One of the most literary and conceptualist of book artists, Elisabeth Tonnard fuses the textual and visual in ways that consistently demand and reward close attention and even meditation. The works so far in the collection do not yet represent the breadth of her techniques (missing, for example, is the digest of 15 literary works through Microsoft’s auto-summary function to create Speak! eyes — En zie!), but in their individual ways, they do represent all of her works’ ability to make constraints yield surprise.
In this Dark Wood (2008)
Tonnard pairs images of 90 solitary people walking alone in nighttime city streets with 90 different English translations of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno. The images come from the Joseph Selle collection at the Visual Studies Workshop, which contains over a million negatives from a company of street photographers working in San Francisco from the 40’s to the 70’s. Male or female, Caucasian or Asian or African-American or Latino, the images are, as she puts it, “re-expressions of each other”. Likewise, the various translations are re-expressions of “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita.”
In this video, Tonnard speaks of the work at the 21’25” mark.
The double-page spreads blur after a while of gazing on each face and reading the translation facing it. At the very start, though, the image has no facing text on the verso, and at the end, the last page of text has no facing image on the recto. Faced with this exception to the constraint of the double-page spread, the audience is torn between being reader/gazer and gazer/reader — precisely the thrust of Tonnard’s book artistry.
The Library (2015)
The Library (2015) Elisabeth Tonnard, exposed sewing, digital print, 56 pages. H105 x W148 mm. Edition of 150 copies. Acquired from the artist, 5 March 2018.
In the days before and after the end of World War II (May 1945), two fires in a flak tower broke out, destroying most of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum’s Gemäldegalerie artwork stored there. Starting in 1995, a multi-volume catalogue Dokumentation der Verluste recorded and illustrated as many of the losses as possible. The website of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has drawn from its pre-war images collection and posted authenticated images of over 100 of the more than 700 works lost. Tonnard’s work of book art memorializes the loss in a different way.
In the colophon, she calls her little book of images “a library”. The images are details from paintings, and each displays one or more books — sitting on a shelf, held in a hand or lying on a lap — and indecipherable. The illustrations from which Tonnard has taken the details are those of the paintings lost in the fires. Her book’s colophon ends: “Out of the smoke we think up this library of unknown books.”
A Dialogue in Useful Phrases (2010)
A Dialogue in Useful Phrases (2010) Elisabeth Tonnard, softcover with blind embossing, 7.25 x 7.25 inches, digital print, 178 pages. Edition of 250, of which this is #94. Acquired from the artist, 5 March 2018.
“They had no conversation properly speaking. They made use of the spoken word in much the same way as the guard of a train makes use of his flags, or of his lantern.” Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
Whether by Microsoft’s adjustable auto-summary function, by juxtaposition of photos and text or by compiling a library of lost indecipherable volumes, Tonnard probes at the nature of making and making meaning. A Dialogue in Useful Phrases probes both by generating text and structure under several constraints. One constraint restricts the author to “conversational phrases” found in Grenville Kleiser’s Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases (1917), or “felicitous expressions for enriching the vocabulary.” A second constraint comes with the dialogic structure of “I” then “You”. The third constraint comes from alphabetizing the utterances of “I” down the verso pages.
By title and comment, Tonnard emphasizes that we are following “a” dialogue, not a series of dialogues: “A dialogue is formed from the random meetings of these phrases. It is a dialogue in the purest sense, a dialogue that expresses nothing other than itself.” Likewise, with a prefatory quotation from Malone Dies and the book’s “empty-room” square format, Tonnard pointedly places “I” and “You” in the tradition of Samuel Beckett’s dramatic dialogues. Going a step further in that direction, she has put together Project Gutenberg’s anonymous volunteers’ recordings of Kleiser’s book and staged audio installations in venues such as the Meermanno Museum in The Hague and the Sheffield International Artist’s Book Fair 2011. In this video, she speaks of the work at the 9’10” mark.
In order of the entries above:
Ladd, Jeffrey. “In this Dark Wood by Elisabeth Tonnard“, 5B4|Photography and Books, 14 November 2009. Accessed 3 June 2020.
Slade, George. “Book Review: In this Dark Wood“, Photo-Eye Blog, 6 March 2014. Accessed 3 June 2020.
Bodman, Sarah. “Artists’ Books #4: The Library by Elisabeth Tonnard“, A-N, 7 January 2016. Accessed 2 June 2020.
“Elisabeth Tonnard: A Dialogue in Useful Phrases“, Bank Street Arts, 13 November 2010. Accessed 3 June 2020.
Partington, Gill. “What is Reading?“, London Review of Books, 11 December 2017. Accessed 3 June 2020.