Books On Books Collection – Xiao Long Hua

The Blind Men and the Elephant (2019)

The Blind Men and the Elephant (2019)
Xiao Long Hua
Sleeved paperback, exposed sewn spine. Sleeve: 305 x 305 mm. Book: H303 x W305 mm. 52 pages. Edition of 500, of which this is #178. Acquired from Northing, 18 May 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Working with binding designer Zhong Yu and tbook designer Lu Min of the “One and One Half Atelier”, Shanghai-based Xiao Long Hua has found a sympathetic outlet and form for his creative vision. His first work with them is The Blind Men and the Elephant, a variation on the parable in the Buddhist sutra Tittha Sutta. It takes place in the kingdom “Mirari”, ruled by King Mirror.

Selection from One and One Half Atelier. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

As in the more traditional version, the blind men report the elephant to be of different shapes, but in this version, those shapes reflect those of the blind men themselves. Throughout the book, a blueprint grid in the background of the dark blue and light gray page serves to emphasize the geometric shapes of the characters and images and to reflect, with its reductiveness, each blind man’s rigid view of the elephant’s nature. And up to this point of the blind men’s report, the grid has been bounded intermittently by coordinate markers, some numerical, some in letters and some in Chinese characters.

Xiao Long Hua places the different shapes the blind men perceive into the mind of the king, where they become a butterfly and then transform endlessly and kaleidoscopically into other figures represented across a series of pages printed dark blue. This variation on the theme comes from the Miao (Hmong) creation song Butterfly Mother or Mother Butterfly.

The final colorless two pages consist of cut-outs inviting the readers’ hands to create more strange figures along with the king’s mind. This element of touch recurs on the cover, which on closing the reader will find is covered in fingerprints. The cover’s ink is thermochromatic, fading away under the warmth of touch, returning as it cools and waiting for our next blind touch.

Selection from One and One Half Atelier edition. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The publishing house Qianxun Neverend has issued a shorter trade edition of The Blind Men and the Elephant. Although a thermochromatic cover proved to be too expensive, an equally interesting design feature animates the cover’s image of the butterfly transforming into the multiple figures in the king’s mind.

Cover of Qianxun Neverend edition.
© Qianxun Neverend 2022.

Prior to The Blind Men and the Elephant, Xiao Long Hua engaged primarily in illustrations, scroll painting, installation works and sculpture, some of which can be seen on his Tumblr blog. For his latest work with the One and One Half Atelier, The Great Migration, the Atelier’s site announced a multimedia installation. A comment about this work sheds light on The Blind Men and the Elephant as well; he writes, “…I want to paint a magnificent picture of the Great Migration to express those spaces and memories that are fading away, I try to blur the forms between people, animals and objects. “

Other works in the Books On Books Collection to compare with The Blind Men and the Elephant include

The Black Book of Colors (2008) Menena Cottin

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2016) Carina Hesper

Vladimir Nabokov: AlphaBet in Color (2005) Jean Holabird

Blindness (2020) Masoumeh Mohtadi

Voyelles (2012) Arthur Rimbaud/Le Cadratin

Reading Closed Books (2019) Sam Winston

Further Reading

Miao Intangible Cultural Heritage — Embroidery“. Google Arts and Culture. Accessed 18 July 2022.

Zuo Shu. 2022. “After finishing this book, I have a new understanding of ‘picture book‘”. iNews (Culture). Accessed 18 July 2022.

Books On Books Collection – Menena Cottin

The Black Book of Colors (2008)

The Black Book of Colors (2008)
Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría
Dustjacketed, casebound. H180 x W290, 24 unnumbered pages. Acquired 17 October 2017.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The visual and tactile are our sensory default with books. With its glossy black pages, the verso pages bearing white type and Braille and the recto pages presenting raised images, The Black Book of Colors demands the enhanced multisensory response that highlights the affinity between book art and children’s books. Menena Cottin’s conceptual books displayed on her site and this addition to the Books On Books Collection present that affinity in several ways.

The sense of the words reversed out on the black does so by evoking synaesthesia:

Thomas says that yellow tastes like mustard, but is as soft as a baby chick’s feathers.

Thomas likes all the colors because he can hear them and smell them and touch and taste them.

Cottin manipulates character and narration, the picturebook genres of color and letter recognition (Braille in this case) and some of the basic elements of the book (spread layout and reverse-out and debossed printing) to break boundaries in ways similar to those employed by book artists. Double-page spreads meld concepts, for instance by turning a rainbow into a gathering of raised images of the synaesthetic objects with which colors have been associated (chick’s feathers, strawberries, leaves).

And when the sun peeks through the falling water, all the colors come out, and that’s a rainbow.

The Black Book uses synaesthesia to go beyond the color recognition genre to introduce more complex concepts: the nature of light and water’s lack of color, taste and smell. This stepping outside the genre is another example of the boundary-breaking that artists’ books often perform.

Thomas thinks that without the sun, water doesn’t amount to much. It has no color, no taste, no smell.

The book ends by asserting its membership in the alphabet book genre, but there is more to it than that. Across from the verso Braille Alphabet, there is no recto set of raised images, a pairing that invites the sighted and unsighted to return to the beginning and re-read with a greater reliance on touch. If the alphabet were absent and the book ended with “Thomas likes all the colors because he can hear them and smell them and touch and taste them” and the final page of raised images, The Black Book of Colors would be simply a book for the literate sighted and unsighted. Clearly it is more than that. In Cottin’s terms, it is a conceptual book.

Other books in the collection that are worth comparing with The Black Book of Colors are

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2016) Carina Hesper

Vladimir Nabokov: AlphaBet in Color (2005) Jean Holabird

Blindness (2020) Masoumeh Mohtadi

Voyelles (2012) Arthur Rimbaud/Le Cadratin

Reading Closed Books (2019) Sam Winston

The Blind Men and the Elephant (2019) Xiao Long Hua

Further Reading

Nikolajeva, Maria, and Carole Scott. 2007. How picturebooks work. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Scott, Carole. 2014. “Artists’ books, Altered books, and Picturebooks”. In: B. Kümmerling‐Meibauer, ed., Picturebooks: Representation and Narration. London, New York: Routledge.