FREEING THE BOOK
"The Book - a traditional object, which nevertheless is capable of the most contemporary adaptation, yet retains an aesthetic dimension"
- Mabel Kaufmann, The Book as Art and Idea
"(...) one of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the marketplace and bought it to give it its freedom..." - Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
As a child I would sit with my grandfather for hours in what I used to call his 'book room.' That is where I learned to love the smell of books. I was taught not to fold over, or 'dog-ear' the pages of books to mark the page I stopped reading at, and discovered with fascination that silver fish could make the most beautiful patterns of tiny holes that sunk deepinto the pages of a book. I learned the posture of reading old school: to sit upright, to hold the spine of a book and to slip my index finger under the page in readiness to turn over. Already, for my grandfather, and through him, for me - the book was art, with its accompanying practice, mode of engagement and embodied experience.
Perhaps that is why when Walter Benjamin writes of the collector of books unpacking his library, and he speaks of an accompanying mood that is not elegiac, rather that of anticipation, it feels almost as if he picked the most apt word to describe the sensory experience of confronting a book. This sense of anticipation, I feel,isthe mood to be carried onintoexperiencing the book as contemporary art.
Art historian and critic Johanna Drucker is quoted to have referred to book art as "the quintessential 20th century art form." The book as a form of artistic expression has been a part of evolutionary moments of contemporary art from Russian futurism to feminist art to conceptual art and performance art, and the number of artists using books as a medium in art is increasing. And yet, book art remains more on the peripheries of contemporary art institutions, communities, practice and audiences - especially in the Asian region.
The premise of this essay is thus to consider the contemporary art positioning, and the many interpretations, of the book as an art object and its cultural and political agency. It seeks to find ways of understanding book art, and explore paradigms of reading, and interpreting work produced in this context. While the delineation of the book as art object is contextualised within a more global discussion - the project here is to extend the thinking to contemporary exhibition curation and exhibition making in the South Asian Region, bringing into focus the philosophy of the 'Reading Room.'
Inside the 'Reading Room'
In its articulation, the 'Reading Room' engages the idea of an active, working studio (invoking book art histories in antecedent bookmaking practices - papermaking, illustration, binding and printing); it also evokes the inherently multi sensory, experiential dynamic of the book. The notion of the 'Reading Room' focuses the approach to the exhibition as one that considers the specific history of 'reading practice' associated with the book, its materiality, its proximity to everyday life and its suggestion of a kind of intimacy. It even goes so far as to suggest interaction, thus articulating - in the invitation to participate in art - a democratising principle.
Jules Prown recommends that, in art contexts, when objects are not available for physical investigation, perceptions regarding sensory aspects "must be done imaginatively and empathetically." This is important, she notes, because in most cases, books in exhibitions are often placed behind glass to protect them from damage that might occur from handling (in Burkhart, 2006, p.263). And so, in the 'Reading Room,' the possibility of 'handling' the work becomes a politic engaged with. This is only scratching at the surface of the site of resistance (which will be discussed in more detail later) that is the book in art.
Existence Renewed: The Book in Art
In his essay "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting," Walter Benjamin discusses the book from the perspective of the collector. He frames two interesting perspectives that can be drawn into an exploration of the practice of book art brought into discussion in this essay. First, his approach to 'ownership,' and second his expression of the 'renewal of existence.'
What is interesting to note is that Benjamin sees 'ownership' as one of the most intimate relationships that one can have with objects. Ownership, or perhaps more accurately,'possession,' is the expression of a 'relationship' that exists between collector and object, "which does not emphasize their functional utilitarian value - that is, their usefulness - but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate" (1969, p.60). Taken into account in a consideration of book art,this is in a sense, an act of 'freeing the book,' in that it is given an expressive power beyond the traditional approach tothe book. The book is given a new frame of reference by the artist. And, the invitation is to 'read' differently.
Benjamin goes on to suggest that for a 'true collector,' acquisition is the rebirth of a book.He also speaks of the element of the 'childlike' in this respect -
(...) For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways. Among children, collecting is only one process of renewal; other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals - the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names. To renew the old world - that is the collector's deepest desire (p.61).
