Through abstraction and symbol, Louisa Boyd‘s art focuses on sense of place and our intrinsic connection to nature. The titles of three of her artist’s book series – Infinity, Landscape, and Mapping – and those of the book art in them – Aether (2013), A Walk (2001), and Cartography I (2014) – reflect that focus. How she manages abstract imagery and symbol across her range of material and techniques – paper (including hand-marbled paper), book structure, printmaking (block, screen, letterpress), watercolor, metalwork, leatherwork – adds to that unifying focus through a rightness of choice but also introduces a breadth of originality and variety.
In Aether, the crayon work, cutting and metalwork are applied with a three-dimensional sense wedded to an obvious understanding of the possibilities of the page and double-page spread. The stop-motion animation video tour of Aether (click on the image below) makes you wonder if Boyd conceived the work as a flipbook in the first place. There is no wondering, however, about the place of human existence in relation to the aether. In the video, look at the lower righthand fore-edge of the book.
A Walk illustrates Boyd’s skill with freestanding three-dimensional sculpture, a skill that has grown in The Flight Series (more later on two of its works from 2009) and The Paper Manipulation Series, from which the work Flare above comes.
Her use of abstract markings and the Turkish map folding technique in Cartography I demonstrates again her careful marriage of abstraction, symbol and technique.
The etching printed on each of the three internal folded pages is an abstract that nevertheless evokes mapping, which the form and fold of the pages reinforces. Each Turkish fold page can lay flat to be viewed individually, or as pictured above and below, the book may be viewed as a sculpture.
The video tours (links embedded the images of Aether and A Walk above) represent Boyd’s search for what she calls “a bridge between traditional and contemporary media”. So far, that exploration reflects the artist’s rootedness in the book arts and traditional skills and processes of drawing, printing and painting. It is intriguing to think what effect a bit of influence from Helen Douglas or Amaranth Borsuk might have on Boyd’s bridge. The use of stop-action video for Aether hints at an instinct for what Douglas calls “visual narrative”.
A professed recurrent theme in Boyd’s book art is “restriction and freedom”. Although it arises from periods of city dwelling and lack of access to the countryside, imposed by the UK’s 2001 “foot and mouth” epidemic, it manifests itself in the more “traditional” spur of constraint of form and structure that goads an artist’s imagination. Flock (2009) and A Walk bear close resemblance, but note the difference in invention whereby the former plays with the book form by placing the bird imagery at the edges, spirals the paper tearing upwards and gradates the watercolor from dark to light (like a flock dispersing) and the latter deals with the “restricted” walk by blending the watercolor with tearing and tunneling.
Take Flight (2009) frees its bird imagery even more fully from the structure of the book and occupies space as a fully three-dimensional work.
Although Multifaceted returns to the theme of different views that was the intent in A Walk, it tilts the theme more toward the abstract side of Boyd’s work. In this, Multifaceted is more akin to the works in The Paper Manipulation Series: Flare (2013), Whorl (2013), and Pleat (2013). It almost purely plays with the concept of differing perspectives. Again, techniques and form express concept with a simple rightness. This double-sided leporello is designed to be viewed from four different angles. The display of photos here cannot offer the intended perspective (pun intended): the viewer needs to circle the piece to view its facets. That word “facet” is tooled on the interior pages four times, the clue as to how the book should be read.
The abstract imagery evoking landscape or skyscape – whether juxtaposed vertically or horizontally – plays with viewpoint. Even the print technique on the interior pages plays with viewpoint: they are prints of an etching inked up both in relief and intaglio. Breaking free of the ultimate restriction of the book, the pages are not attached to the cover, allowing the piece to be read in four different directions. These features of the work and the seeming absence of that human figure from Aether throw it back on the viewer’s necessary engagement to establish fully the human connection: by engaging with Multifaceted – “reading” it – the viewer enacts the human place in the aether around the work.
Since graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2001 and winning the Paperchase Future of Design Award (2001) and receiving a high commendation from the judges of the New Designer of the Year (2001), Boyd has exhibited in 46 venues. Her 47th is the most significant so far: inclusion in the John Ruskin Prize Shortlist Exhibition at Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, UK (21 June – 8 October, 2017). If this book artist manages to continue her sure-handed forging of concept, material and method, the Ruskin Prize Shortlist Exhibition will not be her last significant exhibition.
‘The 2017 exhibition has a theme of the “Artist as Polymath” and the jury have selected a shortlist of artists and makers whose works cross boundaries, take a multidisciplinary approach and bring together varying techniques and materials. As an artist who has been making artist’s books since my final year at university in 2000, I have found that such an approach to work has been essential to bring together concept and visual aesthetics.’
Standen (2014) Caroline Penn Altered book, overprinted digitally, cut with a scalpel and rebound with thread. H210 x W140. Acquired from the artist, 9 June 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The William Morris wallpapers in Standen House, an Arts & Crafts home in Sussex, and the memory of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” inspired the creation of this altered book. The work altered is a 1979 National Trust publication on Standen House. In Gilman’s story, the main character, who has a mental breakdown from being forced into domestic seclusion, gradually claws away the yellow wallpaper in the room where she is locked away. In correspondence, Penn writes that she unbound the original booklet, ran the pages through a digital printer, performed the cutting and then rebound it. In a clever reversal, by the end, the wallpaper print and its excision have taken over the walls of the book of Standen House.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
By coincidence, American book artist Harriet Bart co-curated an intriguing exhibition called “Wallpaper“. Bart’s entry, too, was inspired by the Gilman story.
fieldwork (2017) Caroline Penn Digitally printed concertina. Cover: H126 x W90 mm; pages, H125 x W88 mm. Edition of 20, of which this is #8. Acquired from the artist, 6 February 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
A book within a book, fieldwork offers an entrancing visual narrative. A small white book unfolds from nothing to small pebbles, larger pebbles, more pebbles to fewer, and finally to one pebble in the center. Is it the reverse of the process of erosion? Is it categorization by the human eye and hand striving with nature’s agglomeration?
