Artists’ Books: An Unconventional Transmitter of Political Expression
13 Dec 2021
Paper may be precious, printing technologies transform, and production methods expand—but the potential of the book as a creative form will remain available for exploration
-Johana Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Book
Many historians and writers like Drucker, Lauf, Phillpot and Gilbert have extensively researched the topic of Artists’ Books, but there is no proper definition available for the medium. It might be defined as a cross between a book object which constitutes conceptual and critical issues addressed via a juxtaposition of painted or collaged images and texts. As mentioned by Drucker, the tradition of the illustrated book effectively started with Livre d’artiste in the early 20th century as a practice of publishing limited editions of illustrated books that began to predominate the artistic culture in France. The text was juxtaposed with the illustration, and a visual episode was created for the viewers to observe. There was an absence of traditional linguist linearity in these early books as artists like Paul Cezanne and poets like Mallarme tried to break down the logocentric conception of the illustrated book. Johanna Drucker believes that it is largely dependent on the viewer and how they perceive the book form being used to dictate integral specific features which constitute an artists’ book. She insists that any definition of this medium can cause various publications or singular edition books to be excluded because the medium constantly moves between different formats, materials, ideas, and between the unique and the multiple (Drucker, 1995).
Artists’ books traverse the world of Art and the world of books. They rarely surrender to a passive display because their ideal habitat is the hands rather than a glass cabinet or a whitewashed wall (Milne, 2019). They have a unique power and agency because their nature as hybrids provides them with more sensory mediums to connect with than the singular medium of vision. Even in an era of print-free communication where most of the artists can easily create digital book formats, the possibility of continuing with the physical format of bookbinding for an artist is exceptional. While digital media can definitely help aiding the viewers visually and through sound, a tactile form of a book provides more connection with the content being conveyed. The efficacy of tactile application gives the viewer enough power to navigate space and time through the reading and understanding of the narrative. The artists’ book is dependent on a certain moment of activation. This medium can be effectively layered and provides an extensive sequence which can only be observed with the progression of the book. The materiality of the page is instrumental in the force with which it controls the thought process of a viewer. Its mobility makes it easier to present than the other mediums. It can be displayed in multiple ways, but one of the most important aspects of it is centred on the book being readable and open to the idea of touch. The artists’ book poses a strange dilemma when it comes to the durability of the original book. Producing it in a limited manner can help the ideas of an artist reach more people, but they stand to lose the value of the tactile experience in all its originality.
Manjari Chakravarti, Bhuma, accordion book, 2018; in an exhibition at Kala Bavana, Santiniketan, 2019
The book as a medium has a capacity to monumentalise personal ideas, and the artists can find a dialogic relation between text and images autonomous to a personal belief which is conveyed through the rational medium of the book. The monotony is broken, and the book serves as an intimate form, which focuses on the politics of personal. Manjari Chakravarti, an artist, based in Santiniketan, takes the support of poetry and auratic imagery and further manifests them into her works. For her, poetry and images go hand in hand. Many times, poetry acts as an illumination of the image, an explanation of the personal, and communication about the unknown. In her accordion book, Bhuma, the emotional labour of motherhood is defined in detail via poetic elements and anatomical drawings of a fishtail palm in her home. These elements act as direct bullet points, just like a clear text would in a political manifesto. The artist equates the anatomy of the tree with that of a human mother, effectively signifying the compatibility she as a mother herself, ends up feeling with this tree she loves. She uses these metaphors and signs to convey her message poetically and utilises the hybridity achieved by her poems and drawings in making the viewer feel compassionate towards the idea of loneliness and the means to which an artist can resort to cure it. She also challenges the idealisation of motherhood by herself idolising a tree and the role of a mother. There is a strong sense of paradox, which can be experienced in every one of her artists’ books. She takes an emotional stand which becomes quite assertive in nature, and that is how this particular work manages to find a political standing with clear declarations.
Manjari Chakravarti, Bhuma (detail), accordion book, 2018. Private collection of the artist. [The drawing of the artist with her beloved fishtail palm tree as drawn in the book.]
Manjari Chakravarti, Bhuma (detail), accordion book, 2018. Private collection of the artist
“Identity politics, debates about experience and authenticity, and critical re-framings of the public and the private carry traces of this apparently simple catchphrase. (Personal is Political)” (Heberle, 2015) Pahul Singh, an artist, based in Jaipur, India, believes that her ideas and concerns can only be effectively disseminated if a viewer can feel a sense of personal attachment with her books. There are always resistant intervals in the tactility provided by her artists’ books. She makes her own Punjabi Primers which are a revolutionary practice of ownership. The form of the book helps her to respond to her loss of cultural knowledge as a third generational partition migrant from Pakistan. To touch upon one’s history so aggressively tends to inculcate a sense of proprietorship in a person. Hence, the book also helps her realise the cultural function for her. The book becomes an expansive instrument and inculcates a philosophical vision. To symbolise her familiarity with the language and her ownership of her culture, she marks her primers with her name because her artists’ books are conscious attempts at revisioning a lost childhood.
Pahul Singh, Aakhar Bodh (the first page with letter “Oorah” of Gurmukhi script), digital print, pen and ink on Nepalese paper, 2020(above).
Pahul Singh, Aakhar Bodh, digital print, pen and ink on Nepalese paper, 2020(below).
Many artists with a social or political motivation may turn to the relatively inexpensive medium of artist books because they can be circulated freely and are independent of any institutional restraints. Artist books can convey a huge deal of information in a small format and help them facilitate a change in the consciousness of viewers. (Drucker, 1995) The book form serves that temperament and can help understand how the personal is affected by one’s own position of privilege and oppression in a given context. Artists’ books are highly effective in elaborating how consciousness is raised in a world full of differences and how it can be navigated. The medium also particularises on how the lived experiences serve as testimonials to a reality, which is relatable to a vast audience. These are introspective frameworks, which can be indulged in and further challenge the perceptions of the viewers who have not yet been able to understand how a lot of personal subjectivities are driven by somewhat political intent.
Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. Granary Books, 1995.
E. Hamerman, Sarah. Beyond Bookworks: Ulises Carrion’s Cultural Strategies. Pratt Institute, 2017, Masters Thesis
Friedmann, Jessica. “Motherhood Is a Political Category - Human Parts.” Medium, 14 May 2019, humanparts.medium.com/motherhood-is-a-political-category-5b5be72b5531
Hanisch, Carol, “Personal is Political”, Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation / Women’s Liberation Movement Print Culture / Duke Digital Repository. Duke Digital Collections, 1970, repository.duke.edu/dc/wlmpc/wlmms01039.
Heberle, Renee. “The Personal Is Political.” Academia.Edu, Oxford University Press, July 2015, www.academia.edu/23379100/The_Personal_is_Political
Milne, Jo. “Artists’ Books as Resistant Transmitters.” Academia.Edu, 2019, www.academia.edu/41323076/Artists_Books_as_Resistant_Transmitters
Gunjan is a research scholar, art historian, writer and founder of Echoes, which focuses on handmade embroidered art. She has researched and published articles on diverse topics in cultural histories, including the Artists’ Book. She is the senior editor at SN Das Art and Cultural Trust.
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