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Between the Sheets  Artists' Books 2021

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Dr Christopher Crouch is an artist and writer. His book, Lenin in Perth, was described as “a small, brief, crazy piece of genius” when it was named pick of the 2018 Melbourne Art Book Fair by Photo Book Archive.

 

 

Introduction by Dr Christopher Crouch.

The artist’s book has many formal manifestations that celebrate the essence of the book in some cases and in others pushes it to the edge of comprehensibility. There are a bevy of artists testing the potential of the book as a creative form, mirrored by a cluster of curators and scholars recording and analysing their work. In this context this exhibition is a snapshot of creativity in the contemporary field of practice where the personal world of the creative individual is thrown open for examination by a wider public and set against current aesthetic and sociological presumptions. The exhibition is the dialogue between the particular nature of the individual book and its artist originator and the general discourse that surrounds it, made public. What interests me is observing how individual creative approaches challenge and confirm the practices that act as the foundation on which these activities take place.
Ann Moeglin-Delcroix has argued that the importance of the artist's book lies in in its generally modest form and size which makes it possible to reflect intimately on the place of art in a way often denied us by the more theatrical forms of institutional art exhibitions. Thus, she says, it is the intimacy of the artist’s book that allows contemporary art to find a purpose in everyday life. She goes further, suggesting that the artist's book, by proposing a kind of democratic economy of art, offers an alternative to the exclusivity of the contemporary art market (1). My following observations are more modest and are more concerned with the typologies of the artist book (2) and how that allows us to find meaning in them.
How is a book made by an artist different from an artist’s book? I think the answer lies in the dialogue that the maker has with the form of the book. My observations rest on a two fundamental questions - does the book we are engaging with reflexively engageme with the book’s institutional form and history? When we look at what is being said and how it is being said, does the book itself become part of what is being expressed or discussed? Playing with the rules inside and outside the systems of practice within any field causes tensions that can be creative or destructive, and I would suggest that part of the skill of the artist’s book is to play on the tensions between traditional and radical practices.
From this position I would argue that William Blake’s astonishing handcrafted books, Songs of Innocence and Experience for example, are not aesthetic investigations of the nature of the book itself. His books were not a reinvention of either art or the book. He saw his work as an intimate part of the evolving chronology of both the book and art. The book’s form remained unquestioned, he did not see himself engaging in a discursive relationship with it.  The content of his books, the textual and pictorial imagery, can be taken out of the formal, physical vehicle of its presentation and whilst this might diminish the original book’s aesthetic dimension it does not render them incomprehensible. While Blake’s books were rich in pictorial imagery that reinforced the text, and while the radical processes and design of the books contribute significantly to the text’s meaning and aesthetic experience, they nevertheless remain books, grounded in the technologies of book production and the expectations of what the book form might be.
Towards the other end of the continuum of books made by artists and the artist’s book, the book form becomes subsumed under the formal categories of artworks. In Anselm Kiefer’s case, sculpture.  In Zweistromland/The high priestess (1986-89) Kiefer’s initial iteration of his huge books, 200 hundred books with pages made of lead sheets were displayed on a steel bookshelf nearly five metres tall and nine metres long. The books contain imagery on every page, but functionally they are almost impossible to read. As he developed these lead books they became purely sculptural, stacked in piles on gallery floors. They became symbolic representations of books rather than books themselves.
In developing a practical and theoretical idea of the artist’s book the intent isn’t to say definitively this is, or this isn’t, an artist’s book and to kill the viewers aesthetic experience, but rather to enhance that experience by engaging with the subtleties of form and its relationship to meaning. To this end it is possible to frame the artist’s book in a set of dynamic, methodological dialogues. Firstly, the idea of the altered or transformed book, where the delight lies in the way in which the physical function and intellectual intent of the book has been toyed with. Secondly, the anti-book, where the intent of the book has been negated, and where notions of illegibility, real and metaphorical, are deployed. Thirdly, the book as object, where its intrinsic processes and aesthetic potential is celebrated. This does not preclude many other ways of making and looking, all of which enrich our imaginative and critical sensibilities.
I’ll conclude by paraphrasing Moeglin-Delcroix in asserting that the artist's book changes not only approaches to artistic practice, but also ways of thinking about the book itself. The particular choice of the book as a medium of creation is productive for the artist and the cultural analyst in shining a light on the general relationship between contemporary art and tradition and further proposing a critical reflection on the place that art occupies - or could occupy - in the social realm.

1. Ann Moeglin-Delcroix (2014) Le Livre d'artiste : quels projets pour l'art? Paris : Incertain Sens.

2. I direct the reader to Duncan Chappell’s essay Typologising the artist’s book. Art Libraries Journal, volume 28, issue 4, 2003, pp 12 -20.

 

 

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