Bookmarking Book Art – Julia Hou

Julia Hou’s Asterisk (2019) may remind you of an E.E. Cummings’ poem or a Hasegawa Tōhaku print or the Xu Bing animation The Character of Characters. Just as appreciation of Cummings grows with exposure to broken syntax and playful typographic layout in other poems — or of Tōhaku, as understanding of the depth effects minimalism, size, definition and tone can have on the eye — or of Xu Bing, as his inspiration from Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (c. 1296) and The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma  (c. 1315) both by Zhao Mengfu is learned, appreciation of Asterisk grows as more is understood about how Hou made her digital artist book. Screen grabs of Asterisk, such as the sequential ones below, only hint at the work.

Asterisk (2019) Julia Hou

To read Asterisk, click here and press the letter “f” to move forward through the work. Hou’s poem reveals itself in black text that turns red as a “refrain”-like block of text over which the poem’s lines sit dissolves into characters that fly up like leaves or birds, fall down like rain, float down like snow, or coalesce into foreground or tree-like shapes.

Colored in blue, the asterisks take up a left foreground position, bubbling up and falling back like a fountain of water available to refresh the tree-like forms made of letters, but as the artist book is scrolled forward from left to right, the asterisk fountain disperses across the screen like spray, butterflies or bluebirds. Here is a transcript, as it were:

Asterisk
the last time you were here was years ago
before you were punctured by asterisks
and written into footnotes.
the night your mother read your first published story
and told you it was too sad
too linear.
she told you to let in the light
to rip away whatever fears you'd stapled to your chest
to see the forest for the trees
and you tried. you raised your voice
spoke with confidence, loud and red
but it all seemed to fade into whitespace
as if God Himself had decided to erase
and rewrite you

[Refrain - which varies in length with each forward movement or refresh]

what do you see what do you see  what do you see  what do you  
see what do you see  an ink speckled sky  an ink speckled sky 
an ink speckled sky  an ink speckled sky  an ink speckled sky 
an  ink speckled  sky  an ink speckled  sky   an ink speckled
sky an ink speckled sky  and tree only traveler and tree only 
traveler and tree only traveler and tree only traveler and tr 
ee only traveler and tree  only traveler and tree only travel
er  look behind you look behind you look behind you look behi
nd you look behind you look behind you

Where appreciation on each revisiting of Cummings, Tōhaku or Xu Bing increases with the perceiver’s personal growth, Asterisk itself varies with each accessing, with access from the artist’s site or from the Carnegie Mellon University libraries’ Artists’ Book Collection, and with keyboard/screenpad interaction. As if in an online game, the reader/viewer must keep up. Hou has created her artist book with Satoru Ozaki’s created-index, a game app exploring a surreal 3D typographical world. Depending on how the reader/viewer touches the screenpad or moves the cursor and presses “f” to go forward or “b” to go back, the viewpoint tilts and pivots. It is like manipulating a sculptural bookwork such as Francisca Prieto’s The Antibook (2002).

Artist books born-digital vary wildly from one another — perhaps more so than analog artist’s books or even hybrids, or perhaps it’s just that we are not used to the artist’s “new material and tools”. Carnegie Mellon University’s acquisition and preservation of Hou’s digital artist book leads further into thinking about Asterisk‘s material status. The files can be downloaded here, but what is it that has been collected? Is its shape-shifting merely analogous to a viewer’s shifting perspective on an artist book in a physical environment? It would be interesting to have Matthew Kirschenbaum’s perspective on the preservation effort that Carnegie Mellon has put into Hou’s artist book and how that relates to his Mechanisms‘ analysis of “the textual and technical primitives of electronic writing that govern writing, inscription, and textual transmission in all media: erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” — in essence, the materiality of works like Hou’s.

Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book also provides a useful context here in its narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play. Borsuk reminds us:

Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)

Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.

To add to Borsuk’s history (and conclude) with an analogue precursor, consider Livre de Prières Tissé d’après les enluminures des manuscrits du XIVe au XVIe siècle (which translates as Book of Prayers woven after illuminations in manuscripts of the 14th and 15th century).

Created in Lyon, France (1886-1887), Livre de Prières Tissé presents a bridge from the illuminated books on which it is patterned to Hou’s Asterisk, driven by a set of instructions designed to be carried out by a machine. Every image, letter, ornament and page of Livre de Prières Tissé consists of silver and black silk thread woven on silk looms programmed with the punched-card system developed by Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834). Those perforated cards inspired the famous “Analytical Engine” conceived by Charles Babbage (1791-1871), which in turn inspired Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) to compose its first computer program: a set of instructions designed to be carried out by a machine.

Further Reading

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

Hindman, Sarah. “Meet Me at the World’s Fair“, Abebooks.com (ND). Accessed 22 June 2020.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

Norman, Jeremy. “A Prayerbook Entirely Woven by the Jacquard Loom: The First Book Produced by a Program or Digitally Produced Book?“, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information, 20 April 2020. Accessed 22 June 2020.

Prisbylla, Andrew. “Art Meets Tech in Born-Digital Artist’s Book“, News/Carnegie Mellon University, 4 June 2020. Accessed 21 June 2020.

Bookmarking Book Art – From a Visit to “Art for the People”, Xu Bing (Center del Carme, Valencia, Spain, 2019)

This exhibition showcases a selection of Xu Bing’s most important works including Art For the People, Book from the Sky, Book from the Ground, Square Word Calligraphy, Background Story, and The Character of Characters. Xu also wrote a new piece of Square Word Calligraphy of an ancient Valencian poem El bon poble. As the curator Marta Millet Moreno says, “Xu’s interest in language and texts originates from his personal background and he transports these experiences to his art, where traditional art and conceptual art, Eastern and Western cultures, are intrinsically connected.” — Marta Millet Moreno, Centre del Carm

At least two days should be allowed to visit this kind of exhibition. The videos shown below are merely clips; the photos shown are but a handful of those taken. Not every room has been covered here; missing are the Square Word Calligraphy practice room and the room of Xu Bing-related publications. For the latter, a visit to the Xu Bing website page does not substitute for the experience of sitting down with the books, many of which are out of print and for which there are no online images. The lengthy amount of time needed to enjoy this abbreviated version of the 2018 largest Xu Bing (Beijing) exhibition is due to looking from every angle allowed, thinking, comparing and contrasting from one room to the next, watching all the videos, taking instruction in Square Word Calligraphy, leafing through the books, going back to the beginning, interrupting that flow to compare/contrast one room with another outside the sequence and, again, thinking.

Book from the Sky (1987-1991) © Xu Bing

Book from the Sky (1987-1991) © Xu Bing

Book from the Sky (1987-1991) © Xu Bing

Book from the Sky (1987-1991) © Xu Bing

Book from the Ground Pop-up Book – Night (2016) © Xu Bing

Book from the Ground Pop-up Book – Day (2015) © Xu Bing

Video clip of Book from the Ground Pop-up Book – Day © Xu Bing

Installation of workshop for creation of Book from the Ground © Xu Bing

“Proof” of translation of “El bon poble” by Ausiàs March, medieval Valencian poet, into square word calligraphy (2019) © Xu Bing. Created especially for this exhibition.

Details © Xu Bing

Left half: Background Story: Shangfang Temple Scroll (2016) © Xu Bing
The images and colors appearing on the frosted glass screen are created by positioning various objects, materials and detritus behind the backlit screen. Xu Bing has dubbed this as “painting with light”.

Right half: Background Story: Shangfang Temple Scroll (2016) © Xu Bing

Detail, front and back view. © Xu Bing

Detail, front and back view. © Xu Bing

Detail, front and back view © Xu Bing

Detail, front and back view © Xu Bing

Five Series of Repetition: A Big River (1987); Black Pond (1987) © Xu Bing

Five Series of Repetition: Haystack Reflection (1987); Moving Cloud (1987); © Xu Bing

Five Series of Repetition: Black Tadpole (1987); Living Pond (1986); © Xu Bing

Five Series of Repetition: Field (1987); Family Plots (1988); © Xu Bing

Moving Cloud (1987) © Xu Bing

Black Tadpole (1987) © Xu Bing

Living Pond (1986) © Xu Bing

Field (1987) © Xu Bing

Family Plots (1988) © Xu Bing

Details © Xu Bing

Details © Xu Bing

Video clip of Xu Bing: Phoenix © Xu Bing
Video clip of The Character of Characters © Xu Bing

Further Reading

Appreciating Xu Bing“, Books On Books, 31 December 2018.

“Farewell Our Globalism”, Xu Bing and the Guggenheim, Books On Books, 9 December 2017.

Xu Bing“, Books On Books, 28 February 2016.

Wan Kong, “The Character of Characters: Xu Bing’s Exploration of Chinese and Their Language“, UnFramed/LACMA, 23 June 2015.

Locations of works

Book from the Sky

Book from the Ground

An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy

Five Series of Repetition

Background Story

Phoenix

The Character of Characters

Books On Books Collection – Romano Hänni

typo bilder buch (2012)

typo bilder buch (2012)
Romano Hänni
Printing: Letterpress on hand-proofing press. Binding: paper over cardboard glued to end papers glued to handsewn book block. Pages: 54.
H268 x W237 x D30 mm. Edition of 65, of which this is #62. Acquired from the artist, 26 February 2020.

Appearance vs reality — one of the ancient standbys for philosophical conversation and disputation. But also for stimulating art. Romano Hänni’s typo bilder buch (2012) is a case in point.