The artist has embedded the visual narrative here in an innovation on the framing device to be found in Helen Douglas’s Wild Woodand A Venetian Brocade. As with the latter works, fieldwork encourages us to touch with our eyes. It is a stunning piece of trompe l’oeil. On glimpsing any double-page spread, the reader/viewer is tempted to pick up one of the pebbles apparently resting on that white piece of paper open on a photo of a shingle beach. Visitors to Kettle’s Yard will recognise the temptation.
Project C: Destination Unknown (2020)
Organised by Pauline Lamont-Fisher, Project C is the result of a collaborative effort among 14 artists:
This project is about intersemiotic translation between images to words and from words to images and the paths that form between them. Roman Jakobson in Linguistic Aspects of Translation suggests the idea of intersemiotic translation as the translation from one sign system to another: i.e. interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of non-verbal sign systems. So every novel adaptation into film, constitutes a translation. The illustrations in a book act as translations of text into images. Every time you watch Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, you watch an intersemiotic translation from narrated story into ballet.
The artists were given a set of anonymised covers of Italy Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and asked to choose one and, keeping in mind Jakobson’s notions of intersemiotic translation, produce a folio or pamphlet in response. Caroline Penn’s contribution uses text, typography, structure, choice of paper, density of ink and a pattern of hole punches to translate or evoke not only the image below but the substance of Calvino’s novella — or at least a key element of the substance susceptible to translation to an artist’s book of translucent Bible paper and pergamenata.
The contrasting whites of the Bible paper and the translucent paper that comes uncannily close to animal parchment mirror the different colors of snow in the cover.
The dispersed positioning of the letters of the word “vapour” mimic the falling snow. The series of darker inked phrases set below, separated from each other by hyphens and staggered downwards across the panels echoes the rail track and cars in the cover.
The body of light gray likewise sloping down from left to right recalls the declining mountain gap crossed by those train tracks.
Across the foot of the page, the holes punched in a lowercase letter “o” and separated by two unpunched uppercase “O’s” also evoke the rail tracks and cars. In a nod to the Oulipo pattern-driven nature of Calvino’s work, the noughts of the “O’s” are answered in the crosses of the “X’s” supporting the text that crawls across the panels, finally turns the corner of the last panel and fades into the gray word “invisibility” on the reverse of the last panel.
A tour de force of book art — making text, image, ink, papers, layout, structure and impression work, mean and become a thing independent of the inspiring constraint.
The Pond at Deuchar (2011) Helen Douglas Hand scroll, printed on Chinese Xuan paper, ultra chrome inks. Silk ribbon edged. 14 metres x 270 mm. Edition of 4. Photos: Weproductions.
Details from end of The Pond at Deuchar (2011) Edition of 4, of which this is #4. Acquired from the artist, 18 February 2019. Photos: Books On Books.
The Pond at Deuchar (2013) Helen Douglas Online version produced by Armadillo Systems. Screen captures: Books On Books.
Shortly after orchestrating the series of workshops Transforming Artist Books (2012), during which Helen Douglas created the digital version of The Pond at Deuchar (2011), art historian Beth Williamson marvelled at how the gestures of digital reading affect “our thinking as our (digital) hand navigates around the screen and thinks through the work”. That phrase “as our hand thinks” is magic in its aptness for all of Helen Douglas’s works. Helen Douglas is a book artist who makes our hands think. But what does that mean? Consider these three excerpts:
[t]he hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes — and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others. The hand holds. The hand carries … [e]very motion of the hand in every one of its works carries itself through the element of thinking, every bearing of the hand bears itself in that element. All the work of the hand is rooted in thinking.
… the digital hand is […] a version of what the artist’s hand, the craftsman’s hand, the poet or scholar’s hand, and the lover’s hand has always been: a means of marking, touching, selecting, interacting, molding, expressing, and refusing that remains essential to human thinking, even when that thought takes place increasingly in an immaterial environment ….
When talking about her art and the “breadth” or ”span” of the spreads and their “flow” — as she did at the London Book Fair in 2013 and the British Library in 2020 — Douglas gestures in ways that evoke those words of Heidegger, Miller and Diconson. When experiencing The Pond at Deuchar — whether in its scroll edition or its digital version — the reader/viewer makes similar gestures — spreading arms wide, sweeping with the hands; or tapping, pointing, pinching, spreading and swiping with the fingers.
In its scroll edition and its digital version, The Pond at Deuchar draws the reader/viewer into two different literacies but with a continuity between them that does not yet exist between reading a print book and reading its ebook version. Are hand and eye more allied when processing the visual whether on paper or screen than when processing words? Is The Pond at Deuchar a special case because unrolling a scroll and scrolling across a screen are more gesturally similar than turning pages in a codex format and tapping a screen?
Douglas’s own description of the next work Between the Two (1997) brings this question about visual and textual literacies front and center.
Between the Two (1997)
This bookwork is constructed to unravel across the open spread and around the edge of the page to express one continuous visual narrative. It begins with sparse photographic renderings of grasses as black line on white, progresses into a softer tonal sequence embodying flight and finally, in the latter part of the book, develops an arabesque dance of tendrical peas, as light on dark, leading to a flowering of the book. Black and white throughout, the book is bound in scarlet crushed velvet.
Between the Two (1997) Helen Douglas Offset, 130 x 130 mm, 168pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
Reading “around the edge of the page” in Between the Two is a “hard read”. Most turns from recto to verso effect a sense of continuity with stalks, fence, tendrils, etc., wrapping over the edge into the verso page; others do not. The codex format inherently presents this challenge. The edge of the page is a scant plane, although the earlier work Water on the Border (1994) exploits it well (see below). There are other visual strategies that work. Think of Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover (1975) and consider the following work from the same year.
