Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98) was a French Symbolist poet, theorist, and teacher whose ideas and legendary salons set the stage for twentieth-century experimentation in poetry, music, theater and art. A canonical figure in the legacy of modernism, Mallarmé was also a lifelong champion of the book as both a literary endeavor and a carefully crafted material object.
In The Book as Instrument, Anna Sigrídur Arnar explores how this object functioned for Mallarmé and his artistic circle, arguing that the book became a strategic site for encouraging a modern public to actively partake in the creative act, an idea that informed later twentieth-century developments such as conceptual and performance art. Arnar demonstrates that Mallarmé was invested in creating radically empowering reading experiences, and the diverse modalities he proposed for both reading and looking anticipate interactive media prevalent in today’s culture. In describing the world of books, visual culture, and mass media of the late nineteenth century, Arnar touches upon an array of themes that continues to preoccupy us in our own moment, including speculations on the future of the book. Enhanced by gorgeous illustrations, The Book as Instrument is sure to fascinate anyone interested in the ever-vibrant experiment between word and image that makes the page and the multi-sensory pleasures of reading.
“There they rest, inert, impertinent, in gallery space—those book forms either imitated or mutilated, replicas of reading matter or its vestiges. Strange, after its long and robust career, for the book to take early retirement in a museum, not as rare manuscript but as functionless sculpture. Readymade or constructed, such book shapes are canceled as text when deposited as gallery objects, shut off from their normal reading when not, in some yet more drastic way, dismembered or reassembled.” So begins Bookwork, which follows our passion for books to its logical extreme in artists who employ found or simulated books as a sculptural medium. Investigating the conceptual labor behind this proliferating international art practice, Garrett Stewart looks at hundreds of book-like objects, alone or as part of gallery installations, in this original account of works that force attention upon a book’s material identity and cultural resonance.
Less an inquiry into the artist’s book than an exploration of the book form’s contemporary objecthood, Stewart’s interdisciplinary approach traces the lineage of these aggressive artifacts from the 1919 Unhappy Readymade of Marcel Duchamp down to the current crisis of paper-based media in the digital era. Bookwork surveys and illustrates a stunning variety of appropriated and fabricated books alike, ranging from hacksawed discards to the giant lead folios of Anselm Kiefer. The unreadable books Stewart engages with in this timely study are found, again and again, to generate graphic metaphors for the textual experience they preclude, becoming in this sense legible after all.