Galleries

From Pulp to Pop, Seven Centuries of Book Art

Marcel Duchamp, “Readymade Malheureux” (Unhappy Readymade) (1919) (detail)
Marcel Duchamp, “Readymade Malheureux” (Unhappy Readymade) (1919) (detail) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

PARIS — Pliure (meaning “fold” in French) is a book-based small show, tastefully curated by Paulo Pires do Vale, about the artistic metamorphosis of books (those folded paper things). The exhibition brings together some 40 works dating from the 15th to the 21st centuries: films, sculptures, installations, paintings, and rare books. The show, held at the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian in Paris, a center dedicated to Portuguese culture, brings contemporary art into close contact with art from centuries past through a coherent theme.

Here the theme is loosely the danger of paper books coming into contact with fire (feu) — a contact that implies and recalls the still relevant menace of book burning. Thus the exhibition explores the significance of the book and its precarious existence as pulp through various artistic gestures. It asks the question: How is art transformed in dialogue with the paper book, and how is the paper book transformed by art?

With the fold, the book has two possibilities: it opens or it closes, reveals or hides. Thanks to the fold, something unexpected is on the other side of the page and this is the characteristic mystery of the book played with here. An obvious, inspiring metaphor for this dialogue is the concept of the fold as interpreted by Gilles Deleuze in his dazzling book Le pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988), translated as The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1993), where he traces the fold concept back to the Baroque aesthetic and emphasis on the transmutation of objects into temporal unities. In Le pli, the French philosopher reflects upon continuous changes and dissolutions into infinity as expressed in sculptures with many folds, as in garments or wings, and the labyrinthine gardens from the Baroque era. In applying this idea to our time, Deleuze concluded that form and matter (here applied to books) must be recognized as a temporal modulation that implies as much the continuous variation of matter, as a continuous solid existence.

Olafur Eliasson, “Your house” (1967) Library Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006 edition 198 of 225 + 25, Collection of Teixeira de Freitas, Lisbon, 29 x 45 x 11,5 x 11,5 cm (click to enlarge)
Olafur Eliasson, “Your house” (1967) Library Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006 edition 198 of 225 + 25, Collection of Teixeira de Freitas, Lisbon, 29 x 45 x 11.5 x 11.5 cm (click to enlarge)

Appropriately, the visitor is first greeted with Marcel Duchamp’s suspended “Readymade Malheureux” (Unhappy Readymade) (1919), a geometry book that swings from a wire outside in the courtyard, open to the air, sun, and natural elements. The book is already a bit bleached from the fire of the sun, and we must accept the idea of its inevitable collapse into nothingness.

Suzanne Duchamp placed one like it outside her door in 1920 at Rue de la Condamine, Paris. The book was Marcel Duchamp’s wedding gift for the marriage of his sister to the Dada painter Jean Crotti. Sent from Buenos Aires in 1919, Marcel provided instructions for its realization and chance-based eventual demise into entropy. As such, it is an early conceptual art precedent that went on to inspire much Fluxus art and conceptual earth art. Each day, the book hung outside in the weather and wind, crumbling more and more, losing its content, its cohesiveness, and its sense of being in the world.

Helena Almeida, “Estudo para Dois Espaços” (Study for two spaces) (1977) Collection Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon
Helena Almeida, “Estudo para Dois Espaços” (Study for Two Spaces) (1977) Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon (all images courtesy of the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian unless otherwise noted)
René of Lorena “Book of Hours” (15th C) with paintings by Maitre Francois. XVe siècle Parchemin, Collection Museu Gulbenkian, Lisbon, 78 folios 15 x 12 x 3 cm (click to enlarge)
René of Lorena ‘Book of Hours’ (15th century) with paintings by Maitre Francois, XVe siècle Parchemin, Collection Museu Gulbenkian, Lisbon, 78 folios, 15 x 12 x 3 cm (click to enlarge)

