Oriental Silk

Oriental Silk
Xiaowen Zhu
Design by Michael Mason, CHEVAL
Hatje Cantz

7 × 9.5 in. closed
196 pages
Smyth-sewn, clothbound hardcover
Offset inside with screenprinted cover

Front cover of Oriental Silk with bilingual title text screenprinted white on gray bookcloth. Next to the book is a white bookmark printed with green text repeating the author and title in English and Chinese.

Oriental Silk is a Los Angeles import and retail company, a film, and an ever-evolving installation project by self-described “visual poet and aesthetic researcher” Xiaowen Zhu. The book Oriental Silk is a bit of each of these things and more besides: a memoir, a biography, a company history, and a visual elegy.

The bilingual text of Oriental Silk begins with Zhu’s account of stumbling onto the eponymous store in Beverly Hills and, after meeting owner Ken Wong, making a documentary about the store’s history. The story quickly evolves, delving deep into Mr. Wong’s family’s past and his own psyche, while Zhu’s imagery, layout, and commentary raise questions about capitalism, Orientalism, nostalgia, and the nature of art and artisanship.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 70-71. Chinese text on verso, English on recto. The white paper is cut shorter than other pages, revealing green, pink, black and yellow pages behind.

Covering such a wide variety of topics and jumping between time periods and perspectives as Oriental Silk does could easily leave the book feeling scrambled and scattershot, but both the design and the careful manner in which the images and text are crafted unify these disparate threads into a coherent and affecting whole.

The book’s organization is a major part of its aesthetic. Zhu separates sections of prose narrative with series of images rendered on colored paper, often in pastel tones: “bright but subtle too,” as a customer describes Mr. Wong’s selection of silk goods, and also reminiscent of the sort of carbonless copy paper found in business settings. Many of the images are printed in black and white, but the colored paper lends them a brighter feel and reflects the aesthetics of the hand-embroidered silk pieces mentioned throughout the text.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 88-89. Verso and recto each have a black and white photo printed on the green paper. Silk jackets on the verso and labeled boxes of velcro on the recto.

Images and text are also separated in a more tactile way: the white pages that make up the book’s narrative are cut shorter than the colored pages on which readers encounter most of the images.

Zhu uses the separation between text and image to guide the reader through the multiple perspectives present in the work. While we begin with Zhu relating her first encounter with Wong and his store, Wong’s voice actually makes up most of the text; the images often serve as Zhu’s documentation of and commentary on his story.

This division is not always so simple, though. While many of the book’s photographs are composed consciously and presented in a manner reminiscent of a gallery exhibition, we also get something much closer to Wong’s perspective in one section of images: a scrapbook-like collection of historic documents and family photographs. These pictures are more obviously intimate and almost solely focused on human subjects, providing an internal counterpoint to Zhu’s observation of the shop and the family from an artist’s perspective.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 100-101. Verso and recto each have two black and white Wong family photos printed on the green paper.

This push and pull between the book’s two primary characters, the artist and her subject, is what gives the book so much of its initial charm and its lasting emotional impact. We feel we get to know Wong and come to understand his store alongside Zhu: both as itself and as a reflection of its owner.

However, Oriental Silk is not solely a document of interpersonal relationships; it also raises political, economic, and philosophical questions. Wong’s accounts of family history often brush against the harshest and most well-known examples of anti-Asian legislation, action, and sentiment: his great-grandfather was one of the many Chinese laborers who risked life and limb building the Transcontinental Railroad and were immediately erased from that history; his father purchased another immigrant’s paperwork in order to make it to the U.S. in 1941 and subsequently witnessed the internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 44-45. A single photo spans the gutter of the spread, printed black and white on yellow paper. The image is the shop's exterior sign: Oriental Silk Importers.

