The System of Landor’s Cottage. A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story is a fourteen-chapter, 312-page artist’s book. The front cover displays the main title, the artist’s first initial and last name, the publishers’ names (Yves Gevaert, Brussels, and The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto) and the date of publication within a double border on a green background set in white. The subtitle appears above the border. All the text is in upper case, but larger letters call attention to the words: ‘THE SYSTEM’. The book was printed in Wetteren, Belgium, by Cultura. It was produced in an edition of 250 copies of which Tate’s is number ninety-seven.
Graham is a Canadian conceptual artist, a member of the loose grouping of contemporary artists working in Vancouver that has become known as the Vancouver School. His works appropriate material from a diverse range of books, poems and music, including novels by Herman Melville (1819–91) and Ian Fleming (1908–64), the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98), and music by Richard Wagner (1813–83), as well as contemporary rock. In The System of Landor’s Cottage, Graham uses a short story called Landor’s Cottage, the final work of the American mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49), published in the year of his death. Landor’s Cottage describes an idyllic house that the narrator stumbles upon on a country walk. Poe was inspired in this account by his final home, a farmhouse in New York State (now part of the Bronx) where he took up residence in 1846. The house has become a museum dedicated to Poe. In 1846 he wrote a short narrative called The Domain of Arnheim, about the creation of a beautiful garden; he subtitled Landor’s Cottage ‘A Pendant to The Domain of Arnheim’.
The theme of the literary pendant or extension, suggested by Poe’s subtitle, is central to Graham’s concept in The System of Landor’s Cottage. He presents the work as a pendant to Poe’s original and extends the first story with a lengthy description of an annexe to the house described by Poe. The architectural extension is a metaphor for the literary supplement. This addition is inserted into the original narrative rather than following at the end, and is so much longer than the first story that it threatens to overwhelm it. Graham has explained:
[I]nterrupting the narrative, I have taken over Poe’s first-person narrator’s voice and his viewpoint, describing in this voice and from this viewpoint a small room which houses a machine ... highly complex and of no apparent rational function, a machine which seems ‘out of place’ and which calls for an explanation. The explanation is subsequently provided by Mr Landor himself, the owner of the house and the narrator’s host who undertakes to describe the origin and history of the annex. The main body of my novel is taken up with Mr Landor’s account of the components of the annex-machine, and the relation of the apparatus to the cottage as a whole.
(Quoted in Rodney Graham, 1988, p.40.)
For The System of Landor’s Cottage, Graham was inspired by the novels of the French writer Raymond Roussel (1877–1933), whose complex texts, which play with systems of language, were favoured by the surrealists. Graham’s narrative extends Poe’s with a series of stories within stories in the spirit of Roussel (Russell Ferguson, ‘«French Novelist»’ in Rodney Graham, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 2002, p.59). The artist has explained: ‘I have tried to make (my) text from pre-fabricated textual elements, and through a kind of ready-made rhetorical style – somewhat flat and rigid – with the hope that by means of a stress on grammatical and rhetorical “rigor” I might erect a hollow structure in the shape of a novel out of sentences of maximum structural integrity’ (quoted in Rodney Graham, 1988, p.7).
The first version of the cover for The System of Landor’s Cottage, which Graham made in 1986, was significantly different from this version. Printed on cream paper, it featured on the back a plan of Poe’s house with the imaginary annexe added (reproduced in Meschede and Gevaert, p.25). For the cover of the 1987 version, the artist drew closely on a nineteenth-century book design associated with the French publishers Hachette by using the same layout and typefaces and a near identical tone of green for the background. The drawing of a wooden bridge over a stream on the back cover of T11929, representing a feature at the back of Landor’s house, is by the Canadian conceptual photographic artist Jeff Wall (born 1946), a friend of Graham’s. When Graham exhibited The System of Landor’s Cottage at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, in 1987, he displayed it with a scale model of the cottage as it is described by Poe, commissioned from a professional model-maker (reproduced in Meschede and Gevaert, p.23). His annexe, the artist has explained, ‘exists only in the form of a text [that] may be imagined as situated at the rear of Poe’s house’ (quoted in Rodney Graham, 1988, p.40).
In two related works, Graham plays on themes of extension and repetition. Le Système du Cottage Landor 1998 (T11938) is a French translation of The System of Landor’s Cottage. Vathek* 1998 (T11939) is also the French translation of the book but with a cover invoking the Gothic story Vathek by William Beckford (1760–1844), which is quoted in Poe’s Landor’s Cottage and in Graham’s supplement to it. The artist also produced The System of Landor’s Cottage as a limited edition of four copies bound in black Moroccan leather and presented in a leather slipcase.
Rodney Graham, exhibition catalogue, Vancouver Art Gallery, 1988, reproduced p.25.
Dorothea Zwirner, Rodney Graham, Cologne 2004.
Friedrich Meschede and Yves Gevaert (eds), Rodney Graham. Through the Forest, exhibition catalogue, Museu d’Art Contemporani, Barcelona 2010.