Oriental Silk

Oriental Silk
Xiaowen Zhu
Design by Michael Mason, CHEVAL
2020
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.

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings
Edited by Gill Partington, Adam Smyth, Simon Morris
Information as Material
2020

Inscription journal: 12 × 12 in. offset-printed perfect-bound codex, 134 pages
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase, 12 pages
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside
Craig Saper, Global Reading Supplement: Augmented reality app

Front cover of Inscription, a square journal with a hold drilled in the middle. The cover image shows the open fore-edge of a book, an partial, black and white photo of a woman and a spiral icon in the top right corner.

As “the journal of material text,” Inscription is necessarily self-aware, so its inaugural issue is appropriately titled “Beginnings.” Each contributor grapples in some way with beginnings, endings, and time more generally. The journal’s organizing principle — and a recurrent visual motif — is the spiral. As a concept of time, the spiral is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather allows for new variations on familiar themes, think Mark Twain’s (probably apocryphal) observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” However, in the case of Inscription, the spiral organization is as much spatial as it is temporal. That is, the diverse contributions — from book history and literature to poetics and pedagogy — are connected by the universal impulse to inscribe and the inescapable influence of time.

Jérémie Bennequin, "An Erasure into the Maelström" fully open to 36 × 36 in., showing a spiral form erased from the complete text of Poe's original short story.
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside.

Inscription’s self-awareness is no surprise as a project of Information as Material, a publisher whose mission is to create new meaning through reframing. A journal is such a framing device, and one that Inscription’s editors examine, exploit, and expand. This expansion, also symbolized through the centrifugal movement of the spiral, manifests most visibly in the various components that accompany the primary codex and its relatively conventional scholarly contributions. (I say relatively because many of the essays tend toward lyricism and self-reflection, and because reading them requires rotating the over-sized, perfect-bound codex in a spiral fashion and reading from both directions since the journal has two beginnings with two prefaces.)

On the left, a 12-inch vinyl LP of Sean Ashton "Living in a land" which features a photo of the poet reading in front of a microphone. On the right, Craig Dworkin's "Clock" which looks like a 45 rpm in a square slipcase with a circle die cut from the middle.
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP; and
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase

These additional components comprise: an augmented reality poem by Craig Saper; an audio recording of poet Sean Ashton on a vinyl LP; what appears to be a 45 rpm record but is actually a printed poem-essay by Craig Dworkin; and a three-foot-square, two-sided erasure of Edgar Allen Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström by Jérémie Bennequin. The dimensions of the complete assembly are determined by the 12-inch record, and the journal’s editors plan to include a record with each issue. The square codex itself mirrors the record with a hole drilled through the middle. Indeed, the reader spins the codex like a record, but the hole is not the axis. Instead, it doubles upon opening, two eyes looking back at the reader.

For all of this eccentric and lavish production, the publishers do an admirable job of making the content available. A complete digital version is available open access, including the audio recordings and video documentation of Saper’s augmented reality piece. A downloadable PDF gives the reader some idea of the admittedly cumbersome reading experience of the printed codex, but thankfully the full text of the articles is also available in more conventional HTML. The journal strikes a similar balance between risk-taking and rigor in terms of process. The artist- and writer-in-residence roles may be somewhat unusual for a journal, but submissions are double-blind peer reviewed, and the editorial board is stacked with big names in artists’ books and related fields.

Inside spread of Inscription, which shows the text rotated nearly sideways. There are full color figures and any appearance of the word "inscription" is printed in red ink. There is a hole through the center of each page, like a record.

Although I cannot manage a review of individual articles and contributions here (many deserve such attention), together they show the promise of Inscription’s interdisciplinary approach. The wide-ranging perspectives and methods are effectively bound together by themes of materiality and mediation, and each contribution seemed of comparable quality. The articles that seemed furthest outside my areas of interest or expertise were unexpectedly engaging, and those that were closer found fresh approaches to familiar topics. Two standouts were “On Stone,” Serena Smith’s rhizomatic reflection on lithography stones, and “Writing the Birds: Barrawarn,” Australia-based Catherine Clover’s attempt to notate birdsong and imagine a decolonized, vernacular poetics. It is easy to imagine many of the articles in other journals, but in Inscription they resonate with one another in an exciting way and will reach readers who might otherwise stay within their disciplinary borders.