Chinese Whispers (1975)
Douglas has created numerous visual narratives in the codex format, but none of them have been reproduced in a digital format. If Chinese Whispers — one of her first books in partnership with Telfer Stokes — were delivered in a “tap-to-turn-the-page” digital format, would a sense of continuity between the different literacies occur or diminish? The tightness of the binding of Chinese Whispers makes full appreciation of the spreads and flow difficult, but on the other hand, the meeting in the gutter of the two photos on each double-page spread is essential. Say that two copies of the book were unbound, the “freed” double-page spreads would have to be displayed somehow in a way that still captures that meeting in the gutter. On a gallery wall? As Clive Phillpot has pointed out, to do so with Douglas’s work is to destroy what is going on in moving across and turning from one double-page spread to the next. A digital version would need to be fiendishly quirky in its own way to find a parallel semantic and artistic solution to its codex counterpart’s effects.
The front cover of Chinese Whispers (1975) shows lush green grass in a photo that bleeds to all four edges. Flip the book over and find another edge-to-edge photo showing the dirt and roots beneath the front cover’s patch of grass.
Chinese Whispers (1975) Helen Douglas Offset, 110 x 180 mm, 176pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018. Photos: Books On Books.
Doing this is a bit like jumping to the end of a detective story; it is literally jumping to the end of the game of visual Chinese Whispers to which the book invites us. Decades after the book’s appearance, Brandon S. Graham revealed some of the behind-the-scenes process, driving home the filmic character of the book. In correspondence with Books On Books, Douglas confirms the “absolutely continuous narrative” of Chinese Whispers, emphasising how the artists would “come up with a concept and starting point together and then … would go backwards and forwards“ (20 March 2020).
Like the give and take of a word game, this book was scripted, planned page by page and section by section. Stokes would suggest a starting point and a concept, Douglas would interpret the idea slightly differently, add to it and relay it back to Stokes. Stokes would run with the evolved idea and it would start again. In this way the book evolved as an honest representation of the collaborative process that yielded it. The photography began once they had the whole object planned. … For the cover image, Douglas and Stokes used a spade to cut a rectangle of sod to the exact dimensions of the finished book and took a photo.
Brandon S. Graham, “Chinese Whispers“, Fiction Doldrums, 26 July 2011. Accessed 9 December 2018.
The visual narrative takes us from trimming the overgrowth from the outside of a derelict cottage, entering it and starting the process of building a corner cupboard, populating its shelves with a breadbox, a coffee pot and many other objects that lead from one element of the narrative to the next. Packets of seeds lead to a cabbage and pea pod. A bunch of berries leads to jam in a jar. Toward the end, a pair of scissors and sheet of paper lead to a cut-out butterfly whose wings gradually close along with the two “wings” of the corner cupboard, leaving us in the dark with a double-spread of black pages. Below are close-ups of the front and back covers. Notice the impression in the dirt-side photo? It looks like a rectangle the trim size of the book; whether it is or not, Chinese Whispers is a bookwork of continuous page-turning inside (and outside) jokes.
“Clinkscale” is the name of a company that specialised in the musical instrument photographed by Douglas for the bookwork of the same name. Perhaps every book art collection has a one-note joke. Clinkscale is almost that for the Books On Book Collection. Brandon S. Graham defended the work against the characterisation years ago:
It would be easy to dismiss this as a clever one liner: accordion with an accordion fold format. But on closer examination there is more going on. Over top of the accordion body a band of atmospheric and biographical information can be observed: the blue sky, the green of the field, the bright spring sunlight, the work shirt and threadbare work coat. When one looks closely at Telfer’s hands and nails, particularly the thumb on the back cover, one can see a criss-cross of the shallow cuts that have been stained with dirt. All of these details speak of a place and a time and a situation. They are a record of standing in a field in rural Scotland on a crisp spring day, a record of the work that Telfer’s hands are performing on the Mill. These details ground the work and tie the work to a person at a moment in time. It is a record, a document.
Taken in this context there is another layer of meaning evident in Clinkscale: the idea of breath, air, anticipation, rejuvenation and renewal. As a viewer holds the book with the bellows closed the viewer sees Telfer’s fingers poised. This builds anticipation of a motion and perhaps a sound. As the book is opened the accordion inhales, the bellows expand and the rush of air stirs the spring grass. The hands are those of a workman. The workman is standing in a field with an accordion, taking a break; taking a breather. The sea of green spring grass is symbolic of rejuvenation and renewal.
Brandon S. Graham, “Telfer Stokes”, FictionDoldrums, 8 April 2011. Accessed.17 March 2020.
Clinkscale (1977) Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes Accordion binding, two hardboards joined by a single leaf; full colour photograph commercially printed. H278 x W174 mm (closed), W1708 mm (open). Acquired from Douglas, 29 November 2018.
Water on the Border (1994)
Water on the Border (1994) Helen Douglas Offset, 150 x 190 mm, 124pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018. Photos: Books On Books.
The two pairs of double-page spreads below demonstrate the artist’s success in taking the reader/viewer “around the edge of the page”. In the first pair, after the boat‘s prow disappears at the edge of the recto page and reappears from the verso’s, the artist introduces a vertical border at the tip of the prow. On the other side of the border is a photographic tracing of a building’s reflection in water. It is not necessarily the same stretch of water on either side of the border, but it feels that it is.
In the second pair, the seven columns of characters of a Chinese poem precede the picture of the lower part of a right leg that wraps around the edge of the recto page into the image of a man performing T‘ai Chi. As above, the verso page of that double-page spread is divided by a vertical border, which is followed by a child’s ink drawing that falls across the verso and recto pages. As with the continuity of water above, there is a continuity of the man’s pose on one side of the border and the lines of the drawing on the other side.
