Artists who alter books by using their contents, rather than making books from scratch and filling them with their fresh ideas, have a material starting point: a physical book, or its text and/or images. This post deals with three artists (one Canadian, one American, one British) whose theme is to explore the ambiguities of communication, and who use textile techniques to alter texts.
Sylvia Ptak makes faux-texts.
An experienced weaver, she removes threads from fabric and adds simulated script. Plucked, ink-stained, and distorted “weave structures” become word shapes.
For this image, from a 2008 exhibition called The Unicorn and The Date Palm, based on renaissance herbals, she used heat-transfer to add the illustration after the thread “writing” is in place. At other times, she has used inks, or coloured threads.
In “Commentary”, a 2004 exhibition at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, she slipped between the pages of a number of the library’s rare books her own “pages” of abstracted, text-like shapes carefully woven into sheets of gauze. You can see from the image above (via) how they mimic the ancient pages of the real tomes.
Sylvia Ptak says she is interested in “the multiple meanings that texts generate” – the incomprehensible language of her texts reads like everything and like nothing. “We have such faith in the printed – or handwritten – word that we feel it must be saying something,” said the reviewer of her show in the Globe and Mail. The “handwritten words” are something other than text – they are drawing, literally, in that a thread is drawn out of the fabric.
Her new body of work (2013) is inspired by manuscript pages, handwritten and extensively edited, by authors including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf – pages that bear witness to their creative process, showing additions, deletions, and corrections. As well as gauze, Sylvia Ptak has been using a variety of paper, such as vellum and player piano rolls, to translate manuscripts into gestural marks, which although not legible, still retain the essence of each author.
Jen Bervin has removed words, rendering the remaining text in stitch.
Her “Dickinson Fascicles” are based on the punctuation (the “non-meaningful” marks) on the pages of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts. She says on her website:
“I wanted to see what patterns formed when all of the marks in a single fascicle, Dickinson’s grouping of poems, remained in position, isolated from the text, and were layered in one composite field of marks. The works I created were made proportionate to the scale of the original manuscripts but quite large—about 8 feet (240 cm) wide by 6 feet (180 cm) high—to convey the exact gesture of the individual marks.”
These marks were omitted from typeset poems and only became available to scholars when a facsimile edition of the poems was published. Since then there’s been a lot of literary theorising about them.
Jen Bervin also says: “I have come to feel that specificity of the + and – marks in relation to Dickinson’s work are aligned with a larger gesture that her poems make as they exit and exceed the known world. They go vast with her poems. They risk, double, displace, fragment, unfix, and gesture to the furthest beyond—to loss, to the infinite, to “exstasy,” to extremity.”
She spoke about her poetry and how her work is made in 2010 at writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Threads.php; you can listen online. “The Desert” was created as an editioned work, for which she hired sewers via Craigslist; they worked shifts in her apartment on as many sewing machines as she had available.
“The Desert” uses stitch to erase passages of text, making a new meaning with what remains.
Jen used a text erasure technique in “nets” to make new poems out of Shakespeare’s sonnets – see an excerpt here.
Sylvie Killgallon is “translating” Homer’s Iliad into coloured stitches.
Each greek letter will be a stitch (a cross-stitch), with colours changing throughout the books, starting with red and moving letter by letter so that the final book is blue.
Book 1 – of the 24 books – is finished; she’s now working on Book 2, and it’s the longest book. “I need to stitch faster” she says on the project blog, Stitched Iliad.
From the Guardian newspaper’s article:
“I started the project in response to a curator showing me a newly built, empty gallery space and asking me what I would put in it,” she said.
“My mind immediately sprang to the Iliad.I’d been researching translation, transmission and reception of text issues, so my immediate question to myself was ‘Can I produce a translation of the text that allows an audience of non-classicists to appreciate it without understanding the text itself?’ The colour translation was my solution.”
The initial red colour scheme was inspired by the war, anger and bloodshed featured in the Iliad, which is believed to have been written between 750 and 650 BC.
Research has shown that cultures generally follow a similar order in developing names for colours. Black, white and red appear first, while blue is one of the last colours to be named.
Kilgallon said this was the reason the project starts in the primal colour of red before transitioning to blue, a colour indicative of a more technologically developed society.”
Silvie works on her Iliad in public places, “prompting conversations and interactions with an audience receptive to both the story of the Iliad and the story of the stitched Iliad.”
Previously, for a project starting in 2011, she stitched Book I in various ways, aiming to do it “twenty-four times, each time highlighting a different method of analysing the text. My first translation is a simple letter-for-colour substitution, which each letter of the alphabet being substituted for a different colour. When the Iliad was first written down all those years ago, it would not have had the breathings, accents, spaces, or lower case letters which modern classicists would now be familiar with; thus, my translation contains no spaces, punctuation marks, accents, or breathings. Later translations will focus on syntax, metaphor, location, character, etc. Hopefully when it is finally complete, it will be a work of spectacle, aesthetic beauty and complexity worthy of the title of epic.”
For instance, here is that work in progress in March 2012 –
Later in the process, doubts set in … “The aim of the first translation and the aim of all the rest is also different: the first translation dealt with metaphor, and how it reveals but also obscures, it dealt with appreciation and understanding. At the moment, I feel like all the rest are just… infograms. They’re just colour-coded charts showing the frequency of names and places. They’re analysing the text in a way which is supposed to be understandable, which seems almost completely at odds with my intentions in the first piece. … Why do the same thing 24 times, unless you feel the idea is developing further each time (and I don’t think it will)?”
And so the project changed. It will look amazing when it’s finished – perhaps this sample of two of the Book I’s will help you imagine it –