With submissions of this caliber, the success of the journal hinges on its ability to add value to its content. The exceptional production value alone does so, from the high quality of conventional figures and illustrations to the execution of the ancillary artworks. The editors must also continue to balance the strength and flexibility of each issue’s theme. “Beginnings” was a natural fit for the first issue, so “Issue 2: Holes” may ultimately prove whether Inscription can forge a community of contributors and readers from so many different disciplines. The innovative, interactive format of the journal certainly gives readers a reason to subscribe and may even convince writers that their work is better off with Inscription than a more conventional publication. 

Inside spread of Inscription, which shows the text rotated nearly sideways. The typesetting is unconventional, similar to concrete poetry.

The emphasis on material production does leave a nagging question about the practicality of the printed version and the authenticity of its online cousin. There is a case to be made about the materiality of digital inscription, one that might inspire an unconventional website or digital publication of some sort. However, for the sake of accessibility, I am glad that Inscription’s digital presence is thoughtful but conventional. There are real limits to the hard copy journal — I happen to own a record player, but I had to abandon reading on the couch when rotating the 24-inch-wide codex became impractical and ultimately finished the issue at a table in my studio. As a celebration of “material text,” Inscription pushes at the limits of a physical publication, but ultimately retains its thesis by documenting its materiality online rather than attempting to re-mediate it digitally. I truly hope the journal’s impressive production will attract more readers than it excludes, and if the popularity of artists’ books is any indication, I think it will.

The Marathon Poet

The Marathon Poet
Åke Hodell
Translated by Fia Backström
Edited by Kira Josefsson
2020

Ugly Duckling Presse
5.25 × 8.25 in. closed
150 pages
Perfect binding
Offset

The Marathon Poet front cover, with a black and white image of the author in a racing bib.

Åke Hodell (1919–2000) was many things: poet, pacifist, anarchist, visual artist, composer, razor-sharp satirist, and one-time fighter pilot. In The Marathon Poet (Maratonpoeten in the original Swedish), first published in 1981 and newly translated into English by Fia Backström, Hodell presents every side of himself in a heady blend of self-mythologizing and self-deprecation.

The Marathon Poet is a difficult book to describe or categorize because it steadfastly refuses to do only one thing. It could be called autofiction in verse or an artists’ book focused on photography and collage, but it also offers up various pseudo-historical accounts, a dinner menu, and an opera composed primarily of the names of cars. With this crush of ever-changing forms, Hodell presents us with both an unconventionally intimate self-portrait and a vicious dissection of cultural myths: this book is the overflowing stream of his funny, inventive, and righteously angry consciousness.

The Marathon Poet pages 90-91, featuring a "poetic menu"

Fia Backström’s facsimile translation provides not only the text, but also the original imagery and layout of Hodell’s book, and gives some context for the English-language audience with a thoughtful introduction and a glossary explaining Hodell’s intertextual references. Her contextualization also makes apparent her reasons for translating an obscure avant-garde Swedish art-poetry volume from the early eighties today: the poet’s “lifelong militant commitment against white supremacy in all its forms, whether it be the Nazi[s] … or Nixon’s ‘law and order’ administration.” The resurgence of overtly fascist ideology creates an unfortunate parallel between the world Hodell lampooned in 1981 and the one we’re currently living in.

Publisher Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, of which The Marathon Poet is the thirtieth publication, was created to bring the out-of-print, forgotten, and never-before-translated to a wider audience. Between Hodell’s status as a relative unknown in the English-speaking world, his frequent allusions to the Swedish experimental poetry scene and the country’s history and culture more generally, and his penchant for blending fact and fiction, Backström’s remarks are essential to making the work as accessible as it is. She does not overexplain or heavily annotate, which might go against the confrontational spirit of the work; she gives readers only what they need to experience The Marathon Poet for themselves.

The main narrative of The Marathon Poet centers on a fictional foot race between Swedish poets, in which Hodell finds himself the sole competitor after a sobriety test disqualifies all of his fellows. During the race, the poet forgets to breathe, undergoes several hallucinatory out-of-body experiences, visits a couple doctors and restaurants, and encounters figures from throughout history and myth: Virgil, Aphrodite, a stuffy politician named Napoleon, and several of Hodell’s friends and contemporaries.

The Marathon Poet, pages 34-35, with lines from “Episode Three” and a photograph of Hodell

This absurd story, presented in nine “episodes,” is intercut with brief, apocryphal creation myths for some of Hodell’s earlier works. In “From the Memoirs of Cerberus,” Hodell’s earlier poetry/“verbal brainwash” book presentarms is said to have been written while Hodell was in hell. He only returned to our world because his fellow sufferers “begged Cerberus to throw me out of hell and never again let me back in” (59). By the end, the eponymous mythological beast not only releases Hodell from damnation, but agrees to become his publisher.