Water on the Border engages sides of multiple borders. Six Chinese poems rendered in calligraphy balance against Brian Holton’s transcriptions into Scots (first image, top row, below). Children from Scotland and China provided the drawings (second and third images, top row, and fourth image, below). The reflective images photographically traced come from the water surfaces of Yarrow Water Scotland and West Lake, Hangzhou.
Wild Wood: A Border Ballad (1999)
Wild Wood: A Border Ballad(1999) Helen Douglas Offset, 116 x 160 mm, 144pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018. Photos: Books On Books.
Wild Wood has been conceived as a Border Ballad and takes as its inspiration the Carrifran Wildwood project and the ancient woods at Deuchar and Tinnis Stiel in Yarrow. In 2000 Wild Wood won The Nexus Press Atlanta Book Prize. Opening the book and turning the pages is analogous to entering and exploring the Wild Wood where different moods and feelings move the viewer through the visual narrative.
A fair enough and fair description of this bookwork, but what astounds is the manipulation of borders and the framing of photos within photos. Below, on the left, a thin white border around a recto page; on the right, a thin black border encircling a double-page spread (notice also the precision of alignment from verso to recto.
Borders yield to full-page bleeds (first spread below), and full-page bleeds are manipulated to create frames of images (second spread below).
Strange roundel vignettes of the forest appear within close-ups of a tree.
Photos of the wood create a border for other photos of the wood, and some burst wildly beyond those borders.
Unravelling the Ripple (2001)
Unravelling the Ripple (2001) Helen Douglas, Rebecca Solnit Offset, 170 x 127 mm, 76pp. Perfect bound. Acquired from retail, 15 November 2019.
The opening and close of Unravelling the Ripple. Photos: Books On Books.
Like three of the following works — Illiers Combray, A Venetian Brocade and In Mexico — Unravelling the Ripple takes the reader/viewer on a journey away from the Scottish Borders to one along the coastline of a Hebridean island. Among the book’s many striking features is the precision of alignment across the double-page spreads. Slowly opening, then closing, then opening each spread is as much a pleasure as the sensation of peering through clear water at the sea wrack, urchins and shells. Moving the view from tidal pool to crashing waves and moving from greys to full colour then back to greys, the bookwork delivers on the back cover’s assertions. The assertion that “the book could be bound in a circle”, however, begs for an answer to the question “what if it were bound in a circle?” A variety of more sculptural solutions are possible: one of Hedi Kyle’s “blizzard book” variations or the Chinese dragon-scale binding. Without the codex structure, though, that pleasure of the double-page spreads would be lost. So the work must depend on the reader/viewer’s memory and perception to recognise the beginning in the end.
While Solnit’s essay is lyrically in keeping with the body of the bookwork, it stands apart. Where the livre d’artiste most often begins with the text and follows with the art, Unravelling the Ripple clearly starts with the art.
Illiers Combray (2004)
Illiers Combray (2004) Helen Douglas and Zoë Irvine Offset, four colour, 92 x 92 mm, 120 pages; two mini audio CDs, (18 mins each) placed in end pockets on board covering the two-sided accordion book; embossed title, red fastening band. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
The journey to this small French town immortalised by Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time intensifies a recurrent feature or element of Helen Douglas’s art: the surreal weaving of images (drawn or photographed, present or past) into the photographed townscape and its environs — where the warp of the townscape/environs meets a weft of images taken from paintings, still-life arrangement of objects, poppy-coloured stitches, and words or ornaments that run like strings from panel to panel.
Sound artist Zoë Irvine and visual artist Helen Douglas collaborate to create a richly textured, multi layered soundscape composition (2 CDs: Irvine) and ornately interwoven visual narrative (2 sided concertina book: Douglas), exploring a sense of memory and place. Inspired in the month of May by a week long visit to Illiers Combray, the small town immortalized by Marcel Proust in his epic novel In Search of Lost Time, Irvine and Douglas weave together their own distinct mythologies and reveries; their subjective responses elliptically united by their shared sense of place. This book won the Birgit Skiöld Memorial Trust Award LAB 04 and the Seoul International Book Arts Award 2005.
In their obsolescence and presence in the front and back covers, the two mini-CDs bracket a gap that the artists’ collaborative effort could perhaps only close in performance or an installation. Irvine’s soundscape is available online, which, as long as the link lasts, overcomes the obsolescence of the mini-CDs but not necessarily the gap. Perhaps the technology of augmented reality could close the gap if Douglas integrated NFC (near field communication) tags in a new edition of Illiers Combray.
Loch (2005) Helen Douglas Offset b&w, french folds, 195 x 105mm, 28 pages; black cover with inset title. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
Loch consists of twenty images facing each other across eleven uncut leaves. The roundel vignettes capture a sense of wind and light moving across the loch’s surface. These roundels standing in their white space naturally differ from those in Wild Wood. They are more similar to those in a work unfortunately not in the Books On Books Collection: Winter: Celestial Mountain (2015).
A Venetian Brocade (2010)
A Venetian Brocade (2010) Helen Douglas, Marina Warner Case bound in Ratchfords Inspiration with foil blocking. Offset, four-colour, on Hello Extra Matt 130gsm. 128×180 mm, 180 pages. Acquired from the artist, 6 September 2014.
The journey here crosses space (the cityscape of Venice) and time (present and historic figures). The warp-and-weft technique from Illiers Combray blends with the bordering technique from Wild Wood. But what Douglas does with the double-sided accordion format of Illiers Combray and the codex format of A Venetian Brocade attests to her ambidextrous mastery of both.
From Tommaso Mocenigo’s tomb – its great curtain drawn back – the city of Venice unfolds in the hands of Douglas’ rich visual narrative, delighting in textural contrast and intricate layerings. As oneiric zone that Venice embodies, stone, brick, water, inside and out, near, far, night, day, east, west, past in present are juxtaposed and woven as one continuous brocade. Within each landscape-format spread an inner page is floated and embellished at its edge. Borders of brick dissolve as sky, images shift, merge and overlay, water laps and floods, whilst reflective glimmerings morph into mosaic and golden threads. As masterful threading within this Venetian Brocade – at its fore, Marina Warner contributes a dexterous story of unique, wondrous wide-eyed looking from East to West.
