constraints through mathematical or computational principles such as Boolean algebra or recursiveness. For example, Georges Perec wrote La Disparition (1969), a “lipogrammatic” novel avoiding any words containing the letter “e”. Raymond Queneau constructed Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), which is actually an interactive work of book art, confronting readers with 1014 different sonnets generated by the reader’s choosing one of 10 options per line, accessed by turning each line like a page.

OVI lifts this literary playfulness into a revel of intricate puns, played out in language, image, typography and structure or form. Sharoff discovered the Calvino story in Le Monde independently of her prints already underway, but it was the conjunction of the story with them that led her to “an idea for a book”. Although, like Friedlaender, Sharoff would illustrate books, the idea diverged from a mere illustration of the story or a livre d’artiste in the traditional sense. Like many book artists, Sharoff conceived a blend of image, text and form. The Sharoff/Da Ros execution of her idea re-presents, absorbs, reacts to, embodies Calvino’s fiction in a work that stands apart from it. It is the reverse of the usual ekphrasis we see when a literary text strives to re-present, absorb, react to, embody an urn, a sculpture, painting or print. Think of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”.

Instead of Unidentified Flying Objects (OVNI in French), the artist gives us OVI (“identified flying objects”), the first three of which are the letters “O”, “v” and “i” appearing through the “black holes” of the silver paper slipcase. As the black portfolio emerges from the slipcase, we see the i’s dot adrift as perhaps another object in the firmament. Through the holes in the slipcase, the same letters reappear printed on the inside of the slipcase but with the i’s dot no longer adrift (the “stars” aligned?). And this is just the start of the punning and play with structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft.

The portfolio removed from the silver paper slipcase

Encased in the trifold black portfolio are nine loose map-like folios.

Opened, the folios display selected text from the French translation of Calvino’s short story and four Sharoff prints. In three of the prints, the text swirls, construction-poem-like, around the multicolor images. Part of the folios’ magic here is Sharoff’s fusion of image with the substance of Calvino’s words, a Friedlaender-esque palette and the typographic and form-locking skills of Da Ros.

The first image looks like a macrophoto of a cell (or is it an image of the sun?) with numbers superimposed. The second image looks like a cloud nebula (or is it some multicellular life form with two flagellae?) consisting of everyday objects. The third image looks like an asteroid belt (or is it a paramecium?) made of a discarded aerosol can and other trash.

“The darkness came back. By now we were sure that everything that could
possibly happen had happened, and ‘yes, this is the end,’ Grandmother said, ‘mind what
us old folks say. . .’ Instead, the Earth had merely made one of its turns. It was night.
Everything was just beginning.”
from Italo Calvino, “Sul far del giorno” in Le Cosmicomiche (Milan: Einaudi, 1965), translated as “At Daybreak” by William Weaver in Cosmicomics (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968)
Detail: the “cloud nebula”(?) image, formed of identifiable everyday objects
Detail: the “asteroid belt” (?) image, formed of everyday detritus

One of the four prints stands alone without text. The image is a cascade of large and small numerals, logic symbols, a gear, protractor and metallic-looking detritus landing in a heap.

Detail: the fourth print

One of the leaves deploys a Turkish map fold, opening to reveal a constellation of numbers, letters from the periodic table and terms from particle physics and astrophysics — an outstanding display of skill from Da Ros and entirely evocative of Qfwfq and his family’s bizarre tale of the big bang. It’s also a prescient reminder that a crater on the planet Mercury and a main asteroid belt were named after Calvino.

The separate folios echo the abrupt jumps in Calvino’s story. In the end, Sharoff succeeds with OVI in echoing how the story — despite those jumps, the bewildering and unpronounceably named characters and the teasing references to familiar and unfamiliar domains of knowledge — hangs together. The spiraling text makes the viewer turn and turn the opened folio to read the words — much as the story’s surreal yet familiar characters and their situations make the reader puzzle through the storyline. The prints present the viewer with familiar yet unfamiliar shapes composed of everyday objects or recognizable symbols. The tactility of the paper, the solidity of the slipcase and texture of the multicolored prints play off the intellectuality of the ekphrasis and scientific images and symbols in much the same way as the familiar familial relations play off the characters’ bewildering experience of the cosmic Big Bang.

