Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: Unhinged at the Whatcom Museum

Here in Bellingham we have what I would describe as a "surprisingly good" art museum. Which, given that Bellingham is quite a small place, means "a not very good art museum." They try pretty hard, though, and they do a good job with what they can get, which is pretty local and tends to be more on the high end "craft" end of things. Knotwork (macrame) and stuff.

Anyways, they did this show on book art. There's very little photography in this show, but I am interested lately in the intersection of books, book structure, and photography, so in my mind this show is related to my little blog here. Your mileage may vary.

Here's the thing about book art. It's all over the bloody place. Half the people doing it are just chopping up "found books" into new shapes. It's sculpture that happens to be made with books. (One piece in the show was actually some wooden sculptures that were simply in the shape of books -- we do a lot of wooden sculpture up here in the PNW, and it's often kitschy.)

The other half are making actual books with interesting structures (folding books of various sizes and shapes, and so on). Most of those people haven't got much in the way of content. They've got an idea for a structure, and then they jam some stuff into it. Crummy poetry they wrote. Good poetry from someone else. A bunch of scribbles.

A very few people have a good way to marry a non-traditional structure to some good content in a way that supports and enhances both. Of the 70 pieces in this show there were maybe a five that really managed it, I think.

There were some quite beautiful structures in play. There was a table of stuff you could manipulate and play with, which was nice, but most of the books were simply displayed. For obvious reasons the patrons couldn't handle them, but several of them could not be fully made sense of without being able to see some of the content, inevitably obscured by the static display. This is unfortunate.

I enclose some pictures of things I thought were noteworthy, with some remarks. This is my no means the whole show, and I regret not photographing one piece bound venetian blind style. The book is a couple photos of water, and the book itself flows like water when handled (as a real venetian blind does, kind of, if you hold it in your hand -- but much moreso, the design is excellent and appropriate). They had a video, which was mesmerizing. It's like a slinky, only made of slats, and it looked almost alive.

The show's greeting sign. Simple, cute. Welcome to my review!

Here are some legitimately beautiful and/or interesting structures. This one has little cards with pictures of ships tucked in, and the strings both hold the cards in place and form a sort of three-dimensional binding. I dare say there's something conceptual going on here, but it's forced and feels like someone wanted to make a folding book with strings all over, and just crammed some cool looking stuff into it. But the structure itself is quite neat.

This is a folding book bound together in a french door binding. The content is some graphics which, while perfectly amiable, don't seem to mean anything, together with a very short story about a beautiful staircase which you have to follow from one side of the book to the other, line by line. Unfortunately I don't think it was possible to read the last few lines of the story, given the display. But the staircase motif is nicely reflected in the book.

This is just a beautiful thing. I think it's called "Clematis" which fits very nicely. But it's basically a paper sculpture. If there's more content, I missed it.

We're beginning to get into some beautiful structures with good content, here. This is a foldbook, but each folding section also opens out like a double door to reveal another layer. The content throughout is these round shield-like drawings (there's probably a technical term for these) which combine iconography from various places to make a sort of conceptual history of the universe.

There's a three ring binder you can flip through that explains it all, which is arguably unfortunate. What kind of book needs another book to tell you what it's about?

Pretty sure someone wanted to make a book that folded out into a compass rose, and so they filled it up with salty nautical lore. The points of the compass form categories of lore, and the lore, stories, and so on are drawn and printed all other the various folds and shapes. It's a beautiful object (and really quite large, 8 feet, 10 feet across?) and the subject matter works. One can be drawn in reading it. It also is readable, more or less, in a museum setting. Some of the content in the center was hard to see.

The next two photos are of a folding book that was probably my favorite. It contains photographs and a short story about a childbirth in a small house occupied by what we might identify by the literary trope "poor black folk." The story is told from the point of view of a small child who doesn't know what's going on. It's quite touching, and more importantly it's actual writing.

Without judging the merit of the writing per se, I can say that it's a real short story that takes place and and around a small house. The book echoes the content beautifully, and nothing feels forced. The structure of the book doesn't have to be a house, it's just a folding book with some extra folds. The story and the book come together well.

And you can read the whole story while the book is on display.

This is a sculpture, pure and simple. There's some vague nod to "well the books I used to make this thing are some sort of social commentary blah blah also books look kind of like marble when you laminate them!" in the description, which struck me as a bunch of complete BS. It's not a terrible sculpture of whoever it is. I am remembering Chopin or Liszt, but it looks nothing like either of those guys, so I hope it's someone else. Plus, books DO look a bit like marble when you do this to them.

This is a simple and powerful structure. Fold a piece of paper in half. Then fold that into a foldbook at 90 degrees to the first fold (the first fold is the top edge, in this picture). Then, if you like, slit along that first fold in a couple of places (this one has two slits, which allow the reader to invert the pages on one side to create those square openings as seen from above).

I feel like this could be used for cyclical works that you want to allow some remixing of, since you can choose to see the pages in a few different ways, and the foldbook naturally wraps around to its "back" side, which then becomes a front side.

This is cute but ridiculous. It's a curio shelf that someone's filled with tiny pretend books. If they were real books, that would be something, but as it is, it's just kitsch. Albeit, book-themed kitsch.

Here's an almost interesting book. Plexiglass pages bound together with cord codex-style, with a grid etched on each page. The grid expands or contracts as you "read" the book, and at any given time you've got part of the book visible recto all overlapping, and the rest of the book verso. Smith likes transparency and he's got a point.

I don't think this book succeeds in doing anything interesting with its structure, though. It's just a bunch of stacked grids in the end. Maybe if I could leaf through it myself it would make sense? But I doubt it, it feels like someone said "cool structure!" and spend 10 seconds inventing some content to show off the structure.

This thing might or might not be excellent, we can't tell, because we can't turn the pages. It's clearly a case of "I will bind some giant sheets of metal codex-style, and put art on them!" and the art might be excellent or not. The one we can see looks OK, but it'll live or die by whether or not the other pages have anything good and related on them.

Props to the museum for pulling together a "book art" show at all. This isn't the kind of thing we see enough of.

There are some basic challenges to this kind of thing, firstly that a lot of book art sucks, and secondly that books are inherently meant to be handled. So, bold move to give it a try, and I think they were pretty successful in the end. I enjoyed the show, and will likely return to take it in again before it closes up.

If you're in Bellingham, go check it out! Almost no photography in it, but books are good too!


  1. You're absolutely right about the imbalance of content vs. cutesy structure, where "book art" is concerned (and I've seen a *lot* of book art). It is often said that "everyone has a book in them", but I think most book art demonstrates that this is not the case, content-wise.

    The "artist's book" is a slightly different category, to my mind, that has been distorted by airheads believing they are "challenging" the codex structure. Why? The codex is a perfect and transparent medium (if I had to choose between books and photography? Books, no contest). In the artist's book proper the emphasis is on content. Do you know "Jazz", by Henri Matisse, for example? It's a foundational classic of the genre. Or, if you don't know it, you *must* check out "A Humument" by Tom Phillips -- a lifetime project modifying pages of the same dull Victorian novel (chosen at random in 1966) into jewel-like "found" poems of lust, loss and philosophy...


    1. And I should add that, although I would encourage anyone to buy a hard-copy edition of A Humument (I own six editions), if you have an iPad or iPhone it is available as a beautiful app for a ridiculously cheap price...


    2. That does look quite wonderful! The web site is quite decent itself: http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument and does not seem to stint of sharing the content freely, which is both rare and wonderful.

      It's interesting that he is in a way adding content, taking something uninteresting and rendering it more.

  2. It's funny what people can devote so much of their time to, wandering little trails.