“Sometimes I think that there is nothing but time, and that what you see and what you feel is what time looks like at the moment.”—Paul Thek
As is the case when any art form emerges from the periphery to stake out mainstream attention, a fair amount of the writing on artists’ books has focused on the project of legitimization, of arguing for a consideration and analysis of artists’ books as works of art.1 With the success of those essential early efforts, now is an opportune moment to examine the specific characteristics of artists’ books, to compare tacks and tactics, and to examine the role that book-making plays in artists’ individual practices. One of the many qualities shared by the objects in this exhibition is a recognition of the book as an already culturally determined, yet relatively open (i.e., adaptable), form. Whether extending an existing body of work or producing a discrete work, an artist making a book is free to consider the historical, conceptual, and discursive qualities of the object on the one hand, as well as the visual, sculptural, and haptic qualities on the other—as well as to manipulate, edit, or alter its parts.2 Readers, in turn, are afforded an extraordinarily personal and direct relationship with the end result of this process as they hold that book and turn its pages.
Sequentiality is a fundamental quality shared by all books, even those one does not “read” in a literal or linear fashion. The act of binding pages together, coupled with the cultural convention of reading left to right (or right to left, or top to bottom, depending on one’s culture), necessitates a consideration of what order the reader is expected to encounter visual and/or textual information. Even unbound book forms such as the leporello (accordion fold) or scroll, or bound books whose contents one might be expected to “dip into” rather than read successively, are organized around some principle, however subjective or difficult to discern. In many ways, books share with other time-based media such as film and video a concern for the ordering of information and a sense that the viewer/reader’s perceptual experience of the work will unfold over a period of time. With books, this period is not fixed, but the entirety of the work cannot be taken in without an investment of time. Every artist making a book is faced with the possibilities afforded by its sequential structure and decisions about how (and even whether or not) to orient a reader in relation to its contents. The exhibition “To Illustrate and Multiply: An Open Book” takes this as its foundation to look at specific approaches and strategies, to map, as it were, a topology of time.
In the broadest sense, sequencing in artists’ books is concerned with two kinds of time: the time of the reader and the time of the book. The time of the reader is an implied continuous present distinct from the time of the book; the book (the embodiment of the intentions of the artist) may concern itself with present, past, and/or future—even suspending time—in myriad different ways.
Film’s Trip: Artists’ Books and Cinematic Structure
The structure of film provides a readily available model for artists making books; however, the active engagement of the reader is required to move through a given sequence. A literal simulation of filmic frames and sequences occurs in flip books such as Tacita Dean’s The Green Ray (2003),