Sharoff’s next major artist’s book — again with Da Ros — would be La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991). There is little if anything implying a Chinese or other oriental influence on printmaking or typography as practiced by Friedlaender or Da Ros, respectively. And until her visit to China in the late eighties, Sharoff’s work showed no such influence. When the influence came, it was concentrated in the one work. Sharoff was concerned not to respond to China in a typical Western artist way or to fall prey to traditions that neglected the hardship or grittiness she saw while teaching English to young Chinese bank employees. Sharoff hungered for a text that would fuse with the images coming to her in reaction to the remnants of the Great Wall, the summer palace’s maze, and post-revolutionary infrastructure.

La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Shirley Sharoff
Taken at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands. Reproduced with permission of the artist.

She uses the words of the 1930s writer Lu Xun and those of her 1980s English-language students to bounce echoes of strife, ambivalence and paradox from the walls of her prints and artist’s book, a double-sided accordion in forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). Lu’s poem appears in Chinese calligraphy and translated into French and English, set in bold and equal in weight to the Chinese characters. Sharoff breaks the three versions across increasingly shorter segments of paper, layering the different languages like mortar and rows of bricks. In a different, smaller typeface — like fragments of modern brick — the English text from her language students, reflecting on Western culture and their lives, is interspersed along with eight prints. The “snail-shell” structure unfolds/unrolls in a way that both “sides of the wall” end up being read. The juxtapositions and structure draw the viewer repeatedly from the flatness of paper into the multiple dimensions of the bookwork.

Bringing together barriers/bridges — languages, cultures and political eras — the bookwork breathes its own original life into Lu’s text of ambivalence and paradox. It is an effect similar but on a different scale to contemporaneous works by Xu Bing: Book from the Sky (1991) and Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990-91). The faint markings on the Arches paper of Sharoff’s wall, markings created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of an unidentified manuscript, echo the unreadability of Xu’s faux Chinese characters printed from his 4,000 hand-cut stamps for Book from the Sky. The red edge of Sharoff’s wall and the words of Lu Xun catch the echo of Xu’s and his students’ beating their ink-soaked mallets against the rice paper hanging on the Great Wall and invoke the ghosts of those who died building the wall. The execution of the unusual “forme en escargot” equals in exquisiteness and production value any of Xu’s works.

Front cover
La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991), Shirley Sharoff

On first encounter, that snail-shell structure of this double-sided accordion book challenges the reader/viewer. Should the work be completely unfurled? Should it stand on its edge, or be laid flat then turned over? To try to read La grande muraille in those ways, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros. The snail-shell form, its multi-page spreads and the text demand that you read La grande muraille as you unroll it or, rather, as you unfold it.

With the book laid flat, the “page spreads” are easier to recognize, the text is easier to read, and the forethought needed for the “imposition” of text and images to deliver the sequential text, easier to marvel at. As each recto page is turned to the right, two new pages appear to the right. This unfolding approach to reading the book offers several intriguing “double- and multi-page spreads” and an experience of the texts and eight prints in the sequence driven by the text. When you have finished reading in this sequence, you will have read both sides of the scroll. 

“Pages 1 and 2”
As “page 2” is turned to the right and the English title of the work disappears, “pages 3 and 4” come into view.
“Pages 1, 3 and 4”
“Page 3” displays the authors names, and “page 4” displays the first of eight prints in the book. As “page 4” is turned to the right and disappears, “pages 5 and 6” appear.
“Pages 1, 3, 5 and 6”
“Page 5” gives the title of the book in Chinese calligraphy. On “page 6”,  the opening line of Lu Xun’s text appears in English, French and Chinese.
Turning “page 1” to the right will cover the authors’ names on “page 3”, and turning “page 6” to the right will yield the next four-page view.

