“We Are Book Arts” : Camberwell Book Art MA Show Review

Walking through the three rooms that were assigned to the 2011 Book Art MA artists you
get a real sense of the calming off whiteness of paper, imbued with the surety of the
printed word and image. The larger room is dominated by two ceiling to floor pieces; an
ephemeral hanging paper installation by Wiebke Kowal next to a book where the words
literally came tumbling out of the covers, cascading down in rivulets of text which pool on
the floor, very reminiscent of a piece displayed in the V&A in 2007 by the artist Lu
Shengzhongi, but while Lu's piece consisted of empty paper, devoid of text, Jukhee's is a
sculpture of an altered book, each shower of paper formed by printed words and
sentences, like the book is trying to speak.
Book Surgery, 2011, Jukhee Kwon
In book art exhibitions I find it is often, if not always, imperative that a curator or artist
pays a great deal of attention to the display of each book. Each piece in this show has
been exhibited very skilfully, with time spent finding the best way to present the pieces to
the viewer. One of the works where display is particularly well achieved is a book by
Imogen Chester called Crossing Borders which has been presented quite simply on a
shelf/stand on the wall, open at the middle spread of pages. The book itself, made of
fibrous paper with no difference for the covers, is simply bound with a pamphlet stitch.
The edges of the pages are covered in what looks like sticky tape which makes turning the
thin pages easier, more inviting as it is less likely to be damaged or marked by dirty
fingers. The content of the book is solely image based, registration points were clearly
visible round the edge of the printed pictures, which are mainly photographs of travel
documents which suggested migration.
Crossing Borders, 2011, Imogen Chester
On the wall and floor she has used yellow and black patterned parcel tape to mask off an
area around the piece and the shelf it's sitting on. This is evocative of the line, or hashed
box that is drawn on the pavement surrounding cash-points; both inviting you to step
inside and also to keep your distance. In the gallery the viewer is invited to cross the
border, to break the boundary and step inside the space allocated to interact with the
book. While one viewer is within this area the tape border acts as a barrier to stop others
from crowding around and entering that sacred space and reduces the risk of breaking the
one to book experience with the work.
Immersive City, 2011, Chao Kang
Chao Kang's piece Immersive City consisted of a lightbox on a table top in a darkened
room, 8 books spread out beside the box. Embossed white paper sandwiched square
transparencies to form each page, bound together with an open spine binding in red
thread. The books can each be placed by the viewer onto the light box in order to read
the pages with light behind them. Each page turn adds or subtracts from the main image.
Layers are stripped away to reveal images that could stand alone, both having a certain
beauty. The images themselves play with elements of the city; blurred lights in the night
time or hazy urban buildings looming through the fog. I love the way the piece invites
interaction, even if it is just the simple act of choosing which book to look at first and
placing it upon the light source in order to see the images, it feels like you are selecting a
window to look through onto an unknown city.
Portraits, 2011, Renée Fisher
Renée Fisher's wall based piece Portraits is another piece where precise installation and
display was obviously essential, it shows fragments of text; printed, typed and handwritten
dotted over a white wall, some pinned within old picture frames, torn off scraps glued into
the corner of the backing board leaving an expanse of empty brown chipboard to fill the
rest of the frame. Cardboard is nailed to the wall, cut out printed sentences are paperclipped and taped to the card backing, spilling over the edge to the wall. One off centre frame holds an accordion book which is spilt open to drop down, the back cover board hanging just below the floor. The pages are filled with a sprawling concrete poetry style writing.
Detail from Portraits, 2011, Renée Fisher
Contemplative text but broken up into small bite size sentences that form shapes across
the page. The writing itself seems like fragments of poetry, some elements seem like
excerpts of an autobiography that have been ripped out of a document and been found
crumpled in the waste paper basket of a bedroom. These personal fragments of text are
given status by being framed and hung on a wall, and yet the frames are incomplete, the
paper pieces do not fit, some have even just been directly nailed to the wall; and so the
elevation they were given has been somewhat torn down again. Arranged how they are its
as if the visual poem from the wall bound book has escaped to form offshoots; an
installation as poetry on a surface, perhaps the wall is a page?

Back in the largest gallery room, fighting for space, could be found a book by Christa
Harris, but the only way you would know that it is by her is if you found and read the wall
label which depicts her real name. The book on first glance, sat upon a low plinth or
coffee table style table is a published work on the state of Book Art today; the title being
Form and Content by Sarah Richirst. Flicking through the semi glossy pages you see work by different artists and the authors comments upon them, reviews of artists' books from around the book art world. And yet I do not recognise any of the names or the images of the books; I get suspicious; “why is a non fiction book on artists' books being shown as a piece of art in its own right, and why can't I find this 'Sarah Richirst' in my catalogue?” - the answer dawns on me as I rush to find the artists' name label on the wall nearby: 'Christa Harris'... I turn to the inside cover page of the book in my hands, it confirms my suspicions that 'this is a work of fiction, all resemblance to those mentioned within it is entirely coincidental...'. I sheepishly look up to see if anyone witnessed my realisation that the artist had in fact made the whole thing up herself, every book art piece written about in this fictional-non-fiction-book was in fact made by her and then reviewed by her; artist as author, artist as other artists and artist as publisher. 
Excerpt from Form and Content by Sarah Richirst, 2011, Christa Harris
I instantly think of the conceptual artist Jamie Shovlin who makes fakes and fictions as work. His 2005 exhibition was a collection of works supposedly created by Naomi V Jellishii, a schoolgirl who had disappeared leaving behind an accumulation of drawings and letters, was in fact a beautiful fake, all created by himself; the name of the girl being an anagram of his name, just as Christa Harris has turned her name into Sarah Richirst. While it is clear that while Shovlin makes his work to deceive and seem completely believable, Harris' work states at the start of the book that the piece is a falsity, a fictional deceit, but it is one that is easily found out. This truth suggests you should take the content of the book with a pinch of salt, perhaps the artist is trying to make a comment on the real non fiction books of it's kind, a jab at the way reviewers write and how they portray the artists and their work on a glossy page of a magazine or coffee table book.

The exhibition as a whole seems a little close but then with so many students in one
building it would be very hard to find adequate space for such a show. Despite the space
situation I think the artists have found both ingenious as well as wonderfully simple ways
of displaying what can be very intimidating art objects to exhibit. I saw a fantastic level of
viewer participation during my visits to the show which is a truly encouraging thing to see
in an exhibition dominated by book art. As an exhibition of highly conceptual works of art
it feels that this postgraduate course is most definitely following the path of book art
theory and artistic practice. Rather than concentrating on the craft of binding books it
seems to concentrate on the discussions surrounding what a book is now, its function, its
role. I look forward to seeing more from these artists in the future, I am sure their names
will continue to pop up; keep your book art eyes peeled!

You can find out more about the artists mentioned here as well as the others in the show
on their collective website: http://www.wearebookarts.co.uk/

i See the book “Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft” by Laurie Britton Newell, V&A Publications, 2007.
Published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name.
ii See the website constructed for the exhibition in 2005 by Jamie Shovlin:

* This review will also appear in the November issue of the Book Arts Newsletter *


ronnie said...

thanks for a terrific exhibition commentary abigail....makes me wish I could have visited it all in person (ahhhhh so far away)

I have been thinking about some of the themes many of these artists have beautifully expressed - and worrying about how to best display book arts (inside itty bitty damn glass cases...as will be the case for BAO in melbourne...... grrrrrrr!)

managing the space around a display... thinking through how an audience can experience a work is so important.... I get annoyed when I don't have absolute and total control!!!!!

Abigail Thomas said...

tell me about it! control please!!!