This concertina opens in vibrant colour to reveal in progressive spreads of two, four and six pages a rich sensory exploration of Edward James’ surreal jungle garden Las Posaz, in Mexico. Lush vegetation intertwines with the constructed buildings and staircases of James’ imagination and with Douglas’ own, in experiencing this garden and the rich culture of Mexico. Within the book the abundant garden is interwoven on the page with decorative threads from Mexican embroidery and feather work. Patterns of leaves are echoed by cut paper craft whilst the delicate encrustation of flora and fauna is enriched with ancient Indian beadwork. With the unfolding pages, from ground to tree tops, the viewer can ascend with the staircases and flit with the butterflies of the garden, suspending gravity and disbelief, venturing through gates and windows to boughs and fern vaults in the sky. And in so doing experience, within the small intimacy of book, something of the unfolding immensity of the garden and its timeless fusion of earth and paradise, real and surreal.
In Mexico (2014) Helen Douglas Offset, four-colour, 145 x 145 mm, 92 pages; green paper band around green foiled card covers, enclosing double-sided concertina. Acquired from the artist, 10 February 2015.
Dark Cloud (2015)
Dark Cloud (2015) Helen Douglas Printed on Toshu paper with ultra chrome inks, 105 x 250 mm, 24 pages; blue fastening paper band around card cover over 6 folded leaves hand stitched. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
The images, colours and texture’s appearance create an expectation that the paper will feel wet to the touch. The double spreads of the unprinted side of the leaves create a surface mist or cloud across the images.
Odd to say, but the physical sensation — of fingers trailing in the water — created by the digital version of The Pond at Deuchar is best replicated by Dark Cloud and the next work.
Follow the River (2015-17)
Follow the River (2105-17) Helen Douglas A set of 8 books, 930 x 183 mm; concertina binding; varying from 12 to 14 to 16 pages; printed on Chinese Paper, with Surecolour Inks; colour card end covers, letterpress title with back cover information of set number, date and edition; edition of 30, of which 25 sets are encased in a protective card sleeve produced in 4 different colours with the title Follow the River. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
Follow the River (2017) takes the river’s stretches, bordering vegetation, and its seasonal changes as “narrative structure”, yet the eight pamphlets lend themselves to separate viewings and to composite views arranged vertically or horizontally. But this is the wrong way for the reader to seek structure.
Douglas provides a phrase that redirects the quest when she describes “the concertina form as unfolding arm’s breadths, each one with a distinct theme of light, colour and mood” (Weproductions). This returns to the gestures associated with The Pond at Deuchar.
Each open spread can be viewed individually, or in runs of 4, 6, 8 or more pages. The first spread contains a text poem, which, integral to the reach of the river draws the eye into the book and a close reading of its pages. Leaves, grasses, ferns, flowers and trees form part of following the river, at its edge. In light and shadow they frame and are interwoven with the water’s movement: its flow, light and shade, and reflective colour, taking in its nuanced surroundings, as one contemplative whole.
CDLA (Le Centre des livres d’artistes). “Helen Douglas — Telfer Stokes”, le cdla: Expositions publications et collection de livres d’artistes, 26 February 2020. Accessed 26 February 2020. A “catalog raisonné”-like listing of 30 works by Douglas, 9 of which are co-creations with Telfer Stokes.
Graham, Brandon S. “Telfer Stokes”, FictionDoldrums, 8 April 2011. Accessed.17 March 2020. Commentary on Chinese Whispers.
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.
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.
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 favourites here.
Paint Her To Your Own Mind (2018)
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.
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 favourites here.
The empathetic reader’s tongue will move with the collector’s over the gap of a missing tooth. Shandy Hall did publish another catalogue: Emblem of My Work (2011), this one based on the famous marbled page 169 in Volume III (see photo of p. 169 above). As with the other two productions, the page number determined the number of contributors to provide images and texts. At present, the unacquired Emblem of My Work is that missing tooth in the collection, but the contributions can be viewed here.
A day’s visit with one hundred exhibitors hosted at the Arnolfini in Bristol leaves me reeling like a drunken sailor — drunk on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry. Appropriate given the Arnolfini’s location on Narrow Quay in Bristol’s floating harbour.
Lucy May Schofield talked to me about her “search for the indigo that is infinity”. The Distance of Us is only one of several pieces demonstrating how close she is coming. The Longest Day on her site is one among many by which to enjoy her progress.
Mick Welbourn took time to explain how his search among inks, paper and geometric shapes kept leading him from a unique work (oil-based) to multiples and back to uniques. These colours reminded me of the work of Sonia Delaunay.
Bodil Rosenberg, a member of the Danish collective CNG (Anna Lindgren, Bertine Knudsen, Birgit Dalum, Pia Fonnesbech, Susanne Helweg), appeared delighted that I was surprised by the colour and texture of Vandstand (“water level”). Somehow after the saturation of the paper with layer upon layer of paint, each page has a supple leather- or cloth-like feel — a coolness to the touch. I think Ken Campbell would relish Vandstand.
Caroline Penn’s works comprised by Notes from Chesil Beach made me reach out to pick up one of the pebbles on the page. The trompe l’oeil effect of turnable pages in the photos is enhanced in one variation by inclusion of an actual small gathering of pages. The role of trompe l’oeil in book art is one worth investigating.
Eileen White’s Haptic Narratives and her lumen prints for Printed Matter made a nice segue from texture to ghostly light. Printed Matter also looks forward to the “artistry” section here as book’s images are un-fixed and eventually fade away. To use the book form — the traditional form of permanent record — to present a language and reminder of material ephemerality: that is artistry.
