From the artist book to books as artworks, Susan Johanknecht looks back at an exhibition of works that challenged viewers' assumptions about the book.
A book is not a case of words, nor a bag of words, nor a bearer of words.
‘BookMare’, which I curated with Finlay Taylor at Camberwell Space in July 2012, comprised an exhibition, performance, talks and discussions exploring how artists have used books as concepts and components in their practice, often causing disquiet. Here books were not primarily carriers of information; their pages were locked in vitrines, eaten, blown or flashed by at speed. Some books had no text at all, which shifted attention to the artefact itself.
In the exhibition entrance, displayed inside a case, were books from the Chelsea College of Art & Design Library chosen by Gustavo Montero-Grandal. Inside the case lay a double-page spread of swooning engraved women from Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de bonté, ou, les sept élements, Capitaux (1934): surreal collages of images appropriated from scientific journals, a study of hysteria called Iconographie de la Salpêtrière, mail-order catalogues and natural history illustrations. Beside this, made fifty years later, was Denise Hawrysio’s iconic fur-paged book Killing 1988 – the leopard skin version. The visitor could see the back cover, by Marcel Duchamp, of the New York surrealist journal VVV (1943), cut in the shape of a woman’s profile with a piece of chicken-wire inserted across the opening. Standing upright was George Maciunas’s Flux Paper Events (1976), revealing blank pages that had been folded, crushed, stained, torn or stapled. A punched hole went through the whole book and one corner was cut off.
Hung on the wall was Kate Scrivener’s painting If Tomorrow Were Not an Endless Journey 2002,which was made originally for Sir John Soane’s angled writing desk at Pitzhanger Manor. Tiny painted writing formed a book-like image, giving the impression of sensuous page-swell and central gutter. Moving very close, the viewer could read found sentences concerning landscapes and the weather, painted in greens, blues, yellows and browns. To the left of the ‘gutter’ words read backwards. The sentences, with unjustified frayed edges, seemed to pull in both directions recto and verso. The gutter gave the appearance of sucking text in, of quantities of information moving into itself. The viewer’s reading processes were thus being disturbed and questioned.
Also on display was Mark Harris’s Continuous Defence 2012, an arch constructed especially for ‘BookMare’ from scores of triangles cut from old book covers, glued and overlaid. The arch, a structural innovation that enabled weight-bearing architecture to evolve ‘supporting civilization’, here serves as a useful metaphor for the book, supporting the retention and distribution of knowledge. The cut covers were from books discarded by Kingston University Library – their innards previously utilised by students. Harris was keen that no parts of the book ‘carcass’ were wasted. Past the ragged archway a long shelf-unit held Arnaud Desjardin’s Works from Stack 655 (Camberwell College of Arts Library) 2012. These were battered, functioning books to handle and read, ‘work horses of the “BookMare”’ Desjardin called them; twenty-four books culled from stack 655 in the library that cumulatively presented a snapshot of the college’s long-standing engagement with the book as well as the wider culture of book history. They encompassed production, binding, design, archiving, conservation, becoming what Clive Phillpot named a ‘three-dimensional bibliography’ (see appendix).
The Gefn Press’s Cunning Chapters 2007, which I curated with Katharine Meynell, spilled from another wall in the gallery. Here, thirteen artists considered the ephemeral and materially unstable in chapters linked by ideological concerns of ‘well-madeness’, loss and conservation in the production of artwork. The chapters used various papers and technologies including newsprint, Offenbach bible paper, buried and excavated sheets encrusted with dirt, delicate insect-eaten cartridge and fold-outs unmanageable and unruly in different sized pages, all united by a Coptic binding. These chapters – giving evidence of wear and tear, use and time – were placed on an angled shelf for readers to handle.
A second case of works from the Chelsea College of Art & Design Special Collection presented processes of deletion and loss. Marcel Broodthaer’s Un Coup de dès jamais n’abolira le hazard (1969), an iconic transcription of Stéphane Mallarmé’s seminal non-linear poem fused into lines of black bars across white pages. Here again, the viewer’s reading processes were interrupted. Beside it, propped upright, was Klaus Scherubel’s Mallarmé: The Book (2004), a solid book-block of styrofoam representing Mallarmé’s unrealised project Le Livre (The Book), which he envisaged as the sum of all books. Also in the case was Kendell Geers’s Point Blank (2003), where seven bullets were shot into a blank book; the cover, with holes and the residue of gunpowder, is a visual record of this event, shocking yet aesthetically restrained. Finally, Denise Hawrysio’s book Cut-Outs (1993), an actors’ casting book with the faces removed leaving layers of face-shapes visible down through the pages, was a lacy ghost-filled directory with its original function lost. In all these works, through reworking and alteration, notions of authorship are called into question.
