The Dilemma of an Artist’s Book: What is it and What is it Not?
Lithuanian Artist‘s Book in the World Context
Eglė Petreikienė interviews Kęstutis Vasiliūnas
Expanded text of the magazine “Nemunas” 2019, No. 4
In the beginning let’s clarify definition of the genre. A conceptual book created by artist as an object of art is called an artist’s book (artist or artists’ book). In Lithuanian media and publishing of art research we discover various national terms like authorial, artist’s or visual artist’s book. Is it so difficult to find a common term?
Norwegian critic of art Vilborg Stubseid Hovet arrived to Vilnius 7th International Artist’s Book Triennial to discuss the concept of the artist’s book. An author of some books on this particular topic she questioned some details including linguistic inquiry of the proper position of apostrophe in the phrase artist’s book, as well as what are the boundaries of this genre. For instance, what are ‘zines’ – are they also artist’s books? What is ‘samizdat’ known since the early 20th century? What about handmade tastefully bound artistic book? What should be the circulation of the edition, if it is important? She asked me what I’m thinking about ‘A Century of Artists Books’ by Riva Castleman and many other questions. We had very interesting talk about artist’s books.
Various ways of binding pages is nothing more than an instrument because nontraditional methods of binding artist’s books often perform much better than those widely used. Traditional graphical technics like lithography, screen printing, wood carving, intaglio printing do not determine belonging to this genre. Its terminology is sophisticated in the most of languages: Libro d’Artista in Italian, Livre d’Artiste in French, Künstlerbuch in German, Книга художника (kniga hudozhnika) in Russian, etc. One may think that these terms say the same thing but that‘s not true even if translated meanings seem to be the same. Most often these terms indicate a period or a style: Livre d‘Artiste – a late 19th and early 20th century, when artists’ books were produced for representatives of bourgeois in France, using most innovative technologies of publishing and involving perspective young artists. Purchasing a painting was too expensive for many citizens, buying a print was cheaper. Think about young perspective poet, talented young artist, quality paper, good publishing house and luxury press altogether producing a beautiful, unique, signed limited edition book, usually called ‘a portfolio’because its lists were held loose for optional framing and hanging on the wall. That’s ‘Livre d’Artiste’. A dusty volume on the shelf doesn’t look a great showpiece but an exposed framed piece of art makes more impression. Today ‘Livre d’Artiste’ means or is at least supposed to mean an artist’s book of classic style. They are still produced but even in France nobody calls them that way. A ‘Künstlerbuch’ is based on expressionist stylistics, presents texts, images, shrifts and is usually made in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Similarly to French practice in Germany artists select some works of famous authors to illustrate them. A ‘Künstlerbuch’perfectly printed on quality paper today is perceived as commercial publishing, a commercial artist’s book. The art market of Germany is the biggest in Europe, involving collecting artist’s books by museums, libraries and many private art collectors. The works of artists there meet the demand of illustrated volumes of some authors, especially some popular Russian and Jewish poets. Illustrating only volumes of ten top-popular authors brings warranty of commercial success. Artist’s books of that kind are perfectly printed on excellent paper by letterpress machines, illustrations made by woodcut, lithography or intaglio technics. Professionally bound in the best private publishing houses they look luxurious but are indeed too much ‘true’, unsurprising and what I’d like to emphasize is a little bit out of time. Moreover there is only tradition left but artist’s individuality missing.
What predominant tendencies or outstanding leaders could be noted in this genre?
There are many tendencies and not a single simple one. Europeans often think in Europocentric way but in fact it’s very different in various continents and countries. One may ask why very few authors are still working with artists books in its birthplace France. If France was compared to Germany it would be found that in Germany there are dozens times more of creators of the artist’s book and their works are much more various, covering styles from traditional to conceptual.
There are many good and interesting artists in Scandinavia who create artist’s books. Those books are very specific and interesting, mostly artist’s book-objects. Artists from each of those countries have their own artistic distinctiveness.
In the USA are a plenty of professional producers of the artist’s book, as well as artist’s book associates, galleries and great collections. Artists there perform various styles and technics, producing not merely booklets of limited edition, ‘zines’, photographic artist’s books but also objects – artist’s books and installations – artist’s books. Many exhibitions of book art take place in USA as in Germany as well, exposing artist’s books and a variety of limited edition publishing regarded as examples of artist’s book genre in USA. In that country similarly as it is in some European countries stay-at-home women and men enjoy scrapbooking art by printing ‘beautiful’ graphic works, applying colored paper, practicing to bind them professionally and making awesome ‘artist’s books’ which are indeed unprofessional kitsch. Those ‘artists’ pay cents to receive handmade paper from Philippines or China, then print, fold, cut and bind it… still it’s not an artist’s book. Even worse is that it’s neither an art but an enjoyable self-expression.
