Art in Sequence
These thoughts, and my works, may be considered inconsequential to the world at large. They do not belong to the great engines of social change. They are not even on the forefront of paper-engineering. Nor may I be credited with changing the face of the book. I am just one of many people participating in the world of what has come to be known as "artist's books", for lack of a better name. To be candid, I do this for fun. I must remind myself of this during the production stages of my editions, to eliminate whining or self-pity, no matter how meticulous or repetitive it may be. I've chosen to do this, I tell myself, as a means of expressing ideas. When asked to write about my method or myself, the resulting text can sound so serious and pragmatic. Perhaps this methodology is just a ruse, a justification or excuse to accumulate and tinker with all the tidbits of human experience that evoke wonder, surprise, sadness or amusement in me. Packaging and representing this information to others is a puzzle for me to resolve, revolved into something for others to puzzle through. It is both a challenge and a justification for my unbridled curiosity which allows me to dabble freely in the word, with little interference.
In trying to paper-engineer poetry, I use surfaces and structures to deliver meaning in sequence, manipulating the viewer's experience with the order in which information is received, giving support to the naked word. The pages bend, fold, stretch, slide or melt to fit the conceptual needs of the words, but the words must adapt to the surface area of the pages, often quite limited in size and number. The boiled-down, concentrated verbal message would seem to render futile the lengthy research involved, but when the text must fit on four sticks of gum (Chewing Tzu - The Rumination Book, 1993) or be sewn entirely on cloth (Where's the Button? 1997) there is a necessary economy of words. Mnemonic devices are inserted all along the way: as many elements of "the book" as possible are encoded, even encrusted, with information, because experience has taught me that it is easier to remember the anecdotal, the surprising, the isolated encounter than to memorize paragraphs or lists. I am drawn to the non-verbal communication of cultures, present in their habits, gestures and artefacts. In an effort to convey cultural material in an effective and interesting way, I inadvertently began to apply these same non-verbal means to the artist's book, for others to unfold.
My casual choice of Italy as a place for a year abroad led to the discovery of gypsies and nomads, of startling uses of and attitudes toward architectural spaces, of curious functions for recycled materials, and of individuals imprisoned or liberated by American armed forces, all as a part of my nonchalant daily experiences in the piazza or the paint store. These encounters and observations set in motion many research categories, that do not focus on Italy itself but on human experience, and occasionally the life of plants. The elusive nature of investigating gypsies and nomads has led me to broad areas of art and culture, such as indigenous textiles and portable ornaments, or jewelry, all imbued with meaning. As nomads have not chosen historically to write about themselves, I began to seek knowledge in their material culture and oral traditions with an oblique approach through anthropological texts and ethnographic museums. I am not sure whether it is possible to ever grasp the essence of nomadic peoples (we don't even know what language Attila the Hun spoke) or what affirmations outsiders may make of them, but the off-handed by-product was the accumulation of a rich library full of cultural information nomadic and non, and a host of new themes. Such a circular approach from all fronts is necessarily slow, but this wide net cast for mackerel or minnows allows me to ripen and winnow many projects at once. This is an efficient if haphazard way to do research over long periods of time. Many of the individual theses are not cross-referenced should I seek them directly, so even the daily newspaper is indispensable.
While this mysterious information gathering may resemble "drag net", the ultimate format, packaging, transport and presentation is decidedly "Mary Poppins". Often, artist's books have more than one display possibility, but, distinguishing them from other genres, they are frequently designed to be housed in specially-created, packaged formats which render them portable works of art. Anyone travelling around and presenting them is susceptible to evoking epithets such as "hurdy-gurdy show" or "song and dance", due to the unusual contents which might spill out, along with explanations or verse. Handling them can be problematic; sometimes diagrams and instructions are necessary. Jan van der Wateren, while Keeper of the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, gave a slide-lecture in Iceland about the difficulties of artist's books. He decided to present The Hat's Up To You (1994), my most sculptural and unwieldy edition, composed of a series of seven collapsible paper hats which may be pulleyed to a full height of twelve feet, as an example of why artist's books are all worth it in the end. This said, it may be frustrating to view an artist's book under glass, without the benefit of a personal tour.
Certain works lose some of their carefully crafted function, motionless, in a temporary exhibition case. It is very helpful to have more than one copy of each edition to display, in freeze-frame, the unfolding sequence. But the Plato's cave scheme of the artist's book as a tool to manipulate the viewer's experience fades when the ploys are revealed. This holds especially true for Riddle (1994). Here the reader sees the text in its entirety in the lining of the question-mark covered clamshell box, before even finding the book itself. The intention is to allow the reader to meditate on the riddle. No matter how impatient, they can't immediately flip to the back of the book for the answer. In fact, the book isn't even visible. It must be discovered from within a foam structure. When the book is extracted, the text appears again, line by line with visual clues, giving way to the answer in the colophon. The Nomad's Chair (1998) works in a similar way. I had to abandon the saddlebag-inspired case designed originally in order to hide every trace of the Kurd carpet within. The rather formal outward appearance as a vellum volume with leather labels, upright in a clothbound case, forces the viewer to reflect a moment on the meaning of the title without any hints of rug at the outset. Releasing the information gradually, in a multi-layered approach, is a quiet alternative to the one-liner sound bites of art or advertising dependent on shock value, directed to a presumed audience of short attention-span. But in the act of focusing on the reader's experience, I myself become caught in my own discourse or methodological traps, entangled in the process intended for others.