Tightly encased in its banderole, typo bilder buch deceives. Large and thick, it appears weighty, hefty, but is light. Too snug to slide off, the banderole requires breaking a perforated edge. Appearance must be penetrated to get at reality. The cover, made of stiff heavyweight paper, is precisely creased around the front and back boards, made of waffled cardboard, not the usual dense binders boards. The text on the flyleaves is scrambled, the letters in reverse and sometimes in the wrong order (deliberately), sometimes inverted, the uppercase sometimes aligned to drop below the line, the lowercase sometimes aligned to rise above the line. Reconstituted from its mirror appearance (and translated), the text declares:

Appearance and Riately

Since the invention of script and the printed word, we have lost access to pictorial statements: we have become character devout. Nonetheless, we still read images.However, when reading images, signs and symbols, we seem to struggle, even though they also represent a source of information with a simultaneous effect on various levels. Initially, our visual perception looks for symmetry and a human face.

The book block’s first image: a small face in a white sea of embossed diagonals running from left to right, or is it from right to left, or downwards or upwards?

The book’s title and even its endpapers (the papers glued to the boards and attached to the book block) declare that typo bilder buch (“typo picture book”) will address this split between script and printed words (or letters) on the one hand and images on the other. On the pastedown is a bright orange lowercase alphabet; on the free endpaper are twenty-five signs, ornaments and images arranged in five rows and five columns. The alphabet’s twenty-six letters arrange themselves to match the five-by-five square of images by squeezing j and i together. Yes, in that order because the alphabet is set boustrophedon style (“as the ox plows”), which is at least the third or fourth clue that typo bilder buch wants us to play with our notions of books, reading and, as Hänni puts it, “appearance and riately”.

Spacing and layout are not the only toys at work here. To paraphrase Ellen Lupton: “Spacing, framing, punctuation, type style, layout, and other non-phonetic marks of difference [as well as the surface on or in which they appear] constitute the material interface of writing.” When any book opens, the fingers expect a firm block of pages for turning, but with typo bilder buch, the thumb on the free end paper sinks into the book block. All the leaves beneath the end paper, like the one with the tiny image of a human face, are two sheets of paper towel. These pages, this paper, are not merely a surface on which to print; the ink is not merely a medium. They play a physical and intellectual role in the composition of the work.

Through colorful, neighborhood mazes in a world Mondrian would love, small solid- and multi-colored geometric characters run or pose. Bosch would love the characters that look like human stick figures with birds’ heads, the figures with heads and legs but no bodies and the strange stick-figure animals. “Mr. Black” of The Book from the Ground (2014) by Xu Bing would recognize and sympathize with this cast of characters, although he would struggle to make narrative sense of it. His creator would smile, of course, over this book’s concluding pages:

Der Sinn dieses Buches ist seine Sinnlosigkeit — oberflächlich betrachtet.
(”The meaning of this book is its meaninglessness — superficially considered.”).

Some of the mazes could be the analogue version of a computer arcade game. Some seem to represent an arcane version of checkers or Chinese checkers combined with “magic squares” (they are not the traditional form of magic squares where the sum of any column, row or diagonal is equal to any other).

Reading typo bilder buch elicits, challenges and heightens pattern-seeking behavior. Expected patterns turn themselves on their heads. In the page above, the tilted numbers in the “magic squares” urge turning the book’s landscape orientation by 90º to the right into a portrait orientation. Notice how the numbers’ progression by 2 reads boustrophedon-style upwards from the lower right corner. Or perhaps the start lies with 56, decreasing by 2, which means reading upwards from the lower left corner then down and up and so on. Return the book to its landscape orientation, and the numerical plowing proceeds from right to left to right and so on. In either orientation, the numerical progression or regression challenges the notion of the “proper” direction for reading.

While trying to read typo bilder buch might lead from image to image, the realization often arrives that a larger subsuming image or pattern is in play, or vice versa. For instance, in the page above, the letters p and q declare their mirror image of each other from the upper left and right corners, but then so do the letters p and b from the upper and lower left corners, and so do the letters q and d from the upper and lower right corners, and likewise the b and d from the lower left and right corners, and likewise diagonally. But step further back, and the juggler in the middle may be laughing at this logic-chopping of “if p, then q; if q, then d; if d, then b; therefore, b, then q, and p, then d”. He laughs as if to ask, “I’m just juggling these four clubs; what are you doing?”

Ludic is the operative word for this book — even in the process by which it was created:

The page layout was deliberately not prepared. The design and sequence of the pages were intended to develop during the work process. The first printing forms were blue lines and linear frameworks at the bottom of the pages. New ideas developed during the unrolling and tearing off of double pages of paper towel as well as during composition, setup, printing and removing of the type. — Hänni, “Pictorial Supplement with Translation in American English”.

Photos: Books On Books.

So, implicit in every pattern and change of pattern, in every modulation of color and evenness of inking that heightens or depresses the surface, is the excitement of creative play. The book is rich in information about its material and making, which offers added ways to follow that excitement. Consider, for instance, Hänni’s description of the type area within which he worked — and, separately, his samples of grid plans:

The type area is 40340 Cicero (18318 cm) = 4 squares comprising of 20320 Cicero (939 cm) each or 400 squares comprising of 232 Cicero (939 mm). The top margin is 3,5 cm, the bottom margin is 4,5 cm (to the middle of the blue line), the outside margin is 1,5 cm, the inside margin is 3,5 cm. — Hänni, “Pictorial Supplement with Translation in American English”.

Romano Hänni, “Appearance and Riately”, translation by Jessica Schmid. Text, photographs, design, inkjet print © Romano Hänni, 2012.
Sample grid plans provided by the artist, © Romano Hänni.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Permission to reproduce here: Courtesy of the artist.

By his detail about this European unit of measure in typography, Hänni grounds typo bilder buch deeply in the tradition of bookmaking. The “Cicero” obtained its name from its first use by the printers in the 15th century. It may have been Peter Schöffer, who printed an edition of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s speeches in a similar font size in 1465. It may have been Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweynheim in Rome for their 1467/68 edition of Cicero’s Letters to Friends. Or it may have been for the typeface cutter Ulrich Hans Cicero, who created a 12-point typeface in Rome. As can be seen from his 2011 catalogue, tradition matters as a source of discipline and creativity for Hänni.

Hänni, Romano. Romano Hänni : handprinted books 1984-2010 (Basel : Romano Hänni Verlag, 2011).

Although an admirer of Jan Tschichold, another adherent to tradition, Hänni does not hold with perfection or a mechanical application of the Golden Ratio. The blue cicero sits at the page’s optical center — eyeballed, not mechanically determined, according to the artist. Like Tschichold, though, he values precision in craft, tools and material, and he seeks an ethics and morality through his craft and art. Consider these technical details from the book’s introductory essay:

The page format was determined by the paper : Paper towels, maxi roll; composition: 100 % oxygen-bleached pulp (54 g/m2 ± 5 %), wet strength additives, agents; roll length: 62.1 m ± 2 %, sheet size: 23326 cm, ±2%, paper from responsible sources, FSC® C017535.

Note the point about responsible sourcing. One important departure from Tschichold’s views on discipline, craft and artistry is Hänni’s theme of “making do” and more openness to creativity “on the fly”:

The printing workshop represents the available raw materials: Lead characters, synthetics and wood, brass lines and signs, typographic signs and lead symbols. The typo pictures were composed from individual parts and printed on the hand proofing press; some of them were superimposed in several printing cycles. They are intended to mutually influence and merge into each other and to display an inner connection. The body of the book was bound by hand with thread. Overall production time was approx. 600 hours.

Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Hänni strikes a similar but different balance than Tschichold among craft, discipline, tools and material, imagination and artistry, and ethics. Despite their engineering appearance, the samples imply a drive toward artistry in that centered cicero eyeballed, not calculated. In its technical detail, the paper’s responsible sourcing weighs on the side of nature. The restriction to the printing material at hand weighs for a balance of discipline and creativity. The workings and hours weigh in for the human hand’s striving for connectedness.

Four years after typo bilder buch’s appearance, the New York Times Interactive published “Reading in a ‘Post-Text Future’“, which posed that text is succumbing to the sound and blurry of podcasts, YouTube, talking assistants, Netflix, face-reading phones, Instagram and augmented reality. As if humanity is passing through an internet portal turning the evolution from orality to literacy in on itself — where “text recedes to the background, and sounds and images become the universal language”.

For Hänni, this would simply confirm what he avers: “An increasing amount of images, including moving ones, are crashing in on us. … Proven and irreplaceable things are sacrificed for supposedly new things. Progress destroys our memory….”. His essay and typo bilder buch in itself argue for a different outcome:

Reality, that is to say nature, teaches us something different: Everything is connected, interdependent and mutually influences one another. No part can be changed without affecting the whole. The most important and most valuable things, such as the air that we breathe or love, are invisible. Variety is the name of the game, not perfect reproduction. Our ever-changing reality remains intangible. This chaos is creative and lively…. The world is a contradiction. It is also the result of individual ways of thinking. A way of thinking that should be under constant change and development through a lifelong absorption of new impressions and experiences induced by reflection.

Examples of “random” regimentation; the size of the edition and number of this copy.
Photos: Books On Books.

Pages of regimentation, such as those above, tease at the theme of appearance and reality by inviting a search for underlying patterns that make up that regimentation only to yield discovery of breaks in the ranks. Even the means by which the book’s number and edition are presented on one of its last pages performs this invitation in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion: Dieses Buch trägt die Nummer: (“This book carries the number:”). What that number is must be discovered “as the ox plows”. To the end, typo bilder buch celebrates the irregular, the special, the different, the rare” by the book.