While Hodell’s ideas and delivery are funny, heavily influenced by vaudeville theater and often possessing the same raucous energy as the best Monty Python sketches, he is interested in more than making the reader laugh. A major throughline of The Marathon Poet, and his body of work as a whole, is a radically anti-militarist and anti-nationalist stance. While the stories, poems, collages, and photographs that make up the book vary in content and composition, they almost all attack the military, imperialism, and conformity more generally.

This near-constant focus on war, violence, and the greed and social structures that cause them drives drastic tonal shifts throughout the work. “Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s Military Hat,” the partially-true tale of another Swedish poet living briefly in the United States, begins with a fantastical and relatively cheerful letter from Almqvist to his wife back home and gradually devolves into a cruel, frenetic argument between Almqvist and the owner of the boarding house where he resides, interspersed with brutal depictions of the violence upon which America was built: 

Eighty bloodied heads
were displayed as a spectacle
on the streets of New Amsterdam
where the governor’s mother kicked them like footballs.
These events will recur. Go home, stranger.
There is no hope for this country.

Like much effective satire, Hodell’s pieces sometimes make for difficult reading: just behind or beside each witty observation is a more fundamentally disturbing truth. Even the comparatively lighter sections of verse on the fictional marathon confront existential dread, the limits of the human body, and the influence of militarism and violence in everyday culture. It is in the uncertain space between the joke and the tragedy that Hodell is most at home.

Just as he balances a variety of tones and uses them to create meaning in conjunction with and in opposition to each other, he juxtaposes and blends the visual and textual elements of each piece. Hodell regularly worked in collage both before and during The Marathon Poet, irreverently and effectively mashing up not only disparate images, but various art forms. In one section, a musical score calling for ever-increasing amounts of human snoring runs alongside a prose narrative which is itself frequently interrupted and incomplete.

The Marathon Poet, pages 106-107 with musical score above and narrative below

Hodell also uses the text itself as a sort of collage-space. He keeps the reader off-balance by deviating from the left margin in poems and standard paragraph structures in prose pieces, utilizing found text and pseudo-documentary, writing in a variety of languages and dialects, and constantly shifting his diction from formal to informal and back again.

This impulse toward collage allows him to directly comment on the ways in which a conformist, militaristic ideology has come to influence so many disparate areas of art and everyday life. Revealing the various building blocks and cast-off pieces of European and American culture, sometimes bluntly and sometimes hyperbolically, he forces us to think about the unconscious assumptions and desires underlying many social norms.

The Marathon Poet, pages 78-19: Spirit of Ecstasy Racing Car Opera. Photos on verso, text on recto.

On another level, his approach toward structure and genre simply reflect his personality and beliefs: why would an artist who so despises authority and convention confine himself to any traditional notion of what a book should be?

This wild creative impulse, along with Hodell’s ever-present humor, lend the volume an air of hopefulness despite its bleak subject matter: it is not only an account of the various destructive forces extant in the world, but a creative one in its own right.

When the fictional Hodell is taken to a doctor after the first few miles of his race nearly kill him, the diagnosis is bad: a pages-long list of the various maladies afflicting the poet’s body. When an observer offers to call an ambulance, the doctor responds:

“No, refrain from doing any such thing,”
says Dr. M.C. Retzius
with a quiet smile. “Humor is a state
where the four cardinal fluids of the body are well mixed.
In other words: The Poët is perfectly healthy.”

Tools for Extinction

Tools for Extinction
Denise Rose Hansen, editor
Studio Ard, design
2020
Lolli Editions

5.25 × 7.875 in.
120 pages
Soft cover perfect binding with French folds
Offset

Tools for Extinction, front cover

Tools for Extinction is an anthology of writing, not an artists’ book, which perhaps makes it an ideal project to examine the distinction between a book and a publication. I have written about this difference elsewhere, but Tools for Extinction so fully mobilizes the possibilities of publishing as a critical and artistic practice that it cannot be understood only as a material synthesis of form and content. This is not to say there are no meaningful relationships between pictures and words, text and paratext, content and layout; there are, and they will figure into the review that follows. The point is, rather, that the social, political and cultural dimensions of Tools for Extinction’s production and distribution are treated with the same self-reflexivity that an artists’ book brings to The Book as a concept. Specifically, Tools for Extinction is not simply a book about Covid-19. It is a publication made of, for, against, within and in spite of this pandemic, an achievement that will become more significant – necessary, even – as unsustainable climate change and inequality continue to catalyze global crises. It is an invitation to reflect on whether and how to create, to make meaning, in the face of extinction.

