After one of our regular [ A Bookbinding Cause] workshops on 24 May, I headed down to Tiong Bahru for an art exhibition on – what else – books! Grey’s Project, located right in the heart of the colonial SIT estate, is a gallery/artist residency space that has so far produced a range of thought-provocative, yet intimate exhibitions by Radi Arwinda, Lee Wen and Gabriela Butti.
Intimate, surely is the first word I made in mind when I saw the range of self-published chapbooks and pamphlets (or fashionably known as zines now), books and art catalogs produced by visual artists, writers and designers displayed on wooden boards. Books are balanced delicately in between 2 screws nailed into the boards: simple, elegant and not trying to overwhelm the book on display. Curiously, book artists and bookbinders are under-represented in this exhibition, with only two technical binding editions produced by Eriko of La Libreria on display. Having spoken briefly to her during the exhibition, she elaborated on the design of one of the volumes. Bound in Japanese Stab Binding style and covered in a bark-like textured paper, the hand-size volume featured repeated prints of a block pattern. The initial pattern was printed in jet black ink, and the image gradually printed in paler shades of grey until the final print on the last pages is barely visible. The carved pattern featured a shoal of fishes extracted from one of Eriko’s kimonos.
Using clothes as an analogy to artist book is strangely apt. The choice of clothes is very much one’s personal choice, yet the motifs on our clothes, visible to others, are often a reflection of our public personas that we project for others. An artist’s book relate in the same way. It is an intimate collection of a creative practitioner’s thoughts and ideas, and yet undeniably it craves to be seen, read and for the contents to seek resonance with readers and viewers. An artist’s book does not contain the personality of the artist within its folios, yet it may provide a glimpse into the creator’s thought processes and the distilled works that resulted.
Drawing Out Conversations
The book is a vehicle that connects the artist to the intended audience. Unlike a physical exhibition, the book is neither spatially restrictive – the audience does not travel to see a work; nor temporal-based – a book will definitely outlive an exhibition; and by extension, the book’s message remains relevant and contemporary to an engaged reader.
This is why, I am pleasantly surprised to find Ling Nah’s volume of Drawing Out Conversations (8 Slangs) on display in Print Lab. The catalogue and the exhibition it documented shared the same name: Drawing Out Conversation was produced as part of the 2008 Singapore Biennale and featured a diverse representation of Singapore-based artists to explore their concerns with drawing and its relationship with their varied practices.
Two separate sections, a smaller black and a larger white section are bound together using the flexible Japanese stab binding technique. The difference in size immediately draws the reader towards understanding the dichotomy / duality of the subject in question – how to draw out conversations and how conversations are drawn – the former is answered in the larger section, where artists in the group show are interviewed and the contents of their conversations penned down in verbatim. The latter sections, document the work processes and showcase each of the artists’ work. It was a good accompaniment to the 2008 exhibition but yet it still remains contemporary as a standalone volume exploring the duality of word “drawing” in the context of local art practices.
The book is the medium
While the design of the previous example was driven by largely by the content in the book, self-published artists’ books (a loose term here, referring to any creative / art practitioner) are often conceptualised with the book design in mind to be representative or at least analogous with the content within.
A friend of mine and a past participant of my bookbinding workshop, Jasmine Cooray produces handmade zines/chapbooks as part of her poetry practice. In her words, she described the production of her recent zine ‘True Colours’ as a means to “fill the gap before any other publication comes through.” Each of the zines is handpainted and hand sewn by the poet and contains ten of her new poems which have not been published.
(Photos by Jasmine Cooray, taken from Facebook)
There is a strong sense of autonomy here with Jasmine having creative ownership over the content, layout, design and even production process of the book. The sense of coherency in her design intention is evident. Jasmine’s poems are rich in visual metaphors which translate into the design of her zine. Consider the excerpt of “True Colour” below and then look at her zine production process. It is not hard to identify the fluid translation from word to form.
Outside, football fans warpaint their faces
with St George’s flags, and as they stumble
through tourists pouring coins
at the feet of a rich elderly lady in pastels,
I feel my cheeks burn. I am
the kind of latte brown that sits tepid
in most company, but shouts of eng-er-land
and your manicure’s imperious drum
on the countertop boil me, steep me
in something older than this moment.
My waters flush, bleed through innocuous gauze:
the ancient taste of my true colours,
a wince in my blood.
(from USP website )
Book + Artist = Book Artist?
With crafty artists like Jasmine delving into both written and visual forms, it is not hard to imagine a future generation of visual and literary artists handling the entire creative process from thought to print, aided by DIY books and computer technology. Yet it does not necessarily spell the doom for book artists or bookbinders per se. While having autonomy over the entire production of print materials makes it easier to control the articulation of the creative intention, it does not necessarily restrain the artist/author within an ivory tower devoid of interaction with book designers and bookbinders.
Many book designers, even those working for established publishing houses like Folio Society and Penguin had demonstrated synergy and finesse in the translation of the written word into a visual form within the confines of a book structure. The onus is on the bookbinder to continuously improve upon their technical precision and creative quality to be fit for the opportunity when artists require a unique book form worthy of containing their creative output.
P.S: Print Lab is on at Grey’s Project until 14 June 2014 (6B Kim Tian Road)
P.P.S: Drawing out Conversation is available online on ebay and amazon. You may also want to contact the artist, Ling Nah at her blog
P.P.P.S: Jasmine Cooray’s UK activities are be tracked here. Please stalk her out at events.