In Soap Story (1999), the text is gradually revealed, if ever, from six cubes of soap. The words are silk-screened on six linen "pages", each one folded up inside a piece of numbered soap. The story may only be read through washing, an activity central to the plot. At the end, the young heroine's washing days are over, and the soap is gone forever. All that remains is the story, an oral history rendered in cloth copy which slots neatly into the paper pages of the hardcover binding. The book is housed in a faux antique soapbox lined with linen rags. The relationship of the person consuming the soap to the protagonist and process was carefully plotted out as I had been experimenting with the soap book for ten years. In the true story, the young woman is caught washing her rags on an elderly woman's property. I found myself in a similar predicament when I realized I couldn't hang my glue-soaked pieces of linen, during the process known as sizing, off my studio's second floor laundry line. To my horror, they flapped and stuck to the dusty stucco wall of the building. So I had to sneak over to the neighboring palazzo's laundry lines to hang my strips of dripping linen, depositing milky PVA glue drops onto the cement below, terrified the grumpy elderly lady from that building was going to come out and catch me. I never anticipated such parallels with the plot in the process of the book, during which I plunged unawares into the domestic chores of yore. The joke was on me when I needed to learn embroidery, in desperation, the moment I discovered that the decorative border of the century-old linen sheet used to line the 250 boxes wouldn't suffice. The granddaughter of the elderly woman in Soap Story had tried to teach me the same stitch years before. I could not turn to her for help, as Calabria is 700 miles south of Bologna, but fortunately the retired woman who shares the other half of my studio building was able to show me. She had previously lent me her lasagna-maker for the plasticine printing plates of Where's the Button?, so she is accustomed to the unusual goings-on next door and occasionally comes over when she needs some buttons.
As the unwitting participant in my own communication theories, the search for information as well as the physical artistic process resembles part slap-stick comedy, part cultural relativism. I don't privilege information from academic sources over that of the person on the street. The person on the street may not always be aware, however, that they are imparting information or artefacts. But twice in Bologna I was intercepted stooping to pick up a button that had just popped off someone's clothes, striking the sidewalk with a "clink", when the owner of the button turned around and asked the hovering artist whether that button, indeed, belonged to him. I've also run over my own artwork with an automobile, but not as a performance piece. I hate to think what went through tourist's or religious pilgrims' minds in the Santo Stefano church complex when they came upon me and my husband, his front to my back, pressed against the baptistry wall in penumbra. We were only rubbing an image on to paper, twenty-five times over, for the edition Urban Traces (1993), with the permission of the religious authorities, of course. Several years later, my glee in coming upon a Polaroid photo face up on the sidewalk to add to my collection of lost photos and negatives turned into a mix of disgust and amusement when I realized it was planted by a sexual deviant waiting for reactions to his anatomy from a parked car across the street. He didn't get much of a rise out of me, due to the fact I was walking with my visiting mother-in-law, and immediately had to mask my surprise and pretend the photo was nothing interesting. Luckily, her eyesight is not what it used to be. In any case it was not anything interesting, not even for my archives, as it was clearly intentionally placed, not lost. Furthermore, it was mysteriously retracted, along with the parked car, on our way back.
I often find myself having to explain what I'm doing to puzzled passers-by
or shopkeepers, sometimes having to argue with the latter that their
product is indeed appropriate for my needs, even though they
never intended it to be used for that purpose. I am used to incredulous
looks when I ask permission to photograph someone's innovative use of
a plastic bag or rubber tire. At times I must convince grudging merchants
to let me buy things that are not for sale, like rudimentary handmade
sample cards of buttons on haberdashery streets in both India and Sicily.
Persuading a bread and sweets vendor in Gwalior, India to sell his tiny
display cases of dubious hygiene created with recycled tin
Actually, many of the objects or materials I collect have already lost their usefulness by most standards. If anything, I am imbuing them with value. Or potential value, as they sit categorized in limbo until they are determined interesting or complete enough for a future edition. Some categories have an externally determined deadline or expiration date after which I will no longer be bound to them. With great relief I can stop collecting Italian currency with manuscript notes scribbled on top - from chain letters to insults to shopping lists - when Italy switches to the Euro. Although, this cultural habit may be stronger than the lira, especially if the Euro provides blank spaces. But it would not be far off the mark to say that I would rather collect other people's lost shopping lists than go shopping myself. Gathering this material does not require much effort. It is not the roped-off area dissected in strata of the archeologist. The strata I dissect is already on ground level; it requires no digging tools. In fact, it is still considered trash. It has yet to acquire an antique patina, the value of age, when it may be used to construct cultural information of the past. I observe broken pieces of terracotta, the scrap-paper of ancient cultures, known as potsherds or ostraca, in museums. But I collect the discarded Post-it notes of today. Some in languages I have not yet deciphered. My behavior isn't purposefully in imitation of the archeologist. It displays a personal interest in messages, printed or manuscript, which when separated from their origins gain new meaning out of context, rendering the initial message or purpose useless, amusing or absurd.
My experiences show me that even the most intentional, pragmatic approach
is really a free fall to destinations unknown. So I collect, note or
photograph now, relying on impulse and deferring judgment. I may fantasize
about throwing things away someday, but some pieces of trash dragged
into my archives will forever remain dear to my heart. Like that filthy,
folded, corrugated-cardboard relic found on the ground in Florence,
right in the beaten path of the most tourist-trodden town of Italy.
In indelible marker someone scribbled on it "Buttare via, grazie"
(Throw away, please). I couldn't possibly.