Glyphen aus der Steinzeit: [entdeckt in der Höhle von Lascaux, Dordogne/Frankreich] (1989)

Glyphen aus der Steinzeit: [entdeckt in der Höhle von Lascaux, Dordogne/Frankreich] (1989)

Romano Hänni and Martin Sommer

Handbound, paper cover around accordion fold attached to board, 20 panels, letterpress and handset. Special edition of VI, of which this is III. Acquired from Kelmscott Book Shop, 2 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Further Reading

Bookmark – Margins and making objects that live forever”, Books On Books, 20 August 2014. On ratios and page layout.

Hänni, Romano. Romano Hänni : handprinted books 1984-2010 (Basel : Romano Hänni Verlag, 2011).

Lupton, Ellen. “Deconstruction and Graphic Design: History Meets Theory”, Typotheque, 29 November 2004. Accessed 4 May 2020.

Tschichold, Jan. The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design (London: Lund Humphries, 1992).

Bookmarking Book Art – Shirley Sharoff

Magicienne des formes et des couleurs is how Art & Métiers du Livre (2002) describes Shirley Sharoff. The magic she makes reveals itself in a particular kind of fusion. One of structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft. It is a magic best sensed when handling or really seeing her work.

OVI: objets volants identifiés dans le ciel d’Italo Calvino (1988) Shirley Sharoff
Graphic ‘big bang’ and typographic spirals with an extract from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, postface by Mario Fusco
4 color etchings printed by the Atelier René Tazé
Edition of 74 on Vélin Rives
Typography by François Da Ros in Cochin typeface
In a silver-colored box of 26.5 x 37 cm Photos by Books On Books and reproduced with artist’s permisision

Brooklyn-born but resident and working in France for most of her life, Sharoff studied in Paris under Gotthard Johnny Friedlaender (1912-1992), learning his method of making color prints from two or three different plates. She came to the artist’s book in the 1980s through a friend who introduced her to a typographer with whom the friend was working: François Da Ros.

During my conversation with [Da Ros], I told him that I had an idea for a book but didn’t know how to go about it. It involved prints and an excerpt from one of Italo Calvino’s works. … that’s how my first artist book got started — and once I did that I thought “artist books” were so interesting that I just wanted to keep on doing it. — Artist’s correspondence with Books On Books, 18 December 2018

The result of that encounter was OVI (1988). The text came from Calvino’s Big Bang story “Sul far del giorno” (“At daybreak”) in his collection Le Cosmicomiche (1965) (Cosmicomics, 1968). Calvino’s story relates how the main character, Qfwfq, and his extended family, from a species we cannot identify, experience the cosmic Big Bang.

The story’s language, character and narrative deliver an astrophysical and micro-organic alchemy that falls in line with Calvino’s association with the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo) or “Workshop for Potential Literature”. OuLiPo’s participants seek and have sought new forms and structures for literature through play with the properties of language, word games or imposing constraints through mathematical or computational principles such as Boolean algebra or recursiveness. For example, Georges Perec wrote La Disparition (1969), a “lipogrammatic” novel avoiding any words containing the letter “e”. Raymond Queneau constructed Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), which is actually an interactive work of book art, confronting readers with 1014 different sonnets generated by the reader’s choosing one of 10 options per line, accessed by turning each line like a page.

OVI lifts this literary playfulness into a revel of intricate puns, played out in language, image, typography and structure or form. Sharoff discovered the Calvino story in Le Monde independently of her prints already underway, but it was the conjunction of the story with them that led her to “an idea for a book”. Although, like Friedlaender, Sharoff would illustrate books, the idea diverged from a mere illustration of the story or a livre d’artiste in the traditional sense. Like many book artists, Sharoff conceived a blend of image, text and form. The Sharoff/Da Ros execution of her idea re-presents, absorbs, reacts to, embodies Calvino’s fiction in a work that stands apart from it. It is the reverse of the usual ekphrasis we see when a literary text strives to re-present, absorb, react to, embody an urn, a sculpture, painting or print. Think of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”.

Instead of Unidentified Flying Objects (OVNI in French), the artist gives us OVI (“identified flying objects”), the first three of which are the letters “O”, “v” and “i” appearing through the “black holes” of the silver paper slipcase. As the black portfolio emerges from the slipcase, we see the i’s dot adrift as perhaps another object in the firmament. Through the holes in the slipcase, the same letters reappear printed on the inside of the slipcase but with the i’s dot no longer adrift (the “stars” aligned?). And this is just the start of the punning and play with structure, content as image, content as text, color, type, layout, material and craft.

The portfolio removed from the silver paper slipcase

Encased in the trifold black portfolio are nine loose map-like folios.

Opened, the folios display selected text from the French translation of Calvino’s short story and four Sharoff prints. In three of the prints, the text swirls, construction-poem-like, around the multicolor images. Part of the folios’ magic here is Sharoff’s fusion of image with the substance of Calvino’s words, a Friedlaender-esque palette and the typographic and form-locking skills of Da Ros.

The first image looks like a macrophoto of a cell (or is it an image of the sun?) with numbers superimposed. The second image looks like a cloud nebula (or is it some multicellular life form with two flagellae?) consisting of everyday objects. The third image looks like an asteroid belt (or is it a paramecium?) made of a discarded aerosol can and other trash.

“The darkness came back. By now we were sure that everything that could
possibly happen had happened, and ‘yes, this is the end,’ Grandmother said, ‘mind what
us old folks say. . .’ Instead, the Earth had merely made one of its turns. It was night.
Everything was just beginning.”
from Italo Calvino, “Sul far del giorno” in Le Cosmicomiche (Milan: Einaudi, 1965), translated as “At Daybreak” by William Weaver in Cosmicomics (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968)
Detail: the “cloud nebula”(?) image, formed of identifiable everyday objects
Detail: the “asteroid belt” (?) image, formed of everyday detritus

One of the four prints stands alone without text. The image is a cascade of large and small numerals, logic symbols, a gear, protractor and metallic-looking detritus landing in a heap.

Detail: the fourth print

One of the leaves deploys a Turkish map fold, opening to reveal a constellation of numbers, letters from the periodic table and terms from particle physics and astrophysics — an outstanding display of skill from Da Ros and entirely evocative of Qfwfq and his family’s bizarre tale of the big bang. It’s also a prescient reminder that a crater on the planet Mercury and a main asteroid belt were named after Calvino.

The separate folios echo the abrupt jumps in Calvino’s story. In the end, Sharoff succeeds with OVI in echoing how the story — despite those jumps, the bewildering and unpronounceably named characters and the teasing references to familiar and unfamiliar domains of knowledge — hangs together. The spiraling text makes the viewer turn and turn the opened folio to read the words — much as the story’s surreal yet familiar characters and their situations make the reader puzzle through the storyline. The prints present the viewer with familiar yet unfamiliar shapes composed of everyday objects or recognizable symbols. The tactility of the paper, the solidity of the slipcase and texture of the multicolored prints play off the intellectuality of the ekphrasis and scientific images and symbols in much the same way as the familiar familial relations play off the characters’ bewildering experience of the cosmic Big Bang.

Sharoff’s next major artist’s book — again with Da Ros — would be La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991). There is little if anything implying a Chinese or other oriental influence on printmaking or typography as practiced by Friedlaender or Da Ros, respectively. And until her visit to China in the late eighties, Sharoff’s work showed no such influence. When the influence came, it was concentrated in the one work. Sharoff was concerned not to respond to China in a typical Western artist way or to fall prey to traditions that neglected the hardship or grittiness she saw while teaching English to young Chinese bank employees. Sharoff hungered for a text that would fuse with the images coming to her in reaction to the remnants of the Great Wall, the summer palace’s maze, and post-revolutionary infrastructure.

La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Shirley Sharoff
Taken at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands. Reproduced with permission of the artist.

She uses the words of the 1930s writer Lu Xun and those of her 1980s English-language students to bounce echoes of strife, ambivalence and paradox from the walls of her prints and artist’s book, a double-sided accordion in forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). Lu’s poem appears in Chinese calligraphy and translated into French and English, set in bold and equal in weight to the Chinese characters. Sharoff breaks the three versions across increasingly shorter segments of paper, layering the different languages like mortar and rows of bricks. In a different, smaller typeface — like fragments of modern brick — the English text from her language students, reflecting on Western culture and their lives, is interspersed along with eight prints. The “snail-shell” structure unfolds/unrolls in a way that both “sides of the wall” end up being read. The juxtapositions and structure draw the viewer repeatedly from the flatness of paper into the multiple dimensions of the bookwork.

Bringing together barriers/bridges — languages, cultures and political eras — the bookwork breathes its own original life into Lu’s text of ambivalence and paradox. It is an effect similar but on a different scale to contemporaneous works by Xu Bing: Book from the Sky (1991) and Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990-91). The faint markings on the Arches paper of Sharoff’s wall, markings created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of an unidentified manuscript, echo the unreadability of Xu’s faux Chinese characters printed from his 4,000 hand-cut stamps for Book from the Sky. The red edge of Sharoff’s wall and the words of Lu Xun catch the echo of Xu’s and his students’ beating their ink-soaked mallets against the rice paper hanging on the Great Wall and invoke the ghosts of those who died building the wall. The execution of the unusual “forme en escargot” equals in exquisiteness and production value any of Xu’s works.

