The Vedute Foundation was established in 1991 to create a special collection of “spatial manuscripts” — visualized, tangible and accessible objects to convey concepts of space. The key constraint on the invited artists, architects and designers: the work’s dimension must be that of the Gutenberg Bible, 44 x 32 x 7 cm in closed form. Given that constraint, it is odd how rarely the collection is mentioned in the domain of bookworks, book art or artist books. It shows up in Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden’s 2020 “A comprehensive reading list for artists’ books”, but book artist and trained architect, Marian Macken has most thoroughly redressed this oddity in Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice (2018).
At the end of 2020, the Vedute collection stood at 223 items. Among them, Piranesian Window by Cees Nagelkerke performs the ideal introduction. Its form and title capture the multiple meanings of vedute (views), some intended by the collection’s founders, some not. Views are things seen — which this art object is. Views are prospects from which to see — which a window offers. Views are perspectives — for which Giambattista Piranesi’s etchings are famous. Views are thoughts held — which “Piranesian” implies. The work’s title could be that of a manuscript on art history and philosophy.
Piranesi’s mid-eighteenth century etchings Vedute di Roma(Viewsof Rome) and Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) are the obvious sources of inspiration. Alongside the images on the Foundation’s site, however, Nagelkerke relates a dream of about the work. The dream’s logic and the mirror in the window frame might recall for some Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
– … Please, continue relating your dream … – I wandered through vast ruins … along wrecked bridges … feeling remarkably at ease. – How did you find the window in this windowless world? – When a cool breeze wafted inside, I suddenly saw it. It showed a landscape, within the distance a city. There was complete tranquillity and harmony there, like in a painting by Piero della Francesca … I stood there for some considerable time and I became increasingly saddened, because I discovered that I was looking at something that had vanished forever. – But how did you manage to take the window? – I wanted to touch it … as a result, I immediately fell down. The gap left in the wall closed by itself … I picked it up and continued on my way, meeting people who spoke to me saying that I should leave the Carceri. I was taken to a gateway. No one looked at, or said anything about, the window… In the square where I found myself, there was an intense, chaotic commotion. The window still reflected something of the vast space I had left. The exterior showed traces of the wall in which it had been mounted. I looked through it and saw everyday life …
Together, the embedded mirror-to-mirror view and the window enact multiple enigmas. The mirror-to-mirror view recreates that Escher-like perspective to which Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons was a forerunner. The open window invites the reader/viewer to look through: “Reader/viewer, read and look by means of the Piranesian Window, read and look to the other side of the Piranesian Window“. In the context of Nagelkerke’s dream, the spatial manuscript brings dreams and traces of the vanished into everyday life. Imagination has created the form that captures imagination but also frees it.
In Piranesian Window, Nagelkerke has delivered a surreal object that, messing with our minds, embodies Piranesi’s distinctly non-neoclassical quip: Col sporcar si trova (“by messing about, one discovers”) (Lowe, p.19). It is a dictum well suited to The Vedute Foundation‘s 223 works (1990 to 2019) and those to come.
Appropriated and sculpted bookwork was taking off in numerous forms even before 1964 when Marcel Broodthaers half-embedded the last fifty copies of his poetry book Pense-Bête in plaster. Bruno Munari had introduced libri illeggibili (“unreadable books”) in 1949. John Latham had already encased books with plaster in Shelf Number 2 (1961) and much else in his various skoob works. Tom Phillips’ line-by-line, found-book alteration A Humument was underway, first appearing in 1970, as was Dieter Roth’s string of sausage books Literaturwurst (1961-74). So Broodthaers could have taken any of several directions before deciding to replace Mallarmé’s lines of verse in Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Poéme (1914) with printed and engraved placeholders in paper and anodized aluminum, respectively, to create Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Image (1969).
Son of Giorgio Maffei (bookseller, curator, scholar and book artist in his own right), Giulio Maffei has made video catalogues for Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei since 2015. Each catalogue is a work of video. In this twenty-sixth outing, Maffei has created a video from the 1914 edition and Broodthaers’ 1969 Image version of Un Coup de Dés.
By 2008, Michalis Pichler had an even greater wealth of forms from which to choose for his double appropriation/homage to Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image. Since the ’80s scores of book artists had been introduced to ingenious structures by Hedi Kyle and Keith A. Smith, among others, so why not an Aunt Sally’s shipwreck of string, canvas and torn paper? Long-Bin Chen had been sanding books and phone directories into busts since the ’90s, so why not a bust of Mallarmé from old editions of Un Coup de Dés and a bust of Broodthaers from catalogues of his works (a variation on Buzz Spector’s treatment)?
Instead Pichler appropriates Mallarmé through Broodthaers’ design and production: an efficient and direct double appropriation. He follows the trim size and layout of the 1914 and 1969 works. Further underscoring the double appropriation, he reprints verbatim Broodthaers’ preface (the full text of Mallarmé’s poem set in small type as a single paragraph with obliques separating the lines of verse). Like Broodthaers, he produced limited editions of three versions: 10 copies in plexiglas (rather than Broodthaers’ 10 in anodized aluminum), 90 copies in translucent paper (just as Broodthaers had done) and 500 copies in paper (rather than Broodthaers’ 300). Where Broodthaers had solid black stripes, though, Pichler substitutes laser cuts in the translucent and paper editions and engraving or abrasion in the plexiglas edition. Hence Sculpture (2008), rather than Image (1969) or Poème (1914).
