The Impact 8 printmaking conference, hosted by The University of Dundee in Scotland in 2013, was themed ‘Borders and Crossings: The Artist as Explorer’. Sarah Bowen attended and spoke about the Book Art Object project.
My own journey into the world of artists’ books started as a way to add something to my work. I trained as a printmaker and I love printmaking, but I have found myself frustrated by the “flatland” of a two-dimensional work hung on a wall.
Already I am presupposing the existence of a dialogue between two poles: the piece of art and the viewer, and I’m assuming a relationship whereby some sort of dialogue between the two is possible, and that this conversation allows some sort of understanding to arise within the viewer about the purpose, meaning and message of the piece of art… so in a sense, as well as being an exploration of how a viewer might encounter artists’ books as pieces of art that exist off the wall, this talk is also an exploration of my own conversations with artists’ books and why I am passionate about them.
I have to start with a question about something that forms the basis of my relationship with artists’ books. The question is: how do I interact with art? I want to examine how I interact with other art forms before coming back to the subject of artists’ books.
An equation persists that the ability to ‘read’ an art work relies on education and an initiation into the protocols of fine art. Critics such as Michael Fried make intense moral claims for art, alleging that the enterprise of making art is doomed to failure without uncommon powers of moral and intellectual discrimination. Art for art’s sake transcends the ‘accidents’ of the conditions in which it is viewed, allowing the educated viewer to maintain a condition of self-sufficiency that permits an undivided experience of art. Without that aesthetic autonomy art descends into a compromised state that Fried calls ‘theatrical’.
I find myself thinking like this when I visit some galleries: as soon as a frame is put around a work and it is hung on a white wall, some part of myself is distanced from what I see and I find myself asking mostly intellectual questions – unable to travel across the discontinuity created by the literal and metaphorical framing of the work. The closest I am often able to come to the work I am viewing is achieved by appropriating the image through transcribing it into my notebook with my pen (or pencil, depending on how strict the gallery’s viewing conditions are!) and later finding a seat and contemplating my jottings to work out how I feel about what I’ve seen.
This process becomes much harder in the blockbuster show, where the gallery or museum allows only few seconds of regard for each static work in the budget and the viewer is herded through the familiar environment of the large institutional space, accompanied by a tape recording that structures the viewing experience. The whole package seems to assert a control of the viewer in terms of time, space and resources, rendering the entire viewing experience as a series of fleeting vignettes mediated by the spoken commentary.
This is, of course, part of a huge conversation about the changing place of the audience in art history, of which I have barely scratched the surface. I bring to my work my particular prejudices and incomplete education, and a presupposition that in my world and my experience of art, an art work is a necessarily coded text that is uniquely decoded by the viewer, so the viewer must be someone who participates in or is at least willing to attempt a process of decoding the work. For me, artists’ books fit well within this definition but exist in an intimate and personal space, even when situated within the larger, encoded envelope of the gallery.
In this context I’d like to tell you about BookArtObject, the collective I set up in 2009. From its first project with 8 participants it has grown to an international group with over 80 artists in 16 countries, some of whom are attending Impact 8, working on its fourth project which just happens to be based on Sarah Bodman’s artists’ book, An Exercise for Kurt Johannessen. Those of you who have read about Sarah’s work on the Centre for Fine Print Research’s website at the University of the West of England will know that Sarah herself participated in the acquisition of meaning in undertaking tasks set by Kurt Johannessen in his 1994 book Exercises. In particular, Sarah followed Johannessen’s instructions to write 100 stories and bury them in a forest. The act of burial is documented and the story titles are preserved, but the tales themselves are disintegrating in the forest and leave few clues – as such, they were a fantastic opener for BookArtObject members to appropriate Sarah’s titles and reinterpret them, decoding and recoding them in the process.
I’ve chosen some of the Edition Four An Exercise for Kurt Johannessen books to share with you today, and I’d like to start with Jack Oudyn’s Transparent. All the book titles are selected from the 100 titles Sarah gave to her stories, and Transparent was title number 85.
Jack Oudyn, Transparent. BAO title no.#85. Edition no. 2/13. 11.5cm wide x 14.5cm tall. Waxed 245gsm Stonehenge paper; transparent drafting paper; wax crayons; waxed thread; oriental binding.