Inside of the exhibition’s doors, some solid sense is restored. Placed safely under glass, we see two unfolded, untouchable pages from Lawrence Weiner’s fanciful book of his trademark graphic texts juxtaposed with erotic and sea images, Deep Blue Sky / Light Blue Sky (2003). That and what follows, all beautifully installed, adheres to this classical, protective exhibition method, where I was only able to peer through the cool, green glass at a selected open page or two of such splendors and masterpieces as William Morris’s “The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” (1896) (gorgeously ornamented with pictures designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones); Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s exquisite “Encyclopedia” (1779) (containing the magical formula ABRACADABRA); and René of Lorena’s “Book of Hours” (15th century), with paintings by Maitre Francois, the Parisian illustrator who productively worked on numerous manuscripts between the years 1462 and 1480.

Ed Ruscha, page from “Various Small Fires and Milk” (1964)
Ed Ruscha, page from “Various Small Fires and Milk” (1964)
Bruce Nauman, “Burning Small Fires” (1969)
Bruce Nauman, “Burning Small Fires” (1969)

Despite the hands-off restrictions, it is conceptually delightful and fruitful to see these rare works rubbing shoulders with the much more recent artist books such as those by Wolf Vostell and Robert Filliou (both Fluxus artists enjoying something of a comeback recently in Paris) along with other 1960 and 70s classic, conceptual art books. Key among them: Ed Ruscha’s small “Various Small Fires and Milk” (1964) wherein Ruscha photographed different forms of tiny fires. Bruce Nauman, for his book “Burning Small Fires” (1969), released just four years after the publication of the book by Ruscha, tautologically set fire to the pages of Ruscha’s book and photographed it as it burned.

Francesca Woodman, “Some Disordered Interior Geometries” (1981) (courtesy of George and Betty Woodman)
Francesca Woodman, “Some Disordered Interior Geometries” (1981) (courtesy of George and Betty Woodman)
Francesca Woodman, “Some Disordered Interior Geometries” (1981) (courtesy of George and Betty Woodman)
Francesca Woodman, “Some Disordered Interior Geometries” (1981) (courtesy George and Betty Woodman)

A rare highlight is a very beautiful book by the American photographer Francesca Woodman, Some Disordered Interior Geometries the only artist’s book containing Woodman’s photographs that was published before her tragic death. On the pages, Woodman attached photographs and added handwriting and white correction fluid. Released in January 1981, shortly before her young death at 22, Some Disordered Interior Geometries here conceptually gestures towards Marcel Duchamp’s unhappy book project, as it is based upon selected pages from an Italian geometry exercise book.

François Truffaut, “Fahrenheit 451” (1966) still from loop, Vineyard Films LTD
François Truffaut, “Fahrenheit 451” (1966) still from loop, Vineyard Films LTD

Four film selections are woven into the show as loops, including Alain Resnais’s “Tout la mémoire du monde” (1956). But the most thematically pointed (being about book burning) is the scene from François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), a film that is based on the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution) (1965) also provides an ominous ambiance for the materiality of pulp books with its black-and-white science fiction/ film noir/ dystopian vibe. In Alphaville, set in a country of the future that is dominated and organized by the Alpha computer, the lead character can only be saved by reading the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard’s book of poems Capitale de la douleur (Capital of Pain) (1926) provided by a foreign secret agent as an act of resistance (as it contains traces of subjectivity, feelings, and individual consciousness — features that have been banned in Alphaville). Near the film screening sat a stony mid-16th century anonymous Portuguese granite sculpture of Mary holding a reading young Jesus from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon.

Albrecht Dürer, “Saint-Jean dévorant le livre de Vie” (St. John devouring the Book of Life) (circa1498) Ancienne collection éditoriale: Dürer, L’Apocalypse (éd. latine) Est 3524 coll. ENSBA © Beaux-Arts Paris, Dist.
Albrecht Dürer, “Saint-Jean dévorant le livre de Vie” (St. John devouring the Book of Life) (circa1498), Ancienne collection éditoriale: Dürer, L’Apocalypse (éd. latine), © Beaux-Arts Paris, Dist.

