The reading room

2000
Soapbox Gallery, Brisbane

Each year for the past few years, Soapbox Gallery has presented an exhibition of artists' books and multiples. This event is one of the few that focuses on the artist book and each year, I am drawn into the pages and folds of those often delicate and uncanny works. This year, the exhibition, The Reading Room featured work by twenty-three artists. I wondered why I have never written about this practice before.

As an exhibition, The Reading Room did something interesting and was more like an installation than an exhibition. It displaced the comfort and certainty with which we read books. Rather than shelved or on tables, most of the 'books' were scattered on two, large plinths, no more than ten centimetres high. In order to engage and interact with these mostly folded works, I had to fold my body; squat, kneel or sit on the floor. This reading room did not cushion the body from its edges. Those works that were suspended, shelved, free standing or hung seemed peripheral. Unlike a library, this repository tor books was random and hybrid. Perhaps this reflected the uncertainty of the artist book. Simon Anderson observes that artist books 'are a hybrid form, neither quite object nor simply image, not necessarily textual but naturally serial; they offer individualized experiences but can do so within a standardised unit. This fascinating but hard-to-define state has affected their reception, and hence their fate in critical and historical tormulation.’1

A pair of white gloves was supplied with each book except Britt Knudson-Owens's blue dyed concertina and stitched books, Blue Phase Without Resist, which were complimented with a similarly dyed pair of gloves. The mottled colour of these inky pages and fraying threads threatened to spill, spread and stain. The symbiosis of the book and the hand, like that of writing, drawing or making and the hand, was apparent in the marks, collage and folds of these works. Jane Gallagher's evocative Yr 2000 was both a rainbow and a sonata. A colour-scaled series of 'spirographed' patterns had been pencilled across the pages of a music book. Perhaps she was marking time. Jo-Anne Hine's A Shell Can be a Dangerous Thing also was hand drawn and written. Smudged graphite and charcoal lines and marks contoured and textured these folded, cartographic miniatures.

As Alberta Manguel writes, since Julius Caesar folded a scroll to create pages, 'readers demanded books in formats adapted to their intended use’.2 While most of these artist books were intended to be handled and read, their diversity seemed to negate the demand for form or 'object' that Manguel cites. Perhaps that is the prerogative of the artist book. Several works appropriated or altered existing books. Di Ball 's, My Life Continued is part of her often documentary- style, autobiographical project. Her old diaries provided a voyeur's view into her daily life. In Security Blanket, Pierre Bourke had coated several books with down and feathers. These books had been shedding in the summer heat and the flutter of feathers was like the breath of flipping pages. For Big Book by Dadada Sisters and Word and Nectar by Judy Anderson, hollows had been created in discarded books, their pages carved and emptied to recreate the contents, to interject alternative texts. Anderson filled her book with flattened cutlery. In this allusion to orality, each piece had text engraved on it including 'eating words' and 'trust me I am telling you stories'. In Dadada Sisters' Coloured Red a slice of carved wax was pushed into the pages of An Observers Book of Sculpture. This witty disruption wedged open the authoritative text.

It was unfortunate that the gloves denied the textures of some of the works. While they could be handled, they could not be touched, somehow denying the possibility for corporeal rather than visual pleasure. For example, Kath Kerswell 's felt covered books, ... Conversations … (absent subjects) seemed to beg a more tactile encounter. A cartoonish metal voice balloon was pinned to the cover and the inner pages were printed with a voice bubble. There seemed to be a struggle to speak within these pages, a struggle to find a voice, perhaps lost between written and spoken words. Other works, featuring handmade paper or heavily painted surfaces such as those by Pat I'Anson, Robert Andrews and Cathy Siciliano, were lost to the intimacy of touch.

I am now a little more aware of why I have not written about this before. The uncertainty is mine and I cannot be sure of what I am writing about. Anderson claims that the artist book has its roots in the conceptual art movement. Sometimes this epoch seems like an epistemological vortex, both destroying and creating possibility. However, rather than having its actual origins in this time, it is more likely that during this era the practice became more obviously widespread. In The Bandaged Image: A Study of Australian Artists' Books, Gary Catalano proffers that 'while it is true that most of [the artists' books in this study] cannot be said to be strict examples of conceptual or of post-object art, they certainly owe their existence to the pressures unleashed by those closely related movements'.3 As Catalano asserts, the conceptual art movement is not without a history and a relationship to the past. The works in The Reading Room also share in that past.

notes: 

1. Simon Anderson, 'Author/Authority', New Art Examiner, Nov 98, p. 22.

2. Alberta Manguel, A History of Reading, Flamingo, London, 1997, p. 125.

3. Gary Catalano, The Bandaged Image: A Study of Australian Artists' Books, Hale and lremonger, Sydney, 1983, p. 11.

Exhibiting artists: Britt Knudsen-Owens, Luello Price, Robert Andrews, Kathy Mackey, Jo-Anne Hine, Lorraine Kitching, Natalie Billing, Cathy Siciliana, Perrie Bourke, Saul Kollio Edmonds, Danielle O'Brien, Terry Summers, Antoinette Edmunds, Katie Trott Jenny Sowley, Kathryn Kerswell, Rachael Dunel, Dododo Sisters, Leigh Fagan, Pat I'Anson, Di Ball, Judy Anderson, Jane Gallagher.