Jack is an artist based in Redland, on the coast East of Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. An artist and educator for most of his life, the majority of his work is non-figurative and non-representational. He tries to describe abstract relationships with places and how he feels about them, forming a conversation between tiny collaged fragments collected in his travels and what he calls “memory mining”. Transparent is part of a more personal, narrative body of work that draws from the complexities of personal experience. He describes these works as bridges or connectors, forming links with experiences and memories from other parts of his life.
Transparent is an A5 book, a series of separate leaves in an oriental binding. Jack describes the drawings on each page as being ‘about the different aspects, the sum of many individual bits that keep changing continually and are impossible to pin down – a shifting, impermanent persona”. The covers of the book have been dipped in wax and are all slightly different, which “hints at how we all rub up against the world and are affected differently”. “The misty writing on the interleaving transparent pages is about some of the problems of being transparent but is not meant to be read in a consecutive, sequential, rational way. This would imply that the unravelling process is easy and well understood. Rather the pages are meant to give confusing hints and glimpses of possible meanings”. That “unravelling” mentioned suggests the decoding process enacted by the viewer who holds the book, and it is interesting to read the comments that accompany Jack’s explication on the BookArtObject collective’s blog:
I’m afraid I’ll wear off all the little scratchings on the cover as I just want to keep rubbing my fingers over the wax
With your objective of becoming willingly transparent you thin the skin and suggest vulnerability
Nowhere on the blog does Jack mention his intention, which was to “promote understanding by being transparent”.
Caren Florance, It’s Raining/Stilled Lives. BAO title nos. #58 and #12. Edition no. 3/26. 7.8cm wide x 24.5cm tall. Canson paper cover; pamphlet binding; two books in one cover; digital printing, letterpress and blind embossing.
The second work I’ve chosen is Caren Florance’s double-title: It’s Raining/Stilled Lives, which are story titles 12 and 58. The presentation is almost the exact opposite of Jack Oudyn’s book: two stories instead of one; black and white instead of colour; a long rectangle instead of the golden proportions of A5; opacity instead of translucence, both in the sense of a denser paper letterpress printed and in the density and entwined quality of the two stories.
I read both stories – one a letter, one a recollection – in completely the wrong way, unable to decode the narratives without the key of Caren’s experience to unlock things. Even without the clues, the use of language and the contrasts of black and white, text and image, set up a formal relationship between the different elements of the book that create an internal conversation.
I wanted the stories to be very grey inside a grey issue and I decided that one way to do that was to absolutely highlight as many binaries as I could to frame the story: black and white, sans serif and serif, ink and emboss, hand cut and cast, matrix and fingerprint, hand-applied and printed, first person and third person
The book functions for me as a secret: without the key to knowledge I can’t decode the meaning of the texts, so what becomes personal and meaningful for me in the work consists of vague clues, nudges of memory or echoes of my own experiences through which I build a scaffold that means I can engage with the work. I handle the book with care: the pristine white pages and the precise corners demand that I treat it formally and with respect. I read the words and fail to understand the images but I have no-one to ask and I feel as if I am tip-toeing around a child’s bedroom, afraid of waking a baby… an apt metaphor for a book that deals with loss. Eventually I read Caren’s explication on the BookArtObject blog and realise she has created a deeply personal and intimate work and knowing, I cannot now approach it in the same way. Knowledge of the artist’s intention in creating the book robs it of my own interpretation, but in that iterative conversation I understand more as I interrogate my before and after collaboration with the work.
That internal dialogue interests me further, in that I know Caren had a to- and fro- conversation with herself in making it. She says,
I chose the titles “It’s Raining” and “Stilled Lives” and I held them close in my head for months while I worked on other things, trying to find an inroad that would merge my interests and the book structure ideas I was playing with.
Helen Malone, That Unbearable Lightness. BAO title no. #73. Edition no. 1/15. 12.5cm wide x 9cm tall x 7cm deep. Folded structure with leather cords; inkjet prints of original drawings on 160gsm Fabriano paper.
Helen put her name against not one but three of Sarah’s 100 story titles and is one of the few artists to have delivered everything she said she would deliver – something I cannot say of myself as I still have one to go! This particular book is elegantly housed in a polygonal box that was itself something of an architectural challenge, but its beauty notwithstanding, it is the book inside that is a triumph.