In the next vitrine Damien Hirst’s extravagant pop-up book I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life Everywhere With Everyone, One To One, Always, Forever, Now (1997) was appropriately inaccessible alongside Helen Chadwick’s elegantly produced Et in Arcadia (1995), presenting a large cockroach etched onto a heavy marble tablet, inked but not printed and housed in a leather-bound box.
Along the walls, tied to nails, were Les Bicknell’s Smocking is Evil (2012), folded and sewn book works; beige, white, flecked grey, tense with folds, they evoked the hidden. Their forms referenced complex glyphs or very large bats, with dark threads dangling. They were placed huddled in corners and up the walls in little groupings – one positioned high by a door-opening mechanism, perhaps not noticed. Bicknell also designed the accompanying ‘BookMare’ publication as a single sheet, folded and slit to become a complex structure, the uncanny physical ‘bookness’ of two dimensions becoming three – surface and depth at the same time.
The opening of ‘BookMare’ featured Pupa Press, Landscapist (An Opening Event) 2009, a pop-up occurrence reminiscent of Bob Cobbing’s sudden performances at London book fairs. Eight performers mingled with guests at the private view. Without warning each unfolded a book to arm-span, paused, and turned. The body-scale books quivered open for a moment like butterflies, then at a signal, were refolded into their manila covers. The gridded folds referenced maps and integrated into the briefly glimpsed landscape imagery of tarns, sheds, hillsides, ponds and clouds. There was just this one moment of revealing, as no evidence of the event was retained in the exhibition.
At the back of Camberwell Space, two flipbooks sat on a small shelf, James Keith’s Snow and Dust, both 2011. When activated/flipped, multi-coloured dust flecks or snow flakes gave the illusion of hovering above each book, conjuring the dust of old books or the freshness of snowfall, and imparting a sense of daydreaming or the private reverie experienced when watching snow or dust in the air. On the wall, George Eksts’s Age of Mammals (2011) presented a book left out in the landscape in a looped video of blowing pages. Wall-hung to picture height, the framed flat-screen monitor evoked seventeenth-century vanitas still-life paintings. This work was produced digitally to have a filmic feel, sharp focus with a shallow depth of field. It was possible to read phrases fleetingly such as: ‘there comes a break in the record of Rocks’, ‘the cold has killed them’, ‘these traces are not bones’. The book pages continually flopped back to the same chapter, stuck in the age of mammals.
Attached to a plinth was Finlay Taylor’s East Dulwich Dictionary (2007), a dictionary that had been left out on the ground for months to be eaten by slugs, worms, snails and woodlice, with leaves, dirt, twigs and animal droppings now embedded into its surface. The dictionary, a material object that names the world, was thus brought into tension with the (named) animals that consumed it as food. Tunnelled with eating trails, a few tiny fragments of its text remained – ‘tempt/to fail to/up a resist/expos’ – like bits of poetry gleaned from an archive, the uneaten depths of the dictionary. This work lightly referenced John Latham’s Still & Chew book-consuming event of 1966.
Beyond East Dulwich Dictionary and projected into an alcove was Latham’s Encyclopedia Britannica 1971, a film of the entire encyclopedia laboriously created by hand turning and filming each page. It was a filmmaking event/performance with all the slippages and over-exposures included, quickly jumping from page to page, sometimes the light hurting one’s eyes or the speed and flicker making one feel seasick; an unknowable mass of information punctuated with sudden indecipherable illustrations. Claire Louise Staunton, the curator of Flat Time House, Latham’s former studio home in south London, mentioned Latham’s discussion of this work as a ‘non-moving film’ with the stop-frame images becoming a film through sequence and time. She also spoke of Latham seeing the book as an ‘everyday object’ and as an event, shifting the literary into physical form (a thing). The façade of Flat Time House is penetrated by a giant book construction pushed midway through the window glass (screen) to be part inside, part outside. Taking the Encyclopedia Britannica as evidence of achievement and knowledge, and with the loss of the readable through speed, Latham’s film from 1971 re-materialises the book into movement, time and light – prefiguring Google’s mass book-scanning and the internet itself.
Susan Johanknecht is Subject Leader, MA Book Arts, Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts, London.
The Transforming Artist Books research network held a series of workshops in 2012 to discuss the potential of the digital to change the understanding, appreciation and care of artist books.