To My Unborn Child

To My Unborn Child
Wen-Li Chen
2018

7 × 9 × 1 in. closed
296 pages
Sewn hardcover with exposed spine
Digital printing
Edition of 5

To My Unborn Child, front cover. Black bookcloth with not text.

As the title implies, To My Unborn Child is an epistolary work ostensibly addressed to Chen’s then-unborn child. It addresses concerns shared by many expecting parents as well as some particular to Chen’s own inheritance as a multi-ethnic Taiwanese (Kavalan and Sakilaya) and Han Chinese woman living in the United States. The stakes of these personal and political concerns are deeply felt, from the pangs of guilt and loss that come with the slow cultural erasure of assimilation to the threat of sudden political annihilation that characterizes Taiwan’s precarious existence as a democracy. To My Unborn Child corresponds with a 2018 exhibition of the same name, but the book is very much a cohesive artistic expression in itself. Indeed, Chen shows how well suited the book form is for exploring identity — fragmented, contradictory, always in flux.

To My Unborn Child is, in fact, a version of an existing genre: the Zupu, or genealogy book. It may also, following the exhibition, include elements of fiction as well as memoir. In Chen’s handling, this family book weaves together text, image, and material from a variety of sources. Family archives (photos, correspondence, family trees) are paired with a primer on the history of Taiwan and the text from a public monument commemorating the Kalyawan Battle, in which indigenous Taiwanese rose up against Han occupiers during the Qing Dynasty. In this regard, the epistolary framework is a clever conceit, allowing Chen to introduce readers to the history and geopolitics of Taiwan in a way that is didactic but not condescending. And addressing the reader in second person makes the more personal content especially powerful.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: timeline of Taiwan history. Recto: excerpt from a Kavalan song.

From these variegated sources, the book is organized into five sections: (Your) people, (Your) culture, (Your) family, (Your) name, (Your) future. While the content of each section differs, they follow a similar pattern. Each begins with a single word or phrase to set the tone or context; however, some words are transliterated not translated, leaving an English-speaking reader to research or go forth without guidance — either of which reflect the fragmented, discontinuous nature of memory, inheritance, and identity. Having studied foreign languages and literature, Chen understands the feelings of distance or belonging that come with language and uses these devices to modulate the book’s level of intimacy and emotional register.

Each section also features a pair of paragraphs in English and Chinese. The English texts are prose with a memoiristic, almost confessional tone, while the Chinese side is more poetic. The Chinese writing is untranslated and the relationship between the two is not always linear. (For the sake of reviewing the book, I relied on a friend, Kaixi Burns, to translate the poetry when it became clear that Google Lens wouldn’t do justice to the quality of Chen’s writing.) Family photographs, faded and distressed to anonymize their subjects and perhaps speak to memory and loss, and other family documents also appear in each section. Text, especially handwriting, also operates as an index of absent presence (and further demonstrates the feeling of connectedness that language can produce, even untranslated).

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: English memoir with Chinese poem, side by side. Recto: A flying seagull casts a shadow on the beach below, the image is rotated 90 degrees.

The book’s five sections are separated by spreads of full-bleed black, but there are also elements that carry through and lend continuity to the reading experience. These throughlines are contemporary color photographs with oblique connections to the main text. For example, what appear to be stills from a video of a seagull flying along a beach repeat throughout the book in different configurations and orientations. These eventually coalesce in a grid on a single spread, radically collapsing their timeframe. Playing with timescale is a key feature of To My Unborn Child, which leaps from a history lesson beginning in 1632 to a line-by-line transcription of a mundane phone call. Never mind the sense of futurity, the unborn baby, which underpins the project.

This temporal play makes the book’s own timing critical, and here Chen displays impressive sensitivity to the formal devices that pace the reader. Some spreads feature perfectly balanced typography that invites the reader to sit with a text, while others propel the reader forward with dynamic fragments that require resolution. The result is a book where the turn of a page is never predictable, but nor is it random. Chen advances the narrative and introduces new ideas using variations on central themes, unifying the reading experience without tying a bow with each thread.

However, on the subject of timescale, I must confess I have buried the lede. What distinguishes To My Unborn Child is the overwhelming majority of the book’s 296 pages belong to an extended cinematic sequence, where Chen’s interest in film and photographic theory is on full display. Not quite a flipbook, the motion-blurred interlude shows a single family photo of three figures dancing, with the hand holding the photograph visible. It is not clear whether the hand or the camera is moving — perhaps both. At times the viewer relates more to the original image in the photograph, other times to the photograph as an object (a physical record in someone’s hand), or even to the hand holding the photograph.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread: a full-bleed image of a hand holding a photograph. The photo shows three figures dancing.

This strategy of reanimating the photograph as more than a representation, with a keen sense of its experience in the book form, illustrates what Chen calls moving from, “medium into material and back into becoming another medium.” By harnessing this transformation, the artists’ book can integrate disparate materials and temporalities, like installation art but within a single object. This allows Chen to enact the transformation that is also inherent in photography itself. As her artist’s statement notes:

“The moment of taking a picture is also the evidence of its passing. Image making attempts to reengage the trace left in an image, the plasticity found in reorganizing memory and intention. However, no amount of altering can completely erase that initial sense of passing, death as a picture.”

In To My Unborn Child, heritage is always haunted by loss. Whether political, cultural, or personal, no inheritance is complete. Nor can one predict what gets handed down or how it might manifest in the future. Against this uncertainty, Chen embraces multiple modes of memorialization — monuments, names, family trees, photographs, letters, stories, and poems. The result is an intimate look at the artist’s complicated relationship to her language(s), culture(s), and family. No doubt this examination was sincerely motivated by her immanent motherhood, but it is ultimately the reader who plays the role of Chen’s unborn child. Thus, we can add art to the list above, another way to process and share one’s cultural heritage. At the same time, art carries forward a piece of its creator, not unlike a child.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: a distressed black and white photo shows two children. Recto: English memoir and Chinese poem, side by side.

The need to keep alive connections to family and culture is all the more important at a time of overlapping refugee crises and cultural erasures. Some of the most poignant moments in To My Unborn Child center on the profound disconnect that accompanies emigration, on trying to keep in touch with an aging grandparent, on worrying about visiting because of travel restrictions, on feeling guilty for leaving in the first place,. Chen uses the artists’ book to convey the ambivalence of her experience, its multiple timescales and layers of history. As stories like hers become even more common, the need for representations that embrace complexity and specificity will only grow. To My Unborn Child is a model for synthesizing personal and political histories, even as it acknowledges the inevitability of loss and change.

Everything Has a Language

Everything Has a Language
Marnie Powers-Torrey
2018
https://faculty.utah.edu/u0047935-Marnie_Powers-Torrey/hm/index.hml

2.875 × 6.5 in. closed
“Interlocking loops” accordion structure
Risograph

"Everything Has a Language" Cover

The paper engineering of Marnie Powers-Torrey’s Everything Has a Language is deceptively simple: it is a soft cover accordion with four panels. Both sides of the accordion are printed with bold, primary color imagery and coated in wax.* Riffing on Hedi Kyle’s “interlocking loops” structure, horizontal slits divide the accordion into a grid, organizing spaces for the mysterious geometric illustrations that comprise the book’s main content. The only written content is the title. This fact, and the title itself, suggest that the reader would do well to approach the layered, processual images as language.

"Everything Has a Language" open flat, front

I say the simplicity is deceptive because the combination of cuts and folds enable a number of configurations. The interlocking loops structure shifts between accordion, pop-up and flag book to great effect, sustaining the reader’s attention for far longer than its slim proportions might suggest. The accordion fold is doubled, allowing the reader to cut the width of each panel to half that of the cover. Folded this way, the horizontal slits can be popped out as a simple box pop up. Already the reader begins to see the combinatorial possibilities of the book, the relationships that can be drawn between the images by way of peaks and valleys. The reader can then pinch these pop ups together to form a flag book, which again reconfigures relationships among the imagery.

"Everything Has a Language" open with folds, front

Whereas other accordion books and flag books can simply be closed when the reader is done, Everything Has a Language folds together in such a way that it requires the reader to press it back to its original state before the book can be closed and slipped back into its belly band. This creates a ritualistic, almost indulgent, experience in which the reader sets the book up before engaging with the content and then winds down afterwards. Anyone who has lived by themselves but nevertheless made their bed in the morning will understand the quiet pleasure of this book’s structure. The feeling of ritual is enhanced by the book’s sculptural quality. Everything Has a Language creates a physical space for the reader to contemplate the relationship between the title and the imagery, and between various pairs and groups of images as the folded grid is manipulated.

The book’s materials also help push the book beyond a typical reading experience. By waxing the paper, Powers-Torrey defamiliarizes the substrate’s appearance, weight, texture, smell and sound. The wax accentuates the creases of every fold, making visible the material impact of reading on the book. The tactile affect is even more pronounced. The book feels almost organic, somehow more alive than paper. This boosts the juicy, over-inked quality of the imagery, which doesn’t quite look dry enough to handle.

"Everything Has a Language" front, open as a flag book

The images can, of course, be handled, but they are difficult to grasp. They complicate the reader’s sense of time and space; they are tightly resolved even as they reveal the step by step process by which they were created. Each image, framed on its own flag, is built from circles and squares. The reference to sacred geometry is offset by the squishy, imperfect line quality, which nudges them into the realm of something scientific, whether cosmic or microscopic. They are rendered in the primary colors and black, adding to the primordial, archetypal sensibility. Print-savvy readers may see the palette as CMYK and come away with the same feeling that there is some foundational process at work.

The great achievement of this book is that such lofty speculations arise from what is, in fact, documentation of various found objects. Powers-Torrey’s process of mono-printing and stamping directly from inked objects gives an interesting and complex ontological status to both the objects and the resulting images. The images are narrative, built layer by layer from different forms, yet each mark is an index, the physical trace of an object. Thus the objects are also subjects, the way that photography is always also about light.

Understood as documentation, Powers-Torrey’s work finds a provocative place in the tradition of artists’ books. Ed Ruscha’s twenty-six filling stations, which seem to be straightforward documents, fudge the road trip they purport to chronicle. Similarly the walking artist Hamish Fulton appears to document a walk in his book 10 Views of Brockman’s Mount, a naturally formed hill near Hythe, Kent, England, though a close read reveals the images to have been taken on different days. Ruscha and Fulton play with the way the codex form can assert chronology on its contents, but the complex structure Powers-Torrey uses in Everything Has a Language resists this effect and flattens the contents. Narrative possibilities remain open and the reader must do more of the work.

"Everything Has a Language" open flat, back

It is this work that is central to the book. Everything may have a language, but Powers-Torrey does not say whether the languages are mutually intelligible. A typical book contains text intended for the reader, but Everything Has a Language presents other possibilities. Perhaps the objects are communicating amongst themselves, and the reader is the catalyst that puts them in dialogue with one another by manipulating different sets of flags. The book’s structure facilitates this approach that is paradoxically more engaged in the haptic sense, but more passive, meditative in terms of interpreting meaning.

Everything Has a Language carries on the tradition of artists’ books as documentation and collection, but pushes the boundaries of intelligibility. It also seems to tap into newer currents in the broader art world, such as the influence of Object Oriented Ontology or other Post-humanisms.

Powers-Torrey lets objects speak for themselves, perhaps even among themselves. It is up to the human reader to make their own meaning, and both the artist and reader leave their mark on the book as they do this. The balance of this deeply personal, embodied meaning-making with the sense that the book’s images recede infinitely beyond translation is a productive and enjoyable tension.

*There are two editions of this book, one with wax-coated pages and the other without.

Lost Houses of Lyndale

Lost Houses of Lyndale
Matt Bergstrom
Design by Mary Clare Butler
2018
Fata Morgana Press
www.fatamorganapress.com/

8 × 5 in.
40 pages
Binding: Single-section pamphlet
Letterpress cover and offset inside

Lost Houses of Lyndale, front outside cover

In Lost Houses of Lyndale, Matt Bergstrom presents a history of all the recently-demolished homes along a two-block stretch in the rapidly-gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. After a brief introduction, the book proceeds with a consistent format: a drawing of each house is paired with a short written history. The entries trace the homes’ various owners, builders, renovations and the like, and occasionally offer charming vignettes of the occupants. Grounded primarily in archival research, these stories are brought alive through Bergstrom’s brisk writing and lively drawing.

Even beyond the content, Lost Houses of Lyndale is a thoroughly Chicago book. It is a collaboration between two Chicago-based designers (Bergstrom created the content and Mary Clare Butler of Fata Morgana Press designed the book). It is printed offset and letterpress on AB Dick and Vandercook presses, respectively – both Chicago companies. Naturally, the type is set in two faces by Chicago’s own Frederick Goudy. Given Bergstrom’s penchant for history and Butler’s deep engagement with Chicago in her own art practice, it seems unlikely that these details are mere coincidence. 

Lost Houses of Lyndale, front inside cover

The book’s design contributes greatly to its success. Each entry comprises the same elements – a drawing with a handwritten address and typed caption and a brief typeset history – yet no two spreads are alike. The drawings vary considerably in proportion, but are masterfully accommodated in each layout. The result is cool, relaxed and balanced. Likewise, the monochrome design and ample negative space help manage the imperfect printing of the AB Dick duplicator. The white space and comfortable margins make the book feel larger than it is. The horizontal, almost panoramic proportions are appropriate for the content and let the single-section pamphlet open easily and lay flat. The inside covers take full advantage of the dimensions, sporting a map of the street with the demolished houses marked. Even the paper choice adds to the message (French “Construction Insulation Pink” and “Construction Steel Blue”). Coincidence? Perhaps, but the subtle tone of the inside pages certainly enhances the reading experience. 

The book’s sense of balance carries into the writing as well. Bergstrom modulates the extent to which he filters his research for the reader, at time editorializing and riffing. Though Lost Houses of Lyndale is a unified artistic expression, Bergstrom’s presence never obscures the people and houses whose story he tells. The hand-drawn imagery calls attention to the role of author in a way that is especially interesting for an artists’ book that is a work of history. The reader confronts the various forms and degrees of mediation in text and image differently as the book progresses.

Lost Houses of Lyndale, inside spread 1

In the linear format of a book, the drawings form a virtual street. The reader strolls down the sidewalk as they turn the page, and can imagine the artist sketching the houses in much the same manner. Before long, this coherent, linear picture is disrupted. The dates reveal that the images must have been drawn from photographs. Slight differences in point of view lend an uncanny feel to the patchwork panorama, which, of course, also excludes all the not-yet-demolished houses in between. It isn’t as though the artist is trying to fool the reader. The street numbers are listed above each drawing, and the map is right there on the cover. Rather, the immersive fiction of the street of demolished homes demonstrates the power of the codex as a technology for selecting and sequencing content.

Lost Houses of Lyndale, inside spread 2

The authority of the codex also benefits from the unifying effect of the drawings. A book of archival photographs with their disparate focal lengths and exposures would have an entirely different impact. By drawing, Bergstrom is able to selectively showcase the demolished houses, isolating them entirely or suggesting neighboring houses with a sketchy outline. This erasure interestingly and ironically inverts the true absence that is the very heart of the book. It is easy to minimize how these decisions mediate the subject; the drawings share the “realistic” quality of urban sketching or architectural renderings.

Where the images present a consistent, timeless unity, the writing emphasizes change. The historical descriptions document the many generations and families that pass through a single century-old home. The houses themselves evolve, too. Bergstrom notes renovations and additions, comparing archival photos and descriptions to recent documentation. There is a clear passion for Chicago’s unique architectural history in these profiles of workers cottages and two-flats, but the book isn’t a simplistic screed against contemporary architecture or luxury condos. As the old truism goes, change is the only constant. Bergstrom even points out that Lyndale Street was originally called Johnston Avenue. The inability of his drawings to seamlessly recreate a view of the street shows the futility of nostalgia.

Lost Houses of Lyndale, inside spread 3

Instead, the book explores the richer territory of the lives lived inside these lost houses. In one anecdote, the last surviving member of a family had left the house and moved to California to get married at the age of seventy-two. Another building had housed a neighborhood grocery that operated continuously for over one hundred years. In some ways, the lifespan of the lost houses is more remarkable than the rapacious development replacing them. The historical content throws into sharp relief the societal changes these houses survived. One occupant was a carriagemaker (a word so anachronistic that spellcheck flags it). Another was a cigar maker. One house was so old that the street was not yet numbered – an 1882 city directory describes it “near California Ave.”

Bergstrom’s interest is, ultimately, the social fabric of the neighborhood. Even in his criticism of the new construction, he points out that these luxury units are put up by developers. It’s hard to imagine a situation further from the house at 2941 Lyndale, built by carpenter John Limond in 1886. Just as workers cottages and corner groceries reflected the era of carriagemakers, Lyndale’s new condos are the product of today’s speculative real estate capitalism.

The implicit social commentary remains in the background. Bergstrom is never preachy and Lost Houses of Lyndale is more reparative than critical. It is a timely book that offers a constructive way for artists and readers to navigate turbulent times.