Tools for Extinction comprises eighteen works by writers from across Europe and beyond. Whether new or newly translated, each piece makes its first English-language appearance in this collection. Half the pieces are translated, highlighting the creative editorial labor behind the book as well as its global perspective. The writing is as diverse as the geography, including poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a speech, and a transcribed audio work. The selections are relatively short, and the collection overall has an engaging texture and sequence. The early pieces pull the reader in, establish the stakes, and introduce many of the common themes and through lines. Some of the longer and more explicitly political pieces follow, and Hansen has varied and balanced the collection to mitigate the hesitation or exhaustion that the subject matter may inspire in readers still surviving the very pandemic at the book’s core.

Tools for Extinction, back cover

The book’s design further emphasizes its novelty and geographic range – two features through which the broader themes of space and time emerge. Space, time, and space-time are most visible in the book’s cover imagery: a skewed image of planet Earth (daytime on the front cover and nighttime on the back). The book’s designers, Studio Ard, identify the cover image as being taken March 25, 2020. With the foreword’s date of April 20, 2020, a picture of the book careening toward completion comes into focus (my own review copy shipped in early May). One’s fingers can feel the overprinted metallic silver ink on the back cover, lending a not-yet-dry quality to the whole production. The globe from the front cover is stretched further to an absurd degree on the book’s spine, which, as a physical index of the book’s duration, would seem to reference time. And if the spine signifies time, then space is present in the surface of the page. The table of contents operates according to this logic, arranged as a grid rather than a list. The pieces are presented as roughly square text-image modules across the geography of a two-page spread.

Tools for Extinction, table of contents

Each image in the table of contents is what Hansen refers to as an “anamorphic ‘tool’: things and beings we might suddenly perceive from new vantage points.” Some of these thumbnail images illustrate the accompanying text directly, while other associations are more oblique. The images depict no environment, the objects cast no shadows. Instead, they present almost typographically, emoji-like in a way that encourages a semiotic reading. These little images also serve as the key to their anamorphic counterparts, which appear as chapter ornaments under the title of each piece. In some cases, these distorted images can be deciphered without recourse to the table of contents, but the reference point certainly helps the reader appreciate the unfamiliar perspective from which they are viewing the otherwise unremarkable object. Instead of framing today’s pandemic and politics as a break or rupture, these illustrations demonstrate just how strange the world can be made through continuous changes – stretching, twisting, and compressing – a topology of the social fabric. Tools for Extinction posits a world that was already at the brink, comprehensible only through inertia and made visible now through crisis.

Tools for Extinction, open to Tuesday by Patricia Portela

Many of the writers delve into this uncomfortable continuity between things that ought to be opposites: consciousness and sleep, distance and intimacy, private and public, sameness and difference, past and future. This blurring of boundaries spans genre and style. Ashan by Vi Khi Nao does so with a magical realist approach, probing the social distance(s) of Covid-19 and the alienated, mediated lives people lived even before the virus. Mental health is equally central to Tuesday by Patrícia Portela, albeit in a subtler, less speculative manner. Portela’s neurotic narrator attempts to plan a much-needed vacation, manifesting in an exhausting stream of consciousness that forecloses every future it opens without progressing beyond the present. As with Ashan, Tuesday is a sort of everyday tragedy; the pandemic didn’t cause it but rather provided the perspective from which to finally see it clearly. Tools for Extinction grapples with the grief, trauma and anxiety of Covid-19 without presenting these phenomena as something entirely new.

Nor are these experiences exceptional. Even as the authors relate the circumstances of a particular place and time, patterns emerge. The essay A Penny is a Penny is a Penny by Jakuta Alikavazovic epitomizes this sense of a shared global experience. Alikavazovic writes, “The demonstrations across the country; the various groups of blue-collar and white-collar workers throwing their literal and symbolic tools in protest; people resigning – all rising up against this morbid logic that rest on the idea that a penny is a penny.” The United States? Lebanon? Belarus? The reader must turn to the author’s bio in the back to confirm that the country in question is, in fact, France.

Tools for Extinction, french flap

Spring Report from Denmark, the book’s opening poem by Naja Marie Aidt, speaks to the anxiety that such a global threat produces. The title, of course, cannot limit the pandemic to either spring or Denmark, and the piece proceeds with a worried litany of relatives and acquaintances around the world. The poem is a Covid-era beatitude, with the repeated phrases “I think about…” and “I fear for those who…” introducing individuals and groups of people whose circumstances seem worse than those in Denmark, with “free medical help for everyone / the same rights for everyone.” Aidt uses formal devices like repetition and enjambment to evoke the twisting of time, and both the writing and typesetting contribute to a strong rhythm that further emphasizes temporality.