Front cover
La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991), Shirley Sharoff

On first encounter, that snail-shell structure of this double-sided accordion book challenges the reader/viewer. Should the work be completely unfurled? Should it stand on its edge, or be laid flat then turned over? To try to read La grande muraille in those ways, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros. The snail-shell form, its multi-page spreads and the text demand that you read La grande muraille as you unroll it or, rather, as you unfold it.

With the book laid flat, the “page spreads” are easier to recognize, the text is easier to read, and the forethought needed for the “imposition” of text and images to deliver the sequential text, easier to marvel at. As each recto page is turned to the right, two new pages appear to the right. This unfolding approach to reading the book offers several intriguing “double- and multi-page spreads” and an experience of the texts and eight prints in the sequence driven by the text. When you have finished reading in this sequence, you will have read both sides of the scroll. 

“Pages 1 and 2”
As “page 2” is turned to the right and the English title of the work disappears, “pages 3 and 4” come into view.
“Pages 1, 3 and 4”
“Page 3” displays the authors names, and “page 4” displays the first of eight prints in the book. As “page 4” is turned to the right and disappears, “pages 5 and 6” appear.
“Pages 1, 3, 5 and 6”
“Page 5” gives the title of the book in Chinese calligraphy. On “page 6”,  the opening line of Lu Xun’s text appears in English, French and Chinese.
Turning “page 1” to the right will cover the authors’ names on “page 3”, and turning “page 6” to the right will yield the next four-page view.

La grande muraille is a rare work, viewable at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague and these other locations. Almost as rare but still available from the artist is Impermanence subtile/Subtle Impermanence (2013), in which Sharoff continues her experimentation with structures. She returns to the cased portfolio and folios of OVI but introduces fraction folds (two-thirds, etc.), vertical flaps and an accordion structure with mountain folds. In collage-like manner, silhouettes and cutouts of modern everywoman and everyman move through their urban working and shopping environment. And vice versa, images of the environment behind the cut-outs move through everywoman and everyman!

Sharoff’s everyman and everywoman are in strife with the environment. The portfolio opens with a “collage of garbage” whose relationship to them becomes clear in the ways Sharoff works the fragment of Ian Monk’s poem “Tri selon Tri” (displayed in French and English) in, under and through her prints and book structure.

Impermanence subtile / Subtle Impermanence (2013)
Shirley Sharoff
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
The five folios
Photo: Books On Books collection
The five folios with the first opened
Note the “grammatico-textual” binding of the adjectives around the noun, mirroring the wordplay binding of the poem’s title “Tri selon tri”
Photo: Books On Books collection
The third folio opened to the cutouts leaf
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
TThe third folio with the cutouts leaf turned to the left
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
PPrint from the third folio, where “blocks of matter/ wind around/ each other/ fold upon fold”
Photo: Books On Books collection
TThe fourth folio opened to reveal an accordion structure with mountain folds
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands
The fifth folio opened to a flap structure
Photo: Books On Books at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Nederlands

The cutouts of everywoman and everyman fill up with the photos of trash behind them. In the prints, they stroll entangled in bricks and clutter toward an outcome where “in this universe of base and yet subtle impermanence, we should give up on the old refrains and the four elements of earth, air, water and finally fire, and instead divide matter into four new categories, i.e., paper, plastic, glass and in the end everything left over — those things that finish up in their own trash can” — i.e., us!

Continuing with the elemental, paradox and structural experiment, La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013) takes up the challenge of the folded single-page codex. In each of the three volumes in the set, the pattern of folds and cuts is the same, yet the pattern’s interplay with the prints and bilingual content in each seems uniquely appropriate. A hat trick of book art magic.

La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013)
Shirley Sharoff
Each volume (12 x 21.5 cm) is housed in a slipcase. The text in each is printed on one sheet of Rives 250 gsm in English and French, folding and unfolding to reveal different aspects of the text and images; 4 prints in each book. Edition of 25

The Poetry of the Universe consists of three aphorisms: Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”; Euclid’s “Parallel lines meet in infinity”; and Lavoisier’s “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”. As mentioned with La grande muraille, the execution is exquisite, and likewise, learning to read the work requires exploration.

Opening to slipcase for Aristotle volume
Lower edge of Aristotle volume
Title page and, on the right, the book’s first of four prints
Opening the text: the first print folds to the left.
Note how the syntax requires turning “THE WHOLE” page or fold to the right, which brings the book’s first print back into view.
The syntax and structure call for pulling the lower page or fold to the right.
Folding down the “than” page reveals “Aristotle” and the second print in the book.
The third and fourth prints in the book unfolded downward and from under the two squares above
The colophon appears when the two righthand columns of squares in the previous view are turned to the left.
Detail of third and fourth prints

The etchings in soft grey — an orange and its segments, a blossom and its petals, a walnut and its meat, and a tree and leaf — illustrate the aphorism, much as the typographic choices and arrangements and the breaking up of the sentence complement it. Sharoff makes the second and third volumes perform similarly but differently — just as a magician weaves a routine from variations on the same vanishes and productions of a coin or other object.

Aphorism 2 — Euclid
Aphorism 3 — Lavoisier

As Comentale wrote in Art & Métiers du Livre: ” magicienne des formes”. La Poésie de l’univers is as rare as OVI and La grande muraille. It can be viewed here and here.

For further reading

A more detailed view of La grande muraille can be found here: ‘Learning to read Shirley Sharoff’s “La grande muraille”’, Books On Books, 17 June 2018.

The most extensive essay on Sharoff’s work can be found in Paul van Capelleveen’s Artists & Others (2016). It comments on La reparation (2001), The Waves (2003), Les amazones sont parmi nous (2005), Bruits de la ville (2007), Impermanence subtile (2013), La poésie de l’univers (2012-2013). He addresses La grande muraille (1991) in Voices and Visions (2009). The special collection at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Netherlands is one of the few where several of Sharoff’s works — including La grande muraille — can be seen and handled in one place.

Christophe Comentale’s essay captures the delight of exploration and discovery in the encounter with Sharoff’s art.

Shirley Sharoff, entre France et Etats-Unis, présente une pluralité d’inspiration consommée entre l’estampe et le livre devenu un média, entre unique et multiple. […] Magicienne des formes et des couleurs, Shirley Sharoff ne cesse de remettre en cause, par besoin autant que par défi personnel, tout ce qui pourrait ressembler au début d’un système de lecture, de vision, figé et donc clos. L’impossibilité de savoir -qui vaut aussi pour elle- de quoi sa prochaine oeuvre-livre-manuscrit-tableau-dépliant, ou tout cela à la fois, sera fait est assez excitant. La présence de textes sentis par affinités sensorielles, personnelles, avec des écrivains non encore classiques, autant de raisons d’apprécier de pénétrer dans cet univers où le conformisme est inexistant.

Christophe Comentale, “Shirley Sharoff, des livres a tenir debout et des estampes a voir aussi”, Art & Métiers du Livre, n°231 (Aout-Septembre 2002), p.63.

Bookmarking Book Art – Learning to read Shirley Sharoff’s “La grande muraille”

La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991), Shirley Sharoff
All Books On Books photos are reproduced here with permission of the artist.
Detail, La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Typeface: Athenaeum, designed by Alessandro Butti and Aldo Novarese in 1945

The National Library of the Netherlands advises, “for [Shirley Sharoff’s La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)] to be read, the book first must be rolled out”.  And that is what I did, using the large table in the Special Collection’s seminar room. 

Enjoyable as that was, enjoying it again with the video afterward, something seemed awry. As the Chinese poem by Lu Xun, its French and English translations and text from Sharoff’s language students unrolled, interpersed with her prints, the text seemed to have gaps, or so I thought. So I returned a second time. Perhaps if I re-shot the video. Perhaps if I took more stills and close-ups. Perhaps if I shot the rolling up as well as the unrolling.

No doubt, the second effort added to the pleasure. Looking at the videos and stills, I can again feel between my fingers the Arches paper and engravings’ impressions on it. But still I detected gaps, seeming mismatches between the French and English. I wondered to what degree they

followed the Chinese text or whether some of Lu’s text had been omitted.  So, I returned a third time, and then came my “ah hah” moment. Unrolled, La grande muraille looks like a double-sided leporello or accordion book like this one: In Mexico by Helen Douglas.

In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James (2014)
Helen Douglas
La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Shirley Sharoff
Photo credit: © Koopman Collection. National Library of the Netherlands/Jos Uljee

To read La grande muraille as the double-sided leporello it appears to be, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros (her typography and print collaborator) in putting together this forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). The snail-shell form, its multi-page spreads and the text demand that you read La grande muraille as you unroll it, or rather, as you unfold it.

With the book laid flat, the “page spreads” are easier to recognize, the text is easier to read, and the forethought needed for the “imposition” of text and images to deliver the sequential text, easier to marvel at. As each recto page is turned to the right, two new pages appear to the right. This unfolding approach to reading the book offers several intriguing “double- and multi-page spreads” and an experience of the texts and eight prints in the sequence driven by the text. When you have finished reading in this sequence, you will have read both sides of the scroll. 

