Bookmarking Book Art – Notes on “Inverse Ekphrasis” as a way into book art

On inverse ekphrasis and its role in artists’ books and book art.

When a work of art inspires poetry or prose, we call the literary result ekphrastic:  “the verbal representation of visual representation”.  Keats, Auden and Jarrell use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel, or Donatello’s sculpture of David. But book artists often work in the other direction.  They use the letters, words, the physical elements of the book or even the shape of books, the functions of the book or even the processes of bookmaking to create works of art. A kind of inverse ekphrasis.

The phrase inverse ekphrasis first occurred in comments on artwork by Kate Buckley and Ros Rixon. It seems to have originated and sharpened from reading Murray Krieger (1992), W.J.T. Mitchell (1994), Jay David Bolter (1996) and Marian Macken (2018). Explaining ekphrasis and the tensions between text and image in Picture Theory, Mitchell writes:

A verbal representation cannot represent — that is, make present — its object in the same way a visual representation can.

Mitchell calls this a commonsense perception. It insists on an impossibility for verbal representation and a possibility for visual representation. But let’s play a game. Invert and modify it:

visual representation does not represent — that is, make present — its object in the same way a verbal representation does.

Likewise the altered assertion seems a commonsense perception, but it does not insist; it is a simpler, more limited observation. It has to be. A visual work can reproduce a readable version of The Great Gatsby’s entire text. This poster does just that. The image illustrates the book, but the poster is not an illustrated book, the illustration is the text of the book. The visual representation makes the story present, but in a temporally and spatially different way. Instead of leaning over a codex to read the words and look through them to Nick and Gatsby’s world, we stand and look at their arrangement into an emblem of that world, we begin to read the words. Tiring or being called away, we turn from it. Passing by, we stop, and our eyes jump to another part of the image and, seeing a familiar or intriguing word or sentence, begin to read again. It may be “great book” art, but is it great “book art”? Whatever one’s judgment, it is a form of inverse ekphrasis, which is one means that some works of book art adopt to make present their inspiring object, which in part achieves their own objecthood.

Exploring the relationship of the book and, in particular, the artist’s book to architecture, Marian Macken (2018) also makes observations that, restated, shed light on inverse ekphrasis but, just as important, shed light on book art in general. She writes:

… matter is not just material presence, it is the site of techniques, which may be understood as the complex relation between architecture’s material presence and the immaterial. Thus the exhibition of architecture becomes the display of technique. With this description of the display of architecture and the notion of translation in mind, artists’ books provide an immediate vehicle for the exhibition of architecture: central to the concept of technique is the re-making of the representation. p. 126.

Now let’s play the restatement game:

Matter is not just the material presence of the book in artists’ books, it is the site of techniques, which may be understood as the complex relation between the book’s material presence and the immaterial. The alphabet, type, typography, the substrate (clay, stone, skin, paper, screen, etc.), page (in the manifestation chosen by the structuring technique) and the binding or apparent absence of binding (again, in the manifestation chosen by the structuring technique): each and together are the site of techniques that the artist/author can choose in pursuit of an idea, concept, thought, emotion or sensation intended.

With that statement, we move beyond inverse ekphrasis (“the re-making of a representation” or the making of re-presentation). A work of book art hardly requires an external literary work to occasion it, but in the collection’s many instances occasioned by verbal works of art, they riff more often than not on those elements mentioned above. The riffing is a performance that takes place on the site of techniques; it is the exploration of the complex relation between the book’s material presence and the immaterial.

The page is one of the most frequent elements subject to riffing. The choice of codex, palm leaf, leporello, scrolling paper, scrolling screen (others?) as a book’s structuring technique offers the opportunity to choose or redefine the construct of the “page”. Even within the space of a codex page, the diptych of a double-page spread, foldouts, pop-ups, or even within a continuously (horizontal or vertical) scrolling screen, the artist chooses techniques of demarcating, delineating, delimiting to deliver the idea, concept, emotion or sensation intended. This includes the metaphorical use to which the most experimental of book artists and authors have put the space in between letters, words, lines of text, images and pages. Think of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard and the artists’ books in homage to it.

