Tattered Sails(2018) Derek Beaulieu Saddle-stitched, one staple, colored endpapers; 12 unnumbered pages. H217 x W140 mm. Acquired from Above/Ground Press, 12 March 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Few book artists inspired by Broodthaers’ homage to Mallarmé have seized on aligning a key textual and visual metaphor of the poem with a distortion of Broodthaers’ treatment. That is what Beaulieu has done with Mallarmé’s metaphor of the shipwreck, his typographic replication of it and Broodthaer’s black bars. Tattered Sails also recalls Broodthaers’ A voyage on the North Sea (1973).
Photos: upper, Books On Books Collection; lower, Artists’ Books. Accessed 18 June 2020.
In one sense, Tattered Sails seems to underline the notion that image has supplanted text (W.J.T. Mitchell), which is a little less extreme than image’s having saturated all cultural space (Frederic Jameson) or than art’s just being now a “leeching of the aesthetic out into the social field in general” (Rosalind Krauss). But in another sense, by harking back to the low-tech era of democratic multiples and, nevertheless, enriching the interplay of text and image that spans four different artworks (counting the image on the cover) across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, Beaulieu pushes back on those 20th century critical notions.
Away from the critical theories’ abyss, Tattered Sails refreshes perception — of the work in itself and those on whose metaphors and techniques it stands. Turning our eyes into hands, it is part of a book art genre –“a genre of Un Coup de Dés“– in which works not only recall the original’s words, their shapes on the pages, the shipwreck tangling and untangling of syntax, the images and meanings bouncing into view like numbers on the side of rolling dice but also recall the rolls of the dice by others before.
The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019) Benjamin Lord Laid finish card cover; hand-assembled perfect binding with inlaid red linen thread; 70 pages printed on translucent cellulose paper. H10 1/2″ x W8 1/4. Edition of 50, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 24 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The title of Benjamin Lord’s book names what Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés declares can never be accomplished: the abolition of chance. Taking the predicate of Mallarmé’s title (its verb and object), elevating it to the title position, substituting the word “sequence” for the subtitle Poéme, and placing it in a cover layout reminiscent of the 1913 NRF edition of Mallarmé’s book, Lord’s cover raises expectations and questions. Perhaps chance can be abolished? Perhaps by a certain sequence — of words?
Bowling over the textual expectations raised by the cover, the interior pages offer only images — images that gradually shift from linearly arranged black rectangles to what seem to be digitally generated Rorschach tests, shifting QR codes or snapshots of a bitmap computer game, all blurred by the turning of the translucent paper. The translucency and images add another layer to each page and double-spread of images and also add another set of expectations and questions. What determined the starting point of those arranged rectangles? What drives the sequence of their change?
Without Lord’s own description of the work, a highly developed form of art-historical, science-historical visual genius is required to answer those questions. A genius with the visual recall to recognize that “The first spread of the book copies the last spread of Marcel Broodthaer’s book Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), made in 1969.” A genius that can recognize the sequence as being “generated using a simple mathematical formula known as the Game of Life, originally devised by the mathematician John Conway, also in the year 1969.”
On the left is a “still-life” seed known as “Boat”; on the right is “Gosper’s glider gun”, an obviously more complicated pattern named after its creator, Bill Gosper. A forerunner of simulation games, Conway’s game poses a set of simple rules to be played out within an infinite grid:
Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if by underpopulation.
Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overpopulation.
Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.
Here is Gosper’s glider gun, activated by the Game of Life’s rules encoded in a GIF:
Lord’s seed is the image of the last double-page spread in Broodthaers’ version of Un Coup de Dés.
Like a more complex glider gun, it generates the subsequent double-page spread images, each image being the seed for the next image. As Lord puts it,
The lines of Mallarmé’s poem inflate into balloons which expand and then pop into nothingness, or collide with each other to generate debris, or collapse into thicker bars. The image fragments into a vibratory bitmap constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive.
This 21st century American artist turning with a 20th century paintbrush dipped into the words of a 19th century French poet via a 20th century Belgian artist calls to mind The Education of Henry Adams. Throughout, Adams refers to himself in the third person. Post-Broodthaers, there is something “third-person-ish” — of being at two removes — in Lord’s homage and those of Beaulieu et al. above. But there is more to the recollection than grammar. Consider this passage from The Education in which “one” writes,
Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant….he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.Chapter XXV
Adams and his third-person self were in Paris in May 1897, when Un Coup de Dés first appeared in the quarterly Cosmopolis. Despite their proximity, a common interest in quarterlies and the popular press, and a near obsession with the electrical forces of the dynamo, the men’s two paths did not cross. Adams mentions Mallarmé in a letter only in passing.
Sartre called Mallarmé the poet of nothingness. Its title and Lord’s description of The Abolition of Chance as a “constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive” suggest an alternative to nothingness. The final double-page spread does present a pattern of live cells. Lord, perhaps like his fellow American, responds to nothingness with a type of Buddhist repose, if not affirmation, much as Adams responded to the memorial for his wife that he had commissioned from Augustus St. Gaudens:
His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant. … From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley, art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. Chapter XXI
Eric Zboya is poet, writer and artist. Years before this book, he wrote for Ubu Web about the dialogues between Mallarmé’s groundbreaking poem and artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Guido Molinari and Michalis Pichler, who explore “the higher-dimensional characteristics of the poem”. Broodthaers’ and Molinari’s solid-colored horizontal blocks take the place of lines of text and, reflecting its typographic size, deliver the poem’s page-oriented image(s) without its words. Pichler goes a sculptural step further and excises the lines altogether.