Reading the text

Front cover
La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991), Shirley Sharoff
“Pages 1 and 2”
As “page 2” is turned to the right and the English title of the work disappears, “pages 3 and 4” come into view.
“Pages 1, 3 and 4”
“Page 3” displays the authors names, and “page 4” displays the first of eight prints in the book. As “page 4” is turned to the right and disappears, “pages 5 and 6” appear.
“Pages 1, 3, 5 and 6”
“Page 5” gives the title of the book in Chinese calligraphy. On “page 6”,  the opening line of Lu Xun’s text appears in English, French and Chinese.
Turning “page 1” to the right will cover the authors’ names on “page 3”, and turning “page 6” to the right will yield the next four-page view.
“Back cover, pages 5, 7 -8”
The next lines of Lu Xun’s disquisition run in English, French and Chinese across “pages 7-8”.
Detail, “Pages 7 and 8”.
Notice how the English text on “page 7” runs across to “page 8”, but the French text disappears under “page 8”, effectively running on to what will be revealed as “page 9” in the next view.
“Pages 2, 9-11”
This view results from two page turns inward on the left and two outward on the right. “Page 2” has come back into view on the left.  The English text on pages 9-10 completes the sentence interrupted on “page 8”. The French text on “pages 9 and 10” completes the sentence that began on “page 7” and ran behind “page 8”.
Pages 9-10, 12-13
Pages 6, 12, 14-15
Pages 12, 14, 16-17
Pages 16, 18-19
Pages 16, 18, 20-21
Pages 20, 22-23
Pages 20, 22, 24-25
Pages 24, 26-27
Pages 24, 26, 28-29
Pages 28, 30-31
Pages 30, 32-33
Pages 32, 34-35
Pages 32, 34, 36-37
Pages 34, 38-39
Pages 38, 40-41
Pages 40, 42-43
Pages 42, 44-45
Pages 44, 46-47
Pages 44, 46, 48-49
Pages 46, 48, 50-51
Pages 48, 50, 52-53
Pages 50, 54-55
Pages 54, 56-57, the latter displaying the last ten characters of Lu Xun’s text.

這偉大而可詛咒的長城)

Pages 56, 58-59
Pages 58, 60-61
Pages 60, 62-63
Pages 62, 64-65
pages 64, 66-67

Now that the so-called gaps in the English and French texts were resolved, I wanted to understand how the English and French matched up to the Chinese text. For that, I asked help from two acquaintances in The Hague: Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song.  They obtained a copy of Lu Xun’s text, traced it through the photos I had taken and found that the three languages run almost in parallel as the work unfolds.

“Almost” because the order of the languages is not alway the same. On pages one and two, we see the French and English titles but must wait until page five before the Chinese title appears. Then, on page six the order changes: English first, then French, then the corresponding ten Chinese characters. On pages seven and eight, this order is maintained. Later, with the turning of page fifteen, the French comes before the English and Chinese; the first Chinese character aligning to the French and English (其) appears on page seventeen. Then, as page seventeen is turned to the right, the order changes back to French then English on page eighteen, but on page nineteen, it moves to French first then Chinese. The book’s textual conclusion on pages fifty-six through fifty-nine runs Chinese, English, then French. 

The juxtaposition and weaving of the three languages often seems painterly as if intended to evoke the layering of the bricks and the intertwining vines and foliage along stretches of The Great Wall. Here is the uninterrupted Chinese text:

偉大的長城!

這工程,雖在地圖上也還有它的小像,凡是世界上稍有知識的人們,大概都知道的罷。

其實,從來不過徒然役死許多工人而已,胡人何嘗擋得住。現在不過一種古跡了,但一時也不會滅盡,或者還要保存它。

我總覺得周圍有長城圍繞。這長城的構成材料,是舊有的古磚和補添的新磚。兩種東西聯為一氣造成了城壁,將人們包圍。

何時才不給長城添新磚呢?

這偉大而可詛咒的長城!

Reading the images

Even though following the forme en escargot results in having reading both sides of the scroll in the end, Sharoff also uses it to play with the notion of intended sequence. Completely unrolled and standing on its edge, the work echoes the Great Wall.  The tint of red along the top edge recalls the blood spilled in the Great Wall’s construction. The prints echo the Great Wall’s bricks, the vegetation in its crumbling gaps, even the gates. The completely unrolled work is an intended sequence, also — an invitation to walk the wall. Coming upon each of the eight copperplate engravings in the unfolding sequence is a different experience than walking up and down the “outer wall” and then the “inner wall” to see them. Five are on the outer wall, three on the inner.

The print first to be seen as the book unfolds, but one of the three on the “inner wall” with the book unrolled.

The second print comes into view on “page 14”, the second of Lu Xun’s statements begins in French on “page 15”,
and with the rolling up on the left, “page 4” has reappeared.
With the turning of “page 15”, the third print comes into view on “page 16”, and the sentence begun with “Actually” on “page 16” continues on “page 17” above the Chinese.
“Pages 16, 18-19”
The French at the top of “pages 18-19” is continuing the sentence from “page 15”, and the English beneath on “page 18” is continuing the sentence from “page 17”.
With this spread — “pages 16, 18, 20-21” — the fourth print comes into view on the right, and the French and English sentences conclude together in the middle.
“Pages 30, 32-33” and the fifth print comes into view.
“Pages 38, 40-41” and the sixth print comes into view.
“Pages 44, 46, 48-49” and the seventh print comes into view.
Pages 50, 54-55 and the eighth and final print comes into view.

Reading the form “in time”

As the force of the snail-shell binding resists the unscrolling and pulls the standing pages inward, the work has another echo: the eroding maze in the Ancient Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) outside Beijing. The faint markings on the paper, created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of a manuscript, amplify the echo.

La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)
Shirley Sharoff
Photo credit: © Koopman Collection. National Library of the Netherlands/Jos Uljee
Arches paper printed with the results of multiple photocopies of a manuscript.

Although Lu’s text does not mention the maze, Sharoff introduces contemporary text that, alongside the interweaving Chinese, English and French of Lu’s text, evokes a maze-like, time-travelling effect. The autobiographical texts from the English-language students she taught at the Central Institute of Finance and Banking (1987-88) reflect on their childhood and adolescence in the Maoist era and their recollection of representations of  foreigners in books and television. These “new bricks” in their modernness and fracturedness interrupt the flow of Lu’s prose praising and cursing the Great Wall.  Yet, in their segmentation and placement, they also physically echo the prints and reinforce Lu’s expression of the paradox in the construction, fragmentation, reconstruction and erosion of the real Wall.

“Pages 32, 34-35”

Sharoff’s La grande muraille is a treasure that rewards repeated visits and contemplation: not only for itself but also as a parallel or forerunner.

La grande muraille’s physical impetus (The Great Wall), the seemingly decipherable/indecipherable characters on the Arches paper, the wry paradox of Lu Xun’s observations, the socio-political-cultural implications of the “new bricks”, the work’s innovative form and the pulling of past and present together parallels the work of Xu Bing and his play with language across East and West. His Book from the Sky first appeared in 1988.

Sharoff’s use of Lu’s contemplation on The Great Wall also foreshadows Jorge Méndez Blake‘s Capítulo XXXVIII: Un mensaje del emperador / A Message from the Emperor (2017?). The title refers to an anecdote in the story “The Great Wall of China” by Franz Kafka, a contemporary of Lu Xun.  The narrator tells the reader how the emperor has dispatched from his deathbed a message to the reader, entrusted to a herald who, struggling as he might, cannot escape from the confines of the palace to deliver the message — yet which we the reader await hopelessly and with hope.

What more should we expect from art?

____________________________

*For help and permissions, thanks to Paul van Capelleveen and the staff at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, and Shirley Sharoff, Paris. For help with the Chinese and calligraphy, thanks to Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song.

On “The Book” (MIT Press, 2018)

With apologies to the preacher:  Of making many books [on books] there is no end. 

                                                                                                                (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

With the choir of its forebearers, Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018) sounds an “amen” to that truth. The proliferation of degree programs in book studies covering the history of the book, the book arts and even book art ensures The Book will not be the last. What distinguishes Borsuk’s book are her perspective as an artist and the book’s breadth and depth despite its brevity.

The book has a long history of existential crises. What is a book? Is the end of the book nigh?  For more than a century, those questions have returned again and again. The most recent recurrence stems from the ebook’s threat to dematerialize the book and the online world’s threat to take us into a post-text future. Even before these latest threats, book artists have long lived and worked with their own existential questions, a kind of higher existential calculus, or derivative of, the book’s crises: What is an artist’s book? What is book art?  Stephen Bury, Riva Castleman, Johanna Drucker, Joan Lyons, Stefan Klima, Clive Philpott and many others in the last quarter of the 20th century dwelt on defining and categorizing book art.

Borsuk belongs to a later generation of book artists that has embraced these existential crises and recognized that the book’s existential crises are what make the book a rich medium in which and with which to create art — from bio-art miniature to the biblioclastic human-scale to large-scale installations and performances. Even to the digital.

The Origin of Species (2016)
Dr. Simon Park, Guildford, Surrey
“The small book shown here was grown from and made entirely from bacteria. Not only is the fabric of its pages (GXCELL) produced by bacteria, but the book is also printed and illustrated with naturally pigmented bacteria. ” Posted 27 March 2016. Photo credit: Dr. Simon F. Park

Silenda: Black Sea Book (2015)
Jacqueline Rush Lee
Transformed Peter Green‘s translation of Ovid’s Tristia and the Black Sea Letters
H9.5″ x W12″ x D6.5.” Manipulated Text, Ink, Graphite
Photo credit: Paul Kodama. In Private Collection, NL

Enclosed Content Chatting Away in the Colour Invisibility (2009)
Anouk Kruithof
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Field (2015)
Johannes Heldén
Produced, and premiered, at HUMlab, Umeå University
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Performance artist and academic as well, Borsuk brings that later generational and creative perspective to the existential question — What is the book? — and, with an artist’s perception of her medium of choice, displaces the old companion existential question — Is the end of the book nigh? — with an altogether more interesting one — Where next for the book?

