Everyday, we face a constant interaction with our internal and external environments that requires of us one hyperawesome skill: LITER-ACY. With this superpower, we can interpret symbols flying at us in the form of e-mails (hello, alphabet!), cloud formations (those puffy Simpsons clouds, also known as cumulus, signal fair weather), smile from a stranger (so far this article provides mild pleasure or entertain-ment), and most everything else that presents itself as nameable, knowable, readable, interpretable.
One popular technology that supports our literacy addictions focuses on the representation of languages through a tangible, consumable machine: THE BOOK. We know them, love them, read them, write them, use them to prop up foosball tables. But in our speed to read, how much time have we spent investigating this inherited technology and its learned, assumed rules of engagement?
WHAT A BOOK SHOULD LOOK LIKE
Nýlistasafnið’s new exhibition—LITERACY—covers a wide range of concerns within book-art culture, foregrounding the visual and mechanical materiality of the book as an object. Curated by Jón B. K. Ransu, the exhibition features eighteen mainly Iceland-based creators who interrogate typesetting, bookbinding, creative composition, and critical interpretation. The most successful works in this exhibition encourage readers to break away from many languages’ con-ventional reading tactics (start to finish, left-to-right, top-to-bottom) so readers may enter texts where we like, engage with books as constructed technology, and ultimately consider text within the environment in which it exists.
The exhibition’s statement notes that “the gallery houses the largest collection of artists’ books in Iceland.” In a country steeped with literary history and boasting a 99% literacy rate according to Aunt Wikipedia, it feels appropriate that 20th and 21st-century writers and art-makers here would explore the book as object and its many possibilities for interrogating our assumed and learned navigation of print culture.
Dieter Roth’s and Níels Hafstein’s bookworks are displayed in large glass-encased tables, where we find square books designed in multiples. Dieter Roth’s contrasting colours of orange/blue or the typographic standard black/white showcase typesetting layout formation to mirror text blocks in conventional and unconventional geometric shapes. The use of die-cut technique to layer paper provides depth to the two-dimensional fields. Níels Hafstein’s twenty books are constrained to identical size but feature different geometric cover designs, underlining the same-same-but-different limitation placed on the pub-lishing industry with its rigid design requirements (or, to speak plainly, dictating what a book should look like and how it should behave).
Jan Voss’ ‘D-Tour’ plays on the metaphor of a book as a journey, with the reader/narrator/main character sketched on the book’s spine. The spine itself is comprised of many pages or signatures across which the image is sketched. On one cover is an expansive landscape, while the other cover displays a human-made road. Read into this liberally.
Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s ‘Brennu Njáls Saga’ is the exhibit’s only video inclusion. It features the pages of a book (one assumes it is ‘Njáls Saga’) flipped rapidly by two hands, paired with an intense audio track of warps, beats, wails, and speech that push audience through the too-quick-to-read narrative—a glimpse into a possible reader’s experience as she devours the saga. The book burns at the end. Read into this liberally, too.
As perhaps the only foreign work on display in the collection, Douwe Jan Bakker’s ‘Pronounceables’ bridges the space between visual and aural though a series of instruments that are to be inserted into the mouth. This art works to make tangible what is uttered.
The most curious inclusion strays from paper. A coarsely sewn-shut animal organ, seemingly ancient and stuck with a cryptic note inscribed to or about N. Hawthorne, nods to the many ways in which books are described in English using anatomical terms (spine, body of text, header, footer, etc.). This piece alone is well worth ample contemplation time and a jaunt to NÝLÓ. The animal matter is also useful in relief to the mausoleum of tree corpses on display in the gallery (or on any bookshelf in your home), a reminder of the deaths that sustain literary culture.
Set within a wide recent history of mostly 20th century and mostly Icelandic book arts, it was the 2011 works by Gunndís Ýr Finnbogadóttir and Ragn-hildur Jóhannsdóttir that resonated most with this reader. Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir’s sculptural poetry serves as a fine addition to the cutting-edge realm of erasure poetry and book sculpture, recalling the work of US-based artist Brian Dettmer and UK-based Tom Phillips’ ‘A Humument.. Ragnhildur takes books as ‘found objects’ and then applies a cut-up vivisection to bring into relief texts within larger texts. Her poems stick flayed from each spread-open cover’s frame, creating book-as-organism that fans its small paper arms. These works meet viewers on two levels—foregrounding the book-object’s physicality, and also inviting a closer, more intimate inspection of the printed words.
The most memorable part of the exhibition occurred as a “happening,” where board member and gallery sitter Gunnhildur Hauksdóttir approached me with a robust though squishy blue orb and then read aloud two paragraphs. This bit of ingenuity is excerpted from Gunndís Ýr Finnbogadóttir’s ‘The works I should have made, titled If I would be successful and I’d been born before her, at a different place.’ As I squeezed and weighed the orb in my hands, Gunnhildur read for me about an imagined performance created from an “alphabet of movement,” in which a personal alphabet is choreographed on the bodies of danc-ers, tying together a notion of the poem as a dance (or vice versa). This work conjured the tactile reality of the book in hand with the intimacy involved in the literary performance (also known as The Reading). There I was as a body, standing in the gallery listening to a voice while handling this odd object. This shift in normative gallery behaviour brought me rocketing into a hyperaware literate reinterpretation, where I related this weird performance to my own quiet book-reading experiences (holding an object, another’s voice in my head). The corporeality—our very real bodies engaged in these constant literate acts—was a welcome finish to this tour of The Living Art Museum.