In one sense, Zboya returns to the traditional “collaborative” livre d’artiste, where the artist’s images illustrate the author’s text. But Zboya’s process for generating the images and his handling of the text are anything but traditional.
Just as Mario Diacono runs parallel to Broodthaers, so too do Didier Mutel (2003) and Sammy Engramer (2009) to Zboya. His Ubu Web essay appeared in 2011. While similar, the three artists’ approaches to images differ far more from one another than those of Diacono and Broodthaers differ. Mutel’s sonographs come from recordings of three different speeches. Engramer’s come from the recording of his reading of Un Coup de Dés. Although Zboya’s images come from the translated text of Un Coup de Dés, they do not come from sound recordings.
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Poème (2005) Didier Mutel Consists of three volumes: the first entitled “2003 — may god bless america — 4 speeches by George Walker Bush”; the second, “2003 — 4 speeches by Tony Blair”; the third, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”. Each engraved in drypoint on steel and printed on Velin Arches 300 gsm.
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Wave (2009) Sammy Engramer H340 x W240 mm, 32 pages. Recording his own reading aloud of the poem, Engramer then ran the recording through sonographic equipment. The rendering of each line’s soundwave became his graphic substitute for Mallarmé’s line of verse and, by extension, each black block that Broodthaers used to displace Mallarmé’s text.
Zboya uses graphic imaging software to transform each letter, mark of punctuation and pixel into an abstract image based upon the original topographical placement of the type on the space of the page. Text mutates into a graphic, nonlinear entity. Zboya calls this Algorithmic Translation.Due to a randomization function, the program never yields the same image from the same input. In keeping both with the title (Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard) and the poem’s last line (Toute pensée émet un Coup de Dés), no run of the program ever abolishes chance, and every input (thought) generates a roll of the dice.
Zboya’s artist book presents more than these graphic, constellation-like translations of the text. Literally shadowing the right-reading English translation of the title is the French text set in reverse. Drawing the reader closer to the synaesthesia promoted by Mallarmé, Valéry and, before them, Baudelaire, the contrast of black (English) and gray (hcnerF) echoes the tonality of the algorithmically translated images; the reversed letters of the French emphasize the physical reversing that occurs when printing text; and the movement from the original hcnerF to the translated English urges the “mind’s ear” to play along with the mind’s eye. The choice to print everything on the same highly textured Rives Design, Brilliant White, enlists hand and eye in support of a synaesthetic equation of text, page and image.
Just as important in another dimension is Zboya’s creative manipulation of the poem’s English translation by Basil Cleveland and preface by Charles Bernstein. The preface is the first clue. Only words selected by Zboya appear in black, left in their original position on the page and creating an envoi to Zboya’s book:
This Note beyond the space of the page vanishes. Narrative is avoided. Intonation falls. Courageous Poem, open a few eyes to this unforeseen symphony.
Zboya has done the same with the text of the translated poem. He erases certain lines and leaves those not erased in their topographical position as close to Mallarmé’s intention as interpreted by Zboya’s numerous predecessors (Broodthaers in 1969, Pichler in 2008, Meillassoux in 2012, Bononno and Clark in 2015, Bloch in 2017 among others). In this way, Zboya’s appropriation occurs across multiple dimensions.
By “erasing” text to select text that syntactically creates new content, Zboya is also following in the footsteps of Tom Phillips (A Humument, 1966-2016), but the effect and result of doing so differs distinctively from Phillips’ work, which is decidedly narrative. The concept of translation in Zboya’s book is closer to Ezra Pound’s approach in Personae (1926). The fragments and sentences created by the “translated” words are close but not the same as those in the source. In Pound’s case, not the same sentences as those of the troubadours. In Zboya’s case, not the same as Mallarmé’s, Cleveland’s, Bernstein’s, etc. The appropriation/translations make something new.
Occurring in its several dimensions, Zboya’s manipulation of text, image and surface recalls Valéry’s description of reading and looking at the worksheets for the book version of Un Coup de Dés:
It seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in a finite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave birth to temporal forms. Expectancy, doubt, concentration, all were visible things. With my own eye I could see silences that had assumed bodily shapes. Inappreciable instants became clearly visible: the fraction of a second during which an idea flashes into being and dies away; atoms of time that serve as the germs of infinite consequences lasting through psychological centuries — at last these appeared as beings, each surrounded with a palpable emptiness…. there in the same void with them, like some new form of matter arranged in systems or masses or trailing lines, coexisted the Word! — Paul Valéry, Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 8: Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé (1972).
That is the effect of reading and looking at Zboya’s work of book art.
In the first three minutes of this extract from the film Molinari: la couleur chante (2005), Molinari walks through an exhibition of Équivalence, discussing it with Roald Nasgaard and commenting on Un coup de Dés, its visual musicality and his transformation of it into his colourful geometric abstractions. The opportunity to see all of the poem ranged along one wall and all of Molinari’s abstractions along a facing wall is a pleasure. A pleasure enhanced by leafing through the portfolio and juxtaposing each double-page spread of the poem with Molinari’s “equivalent” abstraction.
Molinari, Guido, Gilles Daigneault, Patrick Lafontaine. Nul mot: les livres d’artiste de Guido Molinari (Montréal, Québec: Éditions du Noroît, 2017).
Nasgaard, Roald. Abstract Painting in Canada (D&M Publishers Inc., 2008).