Lara Wilhelmine Hoffmann:
On Fruit and Paper
Thoughts on Icelandic Book Art I
A week ago, I stumbled upon the question ‘Hvað er Bók?’ (What is a book?), raised by Ómar Stefánsson in the anthology Bók um bók og fleira (1980). These three Icelandic words indicate redefining the book as an element of modern Icelandic book culture and ARKIR’s new exhibition titled ‘Endurbókun’ (Rebook) shows that reshaping and rethinking the book are ongoing processes in Iceland despite, or perhaps because of, the tremendous number of traditional Icelandic illuminated manuscripts. Just as ARKIR transform old books, theories can transform our perception of the book. Hence, to start my journey into the realm of Iceland’s book culture, I decided to import three theories that I am familiar with from other places into the context of Icelandic book art and to jot down some of my own thoughts.
Systematization can be a valuable tool. However, more often than not, systems embody only one of many forms of perception. This is why I admire the fruits in this diagram by Clive Phillpot. Even though the illustration suggests that the fields of art and books can be subdivided and that there are discernible boundaries between book objects, book objects, book art and literature, the fruit imply that none of these definitions are set in stone. Phillpot, former director at the library of the MoMA, New York, played an important role in putting the artists’ book on the map. His starting point was the simple question of how to shelve and catalogue artist’ books in libraries since these books are neither exhibition catalogues nor literature or photography books.
According to Phillpot, artists’ books are made by artists, or rather; the creator’s intention is to create art. Furthermore, artists’ books are not simply carriers of ideas or pictures. The medium of the book is chosen intentionally: The book as an idea is an essential part of the work itself. Thus, works that discuss the idea of the book, even when artists abandon the traditional shape of the codex, theoretically also fall into the category of book art. An historical example: Can Sigurður Guðmundsson’s photograph ‘Extension’ (1974) be considered book art? And what about ‘Orðaflaumur’ by ARKIR-member Ingiríður Óðinsdóttir?
Is this work book art and / or a book? Intention and content are two ways to approach book art; contextualisation is another. Art historian Lucy Lippard emphasises the importance of context, for instance, in the anthology Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973). Lippard is the co-founder of Printed Matter, a bookshop in New York City centred around artists’ books, but her writing covers a variety of topics. Concerning the contextualization of artists’ books, Lippard once wrote that a book shown in the art context cannot be called anything other than art. This sentence does not imply that the only relevant aspect for categorizing artists’ books is the context but, rather, Lippard’s attempt to enable artists who make books or write to call their works art even though the traditional notion of art when Lippard wrote her text did not include books and writing.
However, portability is an important aspect of the book and many artists’ books could be hidden in a bookshelf and still be perceived as artist’s books, unlike a ready-made that needs a specific surrounding. Intention, content and context are aspects that must be considered in distinguishing between book art and other books. The importance of these three aspects differs from book to book. The last piece of writing that I will mention in this text is Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books (1975). This text is a great read because Carrión manages to combine the derivation of terms with poetry. Carrión points out the difference between a written text and a book, and defines the book as a space-time sequence. Thus, according to Carrión, performance, movement and interaction are important aspects of the book. This idea leads to an interesting question: Is it necessary to touch a book and flip through it in order to experience it fully? What happens if we aren’t able to open a book anymore because the pages are glued together, for instance the work ‘Helgimyndir’ by Áslaug Jónsdóttir?
The place where you stumble upon a book, the surrounding objects, the books you have read or looked at right before you found this one, the conversations you have had before or have while looking at an object, the reason you are looking at this particular book at this particular moment create your perception. These preconceptions are often, sometimes intentionally, not considered by those who write and think about art and books. Just as fluency can be an important aspect of the book—for instance, the movement of pages or the eyes scanning the page, and those small experiences blend into each other and create a story, experience or something else—the perception of a single copy is influenced by our overall perception of book culture as well. Looking at the various photographs available on this blog or visiting the exhibition, you will see how differently the members of ARKIR deal with the medium of a book, even though in the case of ‘Endurbókun’ they all started by using old books, mostly from Gerðuberg Library, and how the traditional shape of the book is sometimes intentionally replaced by something else and construction and de-construction go hand in hand.
Theories are great and playing with words and definitions is an interesting aspect of book art. Nevertheless, the best approach to artists’ books might be: Find out for yourself, create your own image of the book and let yourself be surprised. Open books, read them, see them, experience them!
Hér á vefsíðu ARKANNA hefur okkur lengi langað til að birta greinar um bókverk og bókalist, en skrif okkar hafa hingað til einkennst af stuttum fréttapistlum og myndbirtingum af störfum hópsins. Þegar ARKIR komust nýverið í kynni við bókafræðinginn Lara Wilhelmine Hoffmann vildum við gjarnan að fleiri mættu njóta þekkingar hennar og hugmynda um bókverk. Við birtum nú fyrsta pistilinn frá henni. Lara á rætur að rekja til Kölnar i Þýskalandi en hún nam bókafræði og listasögu í Mainz, vöggu bókaprentlistarinnar, hvar Jóhannes Gutenberg starfaði og gerði sínar merku uppfinningar.
Við birtum gjarnan góðar greinar um bókverk! Hafið samband með netpósti á: bokverk[hjá]gmail.com.
We have a guest blogger! We welcome Lara Wilhelmine Hoffmann and her thoughts on Icelandic book art. Lara Wilhelmine Hoffmann was born and raised in Cologne, Germany, and studied Book Studies and Art History in Mainz, the city where mechanical movable type printing was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. Her research interest lies at the intersection of contemporary book culture, language and art. She is currently based in Reykjavík pursuing her interest in arctic dwarf birches and writing both fiction and nonfiction.