The binding or apparent absence of binding is another frequent element subject to invention. The choice of structure (codex, etc.) offers an opportunity to choose or invent techniques of holding or bringing together or dispersing what is demarcated, delineated, delimited in the attempt to deliver the idea, concept, emotion or sensation intended. Think of the innovations and rediscoveries of Cor Aerssens, Gary Frost, Daniel Kelm, Hedi Kyle, Claire Van Vliet and other book artists. And what of the “apparent absence of binding”? Its inclusion allows for some of the more conceptual and most experimental works of book art — those that pose simple challenges to the idea of binding, those that pose more complex concepts of unboundedness. Think of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (2011), Doug Beube’s Red Infinity #4 (2017) or Amaranth Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen (2012).

Ulises Carrión’s 1975 manifesto assertion — The book is a space-time sequence — is apropos here. The book artist India Johnson (2019) explains its appropriateness by playing the same game of restatement and, in doing so, also captures Macken’s notion of “the site of techniques”:

… the more I read of Carrión, the more I’m persuaded that he is right: that his definition of the book, as both space and sequence, may be the most adequate one that we have.

That’s why I don’t describe the sculptures I’ve made in response to The New Art of Making Books as ‘expanding’ the idea of the book. They may, however, expand the idea of bookbinding.

In mulling over bookbinding in the expanded field, I have ultimately found myself back where I began: but not as a translator–this time, as an author. I am currently re-writing The New Art of Making Books, in collaboration with the translator and poet Andrea Bel.Arruti. As Ulises Carrión himself proclaimed, “plagiarism is the point of departure for creative activity in the new art.” By inverting all of Carrión’s claims, we’re generating a new manifesto, The Old Art of Making Books

“Books, contrary to popular opinion, are not for reading. They are for making. 

Making books is a sequence of processes, unfolding into space, whose making happens in time. 

The making is a space-time sequence.” 

And so inverse ekphrasis via this inverse manifesto becomes a way into book art.

Some examples of inverse ekphrasis from the Books On Books Collection:

Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira l’Appropriation” (2022). Includes links to various artists’ books’ responses to Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem.

Abra Ancliffe,  The Secret Astronomy of Tristram Shandy (2015). Laurence Sterne novel.

Harriet Bart, The Yellow Wallpaper (2018). Charlotte Perkins Gillman novella.

Ken Botnick, Diderot Project (2015). Denis Diderot encyclopedia.

Ken Botnick, Table of Contents (2021). James J. Gibson monograph

Béatrice Coron, Machines (2017), and Barbara Tetenbaum, Machines (1986). Michael Donaghy poem

Guy Laramée, A Caverna (2012). José Saramago novel.

Jacqueline Rush Lee, The First Cut (2015). Ovid poem.

Helen Malone and Jack Oudyn,  The Future of an Illusion (2017). Sigmund Freud treatise and Jim Crace novel.

Shirley Sharoff, Impermanence subtile / Subtle Impermanence (2013). Ian Monk poem.

Buzz Spector, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990). Marcel Broodthaers artist’s book.

Barbara Tetenbaum, Mining My Ántonia; Excerpts, Drawings, and a Map (2012). Willa Cather novel.

Tetenbaum, both writer and book artist, spent a month in a gallery listening to a recording of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia, and the result was an “artist’s book” or “bookwork” called Mining My Ántonia; Excerpts, Drawings, and a Map.  Put aside — difficult as it may be — the pleasure of craft and art so plainly suffusing the print, paper and binding of this work, what is the work’s relation to the material of which it is made?  Is it like a “movie of the book”?  Or some sort of literary/artistic criticism?   Are we enjoying Tetenbaum’s “making the novel her own” (as in the pun on mining), or is the work inspiring us to go back to Cather’s novel with renewed interest?  Or both? To what degree can we appreciate Tetenbaum’s book art without having read My Ántonia?To make Tetenbaum’s work our own — to mine it — must we go to the site from which the artist quarried her material?  How do we think about the “material” of which Mining My Ántonia is made? How does that contribute to our appreciation of the work itself? And to our thinking about book art?

Further Reading

Bartsch, S., & Elsner, J. 1 January 2007. Special issue on ekphrasis. Classical Philology, 102, 1. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.

Benjamin, Andrew. 2005. “On display: The exhibition of architecture”. In Abe, Hitoshi. Hitoshi Abe Flicker Tokyo: Toto Shoppan.

Benjamin, Walter. 1955. Illuminations. Harcourt, Brace & World. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “The Task of the Translator”.

