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This engrossing exhibition has been a labour of love over two years for Artspace Mackay Director Michael Wardell. It demonstrates how far the field of artists’ books has diverged since the days of white gloves and trestle tables. Although some bookworks are made to be held in the hand and perused solitarily, ‘Recycled Library’ resolutely takes on the gallery space as one that is to be physically navigated with the eyes attuned to wall and floor as much as flat surface. The exhibition is arranged to pulse from object-based structures, large-scale photographs, collages, to single treated books. One might move from an absorption in one object which may retain its codex form or be separated out as a bank of pages, for instance, and realise that what has been conveyed is as rich in information or fantastic narrative as its book origins. Hence this exhibition takes time to appreciate fully.
Seventeen Australian artists are represented, each by several works. Many belong to the collection at Artspace, others have been made especially for the tour or lent by the artists and their agents. Date-wise they are mostly from the 1990s and 2000s, although there is Paul Partos’s Introduction to a Book and Reconstruction of a Book (1970), which nicely establish the beginning of the viewer’s journey. In the vein of Art & Language, this duo playfully reflect on the move away from minimalism, the artist having carved out and dispensed with the original text (leaving a black rectangle), while at the same time they tease us with their intact ‘headers’. Reconstruction has as header ‘Tough—and Tender—Minded Cubists’; a quaint oxymoron if ever there was one.
Placed nearby, the old ‘reliable’ Encyclopaedia Britannica has been treated similarly. Kylie Stillman’s Black Pine (2005) conveys the shape of an ikebana tree cut through a stack of eight volumes of the Encyclopaedia, with the final object poised on a traditional style Japanese base. The artist’s concern for environmental issues resonates in her other exhibits of cut-out books which feature carved spaces standing for extinct birds that have perished with climate change. Born in 1975, she is the youngest artist in the show. Hossein Valamanesh, born in Iran in 1949, is at the other end of the spectrum. Well-known for his majestic, pared back installations that explore a personal belief system steeped in Sufi practice, on this occasion he is represented by Open Book (1993), a self-portrait with the silhouetted head and shoulders burned along its edges. A narrow red ribbon runs down the spine like a rivulet of blood or a page marker for the Koran. No text exists; the specially made book invites one into a sanctuary from worldly distraction. It is coupled with a later work by Valamanesh, Untitled, a slim bamboo ladder suspended above an open book, representing personal potential and steps toward infinity.
With Patrick Pound, visual double-takes and puns are evident everywhere. His Ex Libris (1998) comprises a Schwitters–like collage of discoloured endpapers from thrift shops. Faded and foxed, they testify to human usage (especially those bearing past owner’s signatures and one with library date stamps). From these beige rectangles, Pound has built up a flat, larger than life-size, human head. Does this work testify to obsolete knowledge? Perhaps it refers to an overload of information which, in the end, cancels data, rather like a computer that has crashed. The work segues well with Liz Jeneid’s Books for a Journey (2002), in which six grid panels of recycled Thesaurus pages bonded to Thai Sa paper testify to an intellectual as much as poetic engagement with the idea of travel. Again, full disclosure is kept from us as white pigment and muslin squares cancel out the original, authoritative text. Instead, a number of quotes, hand- written in ink, punctuate the cream expanse. Lucy Lippard, for instance, is quoted thus: ‘For the most part we see travel as escape, getting away. Going somewhere “else”—often inhabited by “others” whose dissimilarities will be exaggerated and exoticized and whose similarities will be dismissed…’.
The tension between a ‘blinkered awareness’ and what actually is the case abounds in this exhibition; similarly, the clash between social practice of one cultural group and another. As an Australian born in India, David Sequeira stitched an Islamic star pattern into the red covers of twelve pamphlets that take us back to the stultifying days of female etiquette training—The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, to be precise. By stitching through each publication, he makes them obsolete and at the same time refers to Colonial cultural values that infiltrated Indian life from the time of the British Raj. Furthermore, the work subtly refers to the book as a ‘work of art’, as witnessed by Indian and Persian manuscript traditions, and perhaps also to the skill of artisan embroiderers in his country of birth.
Throughout Recycled Library, viewers are reminded of Australia’s rich multi-cultural population. Many artists consciously refer to their practice as rooted in ethnically dissimilar, certainly shifting, backgrounds and value systems. Simryn Gill makes that point in her well-known Forest (1996-98), a suite of pinned-up photographs. Here she collected a wide range of books including a copy of the Indian epic Ramayana and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Tearing out their pages, she literally grafted fragmented discourses onto tropical vegetation located around Singapore and Port Dickson. Paper slithers fit into ringed leaf scars of a palm or are stuck along the intersecting branches of a wall creeper. In other works paper is shredded to cascade from a fig tree branch and resemble aerial roots. In each case, Gill has left the printed pieces to decompose and turn to compost, eventually feeding the host plant.
