Special Collections hosts exhibition of non-conventional books.
Between January 2 and March 22, the Special Collections and University Archives housed in McFarlin Library is hosting an exhibition of artist’s books. Located on the fifth floor of the library, these four cases of various books are open to the public on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Throughout these displays, 24 artists have contributed their own interpretations of this theme.
This exhibition hinges on the basic question of what defines a book. Generally, books have similar qualities: they are interactive and portable with the intent to share knowledge with the reader. The model of a book as known today presents problems with display, however. Readers cannot interact with books when they are in display cases. With this in mind, the intent of this collection is to challenge what defines a book. Contributing artists ask questions of whether the physical construction, like a spine or pages, or even narrative qualities, like words or storylines, define a book.
The idea of artist’s books arose in the late 20th century in correlation with avante-garde movements like Dadaism, Constructivism, Futurism and Fluxus. The first example historians point to as an artist’s book is seen in William Blake’s self-published “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” At this point in history, artists had increased access to technology that allowed them to pursue the creation of artist’s books with control over production and distribution. Since that time, artists have continued to explore the malleable form of artist’s books.
Several entries embody the idea that pushing the limits of form allows further depth in meaning. One of my favorite pieces was titled “Vorkuta Poems 1947-1954” by Louise McCagg with poems by Sara Karig. This piece featured a sculpted face with a bound book of poetry protruding from the head. After the poet was sent to a labor camp in Communist Hungary, she was unable to keep physical copies of her poetry. Instead, during this time, she would write them and memorize them before burning any traces of her poems before guards could search her. In this instance, the form of the combined sculpture with text relayed this storyline in a significantly more emotionally visceral manner.
One of the texts that drew more directly on the traditional model of a book was Gaza Bowen’s “Red Shoe Reader.” This piece appears as accordion-folded pages of text that are bookended with stiletto heels. The choice to use heels in this sculptural representation is a reference to foot binding that is outlined in the text on the pages. Bowen aims to comment on way that fashion plays into the cultural perceptions of women. She challenges viewers to consider and the relationship between sexuality and a woman’s image.
A final innovative example of interpretation in this collection was Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Direction of the Road.” This piece features a distorted letterpress printed image. A tube mirror is placed in the center of the page, reflecting a clarified picture of a man sitting under a large tree. Le Guin intended to challenge viewers to take a more active role in understanding her creation. They must use the mirror to transform the abstract work on paper into something comprehensible.