Helen Douglas (Weproductions), fresh from exhibitions at Printed Matter in New York and Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, was displaying her 2017/2018 series Field Works as well as a new book Summer Alight. The photographic effects, the visual narrative and structure achieved in Douglas’s works define artistry.
Elena Zeppou’s Parallels first caught my eye because of its size, but closer inspection yielded appreciation of line — vertical as well as horizontal — and its union with text and form. Note how the lines of poetry read across the accordion.
Listening to Mandy Brannan talk about custom papers, French fold books and modified flag books is almost as good as handling them. The work30 St Marys Axe (inspired by the building fondly known as the “Gherkin”) was what first drew me to her table. It has two variations — Diagrid and Cladding — which reward repeated handling as well as regarding.
At the ArtistBooksOnline table, the shape-changer Inside/Outside by Susie Wilson kept me as busy as if it were a Rubik’s cube or paper puzzle with a medical mystery inside — or outside.
Puns, slippery words and slipperier concepts seemed to explode from Guy Bigland‘s table.
My inner metaphysician of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction and Post-Deconstruction found its element(s) at the Atlas Press.
AM Bruno, run by Sophie Loss, and of which John McDowall is a founding member, is always a rich vein of artistry. The works from the 2018 theme-driven project, Cover, appear in the box below but warrant a closer inspection at the link behind the word. John McDowall had a new book on hand: Time-lapses. As I turned the brilliantly white pages, each segmented into squares like a comic-book page but only one square in each page holding an old black-and-white photo, the title began to sink home. And then came the idea that all the meaning that could possibly explain any one photo, its relation to the other squares or to other photos or to the author or to the reader/viewer — all of it — has to take place in the empty spaces between.
Janet Allsebrook displayed a Duchampian box with the Delaunay-esque title Nichoir. Although the drift of this work (“waste time making your own useless nest box”) is echoed in her other works, the echo reverberates with a deeper tone — often political or philosophical. The variety of book forms is impressive.
Next door was the artist of Zen book art — Julie Johnstone – Essence Press. In addition to extensions of her percentage tint series, she had on hand several explorations of breath, print and paper: each breath, a page; quietly breathing; five breaths; and ten breaths. Wherever they are, her books make a Zen garden.
Sarah Bodman and Arnolfini brought together a rich collection of talent and should be thanked for doing so and encouraged to repeat it in 2021. And to the artists mentioned — and those not — who took the time to share their thoughts on colour, texture, light, line, shapes, words and artistry: Encore!
Architecture — be it theory, principles, practices or instances — inspires book art. Lay the book flat; you have a foundation. Open and turn it on its fore-edge; you have a roof beam or arcade. Stand it upright; you have a column or tower. Turn the front cover; you open a door. Put the text and types under a microscope; you have a cityscape. As the examples in this virtual exhibition show, architecture-inspired book art goes beyond these simple analogies.
There are seemingly unrelated texts that help considerably in going there. The Eyes of the Skin (2005) and The Embodied Image (2010) by Juhani Pallasmaa, architect, teacher and critic, are two of them. He writes as if he were an artist preparing an artist’s statement or descriptions of the book art below. The title of his earlier book gives away his alignment with the visual and tactile nature of book art. Pallasmaa’s two books will enrich anyone’s enjoyment of the works shown and mentioned here.
Malone’s Ten Books of Architecture is a good place to start in the collection. Like Pallasmaa, Malone takes a broad historical and, most important, haptic view of architecture from Vitruvius to Hadid. Each of the ten books is a bookwork that exemplifies its subject.
The aspiration to fuse the cosmic and the human, divine and mortal, spiritual and material, combined with the systems of proportion and measure deriving simultaneously from the cosmic order and human figure, gave architectural geometries their meaning and deep sense of spiritual life.The Embodied Image, p. 23.
And further apropos the link between the book and architecture, consider the connection that Vasari drew between Gutenberg and Alberti:
In the year 1457 [sic], when the very useful method of printing books was discovered by Johann Gutenberg the German, Leon Batista [sic], working on similar lines, discovered a way of tracing natural perspectives and of effecting the diminution of figures by means of an instrument, and likewise the method of enlarging small things and reproducing them on a greater scale; all ingenious inventions, useful to art and very beautiful. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 1, trans. Gaston Du C. de Vere (London: Medici Society/ Philip Lee Warner, 1912-1914), 494.
In “An Architectural Confession”, Pallasmaa writes:
One’s most important teacher may have died half a millennium ago; one’s true mentor could well be Filippo Brunelleschi or Piero della Francesca. I believe that every serious artist — at the edge of his/her consciousness — addresses and offers his/her work to a superior colleague for approval.The Eyes of the Skin, p. 82.
This curiously textured cube sits perfectly alongside Pallasmaa’s observation: “The basic geometric shapes have their symbolic connotations, but more important than their conventional meanings are their conceptual and visual organising powers” (The Embodied Image, p. 58).
Malone’s Ten Books has a predecessor in Laura Davidson’s contribution to the 1994 Smithsonian show on book art inspired by its collection of rare science books (see section below). Although there is also Karen Wirth’s sculptural take on the Ten Books as well as Ron Keller’s take (see section below) on Palladio’s Fours Books of Architecture, which is Palladio’s take on Vitruvius, I have not found any other Vitruvian-inspired works of book art. (Pointers welcome.)
These two works — 30 St Mary Axe: Diagrid (2009) and 30 St. Mary Axe: Cladding(2009) — are among several architecture-inspired works of book art that Brannan has created. The text in one of those several — Situated — could have come straight from Pallasmaa, Bachelard or Merleau-Ponty:
Being situated is generally considered to be part of being embodied, but it is useful to consider each perspective individually. The situated perspective emphasizes that intelligent behaviour derives from the environment and the agent’s interactions with it.