This strange temporality, a mix of boredom and survival mode, confronts writers and artists with particular poignancy. In The Dispossessed, Joanna Walsh reflects eloquently on storytelling in the Covid era:

“Narratives used to be about how you got where you are now. The future was open. From now on they work backwards from how you died, with death not an addendum but a defining factor. Every tale has a teller. Now only death will tell what sort of life you had, and it will define you at the point you were triaged for death, at the point you were deemed too old, too subject to an ‘underlying condition’, too insignificant, too not-a-subject to be ‘a priority.’”

But Enrique Vila-Matas reminds us that this tragic state is not as different as it seems in his existentialist essay, Empty Streets:

“Why do we waste so much time? Because we live as if we were going to live forever and don’t, for a second, pause to remember that we all have to die, a reality that underlies the surprised tone in which people say they never thought to experience a tragedy like this, ‘so far-reaching and affecting so many people.’”

Tools for Extinction maintains the tension between both perspectives, that things are not normal or okay, and that this was true even before Covid. It is a productive tension that writers – and artists of all sorts – will need to contend with for the foreseeable future. This is perhaps the key organizing principle behind the book. It is not a time capsule or a pandemic diary. It is not meant to be a record of an aberration to be read in libraries and schools in 2021 that look just like those of 2019. Tools for Extinction is meant to show that artists will have to adapt. The fact that the book came together in a few short months during a lockdown shows it can be done. And the resonance that the writing has for a reader still in lockdown shows that art still matters.

One Hundred Excellent Flowers

One Hundred Excellent Flowers
Clifton Meador
2019

8.5 × 11 × .375 in.
64 pages
Binding: Screw post with cover wrap
Offset lithography
Edition of 200

Front cover of "One Hundred Excellent Flowers" shows screw post binding and blue paper wrap

Referencing the writings of Mao Tse-tung, One Hundred Excellent Flowers pairs a text of acerbic aphorisms with photographs of supermarket shelves, vending machines – and, yes, flowers – to critique contemporary consumer capitalism. Beneath the deceptively austere cover, the reader is confronted by a cacophony of color separations, made all the more powerful by the book’s relatively large format. The creative and metaphorical use of pre-press and print processes are a signature of Meador’s work, and One Hundred Excellent Flowers uses fluorescent ink instead of true CMYK. His expressive use of offset as a medium enables a key aesthetic argument – a pop art sensibility that recalls the 1950s and ‘60s, at a time when global powers seem intent on rekindling the Cold War.

Inside spread with close-up of flowers. Text reads: "Often, correct and good things were first regarded"

The book’s minimal cover is noteworthy given the visual excess inside. It is a dark blue paper wrapper with a cut circle to reveal the printed title on the first bound page. Three smaller circles along the spine reveal a screw post binding reminiscent of Kevin Osborn’s Real Lush. Although the books share bold colors and richly overprinted imagery, perhaps One Hundred Excellent Flowers is better compared to Fortunato Depero’s “bolted book,” Depero Futurista, with its combination of art, advertising and manifestos. The photographs inside show flowers, but also junk food and candy with visible brand names and price tags.

But Italian Futurism (and Fascism) are not the politics at play. Rather, the colophon refers to a particular episode in the history of Chinese communism, when Chairman Mao encouraged dissenting opinions only to later crush the dissenters. He is quoted, “Let a hundred flowers bloom / Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Meador’s own writing throughout the book adopts this style, editorializing in a sardonic combination of elevated and prosaic language. The narrative voice prevents the pointed commentary from seeming didactic.

Inside spread with close-up of flowers. Text reads: "What do a few flowers matter?"

The text begins with the original quotation above, and the first half of the book reflects on the role of dissent in a society. The text sticks to the original Maoist metaphors of flowers and snakes – ideas and dissidents – but the imagery opens other interpretations. After a few pages, junk food intersperses the Warhol-esque flowers, juxtaposing consumer capitalism with the communist system with which the text began. Then a reprise signals a new section: “Let a hundred brands blossom. / Let a hundred corporations contend.” In the second half of the book, the text addresses the system that the images have hinted at.