Zhu also concerns herself with more subtle, complicated examples of Orientalism with references to Anna May Wong, the “first Chinese-American star” who was still consistently shut out of the best roles in American cinema: a paradoxical victory for representation and demonstration of overt racism. Anna May Wong’s story serves as a parallel for the similar complexity of Zhu’s understanding of Ken Wong’s romanticized view of Chinese culture: influenced by Orientalist American notions, but also a deeply personal reverence for his family and their legacy. The Chinese title of the film, Xiang Chou, literally translates as “silks from town” but has the same pronunciation as the word for nostalgia.

Finally, the work is deeply concerned with the nature of art and craft, of what it means to consciously make physical objects of beauty. Descriptions and photographs of the silks and Ken Wong’s affectionate, methodical ways of handling and altering them make up a huge portion of the book, and readers can clearly see that the same conscious care went into the construction of the book itself. While Zhu’s film conveys Ken Wong’s story and everyday reality just as successfully and beautifully as the book, the book’s tactility adds another essential layer: the form reflects and enhances the content. In her artist’s statement, Zhu tells us she wrote the book because:

I feel films are more fluid, but the written word is more profound. As the creator, to be able to use … different media to convey the same story allows me to come at it from different angles, and to keep finding new aspects of the story that move me.

Zhu’s book serves as both an enlightening companion piece to her film and a fascinating work in its own right: an object of beauty to be looked at and touched like the eponymous silk goods, a thorough examination of the relationship between history and the individual, and an honest, mournful look at the passage of time in its grandeur and its mundanity.


Isabel Baraona and Catarina Domingues

7.625 × 10.25 in.
32 pages
Binding: Dos-a-dos; saddle-stitched pamphlets tied into the cover, with an unbound pamphlet inserted
Digital and offset printing
Edition of 100

Voragem; front cover with belly band. The author's names are printed: Isabel Baraona and Catarina Domingues

As a medium, books are noteworthy for their finitude. This seems increasingly significant in an era of infinite internet and endlessly reconfigurable data. So it is perhaps surprising that the artists’ books of Isabel Baraona often resist closure. Voragem, a collaboration with Catarina Domingues, is one such book. Its dos-a-dos binding makes each ending a beginning, and the content is well suited to this cycle. The lyrical, fragmentary text operates through invocation more than syntax, and suspends narrative resolution. The passage of time is an important theme, and yet there is an emphasis on presence and present-ness. Voragem physically embodies a combination of linear and circular time through the inclusion of a third (finite) pamphlet within one half of the larger dos-a-dos. The artists shrewdly use a removable belly band to print the title information, further equalizing the front and back covers. This is just one of many subtle decisions that show a sophisticated understanding of how the book’s structure works in concert with its content.

Voragem means “maelstrom” in Portuguese, and there is certainly turmoil in Baraona’s signature figures and Domingues’ distinctive mark-making. (I should note here that all of the book’s text is in Portuguese, and that I am very grateful to Vera Romiti Stecca Diani for sensitively translating the poetic writing.) The text proceeds in single words and short phrases. It is visceral and erotic, though the book points to an intersubjectivity more complex than mere sex. It is written in second person, addressing the reader directly and also inviting them to inhabit the absent I. This, along with the faceless, silhouetted figures make it easy for the reader to project themselves into the narrative.

Two visual modes dominate – dense, frantic line work and unpredictable, organic blotches of wet media. The contrast between is more than visual. The chance operations of the wet media are inscrutable, whereas the artists’ hands are visible in the drawn marks. Time has passed. A body has labored. If mark-making is a primal act, the delineation of the sacred from the profane, then Voragem brings something fundamentally human into dialogue with nature, the vicissitudes of physics acting on the liquid pigment. Voragem seems to celebrate the creative act, anguished though it may be.

Voragem; inside spread shows wet media blending into a line drawing

Both methods are combined and the images are worked into multiple times, creating tangled, tempestuous compositions from which figures are subtracted as stark silhouettes. This play of positive and negative, presence and absence, helps establish the setting as mental or metaphorical. The visual integration of hand-drawn text within the imagery furthers the sense of a mental place. The words seem to emanate from a knot of neurons, thought rather than spoken. The figures cast no shadows as they tumble and writhe, falling through the space of the page. Or perhaps the setting is outside the mind, physical but primordial. Baraona’s narratives often have an archetypal, mythological quality. The book’s primary color scheme adds to this foundational sense, though there is relatively little yellow. Blue and red predominate, evoking veins and arteries in the dense tangle of tendrils.

The subject matter is decidedly anatomical, but Baraona and Domingues abstract the visuals enough to include more than the vascular system. One drawing is clearly a heart, but specific organs are mostly left to the text (head; mouth; the tip of the nipple). Neurons can be seen in the fractal diffusion of wet media. Hair and guts are present in the varied line work. Still other marks appear to be something less physical, though surely of the body. By combining blood and nerves with neurons, the artists transcend any opposition of thinking and feeling. Braids and tangles erupt from, connect, and consume figures in this collapse of mind and body.

Interestingly, the anatomy challenges the human-nature binary set up by the contrasting mark making. If the deliberate line work speaks to something especially human, then the actual rendering of those humans reminds the reader that humans are just animals. The figures are contorted and asymmetrical. All the parts are present, but they assume unfamiliar shapes. The boundary between flesh and meat seems to waver. Just as body and mind are joined, so too are human and nature, but in the hands of Baraona and Domingues this is not a peaceful unity. Rather they speak to the difficulty of being in the world with no hope of transcending the embodied, natural order.

Voragem; first opening (inside cover and page 1) shows a tangle of lines and a silhouette of a woman

The book’s sequence shifts between figuration and abstraction, employing both to maximum effect. The first opening is a relatively straightforward representation – the negative silhouette of a one-shoed woman with a positive rendering of her missing shoe. More human figures follow until a blank page interrupts the sequence and an abstract, cosmic scene unfurls. The next spreads pair text with highly abstract compositions. The letterforms emerge from organic shapes that could be something very small – perhaps in a brain – or very large, like the universe. When the turn of a page reveals a figure, it is a startling return. She is bisected by a patch of hairlike lines, which leave a gaping absence where her abdomen should be. Her mouth is open, one hand is clenched and her toes curl in what could be either agony or ecstasy. The contemplative mood of the preceding pages is shattered, and this first half of the dos-a-dos concludes in an explosive, figurative manner.

Voragem; first opening of the book's second side

The second half opens with abstract, almost surreal compositions. These demonstrate the strength of Baraona and Domingues as collaborators. Both artists use line masterfully. Thickets of short black strokes seem almost stitched onto the longer striated forms beneath, which are visually distinct and rendered in color. A relatively limited visual vocabulary is extended with a surprising repertoire of optical effects and compositional choices. The design feels unified even as each artist’s contributions remain distinct.

Voragem; Inside spread with a smaller pamphlet inserted inside the main book

The inserted pamphlet achieves a similar balance. It is unbound, attached to the larger book by a thread through the gutter. (There is, in fact, a green thread looped around the gutter of each side of the dos-a-dos. The staples that bind each signature do not attach the cover, which is good and bad. The threads are somewhat distracting, especially their color, but they also avoid unsightly staples in the cover and the inevitable tearing that would result in the coated cover stock.) The drawing style in this smaller pamphlet is related, but only its cover has a white background. The rest of the negative space is filled with color washes. It makes the rest of the book feel stark by comparison. Baraona and Domingues are clearly aware of the power of this contrast. After the book-within-a-book concludes, the next page turn reveals another completely blank verso with a recto that is visually distinct from the book’s other imagery. Simple devices, like the dos-a-dos structure, let Baraona and Domingues synthesize a variety of visual approaches in a single work. Both artists thoughtfully engage the book form, and it is hard to picture Voragem’s collaborative content succeeding similarly in another medium.

The book within a book does draw attention to the book-ness of Voragem, but I would argue its meta-commentary is about the creative act more broadly. It speaks to our drive as storytelling animals, through image-making and written language alike. As the text and image explore one kind of relationship, the project itself posits another – collaboration. Perhaps the two share the same elements: vulnerability, compromise, history and hope. Baraona and Domingues forge a unified artistic statement from their distinct contributions. Fortunately for the reader, they achieved this through the democratic medium of the artists’ book. By thoughtfully engaging the book as medium, with elements like blank pages and short sheets, the artists are able to bring their time-intensive studio processes into an object that is more than a series of reproductions. The complex verbo-visual narrative demands much of the reader, but rewards them accordingly.

Everything Has a Language

Everything Has a Language
Marnie Powers-Torrey

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

the THERE, THERE quarterly (Volume One, Issue One)

the THERE, THERE quarterly, Volume One, Issue One
Travis Shaffer
Featuring Zora J. Murff, Cian Oba-Smith, and Terrance Purdy

10 × 12.5 in.
18 sheets
Unbound, gathered in a belly band

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Cover

the THERE, THERE quarterly is a new photo publication from Travis Shaffer’s imprint, theretherenow. Volume One, Issue One establishes the format: work by three photographers is Risograph printed and gathered in loose sheets by a belly band that practically qualifies as a slipcase. It is published in a limited edition of one hundred copies. Drawing on photobook and portfolio traditions, the THERE, THERE quarterly argues for a re-evaluation of the status of the photo print and limited edition. Mediation supplants mimesis, challenging alike the photomechanical facticity of a darkroom print and the endless pursuit of higher resolution in digital photography. Shaffer makes his case through the publication’s structure, layout, and print production. Print production is especially important to this exploration, with the Risograph serving as a sort of lodestar – commercial and artistic, analog and digital, unique and multiple, not yet pigeonholed into a single art practice or academic discipline. In this interdisciplinary territory, the THERE, THERE quarterly poses exciting questions for photography.

The issue consists of seventeen prints with photos on the front and numbers on the back. The layout is such that the numbers aren’t needed to keep the prints in order, but they do let the reader match the images with their creator. Issue One features Zora J. Murff, Cian Oba-Smith, and Terrance Purdy. A bio of each artist is included on an eighteenth sheet with the image list and, on the reverse, a colophon and editorial statement from Shaffer. The belly band containing all this is boldly printed with the title, artists and ink colors (this text is fluorescent pink).

Though the prints are numbered, the photographs are laid out across two sheets each, challenging the status of the photographic print as a unit. Like any good artists’ book, the content and structure guide the reader toward a suitable approach – in this case viewing two prints side by side, with a discard pile off to the side. The reading experience is fresh but familiar, somewhere between a portfolio, a book, and a horizontal scrolling portfolio website. The images are split across each sheet differently, creating a set of unique and asymmetrical compositions. The result propels the reader forward since the next sheet must always be viewed in order to complete the image.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread 8

This amplifies both momentum and meaning, creating three relationships in each “spread” of two sheets. The central image, synthesized across the “gutter” of both sheets, relates to the image fragments on either side, which also relate to one another. This simple device provides a dynamism not available to a conventional portfolio with images viewed one at a time. It also requires that the sequence is considered temporally and spatially, like a bound book. The spread of sheets eight and nine illustrate the effect well: a man’s head, facing left, exits off the left while a horse’s head, looking the same direction, enters on the right. The interplay of these images frames the central scene: two figures in front of a brownstone seen from across a desolate intersection.

Like its structure, the publication’s print production exerts considerable influence on the meaning. Shaffer highlights the importance of Risography, placing the colors front and center on the belly band alongside the title and contributing artists’ names: “[R]isograph printed in metalic gold, black and fluorescent pink.” In the back matter, he writes: “The RISO is our campfire. Institutional by design but co-opted by artists. Absurdly analog method of digital printing. Subversively resisting the service to content inherent to the publishing paradigm.” Thus, the quarterly’s print production serves to further challenge and complexify the status of photography and the meaning of publishing.

In this case, the unusual color separation is particularly well-suited to the content. All three photographers deal with representations of blackness. Representing skin tones with metallic gold, black and fluorescent pink ink seems to speak to the constructedness of race through media, and the history of photographic processes erasing, or at least ignoring, marginal identities. Issue One strikes a good balance between the meta questions – the friction between Risography and photography – and the projects of each artist.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

The artist bios stand in for an editorial statement, presenting broad lines of inquiry and leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Each artist is concerned with race and representation, but their individual approaches contribute something different to the quarterly. Zora J. Murff contributed photographs from his series At No Point In Between. His work examines the interrelationship between people and their environment, and this project looks at the lasting impact of redlining. He takes on the challenge of representing a catastrophe so slow people barely notice, a stark example of the aesthetic dimensions of politics. The images are melancholy, the tired boredom of a hot summer afternoon. His portraits are more expressionistic, intimate and closer cropped than Oba-Smith’s full bodies and sharp lines.

Cian Oba-Smith does share an interest in the relationship between people and their environment. His series Concrete Horsemen examines a subculture of black horsemen in urban Philadelphia. By delving deep into this little-known community, he challenges dominant narratives about black men in the US. His jarring juxtapositions show just how shallow are the monolithic racial identities rehearsed in media and political rhetoric. His compositions riff on art-historical equestrian poses, but include dilapidated buildings and telephone poles. Many images have a substantial depth of field to allow these incongruous urban background elements into the portrait. He emphasizes the dreamlike quality of these strange combinations with soft natural light, muted colors, and light exposures.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

Oba-Smith takes a similar approach in Andover & Six Acres Estates, named for two housing complexes in London. In this case, he explicitly challenges a narrative of crime and poverty that has been constructed around a community. Yet, he does so with the same authentic curiosity, taking the time to immerse himself. Oba-Smith forges a connection with his subjects, and the images – candid, but never voyeuristic – benefit from this practice. The work presents an effective counter-narrative, but does so through open-minded observation.

Terrance Purdy takes a more active role in staging his subjects. He uses expressive lighting and a limited color range to construct moods and metaphors that distinguish the work from the more documentary modes of Murff and Oba-Smith. Skin and hair play a pivotal role in Purdy’s exploration of race and identity, and his visual style seems perfectly calculated to emphasize these elements. The influence of fashion photography is clear in his work, but he approaches fashion and consumption with a critical eye. While Murff and Oba-Smith seek to move beyond stereotypes, Purdy assaults them head on. One particularly arresting image shows the Christ-like figure of a young black man, crucified on a basketball hoop in a part. Purdy expertly draws the viewer’s eye to the point of highest contrast – the subject’s bright white shoes emblazoned with a black Nike swoosh. The image recalls Hank Willis Thomas’ works examining the commodification of black bodies in sport. However, Purdy rejects the stark, empty backgrounds of Thomas’ images and aligns his work with the rest of the quarterly by connecting the human subject to their environment.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

This thematic through line is supported visually by the unifying effect of the Risography’s coarse halftone and limited color palette. The extent of this effect is easy to assess since the publication’s website features the same image sequence without the mediation of print production. The images are interwoven, with never more than two consecutive photos by the same artist. This integrates the various approaches taken by each photographer and contributes to the rhythm of the sequence. The combined work makes a powerful case for the role of the aesthetic in the politics of race and identity. Through their varying approaches to the broader context of social and economic factors, these three photographers show how artists can contribute meaningfully to conversations about race at this critical moment.

The tension between Shaffer’s vision and that of the photographers is productive and satisfying. There is enough content for the reader to encounter the images in their own right. The structure and print production eventually take a back seat, especially after the first reading. Nevertheless, the material object maintains a presence. Readers will likely look closely at the color separations, and reassembling the sheets with the belly band engages the reader in a way that stacking prints back into a portfolio or museum box doesn’t. As with any curatorial project, the success will be determined ultimately by the selection of photographers that benefit from a dialog with one another and with the material constraints of the print process. This first issue of the THERE, THERE quarterly sets a high bar.