La grande muraille is a rare work, viewable at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague and these other locations. Almost as rare but still available from the artist is Impermanence subtile/Subtle Impermanence (2013), in which Sharoff continues her experimentation with structures. She returns to the cased portfolio and folios of OVI but introduces fraction folds (two-thirds, etc.), vertical flaps and an accordion structure with mountain folds. In collage-like manner, silhouettes and cutouts of modern everywoman and everyman move through their urban working and shopping environment. And vice versa, images of the environment behind the cut-outs move through everywoman and everyman!

Sharoff’s everyman and everywoman are in strife with the environment. The portfolio opens with a “collage of garbage” whose relationship to them becomes clear in the ways Sharoff works the fragment of Ian Monk’s poem “Tri selon Tri” (displayed in French and English) in, under and through her prints and book structure.

Impermanence subtile / Subtle Impermanence (2013)
Shirley Sharoff
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
The five folios
Photo: Books On Books collection
The five folios with the first opened
Note the “grammatico-textual” binding of the adjectives around the noun, mirroring the wordplay binding of the poem’s title “Tri selon tri”
Photo: Books On Books collection
The third folio opened to the cutouts leaf
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
TThe third folio with the cutouts leaf turned to the left
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
PPrint from the third folio, where “blocks of matter/ wind around/ each other/ fold upon fold”
Photo: Books On Books collection
TThe fourth folio opened to reveal an accordion structure with mountain folds
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
TThe fifth folio opened to a flap structure
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands

The cutouts of everywoman and everyman fill up with the photos of trash behind them. In the prints, they stroll entangled in bricks and clutter toward an outcome where “in this universe of base and yet subtle impermanence, we should give up on the old refrains and the four elements of earth, air, water and finally fire, and instead divide matter into four new categories, i.e., paper, plastic, glass and in the end everything left over — those things that finish up in their own trash can” — i.e., us!

Continuing with the elemental, paradox and structural experiment, La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013) takes up the challenge of the folded single-page codex. In each of the three volumes in the set, the pattern of folds and cuts is the same, yet the pattern’s interplay with the prints and bilingual content in each seems uniquely appropriate. A hat trick of book art magic.

La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013)
Shirley Sharoff
Each volume (12 x 21.5 cm) is housed in a slipcase. The text in each is printed on one sheet of Rives 250 gsm in English and French, folding and unfolding to reveal different aspects of the text and images; 4 prints in each book. Edition of 25

The Poetry of the Universe consists of three aphorisms: Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”; Euclid’s “Parallel lines meet in infinity”; and Lavoisier’s “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”. As mentioned with La grande muraille, the execution is exquisite, and likewise, learning to read the work requires exploration.

Opening to slipcase for Aristotle volume
Lower edge of Aristotle volume
Title page and, on the right, the book’s first of four prints
Opening the text: the first print folds to the left.
Note how the syntax requires turning “THE WHOLE” page or fold to the right, which brings the book’s first print back into view.
The syntax and structure call for pulling the lower page or fold to the right.
Folding down the “than” page reveals “Aristotle” and the second print in the book.
The third and fourth prints in the book unfolded downward and from under the two squares above
The colophon appears when the two righthand columns of squares in the previous view are turned to the left.
Detail of third and fourth prints

The etchings in soft grey — an orange and its segments, a blossom and its petals, a walnut and its meat, and a tree and leaf — illustrate the aphorism, much as the typographic choices and arrangements and the breaking up of the sentence complement it. Sharoff makes the second and third volumes perform similarly but differently — just as a magician weaves a routine from variations on the same vanishes and productions of a coin or other object.

Aphorism 2 — Euclid
Aphorism 3 — Lavoisier

As Comentale wrote in Art & Métiers du Livre: ” magicienne des formes”. La Poésie de l’univers is as rare as OVI and La grande muraille. It can be viewed here and here.

