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.

ERRATA

ERRATA
Nuno Moreira and David Soares
2020

5.5 × 8 in.
52 pages
Binding: Link-stitch with exposed spine
Laser inside and foil stamped slipcase.
Edition of 50

ERRATA slipcase with foil-stamped title

ERRATA is a cinematic, existentialist essay that explores mysticism and metaphysics through the metaphor of the book. Grainy, high-contrast images chronicle a cryptic encounter on the book’s rectos. The versos present a text, in both Portuguese and English, which questions humanity’s place in the universe, and whether we can ever come to know it through language. ERRATA is a collaboration between writer David Soares and artist Nuno Moreira, whose background in filmmaking informs the book’s style. The book grounds the arcane topic through jumps in scale, back and forth from the cosmological to the individual and embodied. The reader is further engaged, even implicated, by the book’s self-reflexive bibliographic content and the point-of-view photography. The artists remind the reader that language and books have long been fruitful yet frustrating tools with which to grapple with life’s big questions. ERRATA also demonstrates that artists’ books can be capable contributors to this age-old quest.

As readers of this review likely know, an erratum is a list of corrections accompanying a book with errors. So it is perhaps ironic that ERRATA is exquisitely crafted with great attention to detail. (The production value extends to all aspects of the project; my review copy arrived wrapped in black tissue paper, closed with a monogrammed seal.) The publication comprises a black paper slipcase and an uncovered, link-stitched text block with an exposed spine. The binding calls attention to the object’s book-ness, reinforcing the meta-commentary inside. Foil-stamped lettering on both sides of the slipcase spells out the title in circular configuration (perhaps recalling a mystical hexagram), removing any distinction between its front and back. The contrast of the white linen thread and paper with the black slipcase is a striking design feature that anticipates the visual style of the book’s content.

Like the case, the book itself downplays the distinction of front and back. There are no covers per se, so the first and last pages stand in, and mirror each other’s compositions. A small, square, black and white photograph is centered on the page, depicting a table and chair in a room. One image shows the table empty, while the other shows a fire blazing on the tabletop. Both images have a surrealist quality, and their relationship hints at a chronological relationship. All of this supports a double reading – front to back and back to front. As Moreira hints in his project statement, “everything makes sense in reverse.” Indeed, the text is remarkably successful in either direction, and the photographic narrative fares almost as well. In one reading, a woman at an empty table is approached by a man who hands her a book, whose pages turn from blank to black as she reads. In the other, a book is burned but not consumed, as if by some Promethean fire, and then cleansed page by page by a woman who then gives the book to a man.

Yet, to say it makes sense is an overstatement. The book is dense with symbolism and reference, requiring reflection as much as reading. Soares’ writing is elevated and sometimes overwrought (at least the translated English text), but suits the religious and mystical texts it references. It is the language of writing rather than speaking, further reinforcing the book’s focus on the constructed and incomplete nature of books and language. The bidirectional reading succeeds in large part due to the text’s use of parallelism. The repetition is more than another biblical reference; it helps anchor the reader and reinforce ideas that may be lost in the intricate, unfamiliar language. For example, the book’s final phrase – “We are all pages in a book: when we are turned, we die. All letters are mute to us.” – is mirrored by a passage earlier in the book, “All letters are mute to us. We are illiterate in the face of the proclitic and echoing speech of the cosmos.”

The aphoristic proclamations and questions add context and connotation to the image sequence, but neither text nor image directly illustrate one another. Nor do they interact visually. The text remains on the verso, and the square photographs land in the same position on each recto. This enables the reader to approach the visual narrative almost like a flip book, which further strengthens the its cinematic quality. More importantly, the moving image enhances the sense that the reader whose point of view ERRATA’s reader occupies is doing something other than reading. The photographs capture her hands turning the pages in such a way that she appears to be conjuring something magical. Palm down, her hand waves over the pages as they transition from light to dark (or dark to light). The noisy, chiaroscuro photographs sell the mystical mood, and add a surprising amount of interest to a sequence that largely depicts a pair of hands reading a book.

ERRATA is at its best when the text and image support one another, letting the reader make meaning from the parallels and juxtapositions. The single image with text in it – in which the book’s title is revealed – is heavy-handed compared to the rest of the work, which is open to alternate interpretations and even simultaneous contradictions. The title, “Structure of Consciousness,” is unlikely to tell the reader anything they didn’t already know. ERRATA is explicit in its references to consciousness and cosmology. Its sense of mystery comes not from withholding information from the reader, but from engaging with topics that are truly mysterious.

ERRATA is about the quest/ions more than answers. Through its self-reflexivity, the book connects art to this fundamental human pursuit of understanding. It also uses the human-scaled intimacy of the book as a medium to powerfully play with the reader’s sense of scale. Voice, heart, hands and eyes are at once human and otherworldly in Soares’ prose. They also reinforce the inescapable role of language in forming our understanding of the cosmos. Letters, words and pages – the book is a shapeshifting metaphor in ERRATA, giving the reader not a sense of closure, but connection to a timeless inquiry. For all its connotations of truth and authority, the book reminds the reader that all is not as it seems. The photography places the reader in multiple points of view, both immanent and transcendent, just as the structure encourages more than one sequence. The final image, a book ablaze, is a fitting conclusion to a work that challenges the authority of the book even as it harnesses that power as a metaphor for existence itself.

