Richard Price and his team at The British Library just concluded their fifth event in this series of “show and tell” talks by book artists. Most of the events have staked a claim to some relationship with a British Library event or exhibition current at the time — World Book Night, Writing: Making your Mark, and Buddhism — but the title of this fifth event punningly encapsulates the real point of the entire series: “Contemplating: Artist’s Books Now”.
When picturing an artist’s book what do you imagine? Intricate design, ornate bindings, blank space, fold outs and pop-up rinsed through with vibrancy of text and colour. Is it something more unearthly and harder to describe? An air of peace in the topsy-turvy hullabaloo of our modern world. A pause of contemplation as a work speaks to you? Or, on the contrary, is it a space of immense energy, of ‘thought-provocation’, where contemplation is something you feel compelled to do to make sense of the sensations and ideas the book stimulates? “Contemplating: Artists’ Books Now”
Whether the organizing theme has been “here and now” “place”, “Latin America“, “writing” or “contemplation”, the evening inevitably turns to reflecting on the nature of book art, bookworks, the artist’s book, the book arts, bookness and even art itself. Even with 50-60 in the audience and four to six presentations, Price and team have arranged the agenda to allow for hands-on “viewing” of the works, conversations with the artists and question time that evolves into a room-wide conversation, not just Q&A.
The seventh biennial Codex book fair and symposium in Berkeley and Richmond, California have come to a close. Of what use it is now to explain how to enjoy them, you be the judge. Your first step is to read the story in Mark Twain’s Roughing It of “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”. Being the story of a story — book art being so self-reflexive and all — it is the best way to commence:
Every now and then, in these days, the boys used to tell me I ought to get one Jim Blaine to tell me the stirring story of his grandfather’s old ram—but they always added that I must not mention the matter unless Jim was drunk at the time—just comfortably and sociably drunk.
Not to advise drink before the fair.
For the start of this Codex, rain and mist hover outside the hangar. The polished concrete floor looks wet but isn’t — so first-time visitors step to avoid slips that won’t really occur. The old-timers though stride from table to table arms wide, bussing each other on the cheek or humping crates around and placing and re-placing their works for the right effect. Arriving early to watch adds a certain enjoyment.
At last, one evening I hurried to his cabin, for I learned that this time his situation was such that … he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk—not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder- keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. … On the pine table stood a candle, and its dim light revealed “the boys” sitting here and there on bunks, candle-boxes, powder-kegs, etc. They said: “Sh—! Don’t speak—he’s going to commence.”
‘I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois—got him of a man by the name of Yates—Bill Yates—maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon—Baptist—and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west.
‘Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson—Sarah Wilkerson—good cretur, she was—one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was—no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all—it was a galoot by the name of Filkins—I disremember his first name; but he was a stump—come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary …
Which reminds me of Emily Martin and her politically biting King Leer —
There is plenty more somber work to go around: Lorena Velázquez from Mexico has followed up her powerful Cuarenta y tres with Exit, her hope in our turbulent times;
Barcelona’s Ximena Perez Grobet has 2.10.1968-2018on display, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City; Sue Anderson and Gwen Harrison from Australia offer Phantomwise Flew the Black Cockatoo, an indictment of a cruel welfare system; and there is Islam Aly from Egypt with Inception, Bedaya, inspired by stories and journeys of refugees. Book art everywhere wears its heart on its cover.
Still, book artists are a convivial bunch and cheerful in their internationality. On Monday evening, Mary Heebner (Simplemente Maria Press) and her husband photographer Macduff Everton are in the Berkeley City Club’s off-limits members’ room settling down to a bottle of Santa Barbara red, and here come upstate New Yorker Leonard Seastone (Tidelines Press), Anglo-German Caroline Saltzwedel (Hirundo Press), Irishman Jamie Murphy (The Salvage Press) and Geordie David Esslemont (Solmentes Press). Macduff is launched on a tale about running into Queen Elizabeth on her horse-riding visit to Ronald Reagan’s ranch, when David remembers rounding down a path in the Lake District during an art residency to find Prince Charles legging it up the same — by which time Macduff has just returned from his room with a bottle of single malt — which reminds Caroline of a stormy weather hike along Hadrian’s Wall, where Macduff diverts onto a tale of nearly being blown off the same and making his shaky, near-death way back to a bed-and-breakfast for a hot bath and terrible food from the grumpy owners, which launches Leonard onto the story about his local Russian butcher/grocer/refugee who refuses to sell him salad but insists on providing chiropractic services one day and adopts Leonard as his only friend in the US with whom he can have true political debate. Jamie still wants to know why the Russian wouldn’t sell Leonard any salad.
Speaking of greens — Robin Price’s prototype for Witnessing Ecology: the agave plant book again displays that thread of social concern, but this work and Price herself draw attention to another thread of enjoyment to pursue: the recurrence of collaboration among book artists. One artist leads to another.