For further reading

A more detailed view of La grande muraille can be found here: ‘Learning to read Shirley Sharoff’s “La grande muraille”’, Books On Books, 17 June 2018.

The most extensive essay on Sharoff’s work can be found in Paul van Capelleveen’s Artists & Others (2016). It comments on La reparation (2001), The Waves (2003), Les amazones sont parmi nous (2005), Bruits de la ville (2007), Impermanence subtile (2013), La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013). He addresses La grande muraille (1991) in Voices and Visions (2009). The special collection at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Netherlands is one of the few where several of Sharoff’s works — including La grande muraille — can be seen and handled in one place.

Christophe Comentale’s essay captures the delight of exploration and discovery in the encounter with Sharoff’s art.

Shirley Sharoff, entre France et Etats-Unis, présente une pluralité d’inspiration consommée entre l’estampe et le livre devenu un média, entre unique et multiple. […] Magicienne des formes et des couleurs, Shirley Sharoff ne cesse de remettre en cause, par besoin autant que par défi personnel, tout ce qui pourrait ressembler au début d’un système de lecture, de vision, figé et donc clos. L’impossibilité de savoir -qui vaut aussi pour elle- de quoi sa prochaine oeuvre-livre-manuscrit-tableau-dépliant, ou tout cela à la fois, sera fait est assez excitant. La présence de textes sentis par affinités sensorielles, personnelles, avec des écrivains non encore classiques, autant de raisons d’apprécier de pénétrer dans cet univers où le conformisme est inexistant.

Christophe Comentale, “Shirley Sharoff, des livres a tenir debout et des estampes a voir aussi”, Art & Métiers du Livre, n°231 (Aout-Septembre 2002), p.63.

Bookmarking Book Art – Learning to read Shirley Sharoff’s “La grande muraille”

La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991), Shirley Sharoff
All Books On Books photos are reproduced here with permission of the artist.
Detail, La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Typeface: Athenaeum, designed by Alessandro Butti and Aldo Novarese in 1945

The National Library of the Netherlands advises, “for [Shirley Sharoff’s La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)] to be read, the book first must be rolled out”.  And that is what I did, using the large table in the Special Collection’s seminar room. 

Enjoyable as that was, enjoying it again with the video afterward, something seemed awry. As the Chinese poem by Lu Xun, its French and English translations and text from Sharoff’s language students unrolled, interpersed with her prints, the text seemed to have gaps, or so I thought. So I returned a second time. Perhaps if I re-shot the video. Perhaps if I took more stills and close-ups. Perhaps if I shot the rolling up as well as the unrolling.

No doubt, the second effort added to the pleasure. Looking at the videos and stills, I can again feel between my fingers the Arches paper and engravings’ impressions on it. But still I detected gaps, seeming mismatches between the French and English. I wondered to what degree they

followed the Chinese text or whether some of Lu’s text had been omitted.  So, I returned a third time, and then came my “ah hah” moment. Unrolled, La grande muraille looks like a double-sided leporello or accordion book like this one: In Mexico by Helen Douglas.

In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James (2014)
Helen Douglas
La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Shirley Sharoff
Photo credit: © Koopman Collection. National Library of the Netherlands/Jos Uljee

To read La grande muraille as the double-sided leporello it appears to be, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros (her typography and print collaborator) in putting together this forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). The snail-shell form, its multi-page spreads and the text demand that you read La grande muraille as you unroll it, or rather, as you unfold it.

With the book laid flat, the “page spreads” are easier to recognize, the text is easier to read, and the forethought needed for the “imposition” of text and images to deliver the sequential text, easier to marvel at. As each recto page is turned to the right, two new pages appear to the right. This unfolding approach to reading the book offers several intriguing “double- and multi-page spreads” and an experience of the texts and eight prints in the sequence driven by the text. When you have finished reading in this sequence, you will have read both sides of the scroll. 

