The following is excerpted from Phaidon's, Reading Art: Art for Book Lovers and highlights the works of five contemporary artists exploring books as a subject.
The book is one of the most influential objects in all of human history. A rich visual record of its shifting status has been provided by artists, especially in the traditions of Western art, from medieval paintings showing the book as a revered object accessible to only a few, to contemporary installations that emphasize its ubiquity as a mass-produced commodity. Sometimes books depicted in a portrait identify specific people, such as Christian saints, or convey their intellectual status; at other times they remind viewers of their mortality, or caution against idleness. But in every painting, sculpture or installation, something is conveyed either about a culture’s prevailing attitude towards books or to those who read them.
By the twentieth century, books were firmly established as a mass-market product. No longer were they the precious and sacred objects they had once been; now they were cheap, ephemeral and even disposable. In the hands of contemporary artists, discarded and unwanted books became a raw material from which sculptures, installations and paintings could be created. For some artists, the abundance of second-hand literature has allowed them to produce works that probe the place of books in late capitalist culture. For others, books are a starting point from which new and unexpected transformations emerge.
Londinensi subterraneis: Circulus linea, 2012
What do Paddington Meets the Queen by Michael Bond, The Baker Street Dozen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The King’s Cross by Angus Dun have in common? In the hands of Phil Shaw (b.1950), they are reimagined as destinations on the London Underground. At first glance, this intriguing print appears simply to be a row of shelved books. A closer look reveals the name of a Tube station somewhere in each title. All of the stops from Aldgate to Liverpool Street via Victoria are represented, the yellow covers alluding to the color of the subterranean Circle Line as it appears on the schematic Underground map. Shaw is known as a digital manipulator and so it is natural to question the veracity of his books. However, whereas others of his works involve invented titles, all of these are genuine, appearing in the British Library catalogue. Whether or not they have all been published with mustard-coloured jackets is less certain. Shaw has produced an extensive series of these bookshelf prints, with several inspired by the London Underground and others that relate to the New York Subway. In 2013 he was commissioned to make a bespoke print for the 39th G8 Summit, for which he created a row of books that represented a quote by the eighteenth-century economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith: ‘What can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt and has a clear conscience?’
Someone Else — A Library of 100 Books Written Anonymously or Under Pseudonyms, 2011
In this library, the covers of one hundred books have been recreated in stainless steel with just one small addition: each contains a brief text detailing why the author either used a pseudonym or remained anonymous altogether. As Gupta (b.1976) discovered when researching this project, there are many reasons why an author might choose not to reveal their name: to hide their identity for fear of political or religious persecution; to conceal their gender; to avoid jeopardizing their career; to spare family members from upset; or simply for the freedom to pursue different genres. Authors from all over the world appear in this collection of metal books, including Emily Brontë and and Herman Hesse, who both published works under different names – Ellis Bell and Emil Sinclair, respectively. Scanning the rows of titles, one learns that J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has used a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith) to conceal her gender, and that David Cornwell adopted the name John Le Carré in order to keep his day job at British military intelligence while writing spy thrillers. However, these volumes cannot be read, for Gupta only recreates their covers. With no pages, the metal shells appear like commemorative plaques, their lack of content symbolizing the absence of the authors’ true identities.
The Parthenon of Books, 1983/2017
Thousands of censored books have been used to create this full-size replica of the Parthenon. For Minujín (b.1943), the classical Greek temple on the Acropolis in Athens is a powerful symbol of the political ideals associated with the world’s first democracy. The books, which were donated by the public, have all been banned in different parts of the world at various times. Among the many authors included in the installation are Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Anne Frank, Franz Kafka, Harper Lee, Karl Marx, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy and Salman Rushdie. Many of the books are now considered classics of world literature, but wrapped in plastic, hanging from the vast steel structure, they serve as a reminder that censorship remains a reality for many today. Minujín chose to erect this monument to democracy and free speech in front of the Fridericianum, the world’s oldest public museum and once Kassel’s city library. On this very spot in 1933, some two thousand books were burned during the Nazi’s nationwide campaign against ‘the Un-German Spirit’. It is the second time Minujín has built such a temple of books. The first was in 1983 in her native Buenos Aires, where she used titles that had been forbidden by the military dictatorship of Argentina.
Table with the Law, 1988
The severed remains of several large hardcover books sit on top of a wooden dining table. They belong to a series of commentaries on the laws of England established by Henry John Stephen in the 1840s. Many of the red bindings are pinned down by large shards of broken glass, which ensure that none can be opened and read. With this sculpture and many similar works, Latham (1921–2006) highlights the fragility of human systems of knowledge, language, and communication. From the mid-1960s, books and their destruction emerged as a significant motif in his work. Over the following decades, he set fire to books, blew them up, chewed them to a pulp, glued them shut, painted over them, cut them, dissolved them in acid and even submerged them in a tank of piranha fish. His choice of texts was provocative too, focusing primarily on encyclopedias, legal books and art historical texts, all representative of the establishment. But Latham’s art was not about iconoclasm or destruction per se; rather, by subverting the material substance of books, he wanted to transform them into something new and distinct. In doing so he raised questions about the nature of art, knowledge and time.
Confessions of a Crap Artist, 2013
In this painting, the artist’s own name is emblazoned across the front of a worn and dog-eared paperback that purports to be a play with a self-deprecating title. It belongs to a series that Miller (b.1964) began making in the early 2000s based on the iconic covers of Penguin books. In many of his works, the publisher’s famous logo and the classic orange and white design of its novels are combined with invented titles that are at once jarring, sardonic, humorous and irreverent. Here, however, Miller has based his striking yellow and purple composition on the lesser-known Penguin Plays series. Furthermore, the title is not invented but is that of a 1974 novel by Philip K. Dick, one of that author’s non-science fiction titles, an account of a messy marital conflict in 1950s America. Bold brushstrokes with spatters and drips of paint contrast with precise lettering on Miller’s canvases, which appear somewhere between Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Miller’s imaginary books are depicted as old and tattered, just like the real ones that he collects from second-hand bookshops. Indeed, he is also an accomplished author and it is his love of literature that informs his art.