The Book as Surprise

What is an artist-book, and how far can it push convention? An exhibition at Tufts proves form is limited only by the imagination
An art installation, of page sof a book spread serpentine-like along a winding table. What is an artist-book, and how far can it push convention? An exhibition at Tufts proves form is limited only by the imagination
Carolina Caycedo, “Serpent River Book,” 2017. Installation photograph from Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo: David de Rozas © Museum Associates/LACMA
October 7, 2019

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Books are both vessels for knowledge and invitations to engage: to read, to think, to feel. Bookworks, an exhibition at the Aidekman Arts Center, also makes a convincing case for books as works of art.

The expansive show includes more than ninety objects and reveals how contemporary book artists break with convention, while also surveying the medium’s past. A play on “artworks,” the exhibit’s title comes from Ulises Carrión, who argued for an expanded concept of the book on par with sculpture, painting, and film in his 1975 manifesto “The New Art of Making Books.”

Bookworks addresses that challenge with selections across four themes—material, sequence, language, and gathering and community—that range from a hand-lettered medieval choir book and a facsimile of Aristotle’s Organon, to edgy installations that incorporate mass-produced paperbacks and photocopied magazines.

Julie Chen, “Chrysalis,” 2014. Letterpress printed on handmade paper using photopolymer plates. Such diverse, rarely seen works will spur viewers to reimagine their assumptions about the book format, said Dina Deitsch, chief curator and director of the Tufts University Art Galleries, and who organized the show with Chiara Pidetella, research curator, and graduate research fellows Emily Chun, AG20, and Kevin Vogelaar, AG20. Darin Murphy, head of the W. Van Alan Clark, Jr. Library at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts, and Christopher Barbour, curator of rare books and humanities collections librarian at Tisch Library, also contributed.

“I think of it as an introductory ramble through what artist books can do,” said Deitsch. “We’ve highlighted works that are poetic, surprising, political, but they all do the tough job of art, which is asking us to rethink the everyday.”

Xu Bing, “Book from the Ground,” 2013. 128-page hardcover book.The artists contend with profound questions about reading. Does the reader absorb the book, or the book the reader? Or both? And in the digital age, when information comes at us from mobile devices and typically while we’re in multitasking mode, shouldn’t we think about how we take in, filter, and circulate knowledge?

“Yes, books are ubiquitous and now you can read anything online,” Deitsch said. “But that shift that makes it even more fascinating to examine the form of the book, and how form affects content and how we read.”

Ben Denzer, “Twenty Slices,” 2018. Twenty slices of Kraft American singles. Innovative forms are front and center in Bookworks. In 20 Slices of American Cheese, Ben Denzer sandwiched plastic-wrapped Kraft singles between two bright yellow hard covers. (The mold creeping around the edges of the pages “transforms the notion of a book into a potentially finite, mortal object deteriorating slowly over time, empty of a book’s usual archival, historical objectives,” Denzer explains in the exhibit guide.)

Artist Angela Lorenz too works across a variety of unorthodox materials and formats, including soap, chewing gum, and spaghetti. Her intent is to create multi-layered books whose physical attributes become visible over time. To wit: each chapter in Soap Story is embedded in a bar of soap that only unfolds as people wash their hands.

And for Silk Poems, poet and conceptual artist Jen Bervin collaborated with Tufts’ Silklab to fabricate a biosensor inscribed with a poem that can be implanted under the skin. Viewers read the verses via microscope.

Other artists question the notion of readability by eschewing words and using symbols, and images to convey meaning. Created solely out of icons and logos from contemporary life, Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground recounts twenty-four hours in the life of an urban, white-collar office worker.  

Commentary on larger social issues is a common thread in Bookworks and can be seen at a large scale in the multi-layered and interactive Alpha’s Bet is Not Over Yet, created by Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus. An installation, reading room, and discussion space in one, it features a newsstand displaying rows of photocopied periodicals published between 1915 and 1922. Journals such as The Crisis and The Messenger showcase key writers from the Harlem Renaissance, while The Crusader is  a major black communist magazine.

Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus, “Alpha’s Bet is Not Over Yet.” Photo: Julia Featheringill/Stewart Clements“A lot of these journals are available digitally, but the artists made them physical, which I think is important,” Deitsch said. “Being able to hold them and to have so many here at once, in aggregate, you can get a bigger sense of what was going on, and at the same time, you can flip through them and read, and you might discover something. The goal is to spark dialogue.”

In that spirit, Deitsch has organized “Open Book” lunchtime lectures and conversations with faculty and artists that expand on exhibition themes, as well as workshops. Together, she hopes the exhibition and the public programming will encourage people to rethink the book as commonplace.

“We can take reading and books for granted, but we shouldn’t,” said Deitsch said. “Every art exhibition aims to re-teach how to look at the world and to pay attention in a new way.”

Bookworks runs through December 15 in the Tisch Family Gallery and Koppleman Gallery at the Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Avenue, Medford, Massachusetts. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit https://artgalleries.tufts.edu/.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.