Bookmarking Book Art – “Darkness Visible”, Sam Winston’s performative installation

Sam Winston’s Darkness Visible at the Southbank Centre aims to give its “viewers”/participants a taste of what the artist has experienced during seven-day stretches of living and working in his studio plunged in total darkness. Despite the title being taken from one of the best of blind John Milton’s lines in Paradise Lost (“No light, but rather darkness visible Served only to discover sights of woe.”), Winston’s work has little to do with blindness and even less so with hell.

Come along and see.

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Entrance to the commissioned dark room on Level 5 of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre

The weighted black curtain I pushed aside swept quickly closed behind me. I fumbled to find the parting in the second black curtain and, briefly switching on then off the flashlight provided by the attendant, found my place on a bench in darkness.  Two young women stifled nervous giggles as we waited for the first recorded poet to speak. It was surprising how time seems to stretch in the darkness.

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Second curtained entrance
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Interior of the commissioned dark room

It seemed a long time before my eyes’ biophotonic activity from staring and blinking settled down. Then my peripheral vision picked up a leak of light in the lower right hand corner of the booth. At first I felt an urge to turn toward the light, but then an urge to look up and to the left toward more profound darkness took over. I thought of holding up my hand in front of my face, but did not. I wanted to see the dark, not what I knew I couldn’t see. I wondered why my ears also seemed, at first, to want a silence as profound as the dark but then accepted almost any sound as part of the darkness.

George Szirtes began to speak his twelve strophes of plain lines, at least the ones that were not muffled seemed plain (“I have not talked about blindness./ I can’t see how I could”) and reminded me in the darkness of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (“It was evening all afternoon”). Then silence, broken by a train or trains crossing the Thames. Kayo Chingonyi, second to speak, intoned words of praise, again difficult to follow on this one-off hearing, which allowed another poem to intrude, W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” and its last line “And bowing not knowing to what”. Then silence, broken by an announcement from the nearby auditorium telling theatre-goers to return to their seats and an airliner passing. Emily Berry, the third poet, innovated with a snatch of the hymn “Jerusalem” and uhms and uhs to mimic her words groping in the dark against a “continuous hum” and finally stopped mid sentence, the overall effect being to evoke Denise Levertov’s “O taste and see“. Another silence, now broken by a child squealing (laughing or shrieking?) somewhere in the building, by more giggling until one then the other young woman parted the curtains to leave, breaking the darkness briefly.  My eyes “readjusted” to the dark — that is, accepted it and again looked into it without seeking light. I re-membered in it half the image I’d seen of the recently invented carbon nanotubes surface. If you wondered, as I did, how the artist managed

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Mask coated (and uncoated) with Vantablack S-VIS
SurreyNanoSystems

the unrelenting darkness for a week, he has written about it here and spoken of it here.

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Darkness Visible installation (2017)
Sam Winston
Text piece on walls and floor
Three months of transcribing sensations outside of sight. Starting with sounds and touch (wall) then moving into abstracted thoughts and emotion (floor)
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Detail of Darkness Visible (2017)
Sam Winston
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Darkness Visible (2017)
Sam Winston
Installation at Southbank Centre, London

Being reminded of other poems in the darkness, I was also reminded of two other artists (Maloney and Beuys) who had locked themselves away in pursuit of creativity. So I wondered whether there was a some tradition of this and, on the train home, searched and found:

Martin Maloney’s Intervention (Five Days and Five Nights at the Galerie MTL) (1971);

Joseph Beuys and his overnight stay with a coyote in a locked room, resulting in America Likes Me and I Like America (1974);

Het Observatorium’s Dwelling for Seclusion — New York (1997), “a pavilion erected in the gardens of Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, New York City, [that] arose from the desire to place art at the service of an individual experience of quietness, seclusion and prolonged observation”;

Alan O’Cain’s Hunting Schiele (2012), drawings, writings and a web recording of their creation during the artist’s overnight stay, locked in the cell where Egon Schiele was imprisoned in Neulengenbach in 1912.

