The artist’s book is a genre that is hard to define, perhaps due to its very nature of defying the traditional definitions of a book. Encompassing various disciplines, media and process from sculpture to photography, installation to papermaking, the possibilities for artist’s books are endless, limited only by the imagination of the artist. Out of the Cupboard aims to inspire audiences about the sculptural possibilities of books, and raises the question – what makes a book a book? Can it be a book if there are no pages to turn or no words on the page? Elizabeth Steiner’s Flax Mill Wheel, a wagon wheel bound from handmade ginger paper, concertina’s out to sit as an undulant circle, void of text, inviting the viewer to envisage their own narrative for the object.
In Beth Serjeant’s Honing, a tiny, black cast bronze pebble rests inside a single piece of crumpled, handmade harakeke paper containing a poem written by Serjeant for poet Hone Tuwhare about their first encounter resulting in a lifelong friendship. The page sits on a bed of harakeke, placed inside a black cork box, the paint mixed with metallic black sand from her local beach, appearing as a solid cast iron vessel protecting the treasure it contains within. The container in which an artist’s book is stored is an essential element in communicating the concept of the total work. It is the gateway to the viewers experience and as such prepared with as much thought and precision as the object it contains.
The work selected for the exhibition, curated by artists Toni Mosley and Toni Hartill in collaboration with research librarian Leanne Radojkovich, draws on the vast collection of artists’ books at the Angela Morton Room, Te Pataka Toi | Art Library, and artists studios, focusing on artists from the local region both past and present in celebration of Auckland’s Heritage Festival. The exhibition was conceived in response to the festival’s catchphrase; ‘uncover secrets and stories of Tamaki Makaurau’ and includes some rare treasures such as a small 25 page book by Colin McCahon, a limited edition of 20 called 15 Drawings from December ‘51 to May ‘52, which Radojkovich believes is possibly one of the first artist’s books to be published in Aotearoa.
The title of the exhibition alludes to the fact that the artist’s book is a genre that the public knows little about and has limited exposure to due to the relatively small audience that exists and low demand in the art market. For Mosley, who exhibited her first artist’s book as part of her MFA several years ago, continues to incorporate them into her art practice as it’s a genre that she feels allows her to be more playful and add an extra bit of quirkiness to her work that often addresses social issues with light-hearted humour. Her book Assortment (2013), with accordion folded pages stretching a whopping 40 metres, depicts several fully coloured figures on the opening page, which become less colourful as the book progresses, commenting on the threat to cultural diversity posed by Auckland’s restructuring to a ‘super city’ resulting in the amalgamation and loss of colour in our multicultural landscape. Another book contemplating our changing socio-cultural landscape is Elizabeth Steiner’s Plastic Bag Book which pages are made of a selection of plastic bags Steiner has collected from shopping excursions from Bakers Delight to Pumpkin Patch to the de Young Fine Arts Museum. The pages act as a kind of diary of consumerism, exposing and tracking her movements and preferences, leaving the viewer wondering what she bought and if these places still use plastic bags, which are now banned and becoming a relic of the past.
Within the collection on display, a variety of structural forms have been chosen, each one strongly connected to the concept of the work. Toni Hartill’s Butter Book – A Buttery Demise completely absorbs the viewer in numerous images and pull-out inserts that bear witness to the destruction of over sixty percent of kahikatea forests in the early 1900s in order to export dairy to the UK. Appearing as a block of butter, it opens out into a wagon wheel, the inserts bringing to mind government files, from which words and phrases have been taken. One of the most intriguing aspects of this genre is the slow reveal – the many layers of details concealed in the structure that take time to discover and require the viewer to become actively engaged in the process of seeing the object. The Wai-te-Ata Companion to Poetry box published by Wai-te-Ata Press is comprised of several poems rendered as three-dimensional objects inspired by the written content, abandoning the white rectangular page.
The process of seeing an artist’s book requires the viewer to touch, hold and interact with the object to allow the books to come to life. Exhibitions like Out of the Cupboard are bringing these remarkable artists books into contact with the general public and, like all good art should, challenge audiences to reassess their assumptions about things they take for granted.
Out of the Cupboard NZ @outofthecupboardnz
Angela Morton Room, Te Pataka Toi, Takapuna Library @angelamorton.room
Thinking Unfolding – Artist’s Book Exhibition https://www.printcouncil.nz/pcanz-artists-book-exhibition-2019/
Pania Press http://paniapress.blogspot.com/
Association of Book Crafts https://abc-nz.org.nz/