‘Hybrid as it is, the book is a spatial object. It narrates time by slicing up space into bits and stacking them. A book is frozen time. Using the book releases that time by fanning it out into space.’
This article was written by Melbourne architect and poet Alex Selenitsch, and published in Imprint Winter 1993, Volume 28 Number 2.
Last century, the French poet Stephane Mallarmé proclaimed a literary apocalypse: ‘All earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book’. This aphorism is the lead statement in the catalogue which accompanied a recent travelling exhibition of work done by the Graphic Investigation Workshop at the Canberra School of Art. It is also an apt banner to wave over the works recently seen in Das Buch, another travelling exhibition to Australia east coast venues, initiated by the Institute for Foreign Cultureal Relations, Germany. Both exhibitions were installed in Melbourne during September, 1992, and offered a singular opportunity for a comparison of different approaches to the problems of making artists’ books.
These problems are numerous, although it would be more accurate to say that they are matters of creative opportunity. Books are commonplace yet enigmatic and undefinable when examined in detail. These extremes – mundanity and fuzziness – ensure a vast field of experiment and expression. Mallarmé’s aphorism heralds a modern materialist approach which runs through just about every book stream of this century (dada, futurism, surrealism and beyond); he also wrote of folded pages, binding, and the newspaper sheet as an innovative model for future book design, pre-dating McLuhan’s summaries by more than seventy years. Being a Symbolist Mallarmé saw all of these aspects of the book as metaphoric, to be tacitly accepted, understood and then manipulated.
It is this metaphoric aspect of the book as thing that formed the basis for many of the works collected in Das Buch. The book object was shown to be a vehicle for the presentation of ideas, as an instrument of social critique. Generally, in keeping with the public and political tone of the work, the compositional strategies were direct – and, interestingly for work aimed at a mass public audience, derived from surrealism. One of that movement’s precursors, Lautréamont, set out the idea at the end of song six of Les Chants de Maldoror through a subsequently famous image … ‘the fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. Applied to books, this (surreal) formula becomes: ‘book plus something else, in a gallery’ (or, sign of book plus sign of something else in a sign of discourse).
So, in Das Buch, one saw work such as Victor Bonato’s sheets of glass clamped together; Hubert Gojowczyk’s Scherzo, an open folio of music with the quavers pinned down by nails; Oskar Holweck’s books with their disembowelled pages fanned out into delicate layers; Kubach-Wilman Team’s striated marble rock entitled Beethoven, Score of the Pastoral Symphony; Timm Ulrichs‘ fluttering bird-shaped books that were pegged to music stands and Paul Wunderlich’s bronze Pistol, carved out of a book with the title M-A-R-X incised into its spine/barrel. The over-riding impression(!) of the works was one of adaptation, alteration, subversion and clarification.
Despite such manipulations – possibly because of them – one keenly felt the persistence of a geometry, suggesting a kind of analogous or generic book, perhaps an UR-Buch. It is an easy geometry to describe. Firstly, there is the pile, a stack of similarly sized sheets. There is the hinge, which orients the pile and keeps it in order. Finally, there is the symmetry, the most elusive of all ‘book’ properties. It is present in the bi-lateral nature of the codex double-page spread, in the rotational symmetry of the hinge. There is the mirror symmetry of two hands holding the book, the book mirroring the imagination of the reader. Then there is the matter of ‘print’ itself: the plate or roller from which the book is printed (unless it is a stencilled one) is a mirror of its print, with the platemaker working in reverse so that it will all come out right (to left).
Yet the UR-Buch need not be geometric. It would seem to ‘not be’ a lot of other things. Because most literature arrives in book form, we tend to assume that the book is a literary object. There is no natural reason for this to be so. Writers work with words either as babble or scribble, and it is this stuff that comes from or tends towards the imagination. The book need not be there.
Nor is the book the invention of print. The relationship probably is the other way round. The tediousness of hand-copying must surely have suggested a repeatable process and one can only wonder why it took so many centuries to materialise in Europe. In any case, the hand-made book flourishes outside of the publishing industry in albums, recipe books and other functions associated with records.
Even regarded as a database, the book is only partially defined. The only accurate thing that can be said of the book is that for record-keeping, accessibility, storage, portability, attractiveness, etc., it is the best device we have so far. It does nothing perfectly, but does many things very well, to the extent that some of its properties have hybridised into separate genres such as book-binding.
