hand made books and words in Handwritten, handbound

I opened the bookbinders’ part of a four-part exhibition at the Belconnen Arts Centre in Canberra last Friday in a nominally two minute talk. There was a great turnout and a great cross-mixing of audiences for different arts – many thanks to Jacque Schultze of BAC for making it happen together and harmoniously.
The calligraphers and bookbinders exhibition is combined in one room as Handwritten Handbound. Both calligraphy and bookbinding were invented long ago, both relate to working with paper and its embellishment and management, both work to the range of physical and visual differences in the paper. The bound codex book started nearly 2000 years ago, putting words and images on flat surfaces which are folded and attached, covered on a container that makes them portable, harder wearing, and later able to stand on shelves for storage and display. The covers and the structures are what bookbinders work in, responding practically to the needs of the book and its reader, and responding artistically to the contents of the book, which are often the work of another artist or craftsperson.
We each deal with hundreds of books in many forms in our lives, and many of those are now growing away from the physical form altogether. There are convenient electronic forms of container and distribution (I shook a necklace of USB drives at the audience) and forms for display for reading, in convenient containers that are rarely made aesthetically pleasing or reflective on their content. Much printing from computer is done on paper deliberately selected to be neutral and uniform to suit the printing mechanisms.

By contrast, the time and creative energy that the hand bookbinder puts into a hand crafted binding expresses something of the “slow” movements. The binder is a practitioner who puts energy and time into handwork processes, with the good that it brings back to the practitioner by doing that physical and craft-creative process, as much as it then pleases the collector or viewer of the completed work. Handbound books cannot hold back the rise of the e-book, but the e-book will not drive out the p-book altogether. The widespread use of e-books only strengthens the distinctive place of the hand-printed, hand-bound, by making a deeper contrast between the book-as-content alone (which is what the paperback has also served to provide, in a cheap, uniform, container) and the book in its handmade form as an artistic and craftwork expression in its own right.
Calligraphy has some of the same properties, responding to the meanings behind words into a visual expression on chosen papers and other surfaces, which form part of the response to give something extra to the reader.
The exhibitions also set me thinking about the problems of display. Calligraphy is usually on a single surface, producing a static object, that can be displayed in full when it’s hung on a wall: all the dynamics are in the reader’s eye. Bound books are naturally dynamic objects, intended to be opened and to reveal their insides progressively, as well as their outer covering – on all 6 or more sides. The dynamics are in the reader’s hands as well as their eyes. This makes the bound book inherently difficult to display. We cannot allow all visitors to handle all of the books. But their display is so restricted: some lie flat, with back cover and all the inside hidden. Some stand splayed open, with only a sideways glimpse into the sections and the pages that hold the contents that the binding is talking to. When they are on display many need to be protected from inquiring hands, whose everyday training in using books otherwise leads them to treat these one-off display items in unacceptably rough ways.
We now need to take advantage of digital photography and easy video, even with fairly amateur production quality, to augment the physical displays of bound books.
It’s in the nature of the book as an object that it’s hard to display en masse to public, and it’s a pity that this prevents most visiting craftspeople from being allowed to handle it and peer into its well-crafted corners, to inform and compare their own craftwork. Visiting bookbinders and readers are an important part of the audience. The structure and insides of the book, the content of the book, are important parts of what the binder is communicating. If the content of the book has been published, then a p- or e-copy for skimming would help the viewer see aspects of the binders’ vision in materials, form and cover decoration. If the opening and internals of the book can be show in a nearby display or in a remotely downloaded video, the binding itself is more revealed.
There’s an example here which goes a step further than just connecting cover and structure to content. We can lose something of the artist’s vision that is expressed in the handmade, handbound book if we cannot see what is inside. One of the books here (Robin Tait’s Pigments, Lakes and Dyes, cat.64) comes with a warning on the title page inside: wash your hands after handling this book. It’s not that the words inside are dirty, but the actual pigments put onto each page that are potentially toxic (remember the poisoning of the finger-licking reader in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose?) because this is a book of actual samples of the pigments and dyes on its pages, not pictures of them. They are light-sensitive, and so to preserve its value the book should not be opened for display. It’s a pity that the display case doesn’t include a picture of something of the interior, to make this connection visible to the viewer, even though it’s not possible to show anything of the actual book apart from its outside covers to the public in a normal gallery space.
For our next exhibition? the enhanced display. In 2013 The Invisible Thread is coming.


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