Telling Tales

Siganto Foundation Research Fellow Dr Lyn Ashby is investigating the artists’ book collection, seeking to discover the many aspects of stories that have been told through the medium of the artists’ book. Here are Lyn’s thoughts as be begins his journey with the artists’ book collection in the Australian Library of Art.

Joan Didion once famously wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. A matter of life and death. Stories keep us sane, drive us mad, tell us who we are, who we aren’t, who we might prefer to be. These conjured myths clearly wield a profound and mysterious power in our personal and cultural lives. Some scholars have suggested that humans should be known, not as Homo Sapiens, but instead as Homo Fabulans, because of this apparently unique capacity for “fictive language“: to believe in (and live in) a fabricated reality, to believe in that which does not actually exist. To believe in stories. And although these stories seem to thrive in all the nooks and crannies of our mental, emotional and cultural lives, over the millennia of its own life, the book has become the natural home for stories in many cultures. Whether it is around the campfire or in the pages of a book, humans are the storytelling species.

Spread from Marshall McLuhan's book, "The Medium is the Massage"

Spread from Marshall McLuhan’s book, “The Medium is the Massage”.

The book. The familiar book that tells the familiar story. But parallel to the life of the “ordinary” book, over the last two centuries since William Blake there have been artists and writers who have used the book form itself to create books that are often experimental visual and literary hybrids, producing what the contemporary book artist, Ulrike Stoltz, has called the “extraordinary” book, but more commonly known as the “artists’ book.”
Artists’ books might differ from normal books in many ways — from the most obvious aspects of size, binding, material and structure, to the subtlest variations of the expectations of the usual codex form. So, what do such variations do to the story that might be presented in such extraordinary books? Some of the usual qualities inherent in the ordinary book — regular, episodic, sequential page-spread revelation, whether comprising text, image or both — determines in structural ways how its story can be shaped, and even what kind of story can be meaningfully presented in its form. While the ancient medium of the ordinary book has housed our stories and served us well, it has been argued that the artists’ book is a newly significant communications form for representing our contemporary stories. Of all the mediums available today – both traditional and experimental, analogue and digital, material and ephemeral – what draws an artist in the twenty-first century to the humble medium of the artists’ book? What is the nature of the type of story that it is possible or appropriate to tell with the modern artists’ book that is less possible or less appropriate with the “ordinary” book? How does the story “work” in the artists’ book?

As a Siganto Foundation Research Fellow at the State Library of Queensland, I am interested in looking into these questions. This is an inquiry into the nature of the stories (if we can still meaningfully call them that) that can be told with the unique qualities of the artists’ book. I wonder too if there is an Australian voice in this telling?

Loophole by Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas, 1975

Loophole by Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas, 1975

I am at the very beginning of this research, but as an example of the questions in mind, I looked at a classic work made by Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas in London in 1975. “Loophole” is a small black and white, offset book, comprising various loose sequences of photographic images which continually disturb usual expectations of how to read the dimensions of a book. We find here an ongoing perceptual game with the conventions of the various levels of illusory photographic and page spaces. This cascade of illusions has philosophical implications for the space occupied by the reader. How, in the end, are we to understand this book?

This conceptual-spatial game as rationale for a book could not be more different to the visceral story that arises in the book Stabat Mater made in 2009 by Sydney-based book artist Monica Oppen. With this monumental book — both in physical size and cultural reverberations — Oppen has reshaped a thirteenth-century Catholic hymn (to the iconic suffering of Mary at the cross) into a twenty-first century affirmation of compassion and declaration against war. Pattern-printed across the reverse side of this accordion book are the words “The Universal Soldier” (referring to the song written in 1964 by Buffy Sainte-Marie), reminding us of our own part in making peace and that the orders for war “come from far away no more.” A surprising paradox surfaces immediately: the more abstract, conceptual Loophole creates its effect by an accumulative progression that more resembles a traditional narrative process than the instant (synchronous) powerful presence of the larger accordion Stabat Mater to tell its story. The issue of story in artists’ books is not predictable. A comparative reading of these two very different books begins this research adventure.

Stabat Mater by Monica Oppen, 1990

“Stabat Mater” by Monica Oppen, 2009

The writer and art critic, John Berger, once suggested that a book offers a home to the reader, formed temporarily by the walls and roof of its story. The reader may take refuge for a while in its shelter. We live in story. But the artists’ book, with its sometimes challenging, peculiar types of story (its non-story, its layered, flipped and multi-story) is often not so accommodating. The artists’ book is often difficult reading, requiring an acknowledgment of active agency in making meaning and a maturity of wide knowledge and interpretation. With such books, as Marshall McLuhan wrote “Our work now is to grow up! We cannot go home!” The paradox here is that, because these types of books are still a marginal cultural practice with a relatively small artistic profile, they often struggle themselves to find a home. And this is where the very special cultural institutions such as the State Library of Queensland are of pivotal importance. As a research fellow I sometimes find myself in the artists’ book section of the library’s repository, that astonishing safe home at last for some of these important books, these bibliographic experiments. For the artists’ book lover this is a welcome place with a vision that itself helps to build the story of our culture, and the many stories in the many books for which if provides a home.

A home for wayward books in the SLQ's Repository

A home for wayward books in the SLQ’s Repository

Lyn Ashby, March 2016


Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, 1967, The medium is massage: and inventory of effects, Bantam Books, New York.
Helen Douglas, Telfer Stokes, 1975, Loophole, Weproductions, London.

Monica Oppen, 2009, Stabat Mater, ANTpress, Sydney.