Inside spread with image of supermarket shelves. Text reads: "Let them bloom for people to look at"

The imagery produces meaning through form as much as content. The compositions of the photographs disorient the reader with extreme close-ups and dizzying, diagonal points of view. However, the images barely operate as photographs thanks to Meador’s pre-press interventions. Ben-Day dots the size of dimes collide with checkerboards and crosshatching – an inexhaustible variety of half-tone patterns, part Lichtenstein, part glitch art. One Hundred Excellent Flowers intensifies the visual strategies of pop art to make them relevant in today’s manifestation of the consumer capitalist media environment that informed Lichtenstein and Warhol. The compositions are also calibrated for the sequential medium of the book, different even than the serial approach of Warhol’s offset-printed Flowers. The half-tones defy their design; they fail to coalesce into smooth images. Instead they call attention to fabrication, artifice. The misaligned patterns render the four process colors hyper-visible, but elsewhere create muddy fields of richly overprinted blacks. These images unravel at the fore-edge margin on the recto, leaving white space for the text to occupy.

The text, placed in the small field of negative space, feels precarious. The images dominate visually, but the stark contrast of black text on white paper (plus the consistent positioning) ensure the reader’s attention returns to the text with each turn of the page. The even pacing of the text gives the book a steady rhythm and brings out the abstract potential of the imagery. The ragged fore-edge contrasts with the orderly margins that run along the top and bottom of each page and even gutter crosses, which facilitate full-spread images remarkably well considering the screw post binding. The margins are no afterthought; the fore-edge is the center of the folded sheet, and thus could have been printed on. Meador plays with this by fore-edge printing a flower, but doesn’t take the idea further. Nevertheless the folded sheet adds to the book’s heft and, more importantly, prevents the copious overprinting from showing through from one page to the next. The feel of the folded sheet, draw attention to the act of reading, already heightened by the text’s position in the fore-edge margin where the reader’s thumbs reside.

Inside spread with close-up of junk food on shelves. Text reads: "Fill the aisles with bags of pernicious slop"

Just as the binding and composition engage and implicate the reader, the book’s content is scaffolded to hook the reader and then pull them into deeper waters. “How could sugary breakfast cereals ever be bad?” gives way to “Feed the people disgusting swill and call it a feast / until no one can tell the difference between poison and antidote.” From media to politicians, it’s not hard to see how Meador’s critique extends beyond food. In fact, it is not Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that One Hundred Excellent Flowers channels, but another book of aphorisms – The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. The two books, published within a few years of one another, form a dialectic that unlocks Meador’s project.

The central question is what (as noted in the colophon) Chairman Mao called “the correct handling of contradictions among the people.” For Debord, the spectacle is a means of deferring contradictions without resolving them, always offering something new as an alternative and distraction. Hence the ceaseless proliferation of “fragrant falsehoods” as Meador calls them. He renders the paralyzing freedom of endless choice in the grocery aisles and vending machines, hawking their wares with cheap prices and lurid colors. The various spectacles push and pull, intersect and overlap, but like the book’s half-tone patterns, never resolve into a seamless image. Following Debord, One Hundred Excellent Flowers suggests that freedom can be found no more in the poisonous decadence of US capitalism than the brutal repression of Chinese communism.

One Hundred Excellent Flowers is a model for thoughtful, historically-grounded political discourse at a time when hyperbolic soundbites are more fashionable. Meador elucidates contemporary social and economic problems by drawing on the visual and textual aesthetics of the 1960s – another era of conflict between China and the United States – at a time when counterculture movements once again push for structural change and challenge capitalist ideology around the world. Even with its pop art colors and strident writing, the book seems contemplative in the context of cable news commentary and social media. The medium lends itself to an individual experience without posturing, defensive or performative. Meador seizes that opportunity to weave together geopolitics and art history with familiar access points that help the reader place themselves in a system that is once again facing global resistance.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon
Dennis J. Bernstein and Warren Lehrer
2019

Paper Crown Press
6.875 × 6.5 × 1 in.
300 pages
Smyth-sewn hardcover
Offset inside with foil-stamped cloth spine and paper cover

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon cover

The 1984 book French Fries by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer is a landmark work of visual literature. In the years since, Bernstein’s poetry has continued to win acclaim and Lehrer has set the bar for designers and book artists in visual literature. The duo’s new book, Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, is a masterful contribution to the genre they’ve helped shape. It is a multi-modal project, including animations, exhibitions and performances. This review will focus on the printed book, published by Paper Crown Press.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is an autobiography in poems. There are eight movements, which are organized loosely by theme more than chronology. There are a total of 225 poems, which in no way exhaust the extraordinary life Bernstein has led. He has reported on wars, taught in prisons, hosted a radio show and survived open heart surgery. Yet, Bernstein’s work is about ordinary people. As he reflects on his life, he reminds the reader that the very struggles which leave us feeling confused and alienated are part of our shared human condition.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 274-275