This over-determined totality of the book’s possibilities means that in practice, artists have to restrict their focus. Under Petr Herel’s influence, the Canberran work showed a different approach to the simplified visual semiotics that characterised the German work. Time and again, in the local work, a chosen text or theme was extruded through the actuality of the ‘book’, not just its image. A text or idea was thus enhanced by being translated, more accurately, transformed by being given another materiality, with the text or idea functioning as the book’s genetic code.
Faced with such objects – often very unbooklike – the reader’s task seemed to be to discover the book’s materialisation. Not surprisingly, the objects/books were various: sheets of images in a box, (Body Simulation, a collaborative project), a series of handmade paper reliefs with a human form gradually emerging (Mark Arnott’s Ghost Dance) or a drawer with a display of autumnal fragments of barely-bound paper (Robyn Clegg’s Four Found Books).
Or Gary Poulton’s Correspondences. This was a simple pile of sheets, bound at the left hand edge with muslin. All of the sheets had the same poem printed on them. Each sheet was cut through the poem, each successive sheet cut with a wobbly line vertically through the text. One opened the book by removing the right hand piece … this revealed the poem again. Each removed page revealed the poem anew until at the end one was left with a contoured cliff-face of paper at the left and a pile of discards on the right. The poem – the book DNA – was Baudelaire’s celebrated sonnet Correspondences. This is a poem that fuses the archaic and modern through a pagan/pastoral image. Its sestet poins to the extremes of stimuli – ‘perfumes’ as Baudelaire would have them – which set off associations. These are the ‘correspondences’ that all poets strive for. It is an appeal to that which is hidden, essential, underneath (the poem suggests that the senses have this purity of access) and Poulton’s book emphasised this through the action of removal, the slight difference of each reading, the process of uncovering a text by taking of it away – literally.
Looking at this kind of work, one could imagine turning a folio, only to find the word ‘craft’ embossed on the left hand side and ‘art’ photocopied on the right side. It’s an issue that was palpable in the Canberran work at a detailed level, and there at a symbolic on in the German work.
Most of the German work was conceived as a sculpture, as an object which could be seen by many people at the same time. Making such a work would confront the artist with problems of construction, stability and image. This is a generalisation: works such as Antje Mobius’ Ishtar’s Journey Through the Nether World, an accordion-fold work was meant to be handled, while the minimalist steel Klangbuch was intended to be played. But in the Canberran work this was the case with just about every book. Frustratingly, in the Monash Studios, most of it was behind glass, denying the haptic qualities of the work. At the same time, the Canberran work also made it clear that with the addition of the problems of handling, book art becomes an extremely difficult undertaking. The pile, the hinge, and the symmetry have to withstand dynamic loading, grubby fingers, accidents and ad hoc storage. It means that more attention has to be paid to construction, to materials, yes, to craft. These problems are often avoided by ‘art’ artist’s book-makers, but always surface with a vengeance. If the artist won’t supply the ‘construction’, the curator must. The artist’s pure statement will be covered in tissue, stored in a solander and exhibited in a Perspex air-conditioned case.
Such is the hinge between art and craft at a pragmatic level. But there is a further level to this issue in the case of books. Hybrid as it is, the book is a spatial object. It narrates time by slicing up space into bits and stacking them. A book is frozen time. Using the book releases that time by fanning it out into space. In this way, the book artist is a sculptor and the effortless making of sculpture in the German work was a confirmation of this. So was the undercurrent of frozen time and the images of unfolded narrative which ran through both exhibitions.
The book has also, since Gutenberg, been associated with reproduction: the multiplication of the identical object. In this way the book is a fellow conspirator of the photograph, the cast of sculpture and – finally – the print. This condition of identicality was handled differently in the German work and the Canberran work. Whilst the German works were conspicuously one-off, with the multiple identity of books present as an unstated given (but there as a sign of the work’s relevance to everyone, to society at large, because ‘print run’ denotes ‘people’), in the Canberran work this issue was subsumed by the use of ‘print’ as a syntax, as a language offering some resistance to expression. The Canberran work showed how print processes could be used as tools in the same manner as one might use a crayon or a chisel. Under these conditions, the book offers a creative way out of the dilemma of identicality and reproduction while still being anchored to ‘print’. Gary Poulton’s Correspondences need only exist as ‘one copy’ but that one copy requires a print run of the poem to build up its pile of sheets.