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Annually, for eight years, Noosa Regional Gallery has presented an exhibition of artists' books. Together with 'Floating Land', the 'Bookworks' exhibition is among the most popular and anticipated exhibitions presented on the Sunshine Coast. In 2004 'Bookworks' was themed around 'Nature' and artists responded with works that examined everything from natural materials to human nature. How, where, does one begin in thinking about nature in book form? In turn, what is the nature of the artist's book? Such are the questions that this exhibition raises through its array of works which includes conceptual, text-based and sculptural works.
It is in these myriad inquiries, we see that the book is an agglomeration of multiple media, yet remains quite a resilient form. As a form, even in its undoing, even when it is an 'un-book' or an 'anti-book', it is still critically a book. It can still be a book because it folds or opens or communicates, like Natalie Hartog's cube puzzles or Marianne Little's book of torn away pages or Mayrah Yarrage Driesc's 'message stick' featuring her letter to a white person. It can still be a book because it contains, like the wood and perspex boxed works by Rob Duffield and Laura McKew in which sand and toy plastic soldiers can be shaken to reveal texts such as 'it's natural for children to play games at the beach' and 'it's natural for adults to lie'. It can still be a book because it collects, such as Judy Barrass's In their nature, a traditionally bound book, in which she has collected, not in any particular order, a series of cultural and ethnic stereotypes such as 'bystanders are innocent' and 'Australians are· bronzed'. Even though many commentaries in the book are unwelcoming, we, as readers, are welcome to skip, flip and read at random. There is an appealing contradiction in this work where the book, as an icon of knowledge, is undermined through its repetition of mindless mistruths. And then there is the page such as Ruark Lewis's Banalities, a series of puzzling, numbered, aphoristic statements presented as white text on black cloth banners. Almost like newspaper headlines, the statements are self-contained stories and curiosities. While we may or may not take these statements as truth, they do highlight emotional and psychological realities as if passing or wandering thoughts – not so banal at all.
'The book' has come to mean much more than merely a form of bound pages: there is a plurality of books just as there is a plurality of technologies. Even so, several artists' books retain this sense of book-based narrativity or linearity through diary or photo essays. A. C. Berkheiser's small handmade book documents three days spying on an urban fox where the artist has taken a series of photos of a fox which has found temporary refuge within view of his window. For the three days of the fox's visit, he photographs it as it naps and skulks, tries to befriend it and leaves food for it. Other works are non-linear or non-narrative, such as Tommaso Durante's Terra Australis for which he photographed details from the landscape and digitally manipulated them to produce a limited edition commercially printed book which includes several poems by Australian poets. He also has punched holes through many of the pages, which adds to a sense of layering and obliterating. As a recent migrant, Durante's images are exploratory, focusing on the 'newness' of the landscape and details, which those more accustomed to, may overlook. Many artists' books in 'Bookworks' include photographic studies and they remind us of the role the camera has played in the way we see nature and read the landscape, flora and fauna inclusive. Likewise, Matt Dabrowski's bolted and carved street directories (existing books which he has used as a material): several UBDs have been bolted together and Dabrowski has carved holes into the layered books as if they are wells and gaps in the maps which chart our comings and goings in urban space. There is an urge to refill these excavations because the maps are now unreadable. The holes give them a dimensionality and depth that they had lost in the translation of space to maps.
In writing and reading worlds, the object and its text are interlocked and we habitually read and write books, forgetful that the text is a different entity to that object. Materiality matters and this is perhaps why we refer to the book rather than the fiction, and why N. Katherine Hayles argues that there is a 'feedback loop from materiality to mind'. For the artist, Hayles writes, 'artefacts spring from thought, but thought also emerges from interactions with artefacts ... Insights are stimulated through touching, seeing, manually fitting parts together and playing with materials, that declined to come when the object was merely an abstract proposition'.' Artists' books, then, find themselves stranded in a semiotic minefield. Taking a step only to have their leaves blasted across allegories. In addressing the question of the nature of the artist's book, Johanna Drucker is instructive when she writes that the more salient question is not 'what is a book?' but rather 'how a book does?'.2 In so saying, she evokes performativity and its relationship with interpretation. Random reading and flipping through pages makes for bookish encounters. We understand books, even produce them, through our interactions with them: artists' books, as rigourously critical or crafted works, present us with another means of performing, and thus producing, the book.
1. Hayles, N. Katherine, Writing Machines, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002, p.75.
2. Johanna Drucker, 'The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space', http://www.philobiblon.com/drucker, accessed on 20 October 2004.