Monday, 5 September 2011


Maurice Carlin's Not-Books

These unnamed works by Maurice Carlin are books and are not-books, as much as they are sculptures and drawings. They embody components, which are associated with each of these different methods of artistic presentation, and do not entirely belong to any category. They are ambiguous objects in multiple ways, flowing and switching before us like the paradoxical imagery of visual riddle. As Paul Chan states; “art is more and less than a thing”1, a statement, which is directly appropriate to this analysis; while a book has book-ness, there can be no art-ness. Invoking a theory similar to Plato's forms, Chan suggests that we can recognise every day objects due to their utility and their relation to every other object of their type, arguing that art cannot, or should not be recognised in this way. According to Chan a work of art does not have utility in the same way as, say, a hammer, and it does not in it's physical form relate to all other works of art.
However, it is worth pointing out that there is an image or conception in contemporary cultural consciousness, which helps people to recognise the stuff in galleries or standing in city squares as 'art', and it's function is to be looked at, considered and walked past slowly. There is ritual associated with experiencing art, just as there is ritual associated with reading. Is it part of the artists' job to try and counteract this? To create art which cannot be recognised as such? Is this even possible in an age where the sarcastic reply; 'what is art, though' is liable to be levelled by any school child in response to the equally recognisable dismissal 'that's not art!'. Amongst other things, these unnamed works, these not-books explore the dilemma outlined above; whether it is compulsory to try and escape the category 'art', or whether it is acceptable to submit to the ritual. They admit their object-hood, relating visually to everything we associate with the idea of 'book', yet they also hang upon the wall as 'art' should, and as such they succeed in being more, or less than neither, and this seems almost too easy; a trick. I intend to explore how the unnamed works' recognisable status as books interacts with their status as art objects, and whether these various conditions jar with one another, or percolate back and forth with ease.
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In their display and in the way that they have been assembled these works confound the traditional utility of the book, which is poignantly also at present being diminished by digital and on-line means of reading, and the physical book itself is acquiring new properties and uses. Whilst it is important to re-assert that these unnamed works are not fully books, and that they embody elements of sculpture, drawing and installation also, due to their book-ness current debates around the death of the traditional book are directly appropriate to their analysis. The idea of a recognisable, everyday object, in this case the book, losing it's purpose is interesting when considered in conjunction with how the art object is defined by Chan. When a used object becomes obsolete, perhaps it takes on something of the art object, it certainly would seem to be more or less than the thing it once was.
It is pertinent at this point to briefly define the 'death of the book' argument as it has been made in numerous articles and publications; A bound book with paper pages is no longer necessary in order to ‘perform’ a reading. Peter Kivy, evoking Nelson Goodman's terminology, defines the contents of a book as allographic; “the novel is a reading art, it exists in its reading”2. We are of course not discussing novels in this particular instance, but in this context the analysis can be applied to anything found within a book. It is the invention of electronic reading devices, which is often characterised as aggressively seeking to eradicate the traditional, physical book, and the book is defined in opposition to all digital media. A customary counter argument to the 'book is dead' hypothesis concentrates on the book as an object in itself, rather than its' function. The book is characterized as a sentimental keepsake, an individual and tangible repository for memories, which contradicts a portrayal of the book, as simply the physical receptacle of a work of literature, which can exist and be read in different places and times. The book is imbued with characteristics of the scrapbook, and the collage; it is infused with the personality of its owner/s, and its own unique history. This is a common motif, the book as battered and loved, perhaps a first edition, or an edition which belonged to somebody famous, but not really functioning as a book at all. Moreover there are further, still active connotations that make it difficult to abandon the book to its' creeping obsolescence. Literacy is by no means universal, and has of course in the past been especially limited to only the powerful few. The book still carries the weight of this authority, having held the exceptional power to transmit information outside of verbal communication, even if it is no longer necessary to fulfil this purpose.
This tension between obsolescence, power, and sentimentality evoked by the concept of the book in contemporary society is present in Maurice Carlin's not-books. They play out but also question Chan's assertion that “art is more or less than a thing”3. Hung from a wall they inhabit the physical space traditionally reserved for art, and in protruding outwards they become sculptural and architectural, whilst referring to an object; which is in the process of renouncing it's utility and perhaps becoming art-like in itself. They are sometimes pinned evocatively open, not unlike a specimen in a natural history museum, which can be seen to refer to their alledged disuse. After all, books shouldn't be left open, that might break the spine or expose the pages to damage; they are supposed to be closed upon a shelf, arranged in an orderly, linear fashion and opened only to be read. In this way Carlin's choice of display distances these works still further from the traditional and functional book.

