Exploring the realm of artist books

The roots of the artist book can be traced back to ancient civilisations, when scribes adorned manuscripts with intricate illustrations and decorative motifs.
Exploring the realm of artist books

KOCHI: When I sent a special collector’s edition of my book Shelf Aware: A Love Affair with Books to my friend and artist Marco Santini, he sent it back to me as a piece of art, masterfully designed and beautifully framed. Marco had spent hours carefully cutting away pages from the book, picking the right words, elevating the artwork and in the process telling a new story. That was my introduction to the world of the Artist Book – in this case, you could also call it an altered book! Marco has taken many classic books, signed by authors such as Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams and Marc Chagall, and converted them into pieces of art for his ‘Signature Series’.

Artist books are books made by artists that are intended to be viewed as works of art. They stand at the intersection of visual art and literature, transcending the conventional boundaries of both disciplines. The roots of the artist book can be traced back to ancient civilisations, when scribes adorned manuscripts with intricate illustrations and decorative motifs.

However, the modern concept of the artist book emerged in the early 20th century, spurred by avant-garde movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali experimented with the book form, producing visually striking and conceptually rich works that challenged conventional reading practices.

One of the strangest yet most beautiful artist books is the much sought-after Codex Seraphinianus, first published in 1981. This visual encyclopedia of an unknown world written in an unknown language has fuelled much debate over its meaning. Written for the information age and addressing the import of coding and decoding in genetics, literary criticism, and computer science, the Codex confused, fascinated, and enchanted a generation.

Created by Italian artist Luigi Serafini, it’s a vast compendium of surreal illustrations annotated in a made-up language. The infinitely bizarre diagrams – a horse with a caterpillar rear end, umbrellas walking on human legs, a machine extruding people – make Codex impossible to put down or comprehend. I feel the book is now more relevant and timelier than ever before.

Two books that reminded me of Marco’s style are Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer and A Humument by Tom Phillips. Jonathan took Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles and meticulously cut out words and phrases, transforming the original text into a fragmented yet coherent novel! Similarly, Tom Phillips in his A Humunent, through a process of erasure, took an obscure Victorian novel A Human Document by WH Mallock and transformed it into a vibrant collage of words and images, breathing new life into the original text.

Radha Pandey may well be one of the few book artists in India. Based in New Delhi and Norway, Radha did her MFA in Book Arts from the University of Iowa and is also a letterpress printer and paper maker. She became fascinated with paper as a child after her mother went to Japan and came back with handmade paper. She laments the lack of understanding about artist books in India.

Most people are surprised by how expensive they are! Radha’s latest artist book Flora of Mughal India combines letterpress printing, miniature painting, paper cutting and hand-illustrated elements. Limited to 20 copies and priced at $4,750 per copy, it took her four years to produce this rare gem! To revive the art form, she and her husband have started a two-year certificate course in Delhi, teaching letterpress printing, bookbinding and paper making.

Artist books often question the very definition of a book. Is it only something that can be opened and closed, and that contains information? Or is it much more? Artist books are small and take a painstaking effort to make by hand – but they do help us slow down and engage with the present!

(The writer’s views are personal)

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