Surely artist’s books are not diaries, not childish book, not mere illustrated or photo books, professionally bound books, collections of paintings or graphical works nor just any other ‘prints’ or pieces of arts. But diaries, childish book, illustrated books, photo books, professionally bound books, collections of paintings or graphical works and any other ‘prints’ or ‘pieces of art’ become artist’s books if the artist realized his conception creating them as an artist’s book.
Are there any clearer criterions?
Certainly they are. It’s similar in any art and even outside art. Is quality of good wine determined by tasting experts or by consumers? But for some reason people think that in art it’s different… Let’s say that I like ‘champagne’ produced in Alytus, in Lithuania because it is sweet, then the whole of similar ‘consuming experts’ decide that it is better than French original and even start calling it a ‘champagne’ but still it stays mere a bubbling wine drink. A little funny but that’s how people often think when they deal with art.
It is 26 years as I am working with this subject. Since 1993 I am organizing international exhibitions of the artist’s book in Lithuania and abroad, over 40 in all. I have reviewed some three thousands of artist’s books sent from some one hundred of countries, also I have visited many exhibitions abroad and had conversations with artists, art collectors, curators, managers of galleries and museums. Every three years since 1997 I’m organizing Vilnius International Artist’s Book Triennials. You had no time to mail exhibit books of former Triennial back to their authors when a volume of two to three cubic meters comes with the new works necessary to watch and select. Sometimes a thousand of artist’s books arrive but only one hundred of them get selected to the exhibition. This makes an impression what’s going in the world, what are new tendencies and styles, what is changing, what new structures and materials were applied to create artist’s book. Open attitude is very important during evaluation to avoid personal preferences and to reveal professional works. With time you understand that all good art is Art independently of location and time of its origin. Saint Augustine has said: ‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.’ Isn’t it the same with art and artist’s book? Therefore my goal as curator of artist’s book is to widely open ‘windows and doors’ to let viewers see artistic and interesting artist’s books of various countries, schools, styles, structures. For instance, in Brazil there are two groups of artists making artist’s books: Grupo Gralha Azul and Oficina do Livro de Artista. In order to participate in Vilnius Artist’s Book Triennial they often join together to create one joint book. Their artist’s books seem slightly religious, very strange, colorful, include a lot of handwork and they seem kitsch to some evaluators. Some evaluators suggest rejecting them because they don’t like bright colors and a postcard of sweet Jesus attached to the page… But wouldn’t it be a manifestation of our closed mind, spiritual emptiness, Europocentric non-tolerance to different cultures and different value systems. Latin America has its own culture, different from Germany or Spain. It’s illogical to apply ‘European standards’ when we are judging about their art. There are excellent authors of artist’s book in Argentina, Mexico, Chile and therefore it would be a mistake to expect equal quality and one ‘correct’ style from them all.
And what about Asian countries – China, South Korea, Japan?
However paper was born two thousand years ago in the East, in China (Cai Lun (CE 50 – 121) a Chinese eunuch is considered an inventor of paper. Methods of binding, shapes and structures of books including printing have born in the East and are still used by contemporary artists. It’s rather strange that in the East they have no tradition to make artist’s book and it’s an absolutely new genre to them now. After deep talking with Eastern artists it becomes clear that they respect their traditions very much and artist’s book is like a very modern challenge for them. However they follow what’s going in Europe or USA and try to repeat or take it over. The situation is similarly difficult in every of the three Eastern countries: in China there is a very low number of artist’s book makers, Japan is the most traditional while South Korea is the most modern among them. In Japan small groups of artists are creating amazing artist’s books joining tradition and modernity. Their books stand out with exceptional subtlety and sensitivity. I think that soon many excellent creators and the best exhibitions of the artist’s book will appear in these countries.
In 2018 I was invited as an expert of artist’s book to lecture in prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts along with two Korean universities of arts in Seoul (Gachon University and Sungshin Women’s University). It was an opportunity to learn the situation of the artist’s book and arts there from inside. Also it lets to assume that ‘International Artist’s Book Triennial Vilnius’ organized in Lithuania is among the best exhibitions of modern artist’s book, joining contemporary creators of the artist’s book.
Artist’s books concept is the main criterion of it being an object of art. Are the ways of expression less important?