Reading the text

Front cover
La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991), Shirley Sharoff
“Pages 1 and 2”
As “page 2” is turned to the right and the English title of the work disappears, “pages 3 and 4” come into view.
“Pages 1, 3 and 4”
“Page 3” displays the authors names, and “page 4” displays the first of eight prints in the book. As “page 4” is turned to the right and disappears, “pages 5 and 6” appear.
“Pages 1, 3, 5 and 6”
“Page 5” gives the title of the book in Chinese calligraphy. On “page 6”,  the opening line of Lu Xun’s text appears in English, French and Chinese.
Turning “page 1” to the right will cover the authors’ names on “page 3”, and turning “page 6” to the right will yield the next four-page view.
“Back cover, pages 5, 7 -8”
The next lines of Lu Xun’s disquisition run in English, French and Chinese across “pages 7-8”.
Detail, “Pages 7 and 8”.
Notice how the English text on “page 7” runs across to “page 8”, but the French text disappears under “page 8”, effectively running on to what will be revealed as “page 9” in the next view.
“Pages 2, 9-11”
This view results from two page turns inward on the left and two outward on the right. “Page 2” has come back into view on the left.  The English text on pages 9-10 completes the sentence interrupted on “page 8”. The French text on “pages 9 and 10” completes the sentence that began on “page 7” and ran behind “page 8”.
Pages 9-10, 12-13
Pages 6, 12, 14-15
Pages 12, 14, 16-17
Pages 16, 18-19
Pages 16, 18, 20-21
Pages 20, 22-23
Pages 20, 22, 24-25
Pages 24, 26-27
Pages 24, 26, 28-29
Pages 28, 30-31
Pages 30, 32-33
Pages 32, 34-35
Pages 32, 34, 36-37
Pages 34, 38-39
Pages 38, 40-41
Pages 40, 42-43
Pages 42, 44-45
Pages 44, 46-47
Pages 44, 46, 48-49
Pages 46, 48, 50-51
Pages 48, 50, 52-53
Pages 50, 54-55
Pages 54, 56-57, the latter displaying the last ten characters of Lu Xun’s text.

這偉大而可詛咒的長城)

Pages 56, 58-59
Pages 58, 60-61
Pages 60, 62-63
Pages 62, 64-65
pages 64, 66-67

Now that the so-called gaps in the English and French texts were resolved, I wanted to understand how the English and French matched up to the Chinese text. For that, I asked help from two acquaintances in The Hague: Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song.  They obtained a copy of Lu Xun’s text, traced it through the photos I had taken and found that the three languages run almost in parallel as the work unfolds.

“Almost” because the order of the languages is not alway the same. On pages one and two, we see the French and English titles but must wait until page five before the Chinese title appears. Then, on page six the order changes: English first, then French, then the corresponding ten Chinese characters. On pages seven and eight, this order is maintained. Later, with the turning of page fifteen, the French comes before the English and Chinese; the first Chinese character aligning to the French and English (其) appears on page seventeen. Then, as page seventeen is turned to the right, the order changes back to French then English on page eighteen, but on page nineteen, it moves to French first then Chinese. The book’s textual conclusion on pages fifty-six through fifty-nine runs Chinese, English, then French. 

The juxtaposition and weaving of the three languages often seems painterly as if intended to evoke the layering of the bricks and the intertwining vines and foliage along stretches of The Great Wall. Here is the uninterrupted Chinese text:

偉大的長城!

這工程,雖在地圖上也還有它的小像,凡是世界上稍有知識的人們,大概都知道的罷。

其實,從來不過徒然役死許多工人而已,胡人何嘗擋得住。現在不過一種古跡了,但一時也不會滅盡,或者還要保存它。

我總覺得周圍有長城圍繞。這長城的構成材料,是舊有的古磚和補添的新磚。兩種東西聯為一氣造成了城壁,將人們包圍。

何時才不給長城添新磚呢?

這偉大而可詛咒的長城!