John Latham’s silent 16mm film “Encyclopedia Britannica” (1971) records every page in the Encyclopedia Britannica at a speed of seventeen frames per second. This reduces the text to an illegible blur that produces some fretfulness as the viewer attempts to understand the book pages as they speedily flicker by under the fire of the projector bulb. This is a seminal piece in Latham’s career that brings together a number of his work’s principal concerns: the way history is written, memory, an interest in the word as a container of knowledge, and the reflection on art as an autonomous object. The film starts with a shot of the open outer covers of the Encyclopedia Britannica, then the first double-page spread, before plunging the viewer into single-frame shots of every double-page spread of sequential volumes. Looking quietly upon this flashing dystopia in the exhibit is Albrecht Dürer’s majestically apocalyptic woodcut “Saint-Jean dévorant le livre de Vie” (St. John Devouring the Book of Life) (1498). The woodcut has that spidery feeling I remember from childhood. An inner intertwining with those weedy images in Germanic fairy tale book illustrations that beckoned me to look deep into a past communal memory.

Raffaella della Olga, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard – constellation”  (2009) based on the symbolist poem  Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard  (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance) by Stéphane Mallarmé, éd. Gallimard, 1914, 35 x 50 cm, acrylic white paint and fluorescent powder © Raffaellea della Olga
Raffaella della Olga, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard – constellation” (2009), based on the symbolist poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance) by Stéphane Mallarmé, éd. Gallimard (1914), acrylic white paint and fluorescent powder, 35 x 50cm © Raffaella della Olga

But the best piece in the show for me (one unable to be adequately photographed) was Raffaella della Olga’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard – constellation” (2009). Here the flow of speech has been halted and exalted. The work revived in me the childlike delight first encountered under the covers with joyful books suggestive of inner freedom and mystical self-enhancement that made me enthusiastic about solitude and privacy. The artist very skillfully and painstakingly painted each letter of the great symbolist poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard” (“A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”) (1914) by Stéphane Mallarmé with white paint mixed with fluorescent powder. One sees it by entering a pitch-black room. Unnoticed to me, a young woman had slipped past me and installed herself behind the book that was now glowing in the dark. She began to magically turn pages. Then she revealed herself by speaking softly to me, gently explaining the poetic relationship of the glowing text with constellations of the night sky. It was a wonderful and sensual experience.

Lewis Carrol (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) with illustrations by Henri Holiday, “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits” (1876) James R. Osgood and Company, FCG - Biblioteca de Arte, Lisbon ,13,7 x 9,5 x 2 cm (click to enlarge)
Lewis Carrol (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) with illustrations by Henri Holiday, “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits” (1876), James R. Osgood and Company, FCG – Biblioteca de Arte, Lisbon, 13,7 x 9,5 x 2 cm (click to enlarge)

The poem itself beams: spread over twenty large pages in various typefaces amidst liberal amounts of black, blank space. The language seems to stutter and float with contentment as the words crackle against each other, making luminous clusters. Each pair of consecutive facing pages is read as a radiant single panel, as the text flows back and forth across the two pages along irregular lines in various typefaces throughout. At the bottom right of the last panel is the sentence “Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés” (“Every Thought issues a Throw of Dice”). Indeed this indicator of cosmic emerald energy seemed to emit from the poem.

Pliure successfully emptied out and enlarged my traditional perception of books and art. So it was fitting that I took a second glance at Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (1876) with nine illustrations by Henry Holiday on the way out. Lewis Carroll, of course, is the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). I was amazed at the open page that showed a white monochrome labeled “Ocean Chart.” It perfectly closed the show for me, with its sublime and amusing blank map bearing only the accoutrements of orientation and an inscrutable scale. In the vein of Duchamp’s “Readymade Malheureux” (Unhappy Readymade), it left me hanging in the open air.

Pliure continues at the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian (39, bd de La Tour-Maubourg, Paris) through April 12. 

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