Not any beautiful handmade edition is an artist’s book. Why? That’s because of the lack of concept. Usually they illustrate something, most often poetry and contain many pictures. Differently artist’s books illustrate nothing as they are conceptual themself and it doesn’t matter what means were chosen to create them. Sometimes it’s said that edition of artist’s books must be small but US artist Edward Ruscha has printed 3000 copies of his “Twenty Six Gasoline Stations” in 1969 and it was a modern artist’s book.
Even the most amazing concept must be materialized into an artist’s book. To do that, the artist must solve a plenty of insignificant things, like form, structure, method of printing if it’s needed, materials and means, binding, installation, etc.
Apparently a certain boundaries exist. What happens if somebody fails to fit in to it?
Western people have created the boundaries themselves. Maybe it’s time to start different thinking? There is a huge pressure of cultural heritage to Italian, French, German artists.
Situation in Lithuania is somehow ‘better’ and it could be explained by analogue of religion: higher compression (Soviet persecution) led to more believers. Still artists in Lithuania are treated as nothing. State officials consider them as people without profession who are unable to keep themselves. Therefore that ‘nothing’ makes amazing art. Non-existing policy of Lithuanian culture and ignorance of artists as individuals is a specific problem of Lithuania if compared with other countries of the Western Europe. Furthermore there is no market of art in Lithuania. It wasn’t structured. There are only few items of the artist’s book in Lithuanian National Museum. The reason why there is no collection of artist’s books was not related with the lack of funds. Even the personnel of Lithuanian National Library were not well aware of artist’s book and why should they expose it despite recent exposition of the ‘8th International Artist’s Book Triennial Vilnius 2018’ taking place in the same National Library. They had suggested hanging ‘something’ on the walls to decorate the Triennial… Also there are no private collections of artist’s books in Lithuania. Hard doing local artists rarely make them as they know that nobody cares and nobody is going to buy. But they purposely make artist’s books for the exhibitions of this genre. Let’s suspend the absolute conclusion because there still are several authors creating amazing artist’s books just for themselves and arranging impressive personal exhibitions in Lithuania and abroad, like Diana Radavičiūtė, Roberta Vaigeltaitė-Vasiliūnienė.
Lithuanian artist’s books are very engaging, professional, encompassing a variety of styles, forms and structures because there is nothing what the artists should imitate or follow. It’s a pity that most of Lithuanian artist’s books are left to break up in privacy of their authors but not included to museums or some archives.
Was the situation in Lithuania caused by public ignorance about the genre of the artist’s book?
No. We have been intensively working for the period of 26 years to inform Lithuanian society about the artist’s book and it gave an adequate effect. The triennials are not mere exhibitions but a part of wide movement of the artist’s book spreading from Lithuania to the world and from the world to Lithuania. Consider the only latest ‘8th Artist’s Book Triennial Vilnius’ in 2018 embracing exhibitions in Leipzig, Urbino, Vercelli, Vilnius and Plungė, then it’s going to Evanston and Fredonia (USA) and finally back to Europe, to Sicily.
Art Academy in Vilnius, Kaunas, Telšiai also every school of art and many secondary schools in Lithuania present courses about the artist’s book as an artistic genre. Even in the kindergartens they make artist’s books. Therefore the educational contribution has overcome the wall of ignorance in Lithuania. During the Artist’s Book Triennial in Vilnius it magnetizes most of the cities expositions visitors because it shares jewels of artistic ideas with teachers and students, graphical artists and book designers.
In the process of creating the artist’s books authors make experiments with various materials, untraditional methods of printing and binding as well.
What about digital and video works, for instance, can works of William Kentridge (RSA) be called artist’s books?
By the way, W.Kentridge is Litvak. His artist’s video books are amazing works. He was invited to visit Lithuania but for some reason he refused. If we were considering his works for an exhibition some 10 years ago we would probably say: ‘no, it’s not suitable’. (But we still accepted them if they met the quality requirements). It was time when works printed by digital method were seriously questioned whether they are artist’s books. Whereas they skipped traditional graphical technics and can produce unlimited number of copies. Now it is certain that some other features are more important. It is not the small number of copies what turns the publishing into an artist’s book but its concept, its professional realization. Some single-copy books stay mere handicrafts, sets of illustrations or pictures.
Are there discussions because of that? What if somebody realized his or her idea by joining original texts and pictures, binding them in interesting way but in contrary to author’s opinion some experts say that it’s not an artist’s book?
It’s better to avoid discussions of that kind. By the way it’s possible to explain to the author and to help him to correct the flaw of his subjective understanding if there is time to do that. Yet I would ask why illustrator, who possibly made great illustrations, wants to call his work an artist’s book? Does he feels incomplete as a ‘mere illustrator’ and wishes to realize himself as an artist? Yet illustration is an amazing art and there are many great illustrators in Lithuania and in the world.