This collaborative work benefits from a degree of fluidity in roles. The text is Bernstein’s and the visualizations are Lehrer’s, but the process is more complex than that. For Bernstein, the material qualities of text and the page as a physical space affect writing as well as reading. He touches on this in an interview with Lehrer: “I had decided that big notebooks were too intimidating. All that blank space. The wonderful thing was, I had started thinking about visuals with some of these short poems. I even did some drawings.” Likewise, Lehrer is able to interpret the text so successfully because he approaches the poems as a writer as well as a designer. His instinct for wordplay destabilizes and extends Bernstein’s concise writing, drawing out double meanings and alternative interpretations. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon exhibits an uncommon chemistry that must surely be the result of decades of friendship and collaboration.

The book’s design provides structure for, and access to, the unconventional reading experience. Each poem takes one page or one spread, setting a steady pace for the reader as they make their way through too many poems for one sitting. The ribbon bookmark gives the reader permission to pause, perhaps using the table of contents to rest strategically between movements. None of this would be remarkable in a standard book, but in this case the straightforward paratext contrasts markedly with the visual treatment of the text itself.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 44-45

The visuals range from the purposeful placement of text on the page to the addition of patterns and marks and letters without words. Some interpretations are abstract, others representational. Some illustrate ideas, and some represent concepts. At times the reader must see text as image to complete a picture. In other cases, visual elements complete the words. Like its other paratextual components, the physical presence of the book helps with the complex negotiation that is reading. The hefty codex is reassuring and familiar. Reading the poems is non-trivial, but not in an adversarial way. The book helps the reader learn how to approach the text. Its sheer length gives the reader ample time to improve.

The challenge then is how to keep the book from being about itself. One effective choice is the cover design, which is bright and busy with illustrative swirls of type. The lime green book cloth, shiny blue paper and iridescent foil title are so much louder than the black and white inside printing that Bernstein and Lehrer’s exceptional visual literature seems only natural. More importantly though, is the decision to begin the book with the section “Lake Childhood,” which chronicles how Bernstein navigated childhood and schooling with dyslexia. What better way to talk about the physical presence of language than visual literature? Not all the poems in this movement are about dyslexia, but one can see how Bernstein’s irreverence, introspection and penchant for observation develop in this context. With playful and imaginative visualizations, Lehrer shows the reader just how difficult reading can be, and how that very difficulty could have motivated Bernstein’s career(s) in writing.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 88-89

As a memoir, the quantity and brevity of the poems lend a remarkable sense of intimacy. We don’t usually imagine our friends and family along some grand linear narrative. We know people through anecdotes and vignettes that reveal their character. The 225 poems in Five Oceans in a Teaspoon function precisely this way, welcoming the reader into the kind of small moments that are usually reserved for our closest acquaintances.

Lehrer’s visualizations are so effortless that they seem inevitable, and yet leave the reader convinced that he could have presented the poem a dozen other ways. Turning the page is like listening to a perfect jazz solo, then staying for the second set and hearing the same song handled differently and just as well – inevitable, but unpredictable. The restrained visual vocabulary keep the renderings cohesive as Lehrer develops novel solutions. These constraints are important, but they are not the point. The book is not about process, it is about the poetry. The interpretation never overpowers Bernstein’s text.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 64-65

The book’s sequence is driven by the poetry. There is certainly variety among the visualizations throughout the book, but the introduction of a new visual device doesn’t signal a new section of the book. The introduction of display typefaces on page 46 or photography on page 64 provide a nice surprise, but don’t change the mode of interpretation or the course of the narrative. The visuals demonstrate experimentation and innovation, but within the unit of the page or spread. This frees the poetry, and the relationship among poems, to advance the story and succeed as a memoir. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is a moving testament to Bernstein’s view of the world, and the experiences that have shaped it. Once again, Bernstein and Lehrer show the potential of visual literature as a mature field. Beyond self-reference and inter-art discourse, the interplay of text and image (and text-as-image) packs a powerful intellectual and emotional punch.

Understanding Molecular Typography

Understanding Molecular Typography
Woody Leslie
H.F. Henderson
2019
Ugly Duckling Presse
uglyducklingpresse.org

5 × 7 in.
128 pages
Binding: Smyth-sewn
Offset inside with foil-stamped wrap

Understanding Molecular Typography Cover

Editor’s note: this review contains spoilers.

I struggled over how to review this book, and made the determination to identify it as a work of fiction (satire, specifically) and review it as such. I hesitate to out the work as fictional because much of Understanding Molecular Typography’s impact comes from its convincing appearance as a work of nonfiction. Ultimately, I decided that the book’s subtlety and humor can withstand a review. Furthermore, I had already reviewed an earlier edition of the book for Abecedarian Gallery and spoiled the surprise. Portions of this post have been adapted from that review.

Understanding Molecular Typography looks like a work of popular science, authored by H.F. Henderson and published in 1992. This new edition from Ugly Duckling Presse purports to be a reprint with a new introduction by the artist Woody Leslie. In reality, Understanding Molecular Typography is an elaborate work of non-narrative fiction created by Leslie himself. The line between fiction and reality is blurry from the start, and Leslie’s new introduction playfully adds layers of misdirection. He describes coming across the book during his time as a graduate student, and discusses the work’s historical vicissitudes as well as its influence on his own practice.

Understanding Molecular Typography Inside Spread

Before addressing the work as an artists’ book, it is helpful to summarize the content of the ostensible textbook. Understanding Molecular Typography is an introduction to the chemical structures of type, which determine the formation of letters and words. The book focuses on scholarship from the 1950s to the 1990s and attempts to synthesize more academic writings for the average reader. It explains how positive and negative charges bind basic units into letterforms, and anomalies like serifs and variance from typeface to typeface are discussed. What follows is an extensive set of illustrations paired with written explanations of each letter’s chemical structure, using a notation system outlined earlier in the book. Henderson’s conclusion situates the field within a broader context, discussing the ecological, economic and many other implications of molecular typography.

Just as the book’s structure is a conventional codex, the structure of the text itself is that of a standard nonfiction book. There are a table of contents, preface, and introductory remarks followed by various charts and diagrams, a conclusion, glossary, and bibliography for further reading. In form and content, Understanding Molecular Typography subverts the authority of scientistic writing through absurdity and humor, which are related and reinforce one another, but operate differently throughout the book. Details in the bibliography, for example, lend a less dry humor that helps clue the reader into the work’s fictionality. In contrast, a straight-faced absurdity operates in the taxonomy of letter anatomy (‘typtoms’ like ‘itoms’ and ‘vtoms’) and the extraordinary profusion of cross referenced figures and phonetic pronunciation guides. The specialized jargon and seriousness of presentation will be comically familiar to readers from their own studies in typography, chemistry, or some other discipline.

Understanding Molecular Typography Bibliography

Beyond the text itself, Leslie has a keen sense of that para-textual apparatuses that lend books authority. Though librarians will be pleased to see this new edition has a legitimate ISBN, the collaboration with Ugly Duckling Presse provided other opportunities to play with para-text. The back cover features a blurb from none other than Johanna Drucker. In character as a scholar, she praises the astonishing achievements of H.F. Henderson. Her comparison to Zdanevich is part of the fiction, but nevertheless situates Leslie’s work within a history of artistic explorations of language.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

Leslie does directly discuss his interest in letterforms and language in the introduction, but even here one must read between the lines. In the book’s first edition, little details about the artist tethered the book to reality. Now, the dynamic has flipped and Understanding Molecular Typography fictionalizes its creator. Leslie’s autofictional account of discovering Henderson and dedicating himself to the study of molecular typography deftly satirizes academia and the professionalization of art. The esotericism is an absurd addition to the tradition of mythologized artist personae. Joseph Beuys has his plane crash, and Leslie his library.

In freeing Leslie from necessary truths like colophons and contact information, Ugly Duckling Presse plays the perfect co-conspirator. Reprinting an obscure or underappreciated work is certainly in their wheelhouse. Furthermore, they list the book under “art, nonfiction” in their catalog and provide a deadpan description of Henderson’s book. The smyth-sewn paperback with a foil-stamped cover retains the general appearance of the first edition, and does a good job of selling the deception. The book is slightly larger, and the layout is roomier and more readable than the original. Underneath the paper cover, the book is covered in a lovely pattern of molecular typographic diagrams. Understanding Molecular Typography is a well-designed book. Most importantly, it looks perfectly ordinary.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

It would be enough if Understanding Molecular Typography simply co-opted the trappings of academic publishing and warned us not to uncritically accept authority, but by focusing on typography, the book also engages some of the most interesting problems of language. Nevertheless, the book is humorous and unpretentious throughout. Even when the fictional Henderson raises such quandaries directly, they are always one step removed from the real questions that Leslie poses for the reader. The great irony of the book, which so irreverently lampoons science, art, academia, and publishing, is that it is such an excellent example of art as a form of interdisciplinary scholarship.

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.