This metaphor of a child's treasury contextualises the idea of the 'renewal of existence.'It, in effect, speaks of the possibility of reimagining the object -discussed in the hands of the child, but can be extended to acknowledge the premise of existence renewed for the book by the artist.
Defining the Artists' Book
The 'artists' book' functions as an art object; the term itself refers to works of art realised in the form of a book. Claire Bernstein describes artists' books as "radical extenders of form rather than neutral vessels," which results in "a vision of books as laboratories for the invention and performance of perceptual systems: new worlds carved out of the wilderness of human thought and language"(in Burkhart, 2006, p.249).
Artists' books are typically understood as different from finely crafted books that demonstrate technical mastery; more often than not, the artists' book finds its most profound expression as the artists' sketchbook. Loosely framed, an artists' book is a work of art in its own right, conceived specifically for the book form (Lippard as cited in Burkhart, 2006, p.249). A point to note within the artists' book dialogue is that in the understanding of, and approach to the artists' book, the book form itself is intrinsic to the aesthetic of the work.
Clive Phillpot (1998) - the former director of the Museum of Modern Art Library - applies the phrase Mongrel Nature to the artists' book, explaining that they are "distinguished by the fact that they sit provocatively at the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together" (p.33). What is interesting about the phrase is that it, for one, brings into focus the many differenthistories of the artists' book. It also makes evident the fact that the artists' book works against a single definition. There is, thus, no consensus on the definition of the artists' book, nor is there "a single form, production method, or conceptual framework that embodies what an artists' book is" (Burkhart, 2006, p.249). Consulting different sources indicate, however, that there are some fundamental parametres in place to approaching, engaging with and critically evaluating the artists' book as art practice.
The Book as an Art Object
It becomes evident then that the evolution of the book as an art object communicates a massive diversity in form, approach, content and style that can be found within this medium - and, in a sense, there is an emerging conceptual sense of how to consider, interpret, understand and critique the art form. Some critics (especially in art education contexts) offer categories that function as conceptual tools to better understand the collection of objects called the artists' book, and to convey the wide variation that exists within this context. These categories, advanced within the specific definition of the artists' book, can be extended to frame an approach to decoding the ways in which books function as an object that is "artistically engaging" and "culturally relevant" (Burkhart, 2006, p.254). The categories of reading, which are adapted from Burkhart's exposition of a suggested scope for interpretation, include: The book in its auratic nature, textual innovation, conventions, appropriations, performative qualities, narrative, assemblage, documentation, 'democratic multiple,' activism and digitization (pp. 253-260).
Fig. 1 - Banoo Batliboi (India), Deco Zig Zag, Book Sculpture
Some books emanate a powerful aura because of their physical presence, and some artistic works emphasize this 'auratic' nature. With such work, meaning is conveyed sometimes through symbolic association that could depend on the history or the form of the book.Instances of 'textual innovation' can be read in books that optimize the expressive potential of words on a page; this is different from narrative, which will be discussed later. Engagement with structural aspects of the book can be considered under the category of 'conventions' - in addition to books that play with literary conventions, including expectations regarding image and text relationships. Some artists use 'appropriations,' to alter books in varying degrees, from simple highlighting to manipulating it until it is completely transformed. Methods of this kind of alteration include printing, cutting painting, masking, folding, shaping, layering and collaging(for example, see Fig.1).
Traditionally, the book has occupied a space as an instructive authority, and in some instances, the artistic engagement is with the element of directing action to create a more active role for the spectator; therein lives the 'performative' aspect of work. The 'narrative'(for example, see Fig.2)is the most pervasive aspect of the book genres - it is the form and voice of expression that can be read through the said, the unsaid and the suggested of a text. Book artists tend to experiment with narrative structures as artistic comment, record or personal story. An 'assemblage'(for example, see Fig.3)is a compilation, which brings into either a two- or three-dimensional structure artwork, non-traditional artistic materials, objects, even found objects - creating a kind of artefact that can be read through its layering.