Possibly there is some standard sequence of steps ‘a, b, c’ how to do it to make something similar to the artist’s book?
As professor I’m trying to define those steps to my students but we start by describing what is not an artist’s book because that’s easier to understand. Then we explore what tampers the book because of ‘f, g, h, i’ and how one may apply ‘a, b, c’ to make a genuine artist’s book. There are very subtle nuances. It seems to me simple and unquestionable as it is in painting. Many people are painting but are all their works pieces of art? Why ‘Sunflowers’ by Vincent van Gogh is art but still life paintings sold in the ‘Pilies’ street (commercial street in Vilnius old town) are not? The question is complicated and very simple in the same time. It’s analogue with the artist’s books.
I am lecturing about relation between the artist and his book, in other words what has inspired one or another form, structure, binding, materials or the whole what makes contemporary artist’s books. I need to recognize that it wasn’t we who came up with the rich variety of this genre, moreover it didn’t appear in the end of 19thcentury as many are thinking. Nor William Blake (1757-1827) was the first author of the artist’s book as many references say. In fact artist creates new forms of the artist’s book by modifying various thousands of year already existing books’ structures, thus applying non-traditional materials, methods of print and ‘incorrect’ binding. If a ‘codex’ type of book was chosen, it will remain a two thousand years old codex regardless of its new binding. The same is with the roller book which bears a very old structure with multiple historical modifications and therefore is the favorite one among the artist’s book makers. Also Oriental ‘accordion’ style artist’s book, Italian ‘leporello’ may be carried out in more than twenty different folding ways. Professional artist borrows structures of the book from many and any of the countries and periods – Philippines, China, Iran, America. Nonprofessional one would think that he has discovered everything himself…
I would say that not the idea is the most important thing, but an attitude of the artist to his object. For instance, artist was illustrating a booklet and made it very well. Then the author says: ‘Just look, I succeeded to make an artist’s book!’. Therefore his starting point was incorrect. An accidental success happens but it’s rather an exception. It’s popular to write a diary, to paste various collages, draw, add assemblies. Probably the set of that kind will remain personal notes and possibly will become an artist’s book if its author had an intention to create it since the very beginning of starting describing his own life.
What about reproaches and anger during the process of selection of the works?
That happens because I communicate with some 2500 artists from everywhere in the world to arrange exhibitions. Several professors in US made artist’s books on special topic for our triennial. They were very recognized in their universities but we rejected their proposed works. Then some of them responded angrily like ‘Fuck you, Kestutis, if you… and so on…’. I understand them. I am upset with them because being good artists they missed to deliver good enough artists books hoping that their names merely will open doors in ‘small town’ to exhibition of their works. No. We expect only very good artist’s books from good artists. By the way, there is a great way to defend self from somebodies personal anger by publishing those letters with authors’ names in the internet. About 140 thousands of art professionals and other interested visitors visit the site of www.artistsbook.lt monthly and it’s a good reason for disappointed artists to better control themselves.
This genre is very diverse, personal and free. Perhaps it’s not suitable to put a topic for the artist’s books?
It’s an accurate observation but absence of topic would result in anybody sending us anything. Every author had to add a detailed explanation of what was his idea, what he was intending to say. Also it would result in very eclectic exhibition set up of random works or perhaps of some no longer needed pieces of art.
We always choose provoking topics for our triennials. I think it is one of the guarantors of our successful work. For instance the heading of the first triennial was ‘Diary: Eight Days’. The heading of the third one was ’23 Sins’. It leads to intense exchange by mail because provocation raises questions. Then Muslim artists write to us: ‘We can’t participate in your exhibition because we are non-Christians’. Others say that they know only seven sins. Then somebody says: ‘I know forty two, what shall I do?’ etc., etc. I’m receiving lots of fun and weird letters. All that communication with artists is exciting and important.
One Triennial’s topic was inspired in café by Italian little girl. She was drawing something and when she was asked what is it she replied: ‘That’s a rabbit and a house’. I thought that it must be a great motive for the next Artist’s Book Triennial as it is unclear and thus ‘conceptual’… inspired by child absurd phrase allowed to recognize what is ‘rabbit’ and ‘house’ in various cultures. Some friends were joking that that topic will attract many artist’s books with pornography but not a single of that kind arrived. Many Europeans associated rabbit with the ‘Alice in Wonderland’. I’m recalling one amazing work by some Italian author: there is a book laid on the hay inside an empty rabbit cage. It’s absolutely conceptual: a book which you can’t read nor flip. