Hail, hail good paper

Issue no3
June - July 2020
Troebele waters

It’s more than a shift back to process over product. For conceptual art of the 60s and 70s the book was unarguably an important creative channel–instead of the gallery space the at once ethereal and political one of the artist book became an attractive option. But the increasing popularity and authority art publications have today has less to do with a nostalgic reach back to dry-minded Conceptualism than to the book as a truly viable alternative and supportive outlet.

Undoubtedly, the appeal of the page has once more to do with the notion of ‘material’ and specifically, ‘material’ in a Lawrence Weiner kind of way: where language is used instead of, say, a rock; a word instead of a can of paint; lyrics or scripts instead of poured concrete. Now again, books are being used in lieu of space. It’s all material. And all interchangeable.

But besides any old-school experimentation with material, could the book’s present potency be due not simply to its delicious autonomy and nomadic allure? Is it not down to the sexiness of being able to take it home with you?

The meeting of minds through conversation, the sharing of ideas rather than the display of rationally discursive proof is a welcome night out, so to speak. Who wants to listen to someone so sure of themselves and their concepts that dialogue crumbles and falls to the ground vanquished by the one-sided lecture? A good artist book is like a good conversation or a good night out–full of unexpected meanderings.

Documents gets close to such a winning evening. A series of artists’ books organized and published by the Rijksakademie, now in its 5th edition (number five is still pending, there are four publications completed), Documents, with a sober, somewhat intellectual logo and image, is, you could say, just what the doctor ordered. Or could be–if it weren’t for a few easily corrigible factors. The concept is simple: One artist per book. One conversation at a time. An initiative of artist advisor Avis Newman, former artist residents are invited to talk about developments in their everyday practice and to exchange views about this with present resident artists. Crucially ‘the subject [of this conversation] is strictly the process preceding a work of art.’

Tine Meltzer says it nicely in her introduction to book four, describing the publication’s premise as much like ‘the seduction of a dialogue where dia (through) and logos (language) means that in dialogue we are learning through language.’ As Melzer points out, dia can also mean two, which to her –and I must agree– potentially permits for a beautiful misunderstanding. And then it’s just the two of you, the book and the reader, caught up in an intimate exchange.

Through these books, we’re learning, we’re given a glimpse into the minds of the makers, into the sometimes fragile ideas that are formed during a period of research. Ideas that lead one through a process and are often, for their behind-the-scene-character, left there. We’re given a gift so to speak, we’re invited, as in the case of Melzer, to partake in ‘an event that touched the notions of truth, transparency and the authenticity of authorship’ or, as in the case of the other spot-lit alumni, Irene Koppelman, Marc Bauer and Ivan Grubanov, to join in on their discussions about ‘unforeseen questions’.

With a few tweaks, Documents, could be a vital stepping stone on a, dare I say, resuscitated Hegelian path for language-based exploration. Not with absolute knowledge in mind but absolute conversation. The problem with Documents is that it clearly hasn’t embraced its potential and looks -it’s hard to put it another way- like poo. An executive decision should be made: shake it up, fix the aesthetics, go more underground, go crazy, release Documents from its restrictive graphic design and leap off the deep end of a new avant-garde. Long live the book as a place of presentation!

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2020