Our trusted little friend, we divulge our secrets to you and hope to leave our mark in your tender pages. We have written our memoirs, told our side of the epic battles, and haven’t we all had great expectations of seeing our names printed on your cover? Some of us have stopped reading you, others flip your beaming pages on an iPad. Yet we revere you as that dusty, thick, icon, the book.
Now, in one of those rare places people still come to browse for books, they are encased in glass. Touched by the hands of artists, they suspend like paper time capsules in the atrium of the Cincinnati Public Library. The exhibit Bookworks 13 organized by Cincinnati Book Arts Society faces the large windows overlooking Ninth Street. Bending to examine the spines and half splayed pages, I squint for sentence fragments and illustrations and wonder what makes an artist-made book or even a book for that matter.
It is any number of sheets bound together along one edge. But what if it is bound on all edges? If it cannot be opened or read, is it still a book? Carol Freid’s “Paper Burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, Books Transform at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit” looks like a hunk of dripping plaster. The constructed book is dipped in clay slip and fired at a cone 6, that’s 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat incinerates the pages. It lies mummified, like the contorted bodies of Pompeii. Is the book a victim of Ray Bradbury’s dystopia? A society where thinking is outlawed, but over the din of our personal devices, streaming entertainment on demand, no one really cares about censorship. But as Freid’s title suggests, the book is not obliterated, it is transformed
Can we release the book of its binding and say that a digitized text is the same as a worn paperback, a papyrus scroll, stone tablet and cave painting? They are all manmade records. There are scrolls in this exhibit, free of binding, and Veronica Sorcher’s memory collage, which looks more like a globe or a mobile; it is a book in the round. There are accordion books spilling out deeply personal pages as in Janice Kagermeier’s “Uncle Melvin Looks Back.” The back of the accordion maps out her uncle’s childhood in the West End with an aerial photograph from the 1920s.
Some books hide messages as in Judith Serling-Sturm’s
“Amendments Project: #4 Search and Seizure.” In what she calls a “star-tunnel” construction the accordion pages are layered three thick, the hidden layers visible only through cut-outs, in the shape of a Sheriff’s badge. On the visible pages are lips, doors, luggage and cars. Buried behind the pages are an arrest warrant out of Texas, a strand of DNA, a Victoria’s Secret tag, a hammer and a bloody knife, and a valet receipt. All the trace evidence of the crime, but as the cover says, “Come back with a warrant.” Like a locked diary, the book ensures a privacy we are all too willing to give away in the digital age.
These books are mostly diaristic, but two artists are keepers of our collective memory in “Big Roll (The Whole 9 Yards).” It is just that, everything and anything on nine yards Arches paper; a collaboration between artists Diana Duncan Holmes and Timothy Riordan. They began with a roller of yellow paint across the entire length of the paper. Handwritten along this yellow line is the repeating phrase: “When I got up today I felt the yellow ball of earth roll in through my window and place itself at my feet.” It is those flashes of first consciousness, when the morning rolls out of bed and sunlight splashes against REM sleep. The noisy city climbs in your window. Dream fragments mix with waking conversation. There is a patchy white fog of gesso all over the Big Roll, which feels to me like those groggy moments between thoughts. Boxes of ideas are stitched right onto the paper. If this is a book, the Big Roll is some loud and bustling street scene, a warzone or a border crossing. Mounted on the wall of the library it takes the shape of a giant arrow, pointing the way out.
BOOKWORKS 13 is on view through Sept. 2 at the Cincinnati Public Library, 800 Vine St., Downtown.