As with the now-famous The Anatomy Lesson by Joyce Cutler-Shaw, Price has joined forces again with Daniel Kelm on the agave plant book, Kelm also collaborated with Ken Botnick on the long-gestating Diderot Project on display here just a few tables away, Botnick collaborated with the novelist and translator William Gass on A Defense of the Book, who in turn with the photographer Michael Eastman — who lives over in Oakland — created the digital-only book Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time. Whatever the medium, the book just naturally encourages collaboration — and chance. As Price’s book Counting on Chance implies and as so many book artists echo — as does Jim Blaine —
‘… There ain’t no such a thing as an accident. When my uncle Lem was leaning up agin a scaffolding once, sick, or drunk, or suthin, an Irishman with a hod full of bricks fell on him out of the third story and broke the old man’s back in two places. People said it was an accident. Much accident there was about that. He didn’t know what he was there for, but he was there for a good object. If he hadn’t been there the Irishman would have been killed. Nobody can ever make me believe anything different from that. Uncle Lem’s dog was there. Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog? Becuz the dog would a seen him a coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’t appinted. A dog can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence. Mark my words it was a put-up thing. Accidents don’t happen, boys. Uncle Lem’s dog—I wish you could a seen that dog. He was a reglar shepherd—or ruther he was part bull and part shepherd—splendid animal; belonged to parson Hagar before Uncle Lem got him.’
Chance, luck or accident — if you are to enjoy this book fair, you need to count on them, not just allow for them. How likely was it that in pursuit of Mary Heebner’s Intimacy: Drawing with light, Drawn from stone, I would be caught up with that crew in the off-limits members’ club?
Or if I weren’t staying a good walking distance from the symposium, how would I have come across a hummingbird in the cold of February after being delighted with Sue Leopard’s Hummingbird?
Hagar is a common Nordic name. But how likely was it that Twain would use that particular name in his California mining-camp story and that Codex VII is hosting “Codex Nordica”? Mark my words it was a put-up thing.
That not one of the symposium presenters introducing us to “Codex Nordica” is named Hagar should not be held against the organizers. Their choices — Åse Eg Jørgensen (co-editor of Pist Protta, Denmark’s longest running contemporary artists’ journal), Tatjana Bergelt (multilingual, of German-Russian-Jewish culture and settled in Finland), Thomas Millroth (art historian from Malmö) — are entertaining, informative and good humoured (proof at least for the Danes that they can’t all be Hamlet or Søren Kierkegaard). What they have to say and show speaks to book art’s uncanny rhyming across geographies and times.
With every issue the outcome of guest editing, artists’ contributions and a mandate to be unlike any previous issue, Pist Protta is a cross between Other Books and So, the collaborative, gallery-challenging venture of Ulises Carrión in the last century, and Brad Freeman’s US-based Journal of Artists’ Books.Printed Matter has faithfully carried every issue of Pist Protta, so there is little excuse to be unaware of it and its liveliness. Fitting for someone who thinks of herself as a collage of cultures, Tatjana Bergelt’s barfuß im Schnee-álásjulggiid muohttagis (“Barefoot in the Snow”) is a photo-collage of old maps, satellite maps, poetic texts, landscapes and portraits of the Sámi, the dwindling inhabitants of the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Murmansk Oblast. It reminds me of UK-based Nancy Campbell’s Vantar/Missing.
Both works delve into the vulnerable and disappearance — be it culture, gender or environment. Vantar‘s cold diptychs recording the mountain snow cover and barely perceptible signs of life in the ghost town Siglufjörður chime with Bergelt’s final slide:
The bus from the symposium in Berkeley to the fair itself in Richmond is another chance for chance to play its role. One day I’m sitting next to Amanda Degener (Cave Paper), who delights in our common acquaintance with Ioana Stoian and Eric Gjerde; the next, it’s Jeanne Drewes (Library of Congress), who introduces me to Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress), who regales us and the collector Duke Collier with tales of the British artist Ken Campbell. But the terrible thing about chance is that it takes up so much time and, at the same time, shows you what you wish you had more time for.
Or to Russell Maret discussing his work Character Traits and Geoffroy Tory’s Champ Fleury: The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face (1529):
Sam is kind enough to introduce me to his colleagues at ARC Editions (Victoria Bean, Rick Myers and Haein Song). Individually and together, they are forces to watch. Myers’ An Excavation, which I’d had the pleasure to see previously in The Hague, can be partly experienced in these videos, and Song’s fine bindings and artist’s books must be seen. Bean’s symposium talk is on Check, her portfolio of typewriter prints featuring fifty writers, from Oscar Wilde to Joan Didion, and the checks they wore, and on Flag, the follow-up series of artist’s books that takes a writer from Check and uses colour, cloth and typewriter prints to explore an individual work by that writer.
Check and Flag illustrate that bright enjoyable thread that shows up again and again at Codex and book art at its prime — the integration of letter, image, material, form, process and subject in a way that self-consciously calls attention to them yet yields a work of art that simply is — on its own terms.
Which, if you have read “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram”, ought to remind you that
… Parson Hagar belonged to the Western Reserve Hagars; prime family; his mother was a Watson; one of his sisters married a Wheeler; they settled in Morgan county, and he got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to ‘tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece.
‘She wouldn’t let them roll him up, but planted him just so—full length. The church was middling small where they preached the funeral, and they had to let one end of the coffin stick out of the window. They didn’t bury him—they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument.
With its 222 exhibitors here weaving the threads of book art and the book arts, Codex VII is a monument to enjoy. As for that old ram, you will have to read the story — and prepare for Codex VIII.