Book art that can be read as 'documentatio' draws onjournals and diaries - in some ways it is also a product of a modern art world in its close relationship with the documentary. The 'democratic multiple' stands in direct opposition to tome-like books that indicate the processes of hand production. It is the renegade book, in that it is a mass-produced object created for life in the realm of the public, its status lying in its existence on the margins of mainstream art contexts and institutions.
Fig. 2 - Zach Stenson (USA), Elementary Astronomy, Dryfire Press
Fig. 3 - Samit Das (India), Vibrations andSilence4, Cardboard Egg Box and Paper, Hand stitched
Artists have long understood the place, and role of the arts in societies of upheaval - some book artists too are inheritor's of this legacy and create work with 'activist' agendas (for example, see Fig.4&5)that focus on generating meaningful social reflection, and action. Although many book artists are working with 'digitization' processes(for example, see Fig.6), one the most exciting new modes of engagement in contemporary art contexts, the material book has not yet disappeared. In an age where technology has changed how we read, however, considering how processes of digitization will intervene in a book art practice will be the next stage of inquiry.
These eleven frameworks only hint at the massive range of artistic experimentation possible, and exploredwithin the book form in contemporary art. This range (as can be understood through the frameworks described) is indicative of the fact that the contemporary book art praxis, especially because of its multi sensory and experientialdynamic moves the culture of spectatorship beyond the limitation of considering visual aspects of work to taking into account the book in art as a visually based cultural site.
Fig. 4 - Kingsley Gunatillake (Sri Lanka), Bullet Book, Book, Cartridges
Fig. 5 - Deng Yifu (China), Diplomatic History (Y1145-Gun), Book, Perspex, Screws
Fig. 6 - Sathyanand Mohan (India), Chronicle, Set of 16 Photos
Resistance is an interesting perspective to adopt when delving into the artistic, political and conceptual aspects of book art created and curated in the global South. Ranjit Hoskote defines 'Resistance' as a condition of the global South in his delineation of the 'biennales of resistance.'In "The Shapeshifting Trajectory of The Biennale," he discusses the shifting geography of the biennale from the traditional centres of biennale activity situated in West Europe to the global South - in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He notes, with the Sao Paulo Biennale (founded in 1951), the significance of the act of 'participation' in the "supposedly cosmopolitan, though essentially Euro-American ambit of international art." Already, there is a formulation of a dynamic of resistance - the shift away from traditional centres, and the aspect of meaningful participation (in effect a democratic principle) in the international art domain.
The first place of 'resistance' in Hoskote's articulation is the imagining and mapping of the global contemporary - from a different axis. Secondly, where the politic is of emergence itself, the art context becomes that of collective witness, remembrance and resistance. The 'Reading Room,' in its curation and its collection, 'imagines and maps' a global contemporary position of the book conceived from an axis of difference.While the work is sometimes fantastical and playful, and sometimes emotive and intimate, at its most activist, it stands as a collective statement on dominant politics and ideologies. It is work that reminds us that the resistive power of the book art form is both possible and significant, and in the consideration of such work, critical and evocative.And, as the artist, in many ways, works as an interpreter of the book, so will the viewer of the work.
- Ruhanie Perera
Benjamin, Walter (1969). Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting. In Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations (pp.59-67). (Harry Zohn, Trans.) New York: Schocken Books
Burkhart, Anne L. (2006). "Mongrel Nature:" A Consideration of Artists' and their Implications for Art Education. Studies in Art Education, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Spring) 248-268. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25475784
Hoskote, Ranjit (2012). The Shapeshifting Trajectory of the Biennale. TAKE on art (Biennale Foundation Special Edition). Retrieved from http://www.biennialfoundation.org/2012/05/biennial-foundation-participating-in-round-table-discussion-in-take-biennale-guest-edited-by-ranjit-hoskote/
Phillpot, C. (1998). Books by artists and books as art. In C. Lauf & C. Philpot (Eds.),Artists/Author: Contemporary artists' books (pp.30-55). New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.