To see where books might be going, we must think of them as objects that have experienced a long history of experimentation and play. Rather than bemoaning the death of books or creating a dichotomy between print and digital media, this guide points to continuities, positioning the book as a changing technology and highlighting the way artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have pushed us to rethink and redefine the term. (pp. xiii-xiv)

In The Book, the future is not far from the physical past. Where once we had text on scrolls, now we scroll through text (albeit more vertically than horizontally). Where once human consciousness changed with the invention of the alphabet and writing, now it may be altering with our reading and writing through networked digital devices. Like the many historians before her, Borsuk starts with cuneiform (those wedge-shaped accounting marks on baked clay), hieroglyphics and the invention of the alphabet to set the scene for the advent of the book and its ongoing physicality:

  • its shape (scroll, accordion, codex)
  • its material (papyrus, vellum, paper, charcoal or mineral-based watercolor and ink)
  • its manufacture (scribing, printing by woodblock and movable type, design and typography, illumination and illustration, folding into pages, methods of binding)
  • its constituent and navigational parts (cover, book block, title page, table of contents, page numbering, index).

But Borsuk reminds us — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — the book as human artifact exists in a social, political, technological, economic and even ecological context. Who is allowed to make it, how it is transacted, how and where we use it, how we perceive and speak of it — all have affected the physicality of the book object and are reflected in it. 

In the first half of The Book, Borsuk steers us through these interdependencies to a turning point. That turning point is where the pinnacle of the book arts — Beatrice Warde‘s and Jan Tschichold‘s vision of the book as a crystalline container of content — and the book’s commodification combine to cause the book’s physicality to disappear because it is so taken for granted, leaving us with “the book as idea”.

With the perception that books are ideas bestowed on readers by an authorial genius whose activity is purely intellectual, the book’s object status vanished for much of the reading public as we raised a glass to happily consume its contents…. Even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work. (pp. 106-9)

At this turning point — where “the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (p. 112) — the second half of The Book introduces book art. It is telling that the longest chapter in the book begins the second half, that it is called “The Book as Idea” and that it comes before any extended engagement with the digital dematerialization of the book. It is a wry pivot: the artistic genius supplants the authorial genius; what the latter takes as invisible background, the former re-makes as self-regarding foreground.  As Borsuk shows and her book’s cover neatly demonstrates, works of book art are inevitably self-referential and self-aware.

As such, works of book art

have much to teach us about the changing nature of the book, in part because they highlight the “idea” by paradoxically drawing attention to the “object” we have come to take for granted. They disrupt our treatment of the book as a transparent container for literary and aesthetic “content” and engage its material form in the work’s meaning. (p. 113)

Rather than offer a chronological history of book art to explore what “artists’ books have to teach us about a path forward for the book”, Borsuk offers “flashpoints” that represent “the energies motivating artwork in book form”(p. 117).  These “flashpoints” are William BlakeStéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha and Ulises Carrión. Following these flashpoints, Borsuk organizes the rest of the chapter into “key themes that recur throughout artists’ books of the twentieth century: spatiotemporal play, animation, recombinant structures, ephemerality, silence, and interactivity” (pp. 146-47).

Oddly, Blake as flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes.  Rather Borsuk notes three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” that Blake and his work represent: centering or re-centering the production processes on the author/artist; using the book as a sociopolitical and visionary platform; and redefining, developing and challenging the relationship between word and image.  

Blake refers to himself as “The Author & Printer W. Blake,” making clear the union of creativity and craft in his work. (p. 121)

Blake’s engagement with the social issues of his day, and his use of book form to respond to child labor, urban squalor, and slavery, established an important trend in both artists’ books and independent publishing—the utility of the book as a means of spreading social justice. (pp. 121, 124)

Blake used his craftsmanship to develop the relationship between word and image (p. 140)

One need not look far among twentieth and twenty-first century book artists for resonance with those themes. That Blakean union of creativity and craft resurfaces in artists such as Ken Campbell (UK), Cathryn Miller (Canada), Pien Rotterdam (Netherlands), Barb Tetenbaum (US) and Xu Bing (China)  — some of them even to the point of carving or setting their own type, making their own paper, pulp printing on it themselves or binding the finished work themselves. Vision and sociopolitical observation have risen up in the works of artists such as Doug Beube (Canada), Julie K. Dodd (UK), Basia Irland (US), Diane Jacobs (US), Anselm Kiefer (Germany) and Chris Ruston (UK). Blake’s redefining the relationship of word (or text) to image often reappears in book artists’ abcedaries and their children’s books such as A Dictionary Story by Sam Winston (UK).  As for emulators of Blake in technical innovation, consider the analogue example of Australian Tim Mosely’s works created with his patented pulp printing process, where the “ink” is actually colored pulp, or the digital example of Borsuk’s work Between Page and Screen, where the pages contain no text—only QR codes that, when scanned with a webcam, activate the text’s appearance on the reader’s browser screen.

For her second flashpoint, Borsuk selects another visionary, Stéphane Mallarmé, who like Blake was reacting to his own perceived Satanic mills draining poetry of its spirituality. Mallarmé’s Satanic mills dispensed rigid columns of newsprint to the masses and bland expanses of poetry and fiction set by Linotype machines in the neo-classical Didot font. With his famous visionary dictum — “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book” (p. 135) — Mallarmé nudged the book toward pure concept and opened its mystical covers to the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists, Vorticists, Lettrists, Conceptualists and biblioclasts. With spatiotemporal play — mixing type sizes and fonts, breaking up the line and even breaking the page — Mallarmé used text to evoke image and, in his view, remake the book as a “spiritual instrument”. His post-humous book-length poem Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), published in 1897, embodies that vision and continues to cast its flashpoint light across multiple generations of book artists’ efforts. From Marcel Broodthaers in 1969, we have his homage to Un Coup de Dés. From Jérémie Bennequin in 2014, we have his serial “omage” to Broodthaers’ homage. And, most recently, we have the 2015 new bilingual edition A Roll of the Dice by Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno, for which Borsuk provides a perceptive reading.

Where Mallarmé’s flashpoint enlisted his vision alongside the cry “épater le bourgeois” from Baudelaire and other late nineteenth-century poets, Ed Ruscha’s later flashpoint illuminates a democratic counterpoint, a Zen-like vision and a very different way of changing the relationship of text to image. Ruscha’s self-published photobooks were cheap and distributed outside the gallery-controlled channels of art. As Borsuk shows — directly with Ruscha and indirectly with the many book artists influenced by him — the text is restricted to the book’s title, which interacts with a series of deadpan photos and their layout to deliver a wry, tongue-in-cheek work of book art. Ruscha’s spatiotemporal play manifests itself across the accordion book format and out-of-sequence juxtapositions. Ironically Ruscha’s works now command thousands of dollars per copy, and one has more chance of seeing them in an exhibition than in a roadside stop’s rack of newspapers, magazines and mass-market paperbacks.

Display of Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, at the Gulbenkian’s Pliure: Prologue (la Part du Feu), 2 February – 12 April 2015, Paris. Photo credit: Robert Bolick
Reflected in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451; in the lower left hand corner, Bruce Nauman’s 1968 Burning Small Fires;  and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s 1974 La bibliotheque en feu.

Mexico’s Ulises Carrión — polemicist, European bookshop owner, conceptual artist and Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints — is a counter-flashpoint to Ruscha. Where Ruscha reveled in self-publishing commodification, Carrión sneered at the book in its traditional commercial form. Where Ruscha has resisted the label “conceptual artist”, Carrión played the role to the hilt. Where Ruscha’s work has elicited numerous homages (see Various Small Books from MIT Press in 2013) and achieved a high profile, Carrión’s work, much lower in profile, has provided a more compelling range of hooks or influences on which to hang many different manifestations of book art (or bookworks as Carrión preferred). In fact, Borsuk’s six stated key themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” come from Carrión’s manifestos (pp. 146-47).

The first theme — “spatiotemporal play” — comes from Carrión’s initial definition of the book as a “sequence of spaces”, which Borsuk traces to tunnel books, pop-ups and even large-scale constructs, the latter illustrated by American Alison Knowles‘ inhabitable The Big Book (1968). One more possible future of the book implied by spatiotemporal play manifests itself in Borsuk’s own augmented-reality (AR) works, those of Caitlin Fisher (Canada) and Carla Gannis’ Selfie Drawings (2016), in which portraits on the hardcover book’s pages animate and change when viewed through smartphone or tablet.

Borsuk takes the second theme, that of “animation”, from Carrión’s dictum: “Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment— a book is also a sequence of moments”. As her several examples illustrate, much book art is cinematic. Borsuk’s exposition of Canadian Michael Snow‘s Cover to Cover (1975) comes closest to reproducing the experience I enjoyed of “watching” that photo bookwork from cover to cover several times at the now closed Corcoran Art Gallery. Borsuk is quick and right to remind that the cinematic future of the book has been with us for a long time, even before the cinema. She bookends her exposition of Snow’s book and  and the text animation of American Emmett WilliamsSweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s The Readies (presumably pronounced “reedies” to follow Brown’s comparison of his scrolling one-line texts with the cinema’s “talkies”).  

