A Viewing

In the spring, the library staff at my institution made its usual solicitation for end-of-year purchases, particularly wants of the pricier variety. I approached our departmental liaison with an unusual request: artists’ books. As suggested in some earlier posts (particularly the unfinished “Reading Labs” thread), I have been thinking quite a bit about artists’ books in recent years, and I’ve been looking for ways to introduce them in my teaching. The very-easy-to-refuse offer that I made to the library staff was for the establishment of a small collection of artists’ books that students in certain courses of mine and others taught by colleagues in the art department could use for critical and inspirational purposes. To my great surprise and delight, the library was able to make an impressive first purchase, View (2006) by Julie Chen of the Flying Fish Press; other works will hopefully join it in our special collections library in the coming years.

I asked Lucy Rose Till Campbell, the first intern of the Manibus Press (a venture about which I’ll be writing soon), to compose a reflection on the experience of physically and psychologically working through View. While Chen’s work is well known, little has been written about this particular piece. Even if View is unfamiliar to you, dear reader, I recommend that you review Lucy Rose’s remarks. She well captures here the diverse ways that the medium of the artist’s book can signify and, in turn, move us.

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The gold box of Julie Chen’s View must be opened slowly and carefully by unfolding four leaves and allowing them to spread out on the table. In the center of the leaves lies the box, like Portia’s gold casket. On top of the box is an inscription, like the epigraph at the beginning of a novel: “We dream the answers before we ask the questions.” A lid flips open to reveal two books, each resting in a compartment on either side of a band of gold fabric. To make it as far as the two books takes time as each leaf is ceremoniously unfolded. It also requires space. The whole book rises about 6 inches off the table, and the unfolded flaps spread out nearly a foot in each direction from the center. Both of these factors instill a sense of reverence in the reader, like that of an Eastern Orthodox priest carefully putting on his vestments.

The first book inside the box has a Roman numeral one and the title “Mis-en-scène.” It is an accordion book. Each page has a similar layout: a circular opening in grey paper reveals another layer of page. The background layer is divided in half by a horizon line, blue-green water below it, and mottled grey sky above. Thin grey bands of paper are stretched across each opening, from fore-edge to fore-edge and there are words written on them. The two layers create both physical and perceptual depth. Looking at the page feels like peering through a portal.

The narrator of the book describes her dream to the person she dreamed about. She watched him knee-deep in a still body of water. His face crumpled when he learned of his own death. Finally he was embraced by his father who told him that it is OK, they already know of his death. The narrator describes how she came to realize that the expression of anguish on the face of the dead man was partly over the prospect of bearing the news of his own death to his loved ones.

The physical format of the book echoes the content by evoking the quiet, mysterious setting of the dream. It further echoes the content by forcing us to view that setting through the aperture of the opening in the grey paper, much as the narrator moves through her dream like someone filtering her experience through a camera lens. She describes how her field of vision morphs and narrows in on the expression of the dead man, like a movie shot, slowly panning, zooming, shifting focus.

The suggestion of a filtered viewpoint turns up again in the second book. The second book has a roman numeral two and the title “The Afterimage.” The pages of this book are soft green with tendrils of darker green spreading across the page like the branches of a tree. The words can be seen through rectangular cutouts in the green page, which are covered by clear plastic. The effect is as though one is reading words trapped in glass aquariums. This reflects the quality of trying to recall a dream — you try to study it and remember what it felt like to be in that place, but ultimately it ends up feeling more and more removed from you.

Chen makes a powerful artistic choice by using different methods to bind the two volumes. “Mise-en-scène” has an accordion binding, which allows for the reader to view any two pages simultaneously. Rather than providing a strict, sequential reading experience the accordion encourages free movement through the text. One is even able to spread the entire book out in one long strip and view it as a whole. The accordion binding lends itself perfectly to a book about a dream. It has an inherent fluid quality which can be read from different angles. The binding resists being parsed into a linear, logical structure.

“Afterimage” is bound in a more conventionally in the style of case binding which dominates most of the books in our libraries, although the binding along the spine is left exposed like Egyptian coptic binding.The mode of binding dictates the mode of reading. We must go left-to- right. We must hold onto the convention of a codex — one thing at a time. “Afterimage” is her reflection on her dream. It is the rational step of the mourning process in which her perceptions change and acquire new clarity. Her dream is like a pebble being tumbled downstream and smoothed out. “Afterimage” is the culmination of that process, which is why it requires the tighter binding. She has gone back to her dream and searched for a logic within it, just as the dead man struggles to understand what’s happening.

Beneath the second booklet are instructions describing how to find a hidden scene. Put the lid back over the two books and turn the entire box on its side. A scene in miniature is revealed through a window of clear plastic. Tiny, mossy trees atop an island which is surrounded by water. Could this be that familiar place toward which the dead man walked at the end of “Afterimage?” It has become comforting to him, just as it is somehow comforting to us to see the world captured in miniature. When seen on such a small scale it acquires a sense of containment. The question of where we go after we die is not quite as imposing when viewed in a small-scale diorama. But it also creates a longing in the same way that the Thorne Miniature Rooms make you want to shrink small enough to inhabit that space. You ache for that mysterious place in the trees.

Through View Chen guides us through a process of grief. The form of the box leads us in a ritual of unraveling and revealing, as we prepare ourselves for the experience of loss. The colors and shape also evoke the architecture of monuments. Sombre, geometric forms and earthy sandstone, moss, and gold tones speak of the callousness of death. But as we are drawn deeper into the box we see death softened. The worst part of death — the grief of loved ones — is mitigated for the dead man by the embrace of his father and the tender proclamation that “They know.” The book’s final statement is not given through words but through the experience of a place — a tranquil, mysterious, beautiful place.

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