The migration of culture through books is keenly perceived by Indigenous artists Julie Gough and Archie Moore. In the hands of Gough The Tasmanian History Reader has had its chapters radically ‘whited out’ in an ironic gesture and rebuff to the past’s predominantly Anglo ‘take’ on Australian history. The socio-political trajectory of the artist’s installation works and videos is matched here by her series A Half Hour Hidden History Reader (2007). In this work she disguised the greater part of each page and inserted short hand written commentaries (such as ‘he is gone but you are here’, based on the horrific racist justification for the extermination of Aborigines). This alternative ‘Tasmanian History’, in fourteen short chapters, can easily be read in less than an hour. Two ‘found’ volumes of The Bible are modified by Archie Moore to pointedly tackle the imposition of early white settlement. With the work Maltheism (2007), the book is opened on pages from the Old Testament’s ‘Book of Deuteronomy’. It is here that God is interpreted as advising Moses to invade other nations (of ‘non-believers’). By extension, Moore has imagined Christians on the first fleet to Australia sharing the same sentiments, and his Ghost Ship (HMB Malthesia) (2008) bears this out. In the earlier bookwork, the artist has cut a simple model of an early Australian missionary church as a ‘pop-up’ from the page, while in the second a miniature boat is poised in the mirror base of a circular hole cut into another bible.
Jánis Nedéla’s Stigmata and Codex series (2005-06), hark back to the conceptual rigour of Partos’s black-out books in the exhibition. Here the Latvian-Australian sacrifices one object to make another by literally impaling found books and obscuring the text with nails. Their heads have been coloured so that they resemble population groups shifted to the edges or to centre margin of some imaginary landmass. The original text is in the language of Nedéla’s parents, one that is no longer relevant in contemporary Riga or, indeed, to one, like the artist, growing up in Albany, Western Australia. The nails hide the words while at the same time hint at a type of code, as in places they relate colour to letter or to the first or last four words of each page.
Similarly teasing in their semiotic reach, are a group of altered books, Cryptologist’s memoir (2004-07) by Marion Borgelt, also hung lineally on the wall. Borgelt was inspired to make this work by learning of the death of an elderly woman in China, reported to be the last person alive who was fluent in Nushu, a secret women’s language. Nushu was apparently passed down by mothers to their daughters in the form of stitched patterning in embroidery. Borgelt fused this information with archetypal symbols borrowed from Carl Jung (Celtic, Indian and Polynesian), carving new symbols in beeswax and placing them in the recesses she cut from found books. Flesh coloured, the works also intentionally allude to the female reproductive system.
As if to reinforce the ‘library’ aspect of the show, Wardell has included two of Jayne Dyer’s monumental cibachromes based on an installation she made at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney. They feature books of every description spilling from the door to the gentleman’s library, inhibiting access. This underscores the fallibility and potential power of the library per se. Remember Virginia Woolf’s lament that as a female adult she was denied access to the University libraries at Oxford and Cambridge? In another respect, I was struck by Alex Selenitsch’s Ghost Series (2001-06) bookworks prompted by national leaders around the time of WWII. Who could not be chilled by the perforated steel dust-jacket of The Ghost of Joseph Stalin (2003), or the pathos of The Ghost of Winston Churchill (2001) which is based on a catalogue of memorial and cemetery architecture titled Silent Cities and which conjures up the threadbare state of a war-torn England. In the comprehensive catalogue accompanying Recycled Library, Selenitsch has written a polemical essay that usefully extends the continuing debates on artist’s books, while Wardell, in his essay, delves insightfully into the choice and meaning of the exhibits themselves.1
The exhibition reminds us that just as the traditional book can no longer claim to be an agent of reliable information, an indicator of social status and serve solely as a pastime activity, ‘altered books’ radically interrupt the life of a published text. Whether the result of dramatic intervention by cutting out whole portions of the closed volume, or nailing it with pins, blocking out passages of text and inserting others, binding it so that it resembles an object that can no longer be read, the ‘aura’ the book once had is irrevocably lost. What is gained are works that are iconic testifiers to the importance of cultural awareness and the questioning of hegemonic interests, and which all the while ensure that inventiveness and deft craftsmanship will stop us in our tracks.
1. See Alex Selenitsch, ‘Book: alteration’ and Michael Wardell, ‘Recycled Library’ in Recycled Library: Altered books, exh. cat., Artspace Mackay 2009.
Following Artspace Mackay, this exhibition has or will tour to:
Gladstone Regional Gallery & Museum,
18 December 2009–6 March 2010;
Grafton Regional Gallery, 17 March–25 April 2010;
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery,
12 May–27 June 2010;
Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo,
3 July–8 August 2010;
Country Arts SA (3 venues),
20 August 2010–12 February 2011;
Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, 1 March–30 May 2011;
Bathurst Regional Art Gallery,
24 June–7 August 2011;
Noosa Regional Gallery, 31 August–2 October 2011;
Hervey Bay Regional Gallery,
9 October–14 November 2011.