The double-sided structure consists of folded sheets of printed paper, perfect-bound along one edge so that the book folds back against itself and ties together. The resulting piece is sculptural, text-less, reminding me of a spinning top.
In Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being which, one assumes inspired title 73, all of the characters experience feelings of vertigo at some point, which is seen as a moment of weakness. The sculptural structure refers to the physical symptoms of vertigo: spinning, loss of equilibrium and falling over. The use of top and bottom, light and dark, thick and thin echo the ambiguous dualities of the novel: lightness/darkness, weakness/strength, freedom and lack of commitment/the weight of responsibility.
Helen says that in reading the book,
I was [ ] excited to discover a piece about vertigo, not the physical kind but a psychological vertigo suffered by those whose goal is to attain something higher but who are inevitably tempted and lured to fall into the emptiness below.
Sarah Bowen, A Burning Question. Collograph print on 300gsm Somerset Satin etching paper; pop-ups and cover from Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper in black and grey; white card slip box base with Canson Mi-Teintes wrap cover; 80gsm laid writing paper colophon.
I’ve completed one of two titles I chose from Sarah’s list: A Burning Question, a title which suggested to me a chance learn more about Australian bush fires. Coming originally from the UK I find the idea of bush fires terrifying – more terrifying, in fact, than the various poisonous animals I had to come to terms with when I moved there!
I suppose the phrase “a chance to learn more” encapsulates my approach to artists’ books. There is usually a thread of exploration and uncovering in the books I make, which parallels my own inner process of decoding and recoding information.
I read a fascinating book called Forests of Ash: An Environmental History by Tom Griffiths, about the unique mountain ash forests north and east of Melbourne in the state of Victoria which have been burned several times in the last hundred years. In particular, the book examines the life cycles and fire cycles of the forest in the light of differences between the land use practices of indigenous and immigrant Australians. The book is a fairly simple zig-zag book, made from a collograph print constructed from the detritus on the forest floor that provides fuel for the fires, with a cover in the form of a match-box, with a spent match integrated into the cover. Between the pages are blackened, fragile cut-outs of burned trees, burnt-out cars and houses, and toppled power-poles.
Finding the right structure for the book was a drawn-out process. I knew I wanted to use leaf litter as a collograph print for the base of the book and experimented with several structures. I tend to use very low-tech processes to create my books and don’t like to do much in the way of sewing or gluing, so the trick is to use slots and tabs to hold things together. It took several attempts to satisfy me.
In the end I suppose you could describe the finished book as ‘theatrical’: opening the matchbox is a figurative act that encodes the action of the arsonist; turning the pages both hides and reveals vignettes of burnt-out buildings and cars, desiccated trees and parched ground. But for me this artists’ book is also an intimate space that can be approached on a variety of levels: you don’t have to read the colophon with its text taken from Judge L Streeton’s Royal Commission Report into the 1939 bushfires which killed 72 people in order to get a sense of the devastation.
It’s a book that you need to hold in your hand, not see on a plinth; the action of turning the pages and folding up the cut-outs is an integral part of the experience that helps you to make sense of the work. It’s also a book that, in the end, I don’t think I could have made in any other way.
The first thing I love about artists’ books is being able to hold them. In an instant I am in a different position in relation to the work. While I can imagine a painting that might encompass some aspect of my fascination with the Mountain Ash and the ferocity of bush fires, I can’t help but think that the idea of painting what I wanted to express in my book would have been ‘flat’, which may of course say more about my skills as a painter than anything else…
The double inventiveness of content and structure in relation to one another create a liminal space in which a new conversation between them is possible.
About the author
Sara Bowen was born in the UK in 1966 and moved to Australia in 2006. Working mainly using printmaking techniques she investigates concepts of distance and scale, and the visual tricks our eyes play on us. Sara Bowen’s work and working practices can be viewed in more detail on her art blogs: http://doubleelephant.blogspot.com (a general blog about art, with links in the right hand side bar to ‘Photos of my Work’); http://complicities.blogspot.com (a blog about the two mail exchange projects), and http://thedailydrawing.blogspot.com (a on-going series of small ink drawings)