Yesterday was the end of the teaching term, but there’s still a week peppered with administration meetings to come, and I have 18 x 6,000-word dissertation drafts to read and assess over the ‘break’, so it won’t be easy to really relax or turn my full attention to my own work.
Exciting news is that, my partner and I have managed to get a new book ready for tomorrow’s ‘Artists’ Self-Publishing’ fair at ICA London. The book is modest, and simple in all respects. It’s a small collection of small (rather than ‘short’) stories penned by yours truly over a number of years. The book has very sweet and inspired illustrations by painter Francesco Poiana. The artist Bada Song has designed and edited it, and, in keeping with a certain Zen-like atmosphere pervading the stories, the illustrations, and the book as a whole, it is hand bound in a traditional Asian style (I’ll post a picture below). Oh! By the way, the title is: ‘Half Way To Cloud Mountain’
I must say I love the artist’s book fairs, of which we are lucky to have several in London each year. I often kick myself for not getting involved in book making and book fairs much earlier in my artist’s career. The book form answers sooo many of the questions and problems I have had as an artist and seems to fit what I do so well. Nevertheless, I guess, sometimes our goal must remain out of sight and out of reach for a long period – years, even decades – in order to ensure that our life is a journey, an adventure, imbued with a certain yearning that motivates us to go on, and on.
I recall starting my Foundation course in Art & Design, which really saved my life, or at least saved me from the desperation of unemployment and/or labouring. On Foundation we were introduced to Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Photography, Ceramics and Printmaking departments, then asked to specialise. To me it was a ‘no brainer’ that I would NOT be involved in the Painting and Drawing departments, and I made a bee-line for what I later came to call ‘arts of mechanical reproduction’ i.e. Photography and Printmaking.
The reason this is relevant to book-making may be becoming obvious, but I’d like to add a certain, subjective and class-related angle to this tale. Later, as an undergrad, a post grad, and when I started teaching, Walter Benjamin’s classic essay ‘The Work of art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction’ became a kind of mainstay or stalwart for me. I still regard it as a brilliant essay and never tire of re-using it, re-reading it, and re-discovering it. Its central argument being that all traditional art values associated with ‘genius’ and ‘unique’ objects etc. are traceable to ‘cult’ values, while the newly technologised arts of ‘mechanical reproduction’ offered an art that, in an unprecedented manner broke with these ancient values of art and substituted the value of the unique (cultish) with the value of the mechanically and mass reproduced, which Benjamin saw as having a new, political and popular (not cultish) value.
So given my own class consciousness and social status, it was fitting that, when I walked through the Foundation course spaces I passed quickly through the space where students were patiently painting plants, and past the closed door of the ‘Life Room’, where students were using charcoal to render a naked body on paper, and immersed myself in dark rooms, with chemicals, enlargers, safe lights, and of course cameras, tripods, lens and lamps. I later made Kurt Schwitters-esque collages from found printed matter, that I then translated into prints using commercial-style Litho presses which, prior to Pop, might never have been seen in an art school environment.
To return to our new book, and to the fair tomorrow, I experienced a strong sense of acknowledgement this week that I have always LOVED art that is not a unique object in a rarefied space (the gallery), but art which is modular, multiple, affordable, portable, pocket-able, and even provides its own context for its own content. Strangely, I completed that Foundation course in 1981, but didn’t make a book, with photographs and words, until 2010. And yet, all that time, I was writing words and making pictures and struggling and failing and falling and climbing, in search of some way of resolving a practice I could call my own, and which satisfied me and fairly and accurately represented me, and served adequately as a vehicle for my changing thoughts.
Right now, I don’t see any need to try and put an image on the wall of a gallery ever again, nor even to project a video there. And when I look back, to the pre-Foundation, adolescent origins of my art, they are probably born of reading books in bed after I was supposed to have turned my light out, and of listening to albums on vinyl or cassette, over and over again with headphones on. In both cases I was enjoying and being inspired by an undisputed ‘masterpiece’, but one that I could walk into a shop and buy and use to my heart’s content, not art that I had to go into a gallery and admire. I think myself and Walter Benjamin are ‘on the same page’ here, fully endorsing and promoting ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’ and the new, class-conscious art that has come of it. Viva mechanical reproduction!