A forgotten modernist, Brown declared the obsolescence of the book, predicted a new form of reading and technology to enable it, an optical projector emitting text into the ether and directly into the eyeball. But what does this tell us about the future of the book? Borsuk notes Craig Saper‘s resurrection of Brown’s Roving Eye Press and how he even put together a website that emulates Brown’s reading machineIn her phrase describing the machine’s effect of “turning readers themselves into a kind of machine for making meaning” (p. 168), Borsuk hints at a future of digitally interactive books, which she takes up in the next section and more extensively in the next chapter. At this point, however, the reader could use a hint of practicality and skepticism. Linear-one-word-at-a-time reading, however accelerated, eliminates affordances of the page, ignores graphics and strains against the combination of peripheral vision and rapid eye movement we unconsciously (even atavistically?) deploy as we “read” whatever we see. Although in the next section Borsuk does bring on more likely examples of the book’s future exploitation of its cinematic affordances (manga, graphic novels and children’s books), this section’s treatment of animation misses the chance to cite actual recent successes like Moonbot Studios‘ The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2012) and others.

Once into the third theme — “recombinant structure” — it is clear that Borsuk’s chosen Carriónesque themes overlap one another. Like the cinematic, the recombinant structure manifests itself in accordion books. It extends, however, to something more interactive: volvelles (or medieval apps as Erik Kwakkel calls them), interactive pop-ups, harlequinades (flap books) and more.  Borsuk uses Raymond Queneau‘s harlequinade Cent mille milliards de poèmes ( One hundred thousand billion poems, 1961), Dieter Roth‘s slot books and works by Carolee Schneemann to illustrate book art’s celebration of the concept. The fact that Queneau’s book is still easily available on Amazon vouches for book art’s predictive qualities. The example of Marc Saporta’Composition No. 1 (Éditions du Seuil, 1962), “a box of 150 leaves printed on only one side that the reader is instructed to shuffle at the outset”, goes Queneau one better —ironically.  In 2011, Visual Editions reissued Composition No. 1 in print and app forms. Alas, the former is out of print, and the latter is no longer available for download.

Composition No. 1 (2011)
Marc Saporta
Translation by Richard Howard, Introduction by T.L. Uglow, Google Creative Lab, Diagrams by Salvador Plascencia and Designed by Universal Everything Photo credit: Robert Bolick

Borsuk draws her fourth theme — ephemerality — from Carrión’s dictum: 

I firmly believe that every book that now exists will eventually disappear. And I see here no reason for lamentation. Like any other living organism, books will grow, multiply, change color, and, eventually, die. At the moment, bookworks represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books. (p. 145)

To illustrate, Borsuk begins with the physical biblioclasts — those who in Doug Beube‘s phrase are “breaking the codex“. They include Beube himself, Bruce Nauman (see above), Brian Dettmer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Marcel DuchampDieter Roth and Xu Bing. While some of these artists reflect a twenty-first century surge of interest in altered books and book sculpture, “facilitated by the overarching notion that the book is an artifact not long for this world” (pp.82-84), others have taken a more generative archaeological approach — erasing or cutting away a book’s words to reveal another. Examples include Tom Phillips‘ A Humument (1966-2014) and Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes (2010). Phillips’ bookwork serves multiple purposes for Borsuk’s arguments.  Not only does it represent the book art of “erasure”, its success across multiple editions, digital formats and presence in art galleries supports her notion of book art’s predictive qualities.

There is a variant on her theme that Borsuk does not illustrate and is worth consideration for her next edition: the self-destructing yet regenerative work of book art. Examples could include American Basia Irland‘s series ICE BOOKS: Ice receding/Books reseeding (2007-), which gives a formidably tangible and new meaning to “publishing as dissemination”; and Canadian Cathryn Miller‘s tail-chasing Recomp (2014); and Argentinian Pequeño Editor‘s Mi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.

Recomp (2014)
Cathryn Miller
Copy of Decomp, Collis and Scott (2013) nailed to a tree. Photo credit: David G. Miller

Recomp (2015)
Photo credit: David G. Miller

Recomp vandalized (2015)
Photo credit: David G. Miller

The last section in this chapter expands on the fifth theme — silence — drawn from Carrión’s statement:

The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Every book of the new art is searching after that book of absolute whiteness in the same way that every poem searches for silence.  Ulises Carrión, Second Thoughts (1980), pp. 15-16.

Among her several examples are Pamela Paulsrud‘s Touchstones (2007-10), which look like stones but are books sanded-down into stone-like shapes, and Scott McCarney‘s 1988 Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green), a sculpture composed of stacked library discards that narrows as it ascends.  Paulsrud’s, McCarney’s, Irland’s and Miller’s works are what Borsuk calls “muted objects”, but they speak and signify nevertheless: 

Muted books take on a totemic [metaphoric] significance…. The language of the book as a space of fixity, certainty, and order reminds us that the book has been transmuted into an idea and ideal based on the role it plays in culture…. Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form. (pp. 193-95)

 

Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Borsuk is a superb stylist of the sentence and expository structure. The words above, concluding chapter three, launch the reader into Borsuk’s final theme of interactivity and her unifying metaphor: “the book as interface”. Owners of Kindles, buyers from Amazon, perusers of Facebook — we may think we know what’s coming next in The Book and for the book, but Borsuk pushes the reader to contemplate the almost real-time evolutionary change we have seen with ebook devices and apps, audiobooks, the ascension of books to the cloud via Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and Google Books, and their descent to Brewster Kahle‘s physical back-up warehouse (to be sited in Canada in light of recent political events) and into flattening ebook sales of late. Chapter 4 is a hard-paced narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play.

Borsuk reminds us:

Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)

Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.

At this point, an earlier passage from The Book should haunt the reader:

Artists’ books continually remind us of the reader’s role in the book by forcing us to reckon with its materiality and, by extension, our own embodiment. Such experiments present a path forward for digital books, which would do well to consider the affordances of their media and the importance of the reader, rather than treating the e-reader as a Warde-ian crystal goblet for the delivery of content. (p. 147)

Borsuk convinces. Art, artifact, concept — wrought by hand and mind, hands and minds — the book is our consensual tool and toy for surviving beyond our DNA. So now what? Metaphor, hints and historical flashpoints may illuminate where we have been, how it shows up in contemporary books and book art and where we may be going with it. In ten or one hundred years though, how will a book publisher become a book publisher? Given the self-publishing capability today’s technology offers, will anyone with a file on a home computer and an internet connection consider himself or herself a book publisher? Borsuk thinks not:

The act of publication — of making public — is central to our cultural definition of the book. Publication might presume some cultural capital: some editorial body has deemed this work worthy of print. It might also presume an audience: a readership clamors for this text. But on a fundamental level, publication presumes the appendage of elements outside the text that help us recognize it as a book, even when published in digital form. (pp. 239-40)

How will future book publishers learn to master the appendage of these elements outside the text (the paratext) that make a book a book “even when published in digital form”? Borsuk’s commentary on the ISBN as one of these elements sheds oblique light on that. She points to the artist Fiona Banner’s uses of the ISBN under her imprint/pseudonym Vanity Press — tattooing one one her lower back, publishing a series Book 1/1 (2009) consisting of sixty-five ISBN’d pieces of mirrored cardstock and then collecting them in a photobook entitled ISBN 978-1-907118-99-9 in order to deposit those one-offs with the British Library as required by the UK’s Legal Deposit Libraries Act. What can a future ebook publisher deduce from this?

That the use of a globally unique identifier (GUID) matters.

The backstory of the transition from ISBN10 to ISBN13 and that of ebooks, ISBNs and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) might provide interesting fodder. The notion that the book industry was running out of 10-digit ISBNs was a red herring used to convince industry executives to adopt the more widely used format of unique identifiers overseen by GS1. The real reason for moving to ISBN13 — reduced friction in the supply chain — was too hard to sell. About the same time, some major publishers proposed incorporating the ISBN into the DOI for an industry-standard ebook identifier.  The DOI offered an existing digital, networked infrastructure already being used by most of the world’s scientific, technical and medical journals publishers. It is an offshoot of the Handle System, established by Robert Kahn. Sad to say, few book publishers adopted the DOI for their ebooks; still fewer used the DOI’s application- and network-friendliness to enable their ebooks to take advantage of the network’s digital affordances.

The DOI shares with the ISBN a feature that Borsuk points out as a limitation to more widespread use: it is not free. A significant percentage of ebooks exist without ISBNs, much less DOIs. If a digital GUID is to be used in ways that help us recognize the identified digital object as a book, future book publishers and their providers of a network ecosystem supporting ebooks, linking with the print ecosystem and reducing friction in the supply chain still have wide gaps in commerce and knowledge to close. Perhaps this particular paratextual element is unnecessary for the book’s digital future, but until those gaps are narrowed, the ecosystem for eBooks will remain balkanized by Amazon, Apple, Google, Lulu and the more digitally literate denizen of the print publishing industry. In the meantime, as Borsuk’s examples throughout her book show, there are boundless other print and digital affordances with which publishers, authors, editors, designers, typographers, developers and readers can play as they continue to shape the book.

