Alex Selenitsch, Across the Imagination, 1991

Catalogue Title: Exhibition of Books and Boats
Artists: Jay Arthur, Alexander Hamilton, Petr Herel, Paul Uhlmann.
Essay Title: Across the Imagination
Author: Alex Selenitsch
Date: June 1991.
Venue/Publication: State Library of Victoria, 13 July – 25 August 1991
All rights reserved by the author.

The modern book is as elusive as air: all around us but invisible and considered as itself only when it blows too strongly. When we read a modern book we have to ignore it so as to grasp the ideas carried by the words. Yet when we are confronted by books made of bamboo slats or folds of rice paper, with indecipherable patterns on them, our awareness of their physicality is heightened and this gives us pleasure. Is it because we don’t understand the ‘writing’ on them? If so, why do we need to separate the ‘writing’ from the ‘book’? Why can’t we have both?

We can have both, of course. The books in this exhibition show how it can be done. Broadly speaking, they exploit a continuum of words and pictures through the description of images ­– Ut Pictura Poesis. But instead of one following the other, the words and pictures in these books follow the imagination and its ability to give birth to visible novelty. Books conceived in this manner can begin with pictures or words or both, but invariably avoid the banality of illustrated texts or pictures with captions. At their best such books become multivalent packets of images.

The ‘book’ can also begin with the page, or slip-case – or sheet of glass or match-box. In between the single item and the container of the set of items, there is the fact that a book cuts up any narrative into discrete bits. A book is always digital and this sets up a field of questions for the book-maker: does one page = one image? What kind of order or disorder? Does a printed sheet correspond to a page or can it be many pages at once scattered through the book’s sequence? How can one make all this not evident but expressive?

If there is anything at odds with the narrative it is the STANDARD MODERN BOOK. Like grids on a map and their real absence from the ground, and more so the sea, the standard book’s substance is unrelated to the matter it presents. No wonder we spend years learning to read, learning to ignore the paper and print, the covers and the spine. Remember the scene in Fahrenheit 451 when Oskar Wemer begins to read again? He takes us through the imprint page. How childish! How naïve. As if a book’s production could be part of the story. Of course it is part of the story and we ignore this fact to our disadvantage.

Not only is there an iconography of ideas, but there is one related to perception – to looking and reading – and to producing. It is no coincidence that the books in this exhibition arise from a study of printing processes that have been given up by the ‘popular press’. These processes are more like rituals than recipes. The procedures of etching and engraving for instance, are subtle and elemental. They are also expressive because the artist is on hand at all stages of the process to catch the breeze, to take advantage of the moment.

At the same time, these READ books have kept their links with the beginnings of book culture. Book is derived from beech which in turn refers to beechwood sticks covered in runes. The prefix biblio comes from the port of Byblos which used to send papyrus out to the Mediterranean Basin. Note the materiality of these etymologies and also the links of the trade, with exchange. Note too, the shifts from liquid to solid (from the imagination to its representation in words, pictures and things), the movement from wet to dry. The relationship continues in the way we make our paper, and in the way we print.

There is subtlety in a sailing boat which is not available to a tramp steamer. The latter can ignore much of the sea, the former less so and hence needs its subtlety. Nowadays, sail is out of the hands of commerce and subject to the tides of the imagination. Further, for all of their primitive associations, sails are now attached to the high-tech meta-boats engaged in a display of technical brilliance. The books in this exhibition are similar. They sail across the imagination. They are solid and liquid, tangible craft with brilliance in their wake.


About the author

Alex Selenitsch graduated as an architect in 1969, and has worked as an architect and urban designer in public and private practices in Australia and England, with long stretches as a sole practitioner in Melbourne. He has taught architectural design, theory and history at Deakin University, RMIT and the University of Melbourne. He was awarded a PhD by The University of Melbourne in 2008 for his thesis Sets, Series and Suites: composing the multiple artwork. He currently teaches in Architectural Design.

His creative practice ranges from literature and graphics to sculpture, furniture and architecture. His concrete poems were the first of the genre to be published in Australia, and he continues to research and publish the aesthetic possibilities of a spatial literature. His creative practice exploits the creative interaction of pre-set systems and conditions against improvisation and intuitive processes. He exhibits this work nationally, and examples are held in various national and state public collections. He is represented by grahame galleries + editions, Brisbane, and Place Gallery, Melbourne. He also writes essays and reviews of art, craft and design for professional publications.