Whilst these objects are stored, hung or displayed in ways, which can be seen to diminish their book-ness, their openness invites reading. Yet, this is confounded by the lack of recognisable words, written or printed on their pages. Instead we are confronted by what at first look like pictures, but not the kind of illustrations that might normally be found where text is lacking in a traditional book. What we are confronted with amid the pages of these not-books are neither pictures nor words, but rather ambiguous images and symbols which, due to their environment, demand to be read in some way. Rosalind Silvester and Alan English in their introduction to Reading Images and Seeing Words lament the lack of theories, which “provide...a vocabulary, for describing the transposition of image into word and conversely word into image”4. It seems that instead of being delineated into a conventional written language, such concerns have been explored by artists, such as Henri Michaux with Par la voie des rythmes. This work is a book/not-book, which functions strangely as do Carlin's; containing symbols, scribbles and ciphers; which can be described as 'asemic'. As Nina Paris describes, not-books such as these place the reader in “a somewhat awkward situation, for what appears to be an ordinary book cannot be read or understood in a conventional manner”5.
This concept of asemic writing6, a cousin of concrete poetry, is pertinent to the discussion of Carlin's not-books. It is a method of breaking down the boundaries between image and word, indeed the very existence of asemic writing suggests that recognisable written language is not necessary for 'reading', as defined by Peter Kivy, to occur. With a traditional text in a western language, in order to understand what has been written we would submit to a temporal succession of elements following a line from left to right, and top to bottom. However, it has been suggested that “although in images a temporal succession of elements cannot be found, it is always possible to find a succession of elements without temporality”7. There is certainly a succession of elements to be discerned within the pages of Carlin's not-books, and in this way an 'asemic reading' can be performed by the viewer.
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These not-books share many of the characteristics of asemic writing or concrete poetry, they confound traditional western modes of reading, whilst inviting the viewer partake with their exposed pages, then refusing to provide direction. However they are not asemic compendiums or concrete anthologies; their succession of elements is fractured by their very form, they are books made wrong, that is, they have been put together wrong. Each sheet of paper, fastened down the centre to make two individual pages has an image printed upon it. However because of the way that these pages are fastened together with a centre fold, the two halves of an image, which the viewer is faced with at an opening do not match, although due to Carlin’s choice of imagery they do seem to somehow correspond. One side of the image flows into the fold, the vanishing point between the pages and then flows out again as something altogether different.
This makes for a dynamic reading experience, the lines of the images cannot be followed calmly, and the viewer is overtaken with curiosity as to what has been obscured from their view; both the other side of each image, and the combinations which would be revealed had the not-book fallen, or been pinned open differently. There are elements of choice and chance to be found here; due to the way in which we are shown two halves of two different images it is obvious that their corresponding parts are somewhere else in the not-book. Therefore, it becomes clear that these are not artistic props made to look like books, in a way they are actually books, the pages can be turned, and there will be something on each one. We must wonder why the artist has chosen to display these particular pages, when he could just as easily have shown any of the others. Our reading then becomes a search for significance. If we have been shown this combination of images above all the others, they must have something special to transmit to us, and if we decide that they do not, it is incredibly difficult as viewers to award them the same importance as the images which we cannot even see.
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This almost involuntary hunt for significance in the combined images shown to us on the open pages of the not-books, is especially poignant if we know that the original images were found by the artist in newspapers. When considered in conjunction with this weighty tidbit of information about their construction, it might be tempting to see the not-books as collages or scrap-books, just as the traditional book can be viewed as a collage, or scrapbook of memories. Perhaps this is what the not-books are in a sense, although the fact that the images are printed on the actual paper of the pages, rather than projected on to them by the consciousness of the reader, or cut out and stuck in lends them an authenticity as 'books' rather than 'art'. After all, for a book to be truly a book is must be reproducible, so that it's contents can be apprehended in many places at once and any time. Thus, by virtue of their being printed these images have the potential to be allographic, like the contents of the newspaper from which they came. Again, and again Carlin's not-books produce a tension between artwork and functional object, and they are able to convey notions about their object-hood both as book and art. Uncertainty and uselessness, but also potential, are manifest is so many aspects of their appearance and construction. Partaking in an exploration of the relations between reading and looking, between art and object, the not-books seem to argue for a lack of boundaries, the directness and simplicity of which is refreshing.
1 Paul Chan “What Art Is and Where It belongs” e-flux journal #10 Nov 2009
2 Peter Kivy The Performance of Reading: an Essay on the Philosophy of Literature Blackwell: 2006 p.5
3 Chan, 2009
4Silvester, Rosalind & English, Alan “Introduction” in Reading Images and Seeing Words (2004) p.6
5Paris, Nina “Henri Michaux: Destruction of the Book Form and Creation of the Book-Object” in Rosalind & English Reading Images and Seeing Words (2004) p.20
7Leone, Massimo “Words, Images and Knots” in Rosalind & English Reading Images and Seeing Words (2004) p. 84
Chan, Paul What Art Is and Where It Belongs E-Flux journal #10 November 2009
Kivy, Peter The Performance of Reading: an essay on the philosophy of literature Blackwell Publishing:2006
Martin, Henri-Jean & Febvre, Lucien The Coming of the Book: the impact of printing 1450 – 1800 Verso:1976
Silvester, Rosalind & English, Alan eds. Reading Images and Seeing Words Rodopi:2004