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Untitled/ 7 days blind (2016)
Sam Winston
Coloured Luminance pencils on Fabriano Artistico paper
Drawn in complete darkness over seven day & nights
(In this work, Winston restricted himself to red, green and blue pencils to mirror the red-green-blue sensitive cones of the eye.)
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Untitled/7 days blind (2015)
Sam Winston
Graphite crayon and pencil on Fabriano Artistico paper
Drawn in complete darkness over seven days & nights

In a way, Sam Winston is Walt Whitman-like — expansively absorbing this tradition and its future: like those of Maloney, Beuys and O’Cain, Winston’s “aktion” has yielded tangible works of his own in multiple forms; like Het Observatorium, Winston has created a participative space for its audience and invited creators. How will any artists ever close themselves off, invite others in, without taking account of Darkness Visible?

Yet, he is utterly unlike Whitman: in the non-egocentric generosity of Darkness Visible, rooted in a genius for sharing, evident in the planned immersive performance with photographer Andy Sewell, composer Jamie Perera and film-maker Anna Price  (with live readings by poets Emily Berry, Kayo Chingonyi and George Szirtes) scheduled for 11 January 2018 at the Whitechapel Gallery. Somehow Winston’s “darkness visible” is not an invitation to influence, just an invitation to creativity.

Where this generosity and genius come from is hard to say, but it seems hardly an accident that much book art and many artists’ books have been the fruit of collaborative effort.

 

Bookmarking Book Art – Large-Scale Installations, Update 20170609

The Parthenon of Books, 1983/2017
Marta Minujín
Kassel, Germany

In her note in BookRiot, Nikki Steele takes Brian Dettmer’s  TED talk remark that books are created to relate to our human scale and builds on it elegantly, if all too briefly, by bringing together the installation works “Literature versus Traffic”, “Scanner”, “Book Cell”, “Singularity”, “Biographies” and “Contemporaries”. She’s not the first to provide a Pinterest– or Flickr-style burst of “ooh, look at this”, but unlike her predecessors, she makes the point worth pondering: this art that is not on a human scale evokes wonder and awe.

This challenges and expands on Dettmer’s point that people are disturbed by book art because we think of the book as a body, a living thing. As John Milton said, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself”. That was in the context of book licensing laws that led to the confiscation and destruction of unlicensed books. Still, Milton would probably react as angrily to individual works of book art, and he might view the installations as if they were on the scale of the massacre of the Waldensians in the Piedmont.

Dettmer’s justification of book art that books “also have the potential to continue to grow and to continue to become new things”, that “books really are alive”, leaves us still squirming on the hook when Steele asks, “what happens when artists explode the scale and take books much, much larger?”. If you think cutting up or destroying a book is sacrilegious, what is your reaction to the 10,000 splayed in the streets of Melbourne by Luzinterruptus or the equal number cast by Alicia Martín into frozen defenestrations in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain or the even greater number in Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books, installed for documenta in Kassel, Germany?

Miltonic eruption? Or Steele-ish delight, awe and love of the art?

Let’s raise the stakes and confusion. What if the books used in the single-volume work and installations were the Koran, the Bible or the Torah? Art and ethics are rarely happy bedfellows. Is there such a thing as “responsible art” that does not run afoul of the principle of the creative spirit or the integrity of art? Is art wholly without cultural, ethical or social contextual obligations?

This is why I like book art. It provokes just by coming into being. Its existence and appreciation are hard won.

Links on large-scale book art installations:

Tom Bendtsen

Melissa Jay Craig

Julie Dodd

Flux Foundation

Thilo Folkerts and Rodney Latourelle

Brian Goggin

Rune Guneriussen

Samuel Levi Jones

Anselm Kiefer

Matej Krén

Anouk Kruithof

Lacuna (Bay Area Book Festival and Flux)

Miler Lagos

Luzinterruptus

Alicia Martín

Marta Minujin

Math Monahan

Jan Reymond Rosace

Mike Stilkey

Rintala Eggertsson Architects

Rusty Squid

Liu Wei

Vita Wells

Wendy Williams