Made from paper often stapled together, Russian futurist artists books are fragile objects. Many of these publications, produced between 1910 and 1915, have not survived time or the wearing down from hands thumbing through their pages. Outside of Russia, the Getty Research Institute owns one of the most significant collections of them, and it recently digitized a selection of sound poems from its trove and uploaded them online. If you, like me, have slim or no knowledge of Russian sound poetry, the Institute’s new website offers a fun and interactive introduction to this genre that highlights the dynamic visuals and handcraft of Russian artists books.
The website, which features ten poems to explore from four books, launches to accompany Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art, a publication by curator Nancy Perloff released last year. These poems, written by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, feature a new language invented by Russian Futurist painters and poets: zaum, which translates into “beyond the mind,” escapes logical meaning but emphasizes the sonic power of words. Like their texts, the accompanying visuals are also often elusive, suggestive of a narrative but still clinging to abstraction.
“Recurring verbal, visual, and vocal references to the folklike and the primitive, reversibility and mirror forms, the fourth dimension, and apocalypse dominate the artistic expression of these books,” as Perloff writes in her introduction. “Moreover, futurist poets and painters intended their books to be heard as well as read.”
You may listen to the ten featured poems on the Getty’s website, read by Vladimir Paperny, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Each arrives with an English translation (stylized like the original poem) as well as a Russian transliteration so you may follow along with the recitations. All these features are tied to their specific poem’s digitized pages, so the century-old, handwritten lines and expressive visuals are there, too, to further stoke your imagination. Of course, experiencing these texts in English is not the same as taking them in in their original forms, but removing the language barrier is a major step towards increasing public accessibility to such a specialized genre. The online interactive also offers a strong sense of just how intertwined visual and sonic language are in these illustrated poems, and how their creators framed the act of reading as more than just narrative consumption.