Moreira and Soares understand that the book is effective both as a metaphor and as a medium. The strength of ERRATA is that it trades on the book as a symbol – creation, religion, authority, the body – even as it eschews the formulaic familiarity that makes such references possible. It exudes book-ness, but operates cinematically. It establishes a power dynamic with the reader, only to change that relationship repeatedly throughout the reading experience. It promises an exploration of the universe, and delivers a treatise on the book itself. The artists approach the book almost like tactical media, critiquing the form while harnessing its strength. ERRATA shows why the artists’ book continues to be a generative mode for collaboration, interdisciplinarity and unanswered questions.

Notes from Byzantium

Notes from Byzantium
Shelly Taylor and Eben Goff, ed. AB Gorham
2019
Black Rock Press
www.unr.edu/art/black-rock-press

7 × 9 × .25 in.
60 pages
Binding: Softcover codex with sewn signatures
Foil cover and HP Indigo inside

Notes from Byzantium, cover

The combination of poetry by Shelly Taylor and art by Eben Goff is not an obvious choice, but then, the best books are often surprising. Both text and image benefit from this unlikely marriage in Notes from Byzantium, edited by AB Gorham of Black Rock Press. The two remain on their respective pages, integrated through juxtaposition and rhythm. Depending on the spread, text or image occupy either recto or verso or both. The unpredictable pattern influences the reader’s pace, though the effect only gradually becomes apparent. This dynamic reading experience, combined with the book’s size and materiality, make artists’ books a good framework for approaching the hybrid publication. Though the text is divided into discrete, titled poems, Notes from Byzantium is neither a typical poetry chapbook nor a fine press edition.

The book, as a physical object, is unusual. It feels simultaneously modest and luxurious in the reader’s hands. It is covered in a coral pink book cloth, which is folded over paper rather than board to create a pillowy, flexible codex. The text block is sewn in five slim signatures of three sheets each, so it lays flat with little resistance. Even the full-page images lose nothing in the gutter. The mechanics of the book afford it a sensuality that would be lacking had it been perfect bound or pamphlet-stitched. The relatively thick paper still drapes nicely as the page turns, thanks to the book’s nearly square proportion. Even the texture and opacity of the paper contribute to a deluxe feeling that is especially well suited to Goff’s photography.

The series of photos depict the artist’s own oil engravings in wax panels. However, they are not mere documentation or facsimile. As the book advances, the photographs progress from decontextualized close-ups of stratigraphic imagery to compositions that hint at the objects’ scale and materiality. The pieces appear as though thread was somehow embedded in marble. The restrained color palette and limited mark-making vocabulary heighten the impact of subtle changes. When the horizontal rows of filament give way to vertical columns, the relationship between text and image is radically reconfigured. Likewise, the switch back and forth between full-page photos-as-image and cropped photos-of-image repositions the reader in relation to the book’s themes of memory, time and place.

There is no literal, illustrative connection between the text and image. With their geological appearance, Goff’s images seem to speak to memory and environment. The oil engravings exude temporality and process – the slow deposit of sedimentary layers, or perhaps their erosion. This makes them ideal for reflecting on Taylor’s words, which are very much about place. Though her lexicon evokes the American South, and she references the desert southwest, each poem seems to transcend one region. They convey what it feels like to have a sense of place, where ever it may be rooted. Taylor establishes setting with only a few details, the way one might recall their childhood home. The reading experience is not unlike memory; what begin as grounded narratives accelerate into fragments of language. One gets the impression of Taylor’s hometown, but it’s glimpsed through the passenger window of a too-fast truck.

This momentum makes the pairing of text and image especially welcome. Once the poem begins, there is no place to pause. One must simply keep up with Taylor as she jumps between ideas until the theme emerges. “Every hinge gap apple please you,” for example, is a seventeen-line poem with a single period. The beautiful, intricate images provide an ideal place to reflect on the preceding poem. They are endlessly interpretable, receptive to the reader’s projections and associations. Both Goff and Taylor forge a pleasing gestalt from elements that are, upon closer examination, surprisingly rough. The tension between these fragments and the pieces they constitute remains compelling throughout the book.

Women are another important through line in the book – women and girls and the distance traveled between (in both directions, growing up and reminiscing). Taylor’s poems touch on the unspoken things women pass down, for better or worse, through the generations. It’s not that men, or more often boys, are absent. Rather, what is striking is how they are mediated through an intimate, intersubjective narration, a secret or a memory shared between sisters. Contributing to the momentum of Taylor’s writing, the women of Notes from Byzantium seem restless, in transition even as they shape the sense of place.

You moved all your stuff across town for love
hands in lap passenger seat shy shoulders
soot for later when the fires came through
we found new homes.

The speed, instability and fragmentation of the text all benefit from the book’s type treatment. With incredible economy, small changes in justification and word-spacing effectively alter the expression of each poem. A number of poems successfully use an unusual technique: the text is fully justified, with the word spacing selectively (not evenly) distributed throughout each line. Neither fully random, as with prose, nor predetermined as with verse, the line breaks and word spacing in poems like “Straight to the jawline bloody Igor” are the combined result of chance and choice. There is a resourcefulness, an ambivalence, in this approach that seems appropriate for the text. The impact of this design decision is demonstrated in contrast to poems that similarly use selective word spacing, but with a ragged right edge that leaves the line break to the poet’s discretion. Further variations, all with the same typeface, point size, and leading, show the power of typography. Even the titles benefit from the subtle handling.

Notes from Byzantium offers a nuanced presentation of challenging, rewarding text and imagery. In a digital world, it is fair to question whether a book warrants a printed existence. Notes from Byzantium will invite readers back again and again. The book’s engaging materiality and excellent print quality create the right reading experience for such potent content. That it achieves this elegance while celebrating the grounded, unfussy quality of Taylor and Goff’s work is an impressive achievement.