Gallery East with Gallery Central (North Metropolitan TAFE) Gallery Central, Aberdeen Street, Perth 2019, Bunbury Regional Art Gallery 2020 Western Australia

Between the Sheets: Artists’Books Exhibition 2019 Opening 29th August 6pm 30 August -  21 September Incomprehensible objects: books made by artists

Two decades before the end of the 20th century within the Art Nouveau buildings of Canberra School of Art I was among a small group of students who stood gaping at an odd creation. What lay before us was something unusual. Within the folds of grey Ingres paper a Navajo poem was printed using letterpress and accompanying this, seven prints made from broken pieces of slate printed in gloss black so that the images appeared rather like faint disappearing fossils. The illusion of light emanating from the cracks and symbols on the stones arose from luminous dust – these images of the invisible looked like successive moments of the creation of life itself. I had never seen anything like this; I was told this object was an artist’s book. 

Slowly, rather organically, the workshop known as Graphic Investigation began an intense focus on artist book creation which was to last 20 years. Whether anyone consciously knew it or not, the students and staff were all active researchers within this field of endeavour. Paper was made and milled within the school, Letterpress installed, presses arranged. Experimental ideas were tested using material means for example, photocopiers were tampered with so that fine carbon power could be mixed for new colours – deeper blue-blacks – to produce marvellous prints on Japanese paper. The head of workshop, Czech artist Petr Herel, was part of a European tradition that stretched back to the Gutenberg revolution and he brought a focus on the interplay of poetry with image; students were sometimes given a project whereby they created images for a text they had not yet read. Being one of the artists on production, one could observe close at hand how reading was slowed down; setting tiny hot metal type letters backwards and upside down created a kind of mirror world within the mind so that the poem became a material manifestation; images created for this world were ambiguous but linked to key obsessions of each student. This materiality was evident later when prints were placed in dialogue with the texts. 

At that time, the concept of the artist’s book seemed a world unto itself existing within small circles of makers; it was an experience to try and sell a book to a library or an institution, for there was no real benchmark that had been established; these books were oddities which were incomprehensible to most librarians, art dealers and museums. It is possible to look at something and to not really see it – to be lost for words and meaning. Early on however I noted an odd trait of human nature – the need for factions and groups within the art world to claim the title of artists’ books for themselves – to declare their model as the one true way or form of books. Hence, we have the endless list of classifications; altered books; the book as unopenable object; livre de peintre (the beautiful painter’s book); the book as performance; the book as skin and body; the book as memory object; the book as archive; the book as concept and many more. Since my initial encounter, artists’ books have grown exponentially and become an international phenomenon; many attempts have been made to define the characteristics of an artist’s book; to tame it, to give it shape but an artist’s book – a book made by an artist – will defy classification, just as all artists strive to develop their own unique voice. It is the wrong question to ask what an artist’s book is rather one should ask questions about the creative process that drives the development of such objects.

For the poet Arthur Rimbaud the creative process was fuelled by a systematic ‘derangement of the senses’; Max Ernst worked on ways to create distance so that there was no author of the work, rather he watched as frottages and collages almost formed themselves; Roni Horn found a universe within Iceland and travels there regularly from her home in New York, her artists’ books reveal her embodied sensations, her isolation and the sense that landscape reveals something essential to human nature. Contemporary Australian artist Alexander Hamilton has made exact facsimiles of his notebooks which are always carried with him; these pages depict the process of cancer as it moved through his body and as the drugs attacked the cells – such miro-battles were tested with drawings, he also made studies for his ice trumpet – the ephemeral music captured with his own graphic language. These examples and more illuminate the creative drive which strives to understand what it is to be human. For amongst the curious topology of artists’ books there is exact technical polish contrasted with messy clumsy invention; so long as there is the possibility of astonishment, there is value in achieving the incomprehensible, to make someone look again, look closer. 

 

Paul Uhlmann

is an artist and Senior Lecturer at Edith Cowan University, he is

coFounder of fold (artists books and editions) with Marcella Polain

and his own artist’s book imprint is trembling hands.