10 WAYS TO THINK ABOUT ART BOOKS

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTISTS  |  ART BOOKS  |  OBJETS D’ART

BY SOPHIE COPE

art books

Peter Clarke | ‘Arrangement with Panels’ (detail) | 
‘Completed on Thursday 22.4.2010’ | artist’s book, mixed media on paper, cloth and paper binding, paper-covered box | © STEVENSON

We do not really know how to think about art books, and so we must make many attempts. Sometimes they are there to accompany other ‘real’ art objects that might exceed the bounds of the book, and sometimes the book itself is framed as the ‘real’ object of interest. But there is more to it than this. A book about art objects is also inescapably an object with a shape and a presence of its own, even if it would like to ‘simply be a text.’ Similarly, books as art objects are also texts, even if they contain no ‘actual’ writing. Surviving a collision of ‘text’ and ‘object’ identities – somehow existing as neither and both – art books are interesting because we don’t quite know what they are, and so we can think about them in as many ways as we like. Here are ten possibilities – but we imagine the list is infinite:

1. BOOK AS BODY

A book has a spine and a skin and an internal world that we might or might not be able to access. Mysteriously, the spine of the book is not holding up any kind of head. We might imagine that the head of the book is in fact our own head, and that reading is a process of inhabiting at least two bodies at once.

2. BOOK AS CHRYSALIS

When we know about a book, but have never held or read it, the imagined potential for holding and reading it at some point is still there. An unread art book can be ‘read’ like a chrysalis object – we believe that there is a creature in the chrysalis, and that it could emerge with papery wings at some point. We do not always have to see the creature to believe this.

ART BOOK

Abrie Fourie |  Hope Street, Richmond, Northern Cape, 7090, South Africa | 2013

3. BOOK AS BORDER PATROL

A book is never able to admit everyone. Sometimes an art book does not want us to enter the gallery or the paragraph. Sometimes it tells us exactly how and why we should enter. We do not have to listen to it.

4. BOOK AS INVISIBLE THREAD

Sometimes an art book is framed as a direct, invisible thread to the ‘truth’ of the matter – joining objects and viewers as if by magic. This kind of book does not want to assert itself as an object – or, it wants to assert itself in a way that we don’t quite notice. But we do notice.

5. BOOK AS ASSASSIN

When a book prevails upon an artwork in such a way as to suggest that there is only one correct interpretation, and that it knows it and is giving it to us, the book assassinates the work – or attempts to. Fortunately, art frequently survives attempted assassination by the text. It does this by leaping into the perceptive planes that the text cannot see or reach.

marlene dumas_book

Marlene Dumas | Playingcards: Dangerous Women, Defeated Men | 1998

6. BOOK AS HOLDING PATTERN

A holding pattern is a deliberate stalling pattern that pilots fly in order to delay arrival. An art book can be like this too – a deliberate middle ground between ‘the thing’ and ‘the explanation,’ and a bridge between your hands.

7. BOOK AS SAFEHOUSE

A book can be a refuge for you, and for the pieces of an exhibition or a story that require a skin and a spine in order to survive in the world.

8. BOOK AS INDIVIDUAL-COLLECTIVE

An art book provides a frame for thinking about the simultaneously individual and collective nature of art objects – which can perhaps be used to think about groups of people too. Books – like prints – are frequently components of a larger edition, and are also each their ‘own thing’. Here, one can be singularly unrepeatable, and also an equal member of a collective.

art book

Be Careful in the Working Radius (Pop-Up Book)  |  Stephen Hobbs  |  2013  |  Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts

9. BOOK AS WINDOW

An art book can be a time-defying space-defying window into the gallery that you might never actually visit. A way to live with art when you can’t have it – perhaps a way to have your cake and eat it.

10. BOOK AS COLLISION AND AFTERMATH

Surviving this collision of ‘text’ and ‘object’ identities, art books present a version of the world in which it is possible to be both, and to make meaning in the aftermath.

Peter Clarke  |  Red Cloud, Camel and Afro Comb  |  ‘Compiled in April 1997’  |  
Artist’s book, mixed media on paper, cloth and leather binding  |  Images at Stevenson Gallery

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