By integration of image, colour and structure, Brannan situates the “Gherkin’s” architecture in your hands.
In the The Radiant Republic (2019), Sarah Bryant (Big Jump Press) brings together concrete, wood, glass, paper, ink and embossed printing, sewn binding, box container and texts from Plato and Le Corbusier.
Bryant’s insightful integration of Plato’s and Le Corbusier’s texts and ideas and her setting them in the physicality of the blond wood, linen cover, embossed type and sewn papers could easily be a response to Pallasmaa’s comment in The Eyes of the Skin: “The current overemphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of architecture contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied essence.” (p. 35)
Chinese Whispers (1975) is conceptual, visual and spatial narrative that takes the reader into a “game of embedded games”: a game of Chinese Whispers used by the artists to combine the process of making a book with the process of recovering an old cottage, making a corner cupboard, making jam, making ideas and making an exit.
Chinese Whispers (1975), Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes, Photo: Books On Books Collection
The selection of images above begins with the front cover’s photo of a patch of grass outside an abandoned farm building and ends with the back cover’s photo of the underside of the patch of grass. In between, the pages take the viewer through the trimmed hedge and the doorway into the room, through the building, the stocking of the shelves, using of the stock and closing of the shed cupboard, and so back to the other side of the patch of grass. As Stokes explained in the Journal of Artist’s Books (Vol. 12, 1999):
We started with the corner cupboard, that was the part that occupied our thinking most, that and the two colour vignettes (as we called them) printed on different stock. But then we started to think backward to what might be before the cupboard’s construction. To the thing before that, and the thing before that, and the thing before that which was cutting of the hedge and before that which was the boot brush which we called the hedgehog- that was where the book started. Then we started to photograph from that point forward, through the book.
The work blends the features of book structure, collage and montage to create something that resonates uncannily with Pallasmaa’s approving citations of Bachelard’s central idea of the hearth and domicile as central to our time-bound “being-in-the-world”.
Folded book pages rarely generate a work that rises above mere craft. Heather Hunter’s Observer Series: Architecture (2009) achieves the necessary height. It combines the altered book with an accordion book that incorporates a found poem composed of the words excised and folded outwards from the folded pages of The Observer’s Book of Architecture.
The very fact of a found poem made of excised words that happen to fall at the folds shaping a column from a book on architecture chimes with the title of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
Chicago Octet (2014) byMarlene MacCallum embodies the collaborative creative approach often taken in architects’ practices. Collaborative working arises almost as frequently in book art. Think of Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, Helen Malone and Jack Oudyn, Julie Chen and Clifton Meador, Robin Price and Daniel Kelm. Many more can be added. As described by MacCallum:
From May 19 – 26, 2014 a group of eight gathered at the Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts for a final collaborative project. This event was organized by Clifton Meador and myself and included David Morrish, Scott McCarney, and four Grenfell Campus BFA (Visual Arts) grads, Stephen Evans, Maria Mercer, Virginia Mitford, and Meagan Musseau…. The letterpress printing consisted of a word selected by each participant printed on one of Scott’s folded structures. The images were a digital layering of every cityscape photograph that I made and then inkjet printed on top of the letterpress. The final folded structure was designed by Mary Clare Butler. The case was designed and built by Scott McCarney, the front cover embossment was by David Morrish and Clifton Meador.
Chicago Octet fully unfolded, 17.5 × 11.5 inches Photo: Books On Books Collection
Can you hear the traffic and sense the layers of experience? What Pallasmaa writes here of rock art in Africa and Australia reminds me of Chicago Octet (or is it vice versa?): “
At the same time that great works of art make us aware of time and the layering of culture, they halt time in images that are eternally new. … Regardless of the fact that these images may have been painted 50,000 years ago, … we can … hear the excited racket of the hunt.The Embodied Image, p. 109.
Mill: A journey around Cromford Mill, Derbyshire (2006) is the result of the artists’ exploration of Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, the first water-powered, cotton-spinning mill developed by Richard Arkwright in 1771. Solid, plaster cast blocks are held softly between calico pages containing hidden texts, bound in recycled wooden library shelf covers that indicate there is history to be found within.
Having Mill is like having the building inside your house.
Architecture plays more than an inspirational role in Karen Wirth’s portfolio. As mentioned above, she has created her own take on Vitruvius’ Ten Books. She designed the Gail See Staircase at Open Book and the Hiawatha Light Rail Station, both in Minneapolis. The collage work Paper Architecture is based on an architectural installation at the Minnesota Center for Arts Design and draws on Wirth’s photos of Ayvalik, Amsterdam, Florence, Istanbul, New York City, Rome, San Diego and Venice.
In The Embodied Image, Pallasmaa singles out “the collaged image” as creating “a dense non-linear and associative narrative field through initially unrelated aggregates, as the fragments obtain new roles and significations through the context and dialogue with other image fragments” (pp.71-72). The materially disparate words in the title of Wirth’s work imply the dialogues she creates among paper, designs of letters and architecture, buildings across time and the globe, and photos tinted, four-colour, and black-and-white in palimpsest.
Former professor and head of the Department of Architecture at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, Yoon is now Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. She is also cofounder of Höweler + Yoon, a design-driven architecture practice. Absence appears to be her only work of book art so far.
When you hold this small white brick of paper and turn its thick pages, a small pinhole appears on the page. Then two larger square holes emerge, one of which falls over the pinhole. Page after page, the two square holes repeat, creating two small dark wells in the field of white, until on the last page they take their place in the cut-out schematic footprint of the city blocks and buildings surrounding the Twin Towers of New York City. What you hold in your hands at the end is an object of art and book of memorial prayer.
