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A BOOK?

Those who are accustomed to a book as conveyer of words, literature or any other written information, may be really disappointed facing an object labelled today "an artist's book". What is happening with a book can be even seen and experienced by them as an abuse or misuse, although the notion "artist's" can excuse the most wild and reckless experiments. Artist's - well, maybe these books are artist's, but are they books at all? It is allowed to think so, I do repeat, because for the conventional thinking a book is a book - an object with clearly defined form and function.

Either we want it or no, we witness convulsive transformation of the book form and we have to at least accept it, if not agree with it. Because the time of traditional book seems to be over soon. The word volume (in Latin volumen), once defining a hand written papyrus scroll, now means something that has very little to do with those scrolls. Just in front of our eyes the traditional book metamorphoses into a holographic phantom, into a CD-ROM, into a chip added to a mobile. Such a "book" is as optical as the present-day ones (but who knows for how long). And not only optical - very often also acoustic.

With no doubt something is fading away, though the charm of paper pages turned by a wet finger, smell of the open book or just the patient presence of spines on a shelf will last for quite long while. But when the time comes, the book shelves and libraries will be emptied. A part of this treasure will be devoured by beetles, mould or wars. The remnants will be but the trace of history, not clear and easily understandable for our great grandsons, too difficult and imperfect. They will shake their heads and rack their brains.

Whatever the sentiments prompt us, we have to be aware that nothing last for ever. For centuries the book we have known hitherto has been educating us, giving us fun, gaining our respect, but now it leaks out through at least two crevices that have appeared recently in the base of our culture: towards the world of electronic and virtual media and towards something still labelled a book but declared artist's. Probably there are other way of transformation or retreat, aren't they? Let us skip them here, as well as we will skip the electronic one. Let us concentrate on the art one.

In the great variety of styles a conservative eye may easily not notice a feature common for all of them. This is the predominance of substance. The emphasis has been radically shifted from the text to the language of the substance itself. More than literature we read kinds of paper, cardboard, plastic, wood, metal and other materials. Physicality of the object proposed to us as a book (although it is almost not a book) is becoming an idea. It's obvious that the majority of experiments in this matter won't be wasted. It has always been like that. The way from a clay tablet, tortoise shell, quipu and papyrus to a book - as we comprehend it - was full of numberless efforts and experiments. We know the successful ones. We know very little or almost nothing about failures. At every stage of this evolution the care of object's beauty was so natural and obvious that one didn't need to claim for it. The visible sum of toil and heartedness expressed in the loveliness of an object was the warranty of quality.

Ugly or just slapdash books appeared in the time of mass production changing, of a kind of paper hot-dog consumed at once and digested rapidly. A book in a pocket, like a handkerchief, began to serve a casual and immediate need. And this monstrous trash, also called books, was the background for raising rarities, uniqueness, gewgaws and cimelia. Many a talented writer make the most of it - just to mention William Blake, Guillaume Apollinaire or Bruno Schulz.

Today things are far more advanced. At present a book tries to get rid of literature. It wants to be a picture. Not a "picture story" like ancient Chinese hua-ching or Western comic, but an integral picture. An independent picture, a picture itself. This is interesting, considering that within last decades visual arts have been carefully denying any connection with literature. And if this was not enough, now the book tends to a similar apostasy. Of course, the attempts not to throw out the baby with the bath water are numerous and still attractive, it means to keep a literary text within one or another aesthetic, to merge in a surprising unity a written word and visible image. I think about great work of Zbigniew Makowski, about searches and experiments of Anna Maria Bauer or Marek Jaromski, about many others. These attempts, as well as the art of pure illustrating, want to be considered artist's book, too; who knows, maybe this is more justifiable than in case of many radical propositions which has nothing to do with a book and not so much more with art and artist. Well, but who knows and understands today what art is?

There is enormous quantity of searches and their directions on and within the round-a-book and round-an-art orbit. And it's growing, what can be easily seen at the exhibitions organised for quite long by Alicja Słowikowska. The richness of displayed ideas is worth to be noted. In fact this phenomenon should be somehow recorded and its items should be collected. So far this is done with the help of the exhibition catalogues. However it is but symbolic honour for the artist's book. With no doubt it deserves something more, since paradoxically the artist's book captured in a trap of the catalogue comes back ultimately to the form it wanted so much to get rid of. It becomes a flat printed mark.

An artist's book, or unconventional book as it is named sometimes, is an object desired by collectors in a civilised world, what I could witness many times, as well as by the special divisions of prestigious libraries and museums. Considering the richness and variety of Polish experiments it seems the time has come for persons and institutions assigned to this to make the most of it. Until everything sinks in microprocessors.

Henryk Waniek
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