‘Bookworks’: A reinterpretation of the book as art

Artists' books ask their readers to contemplate all parts of the book as capable of communicating meaning and to redefine the functional potential of the book as a medium, according to Deitsch. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

This fall, Tisch Library faces a creative counterpart from just two streets away. The Tufts University Art Galleries (TUAG) exhibition “Bookworks” opened on Aug. 22 in the Aidekman Arts Center. “Bookworks,” a parody of the term “artworks,” surveys artists’ books from across decades and countries. The exhibition invites its audience to reflect critically on the nature and potential of the book as a medium of art and a tool of disseminating knowledge. 

The exhibition was organized by Dina Deitsch, the director and chief curator of TUAG, and Chiara Pidatella, the research curator of TUAG. It mostly features books drawn from Tufts’ collection. However, about 20 to 30% of the books are on loan from independent artists and the libraries of local institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MassArt, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Wellesley College.

Unlike regular books, artists’ books emphasize what are often considered as peripheral aspects of regular books, such as their material and size. In a way, artists’ books ask their readers to contemplate all parts of a book as capable of communicating meaning and to redefine the functional potential of the book as a medium, according to Deitsch.

“When [you] look at a regular … book, you are reading for content. [But] … a lot of artists’ books are interested in really bringing attention to things like what [the] paper [is] made out of, what … the material of [the] page [is], how [they can] be changed … and affect the way [one reads] and [understands],” Deitsch said.

One striking demonstration of the power of material to illustrate meaning is the piece “Radioactive Substances” (1995) by Susan Kae Grant. The book, made out of lead, recounts Marie Curie’s discovery of radium. Deitsch remarked on the how the material of this book conveys a fitting sense of poignancy and danger.

“To turn that book, you have to put on a glove. [Because the book] is super toxic … What is that feeling of turning those lead pages? And how can that maybe reshape your thinking of somebody dealing with … lead? So a lot of artists’ books are thinking about how the book framework itself … [changes] or [informs] how you are understanding the information inside of [the book],” Deitsch said.

Another peculiarity of books as art lies in their accessibility. Unlike traditional paintings and sculptures, artists’ books are often not confined by gallery walls and have the potential to democratize art. As Deitsch mentioned, many artists’ books could be easily purchased at relatively low prices.

“The show … really questions this idea of preciousness. Because you can order a lot of [artists’ books] on Amazon, actually. [And] there are artists’ book stores; there’s a very famous one called ‘Printed Matter’ in New York, and you can actually, for not a lot of money, get a lot of these [artists’ books]. It’s a really interesting way to think about artworks that can be very easily acquired,” Deitsch said.

Despite artists’ books being primarily postmodern phenomenon, “Bookworks” also incorporates many historical artifacts, such as “Book of Hours, Use of Paris” (ca. 1400-1450) and “Admonitions of a Wet Nurse” (1846).

Specifically, Pidatella spoke on the historical reference in her favorite artist’s book in the exhibition, “The Theatre of Nature of Curiosity Filled the Cabinet” (1999) by Angela Lorenz. “The Theatre” is co-exhibited with “Dell’ Historia Naturale” (1672), a reprint of the original work created in 1599

“[‘The Theatre’] is a reflection that [Lorenz] made about the whole concept of ‘cabinet of curiosities,’ which started [during] the Renaissance.” Pidatella said. “So she [studied] … historical materials, and one [of them] is on display. [Lorenz’s] own interpretation of [the cabinet of curiosities] has a lot of connections [to] this sixteenth century edition. So it is not always that … contemporary artworks are completely disconnected from history. Sometimes … history is a source of inspiration.”

Bookworks” presents history as not only a complement and tool of utility to the present, but also a subject of veneration by contemporary works. Deitsch commented on the power of books, especially a collection of books, to faithfully restore history as she talked about “Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet” (2011–) by Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus. “Alpha’s Bet” features a wall of reproduced historical African American magazines and journals.

“You can really follow specific narratives, logic and conversations, and make material an archive in a more realistic way … [You are] not just looking at a page — you are scanning from a library, but you are getting the full magazine, from the ads to the back cover.”

According to Deitsch, the relationship that the artists featured in this exhibition have to the book as a medium varies.

“There are a couple of different types of artists that are featured in the show,” she said. “Some are artists who identify as book artists. Their primary medium is the book; they explore that and push through that. Then there are a lot of other artists for whom the book is one of many different media that they use to work on a theme.”

Artists of the latter category, including Angela Lorenz and Carolina Caycedo, have produced quite experimental works that question the very definition and function of books. Deitsch explained the works of Lorenz and Caycedo as being multimedia and multipurpose.

“[Angela Lorenz] identifies as a conceptual artist, who uses language and books as a means to an end. But … the bulk of her production are these very sculptural … books … And she [produces] these very elaborate book sculptures that … are related [to] some historic texts and figures, and they … utilize the material, be it gum or paper or imageries like marshmallows or graham crackers … [to enact a] play on words where the image that you are seeing and the content and the historic figure are all … related,” Deitsch explained.

“[Caycedo] created a book that articulates the shape of the river, but … [archives] the history of [water] activism … as well. The book has also functioned as a fundraiser. [Caycedo] used it as a tool to develop workshops. So [the work] has these multiple performative layers to it,” she added.

From a curatorial perspective, “Bookworks” echoes the 2017–18 exhibition “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentricities” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by creatively reframing works from existing institutional collections and thoughtfully contextualizing contemporary art within its historical precedents. This reflective reorganization of artwork weaves together seemingly disparate pieces with thematic threads, which arguably constitutes as an act of writing the history of art. Through this chronologically comprehensive approach, Deitsch and Pidatella challenge authors to grow more conscious of the peripheral factors that can influence the meaning of their words and encourage readers to be more critical when interpreting the book as an independent and authentic object, rather than as a crude representation of its reality: a means to an end.

The exhibition will remain on view until Dec. 15 in the Tisch Family Gallery and Koppelman Gallery on the Medford campus.


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