McCabe Paperless Artists’ Books Exhibit

You may not be expecting to walk by a rare and thought-provoking art exhibition in McCabe library on the way to study for that Econ exam next week. But the Paperless Artists’ Book Exhibit (Feb. 4 through March 15), in the atrium and on the second floor, is all about celebrating the artists’ book, a form which challenges all kinds of expectations of book structure and media, and uses these expectations to think about and push the way stories can be told.  

According to the introductory exhibition text, artists’ books are defined as any “artworks influenced by the structure and history of books,” but they can vary vastly in media, style, and objective. These artists’ books bring great diversity to the existing Swarthmore Book Arts & Private Press Collection, incorporating work made from textiles, glass, metal, wood, plastic, and even film. One of artists’ books key predecessors was the ‘livre d’artiste’, a type of deluxe illustrated book that originated at the turn of the 20th century and was often left unbound and arranged for display. But the form as we know it today evolved in the 1950s and 60s, when artists like Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha published the first modern artists’ books.

The current artists’ book collection at McCabe contains all fairly-recent, paperless artists’ books, with the oldest created in 1995 and the most recent in 2019. They explore diverse subjects, from gun violence to LGBTQ+ pride to the very nature of matter and physics. Many function as social or philosophical commentary, inviting the viewer to see pressing social issues, historical events, or stories in a new dimension. King Leer: A Tragedy in Five Puppets (Emily Martin, 2018) makes comparisons between the 2016 presidential election and the plot of the famous Shakespeare tragedy, sewing some of the current president’s quotations together to create the stringy yellow hair of one of the two puppets on display at Swarthmore, and evoking similarities between contemporary American politics and theater or tragedy.  

In The/Rapist (Maureen Cummins, 2017), a clinical-looking aluminum box houses a matching aluminum book. The work examines the disproportionately female patients of Dr. Walter Freeman, a neurologist who conducted thousands of prefrontal lobotomies. The dangerous operation severs nerve connections that enable creativity and willpower. The laser-cut hole that drills through pages of the book printed with images of lobotomy patients’ heads gradually changes the title from ‘the rapist’ to ‘therapist’ as the pages flip further, examining the graveness of such a neurological violation.

Courtesy of Princeton Huang

The artworks aren’t necessarily sole endeavors either. In Five Year Plan (2010), a sewn booklike seva or service made of fabric to honor Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work, artist Aaron Sinift brings together the words of scholars, villagers, and activists. He invited 24 artists from eight countries to contribute a page and advance a message of worldwide generosity and participation inspired by Gandhi’s legacy.  

Though each work is encased in glass in this exhibit, some of the works have the potential to be highly interactive. The woodwork The Universe Tends Towards Disorder (Susan Viguers, 2001), for example, is made of six wooden slats. On one side of the work, the first slat is printed with the second law of thermodynamics, “the universe tends towards disorder”, and the rest of the slats depict a sequence of images of a wine glass falling and breaking.  When the viewer activates the piece by flipping the first slat, though, the slats all fall back sequentially, revealing a corollary of the first law of thermodynamics — “every motion is potentially reversible” — and a reversed series of images of the broken wine glass coming back into one piece. The fact that it is impossible for the viewer to read both sides at the same time creates a palpable sense of tension between the two principles.  

Another fabric work, Uncle Wiggily Meets the Pilgrim’s Progress (Angela Lorenz 2006), was made to be even more interactive. It comes in a cloth covering that resembles a pillowcase which, when untied, can be worn as a shoulder bag. In order to extract the book within it, you must remove a crown wrapped around it, at which point you can read the instructions to play the game which entails reading three pamphlets related to the novel, playing a form of mini-croquet with the included felt balls, drawing cards, and throwing dice, among other activities. The whole purpose of the game is to familiarize readers with Pilgrim’s Progress, its religious imagery and its history of cultural significance, sparking a greater understanding of and reflection on one of the most best-selling books of all time.  

Courtesy of Princeton Huang

Having the books encased on display within glass sometimes provides only brief snapshots of the piece’s contents, but this physical limitation creates — out of necessity — a different kind of story-telling and reading. Since only certain sides and pages of the artists’ books are visible within the cases, it is necessary as a viewer to glean specific vivid details from the pages that are visible in order to inform your impression of the work. In this way, the artists’ books in this exhibit become even less like regular books, whose contained objective words one can read all of, by obscuring the viewer’s absolute view of their content. At the same time, the works become even more like visual art, almost forcing the viewer to form their own interpretations of these not-quite-books.   

One of the most striking elements of this exhibit are the ways the diverse works create innovative ways to tell stories physically. The glass work Amanuensis (Robbin Ami Silverberg, 2009) uses reflections of fragmented words to explore identity, and Fragments of Light 2/11 (Kelly Driscoll, 2003) uses verse by the poet Rumi and an English translation of that verse on different levels of overlapping etched glass. Through many different mediums outside of the traditional realm of paper, these artists’ books push beyond the often somewhat two-dimensional and sequential nature of traditional paper books, to create new connections outside of traditional chronologies, and innovative new visualizations of stories and ideas.

There were too many artists’ books in the exhibit to describe in detail in this article, but I highly recommend stopping by the atrium or second floor of McCabe to see this dynamic and diverse exhibit for yourself. So the next time you need a study break from your conventional paper-and-ink or electronic reading, consider taking a moment to see for yourself some of the creative ways artists’ books are using innovative mediums — hand puppets and glass etchings, interactive materials and layering — to transform books, art, and story-telling. 

Courtesy of Princeton Huang

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