Reading the images

Even though following the forme en escargot results in having reading both sides of the scroll in the end, Sharoff also uses it to play with the notion of intended sequence. Completely unrolled and standing on its edge, the work echoes the Great Wall.  The tint of red along the top edge recalls the blood spilled in the Great Wall’s construction. The prints echo the Great Wall’s bricks, the vegetation in its crumbling gaps, even the gates. The completely unrolled work is an intended sequence, also — an invitation to walk the wall. Coming upon each of the eight copperplate engravings in the unfolding sequence is a different experience than walking up and down the “outer wall” and then the “inner wall” to see them. Five are on the outer wall, three on the inner.

The print first to be seen as the book unfolds, but one of the three on the “inner wall” with the book unrolled.

The second print comes into view on “page 14”, the second of Lu Xun’s statements begins in French on “page 15”,
and with the rolling up on the left, “page 4” has reappeared.
With the turning of “page 15”, the third print comes into view on “page 16”, and the sentence begun with “Actually” on “page 16” continues on “page 17” above the Chinese.
“Pages 16, 18-19”
The French at the top of “pages 18-19” is continuing the sentence from “page 15”, and the English beneath on “page 18” is continuing the sentence from “page 17”.
With this spread — “pages 16, 18, 20-21” — the fourth print comes into view on the right, and the French and English sentences conclude together in the middle.
“Pages 30, 32-33” and the fifth print comes into view.
“Pages 38, 40-41” and the sixth print comes into view.
“Pages 44, 46, 48-49” and the seventh print comes into view.
Pages 50, 54-55 and the eighth and final print comes into view.

Reading the form “in time”

As the force of the snail-shell binding resists the unscrolling and pulls the standing pages inward, the work has another echo: the eroding maze in the Ancient Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) outside Beijing. The faint markings on the paper, created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of a manuscript, amplify the echo.

La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Shirley Sharoff
Photo credit: © Koopman Collection. National Library of the Netherlands/Jos Uljee
Arches paper printed with the results of multiple photocopies of a manuscript.

Although Lu’s text does not mention the maze, Sharoff introduces contemporary text that, alongside the interweaving Chinese, English and French of Lu’s text, evokes a maze-like, time-travelling effect. The autobiographical texts from the English-language students she taught at the Central Institute of Finance and Banking (1987-88) reflect on their childhood and adolescence in the Maoist era and their recollection of representations of  foreigners in books and television. These “new bricks” in their modernness and fracturedness interrupt the flow of Lu’s prose praising and cursing the Great Wall.  Yet, in their segmentation and placement, they also physically echo the prints and reinforce Lu’s expression of the paradox in the construction, fragmentation, reconstruction and erosion of the real Wall.

“Pages 32, 34-35”

Sharoff’s La grande muraille is a treasure that rewards repeated visits and contemplation: not only for itself but also as a parallel or forerunner.

La grande muraille’s physical impetus (The Great Wall), the seemingly decipherable/indecipherable characters on the Arches paper, the wry paradox of Lu Xun’s observations, the socio-political-cultural implications of the “new bricks”, the work’s innovative form and the pulling of past and present together parallels the work of Xu Bing and his play with language across East and West. His Book from the Sky first appeared in 1988.

Sharoff’s use of Lu’s contemplation on The Great Wall also foreshadows Jorge Méndez Blake‘s Capítulo XXXVIII: Un mensaje del emperador / A Message from the Emperor (2017?). The title refers to an anecdote in the story “The Great Wall of China” by Franz Kafka, a contemporary of Lu Xun.  The narrator tells the reader how the emperor has dispatched from his deathbed a message to the reader, entrusted to a herald who, struggling as he might, cannot escape from the confines of the palace to deliver the message — yet which we the reader await hopelessly and with hope.

What more should we expect from art?

____________________________

*For help and permissions, thanks to Paul van Capelleveen and the staff at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, and Shirley Sharoff, Paris. For help with the Chinese and calligraphy, thanks to Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song.