Bolter, Jay David. “Ekphrasis, Virtual Reality, and the Future of Writing” in Nunberg, Geoffrey, and Umberto Eco. 1996. The future of the book. Turnhout: Brepols.

Brackett, Donald. 17 March 2020. “Iconosphere : the Ekphrastic Works of Walter Benjamin“. The Ekphrastic Review. Accessed 14 June 2022.

Callaway, C. 2017. Reverse Ekphrasis: The Visual Poetics of Nancy Morejón and Rolando EstévezAfro-Hispanic Review36(2), 50–59.

Carrión, Ulises. 1975. “The New Art of Making Books”. In Lyons, J. 1987. Artists’ books: A critical anthology and sourcebook. Rochester, N.Y: Visual Studies Workshop Press.

Evans, Robin. Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays. London: Architectural Association, 1997. Print. AA Documents ; 2. “Principle of reversed directionality”

Fletcher, Robert P. “Digital Ekphrasis and the Uncanny: Toward a Poetics of Augmented Reality”, Electronic Book Review, March 15, 2017. Accessed 13 October 2020.

Abstract: In this essay, Robert P. Fletcher demonstrates how, while putting together digital and print media affordances, augmented print may evoke in readers a sense of the uncanny. Fletcher also explains how works such as Amaranth Borsuk’s Abra (2014), Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe’s Ice-Bound (2016) or Stuart Campbell’s Modern Polaxis (2014) seem to demonstrate the existence of a never-ending return of the “familiar” in electronic literature.

Heffernan, James A. W. 1993,2008. Museum of words: the poetics of ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Johnson, India. 15 November 2019. “Responding to The New Art of Making Books“. College Book Art Association site. Accessed 13 June 2022.

Krieger, Murray, and Joan Krieger. 1992. Ekphrasis: the illusion of the natural sign. Baltimore, Md., [etc.]: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lessing, G. E., & Frothingham, E. (2013). Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Newburyport: Dover Publications.

Lindhé, Cecilia. 1 July 2013. “A Visual Sense is Born in the Fingertips”, Digital Humanities Quarterly, The Literary. Umeå University. Accessed 13 October 2020.

Abstract: In this article, the significance of the rhetorical and modern definitions of ekphrasis will be discussed through the lens of digital literature and art. It attempts to reinscribe the body in ekphrastic practice by adding touch to the abstracted visualism of the eye, and emphasize defining features of the ancient usage: orality, immediacy and tactility. What I call the digital ekphrasis with its emphasis on enargeia, its strong connections with the ancient definition, and on the bodily interaction with the work of art, conveys an aesthetic of tactility; digitalis=finger. By tracing and elucidating a historical trajectory that takes the concept of ekphrasis in the ancient culture as a starting point, the intention is not to reject the theories of the late 1900s, but through a reinterpretation of ekphrasis put forward an example of how digital perspectives on classic concepts could challenge or revise more or less taken-for-granted assumptions in the humanities. In this context ‘the digital’ is not only a phenomenon that could be tied to certain digital objects or used as a digital tool, but as an approach to history, with strong critical potential. The aim is to show that one of the most important features of our digital culture is that it offers new perspectives – not only on current technology – but also on literary, cultural and aesthetic historical practices.

Macken, M. (2018). Binding space: The book as spatial practice. London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “The Indirect Language”. In Merleau-Ponty, M., & Lefort, C. 199). The prose of the world. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Touches on gesture, on science and mathematics, compares language and painting.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. 2014. Picture theory: essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. 2010. What do pictures want?: the lives and loves of images. Chicago, Ill: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Royston, Anne M. 2019. Material noise: reading theory as artist’s book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Outline for a longer exploration

  • Book art and ekphrasis
    • Background to the concept of ekphrasis
    • Book art as inverse ekphrasis
    • Book art and digital ekphrasis
  • Book art and appropriation
    • Background to appropriation from the avant-garde to the present
    • Book art’s appropriations of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard
    • Book art’s appropriations from the other arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, cinema and poetry)
  • Book art and the “material noise” of its constituent parts
    • Background to “material studies”
    • Typography and the ecstatic alphabet
    • Substrates: from clay and skin, to paper and screen, and back again
  • Book art and its common thread: self-reflectivity
    • Self-reflectivity and inverse ekphrasis
    • Self-reflectivity and appropriation
    • Self-reflectivity and materiality