The Book‘s publication month, June 2018, is auspicious, being the same for the Getty Center’s exhibition “Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists“, June 26 – October 28. The Center and MIT Press would do well to have stacks of The Book on hand.  The Book will also serve as an excellent introductory textbook for courses on book art or the history of the book.  And by virtue of its style and artist’s perspective, Borsuk’s book will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in this essential technology of civilization and its growing role as a material and focus of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

Bookmarking Book Art – “Farewell Our Globalism”, Xu Bing and the Guggenheim

Huang Yong Ping: The History of Chinese Painting and a Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987/1993, ink on wooden crate, paper pulp, and glass, 30 by 19 by 27½ inches. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

 

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” now appearing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through January 7, 2018, includes work from Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping. The exhibition attracted animal rights protestors and removal of works, one of which was Xu Bing’s video of his 1994 installation A Case Study of Transference. In a pen littered with books, Xu Bing presented two pigs, one tattooed with words in his now famous nonsense Chinese calligraphy and one with nonsense English words. The piece became infamous when the pigs, bored with the intercourse offered by the books, engaged in more mutually interesting discourse.

A Case Study of Transference (1994)
ⓒ Xu Bing

The exhibition also occasioned this article in “Art in America” by managing editor Richard Vine. He has held up art’s hard mirror to us all in this essay.

Books On Books Collection – Jenny Smith

Untitled (2006)

Untitled (2006)
Jenny Smith
Matte-beige slot-and-tab case containing eight-panel leporello, four panels lasercut and three screenprint. Case: 167 x 167 mm; Book: 165 x 165 mm.
Edition of 25 of which this is #21. Acquired from the artist, 31 July 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Photos: Books On Books Collection.

This portable sculpture echoes the tradition of Bruno Munari and Eleonora Cumer. The handling of ink from matte gray to silver to reflective black plays beautifully behind the vertical and

Book of Beads (2008)

Book of Beads (2008)
Jenny Smith
Case of beige matte-finish, screenprint black interior, title lasercut: 165 x 165 mm;
Book in accordion-fold, eight panels lasercut, taupe on one side, screenprint black on other, 160 x 160 mm
Edition of 20 of which this is #13. Acquired from the artist, 31 July 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The interlocking views of panels through panels foreshadow a work by Katumi Komagata:Ichigu(2015). The fine tendrils in the cutting may remind some of works by Béatrice Coron or Merrill Shatzman.

Little Black Book (2009)

Little Black Book (2009)
Jenny Smith
Matte-black slot-and-tab case containing matte-black single fold booklet; cover engraved with an abstract, calligraphic design that is cut out inside on the pop-up page and reappears in shadow against a gloss black screenprint insert behind the pop-up page. 
Case: 167 x 167 mm; Book: 160 x 160 mm; Pop-up page: H140 x W150 mm.
Edition of 20, of which this is #14. Acquired from the artist, 31 July 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Photos: Books On Books Collection.


Little Black Book exemplifies Smith’s exploration of writing as a form of drawing, which also often finds expression in site-specific work such as What is the most important decision you have made? (2013) in Cupar, Fife, Scotland, and What is Shadow? and What is Freedom? (2016) in the same vicinity.

The grassy nature of the 2013 installation and its engagement with children may remind the reader/viewer of Water on the Border (1994) by Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes. For some, the interaction of cage and words in the 2016 installation may recall Bird Language (2003) by Xu Bing.

Further Reading

Medicinal Art”, Studio Pavilion, 19 September 2019. Accessed 2 May 2020.

Blakeley, Deborah. “Jenny Smith, Edinburgh, Scotland”, Zone One Arts, 1 November 2015. Accessed 2 May 2020.

Bookmarking Book Art – Buzz Spector

Here is an hour-long talk by Spector  sponsored by the New York Center for Book Art.

At 6 minutes in, there is a wonderful riff on the book as elemental cultural artifact, being able to stand for each of the four elements. Here are links to the images to which Spector refers – so much more enjoyable to see as well as hear!

Fire

Claudio Parmiggiani, Smoke and Soot on Wood, 2008
Claudio Parmiggiani, Smoke and Soot on Wood, 2008

Credit: http://bortolamigallery.com/artist/claudio-parmiggiani/works/

Earth

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1991
Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1991

Credit: https://teachartwiki.wikispaces.com/Book+from+the+Sky–Xu+Bing http://wp.me/p2AYQg-Ou

Air

Doug Beube, Twister, 2002
Doug Beube, Twister, 2002

Credit: http://dougbeube.com/artwork/2154724_Disaster_series_Twister.html

Water –

Hanne Darboven, 100 Books, 1970
Hanne Darboven, 100 Books, 1970

Credit: http://images.artnet.com/images_us/magazine/reviews/robinson/robinson7-22-09-3.jpg

There is a related brief note about Spector’s “The Rise and Fall of Books” here.  Spector’s works — especially his collages with found poems drawn from book jackets — strike deeply. With them, book art goes beyond the read artifact into the relationship of writing and reading.

Bookmarking Book Art – Xu Bing

I count myself “magpie lucky”.

Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Kettle's Yard exhibition, 2015
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14
Kettle’s Yard exhibition, 2015

The Gaudier-Brzeska exhibition, the finale before Kettle’s Yard would close for years, had drawn me to Cambridge. I spent hours there. Exhausted, I was walking back to the train past the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had read somewhere that Xu Bing would have a small solo exhibition at the Fitzwilliam.

from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)
from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)

I own a copy of Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point – a pictographic account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker – and I had seen Book from the Sky at the Odd Volumes exhibition of Yale’s Allan Chasanoff Collection. So I took a chance.

Book from the Sky, 1991 Xu Bing The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Museum of Modern Art Photograph taken 31 January 2015
Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1991
The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery

After first not recognizing my mispronunciation of Xu Bing and then hunting through some brochures, the attendants at the information desk directed me downstairs to a room of Chinese porcelain just outside the museum shop.  Among the glass cases of blue and white: Bird Language (2003), four brass and copper birdcages, containing toy birds that sing at the clap of your hands.  The mesh of two of the cages are composed of words in the Latin alphabet, the other two in Xu Bing’s faux Chinese calligraphy. According to his site, “The words are questions that people have asked Xu Bing about art, and his answers.”

Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and “square word calligraphy”, gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

They remind me of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Bird Swallowing a Fish, just a question of timing and the juxtaposition of two artists fascinated with a union of the animistic and mechanistic? Maybe it is these few other degrees of separation: Gaudier-Brzeska’s catalyzing effect on Ezra Pound in 1913, Pound’s creative misunderstanding of Chinese calligraphy, Pound’s disputably indisputable influence on the author of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), whose birds are “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling … set upon a golden bough to sing ….”, and now Xu Bing’s toy birds that require the body not the “Soul [to] clap its hands” and let the birds do the singing.

Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky must have been even more impressive in its Metropolitan Museum display (2013/14) than its partial form at the Yale Gallery (2015) as shown above, but that’s part of the pleasure of conceptual art. Whether billowing overhead on scrolls suspended from the ceiling and walls or juxtaposed in their bound book form with their wooden case, these hand-bound deliberately indecipherable, meaningless Chinese calligraphic forms printed from hand-carved wood blocks sing in the mind and soul. But what is that song? We have the impression of meaning, an impression conveyed by graphic gesture and the traditional containers of meaning. But there is a slippage between the impression of meaning and grasp of meaning.  Perhaps that is Xu Bing’s song.

The Khan Academy’s socio-political take on Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky — comparing it to Ai WeiWei’s performance art of smashing a Han dynasty vase — may usefully decipher the song for some. I think it misses a more profound point that Charlie Bennett approaches in his Aesthetica review of Xu Bing’s installation version of Book from the Ground (just closed on 28 February 2016 at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester, UK). The interactive mixed-media installation recreated Xu Bing’s art studio, including double-page spreads of the book pinned up on a wall, over-sized blow-ups of the pictographs from the book and two computers for visitors’ use.

Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to [New] English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.

With its English and Chinese birdcages, Bird Language, too, echoes Introduction to New English Calligraphy. But in the viewer’s interaction with the latter, the meaning that emerges is not what the viewer “intends” by copying out pretty lines. The experience of “communicated meaning” or “almost communicated meaning” seems accidental or magical. Likewise in Bird Language, we know that the sensor activates the toy bird and suspect a connection between the “magically activated” songs and the word-mesh cages. We suspect meaning.  We know the artist’s hand formed metal letters to form metal words in two different languages.  We suspect that each cage forms a narrative. We suspect there are differences in the narratives from the difference in round and square cage, English and Chinese cage. For some, that experience of suspicion might be frustrating; for others, delighting.

On further reflection, I think Xu Bing’s art challenges that modernist “union” of the animistic and mechanistic. With the sound-activation of digital birdsong and software-translation of words into pictographs, Bird Language and Book from the Ground (the installation) offer the slippery  intersection of the animistic, the mechanistic and the digital. Intersection is not always union, if by “union” we mean equivalence, meaning and clarity. “Made in China” birds are not swallowing or regurgitating brass symbols. Animistic and mechanistic input to digital translation or replication do not always yield union — equivalence, meaning or clarity. But in Xu Bing’s hands and mind — in their intersection with our hands and minds — they yield a suspicion of union. They yield art.

Detail. Xu Bing Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

Further reading:

Wang, Sue. “‘Xu Bing’: The Art View and Action Logic of a Fatalist”, 12 January 2018.  A lengthy piece on the occasion of the Xu Bing retrospective in Wuhan, his first large-scale solo exhibition in China since returning ten years ago. Beitler, Daniel. “Xu Bing Tests the Limits of Language in Unique Exhibition“, Macau Daily Times, 20 November 2017. From www.youtube.com May 25, 2017 1:55 PM This video recounting Xu Bing’s life and work so far (from his start in China to the 90s in New York then back again to Beijing) broadens the appreciation of each work and the connections among them across time and place.