Architecture-themed worksfrom other sites
Twice a semester, the Environmental Design Library at the University of California, Berkeley hosts “Hands On: An Evening with Artists’ Books”. In 2017, one evening’s theme was “Building on the Built”, illustrated by 25 works of book art. Organised by 23 Sandy Gallery in the same year, “BUILT“ was an international juried exhibition featuring 66 artist books by 51 artists examining the relationship between contemporary book art practices and architecture, engineering, landscape and construction.
Arranged alphabetically by artist’s name, this section provides links to favourites from these two exhibitions as well as other collections, exhibitions and installations.
On her site, Bruggeman writes, “This book/box project is built around excerpts from Architectural Body by Madeline Gins and Arakawa…. incorporates a blueprint of their Bioscleave House as part of the imagery….”. Somewhat like A Clockwork Orange or perhaps more like Heideigger’s tomes, the Gins and Arakawa book is a challenge to the reader’s expectations of diction and syntax.
Richard Minsky: Model of Buckminster Fuller’s Tetrascroll (1979). See also Polly Lada-Mocarski, Richard Minsky and Peter Seidler, “Book of the Century: Fuller’s Tetrascroll“, Craft Horizons, October 1977 (Vol. 7, No. 35). For one (very helpful) reading of Tetrascroll see Jessica Prinz’s “The ‘Non-Book’: New Dimensions in the Contemporary Artist’s Book” in The Artist’s Book: The Text and its Rivals, a special two-issue volume of Visible Language, Vol. 25, Nos. 2/3, edited by Renée Riese Hubert (Providence, RI: Rhode Island School of Design, 1991), pp. 286-89.
Going against the usual structure of the book, that of a beginning, a middle and an end, Perera provides a space for infinite possibilities and multiple authors, creating “modules that can be re-sequenced and re-aligned to develop variable permutations and encourage participatory involvement, to share the final editorial control with the viewer to transform the ever-evolving work”.These possibilities for variable permutations are no more evident than in her constantly evolving project, Building Blocks Book, and its numerous subsequent iterations including The Negative Space of Architecture and The House That Jack Never Built (2008). Once again we find Perera exploring human interaction, not only with the concepts and her quizzical ideas surrounding architectural and public spaces and how we build between and move within, but also the physical interaction with the artists’ books she produces – the rearrangement and reinsertion of pages which allow the audience and participants new opportunities and pathways to proceed. Through the positive and negative space of the page or the type font, the Underground versus over ground, the artist takes us on journeys that are at once fluid and at other times obstructive. In these cityscapes, the U-turn is as common as the page turn – a necessary rupture in a free-flowing narrative. Chris Taylor, From Book to Book (Leeds: Wild Pansy Press, 2008).
Elizabeth Williams, “Architects Books: An Investigation in Binding and Building”, The Guild of Book Workers Journal, Volume 27, Number 2, Fall 1989. This essay not only pursues the topic of architecture-inspired book art but turns it on its head. An adjunct professor at the time, Williams set her students the task of reading Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books (Nicosia: Aegean Editions, 2001) then, after touring a bindery, “to design the studio and dwelling spaces for a hand bookbinder on an urban site in Ann Arbor, Michigan”. But before producing the design, the students were asked “to assemble the pages [of the design brief and project statement] in a way that explored or challenged the concept of binding”. In other words, they had to create bookworks and then, inspired by that, create their building designs. Williams illustrates the essay with photos of the students’ bookworks. [Special thanks to Peter Verheyen for this reference.]
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert’s The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books (Granary Books, 1999) is a signal work of appreciation and analysis of book art. Nearly twenty years on, it can be read and appreciated itself more vibrantly with a web browser open alongside it.
To facilitate that for others, here follows a linked version of the bibliography in The Cutting Edge of Reading — a “webliography”. Because web links do break, multiple, alternative links per entry and permanent links from libraries, repositories and collections have been used wherever possible. These appear in the captions as well as the text entries. Also included are links to videos relating to the works or the artists. At the end of the webliography, links for finding copies of The Cutting Edge (now out of print) are provided.
Untitled (2006) Jenny Smith Matte-beige slot-and-tab case containing eight-panel leporello, four panels lasercut and three screenprint. Case: 167 x 167 mm; Book: 165 x 165 mm. Edition of 25 of which this is #21. Acquired from the artist, 31 July 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
This portable sculpture echoes the tradition of Bruno Munari and Eleonora Cumer. The handling of ink from matte gray to silver to reflective black plays beautifully behind the vertical and
Book of Beads (2008)
Book of Beads (2008) Jenny Smith Case of beige matte-finish, screenprint black interior, title lasercut: 165 x 165 mm; Book in accordion-fold, eight panels lasercut, taupe on one side, screenprint black on other, 160 x 160 mm Edition of 20 of which this is #13. Acquired from the artist, 31 July 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The interlocking views of panels through panels foreshadow a work by Katumi Komagata:「Ichigu」(2015). The fine tendrils in the cutting may remind some of works by Béatrice Coron or Merrill Shatzman.
Little Black Book (2009)
Little Black Book (2009) Jenny Smith Matte-black slot-and-tab case containing matte-black single fold booklet; cover engraved with an abstract, calligraphic design that is cut out inside on the pop-up page and reappears in shadow against a gloss black screenprint insert behind the pop-up page. Case: 167 x 167 mm; Book: 160 x 160 mm; Pop-up page: H140 x W150 mm. Edition of 20, of which this is #14. Acquired from the artist, 31 July 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
The grassy nature of the 2013 installation and its engagement with children may remind the reader/viewer of Water on the Border (1994) by Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes. For some, the interaction of cage and words in the 2016 installation may recall Bird Language (2003) by Xu Bing.
“Medicinal Art”, Studio Pavilion, 19 September 2019. Accessed 2 May 2020.
Douglas’s comments on the concertina or leporello form reveal the impact of Proust and Chinese scrolls on her use of it, which is particularly evident in the two-sided concertina In Mexico: in the Garden of Edward James, discussed here.