Not until 2016, though, was Pichler able to cap his double appropriation. Just as Broodthaers had held an exhibition entitled “Broodthaers: Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Antwerp, December 1969), Pichler held one entitled “Pichler: Exposition Littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Milan, December 2016). Like the Broodthaers exhibition, Pichler’s was an opportunity to showcase his own work: it was his first solo exhibition in Italy. Like Broodthaers, he included the Nrf 1914 edition, but also included numerous other editions and translations that had occurred since. Also, key to Pichler’s artistic intent, he included a host of other artists who by appropriation had made homage to Un Coup de Dés … Poème and, in some cases, Broodthaers’ … Image.
Book art is so self-referential in its instances (think of Real Fiction: An Inquiry into the Bookeresque by Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes) and as a genre (think Burning Small Fires by Bruce Nauman) that appropriation offers a natural next step. In Pichler’s case, the subtlety of that step comes in how he reaches through Broodthaers’ Image all the way back to elements of Mallarmé’s Poème to achieve his aims.
When Broodthaers first appropriated Mallarmé’s layout, type sizes and roman/italic styles, he was engaged in a kind of reverse ekphrasis. Usually ekphrasis runs from the work of art (say, a Grecian urn) to the text in response (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Here, the poem and its shape come first, then the work of art — the Image of the poem. By calling his exhibition an exposition littéraire, Broodthaers underscored this. By calling out the shapes on the page, he elevated the original’s semblances of waves, an abyss, a foundering ship and a constellation and, in exposing them, performed a kind of literary study as well as artistic work.
Count it down from Pichler’s appropriation of Broodthaers’ exposition littéraire, from the inclusion/appropriation of other artists’ appropriations of Poème and/or Image, from his own work of book art Sculpture, from his own other works: Pichler’s appropriative ekphrasis is squared, cubed or perhaps raised to the fourth power. Clearly, book art and appropriation are Pichler’s chief palettes — or rather his twin decks from which, as DJ, he mixes what he calls “Greatest Hits”. The phrase simultaneously names Pichler’s imprint on Sculpture‘s cover and the series on his website. The series includes other appropriations such as Every Building on the Ginza Strip (2018) from Ed Ruscha and Some More Sonnet(s) aka Poem(s) (2011) from Ulises Carríon. “Greatest Hits”, however, suggests another subtlety in Sculpture, albeit one best appreciated in the context of all the exhibitions.
The first instance of Broodthaers’ exhibition in Antwerp included a continuous playing of the artist’s tape-recorded reading of the poem. In Cologne for its second instance, Broodthaers renamed it Exposition littéraire et musicale autour de Mallarmé. Broodthaers was simply taking Mallarmé’s musical cue in Un Coup de Dés’spreface, which advises reading the poem as if it were a “score” for music to be heard at a concert and its blank spaces as “silences”.
Taking Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ musical cues and that of his piano-roll-like slots in Sculpture, Pichler created for his exhibition Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique, a piano-roll version of the poem to be played by any visitor who cared to sit and pedal the pianola on which it was installed. So in further appropriation of Mallarmé through Broodthaers, Pichler’s piano roll turns the empty spaces, where the words and black strips would be, into music while the blanks around them become what Magnus Wieland calls “white noise”.
In traditional literary ekphrasis, the referring text can stand on its own. Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield does not require a side-by-side engraving or painting of what Hephaestus forged. Nor does Auden’s exposition of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560) need an art history book to hand.
But without the context of the exhibition, the presence of other appropriations, or even Pichler’s translucent and plexiglas editions, what to make of Pichler’s paper edition on its own? The traditional Nrf cover design suggests no surprise to come, although the trim size looks non-traditional in today’s market. The book’s slimness, subtitle and preliminaries also warrant a raised eyebrow: how can this be a sculpture? Turning the pages, the reader/viewer comes to the cuts and sees through to the pages beneath. Shadows move through the leaves. The laser cut technique hints at something that a die cut does not. Do the burnt edges where the laser has cut suggest a more surgical approach to book burning, an allusion to burning decks, or a 19th century and 20th century legacy to the white spaces?
Both Mallarmé and Broodthaers noted the intent to draw attention to the white space of the page. Pichler appropriates both the poet’s and artist’s form and intent. He sculpts a conceptual double-palimpsest not by overwriting the first level of overwriting but by removing it and the original layer altogether. The core subtlety of Pichler’s paper edition of Un Coup de Dés lies in those empty spaces defined at their burnt edges and by the blankness around them. For Sartre, Mallarmé was the poet of nothingness. Broodthaers appropriated the nothingness with black ink. Pichler has appropriated both. The paradox is a work that stands on its own by invoking and eliminating what it appropriates.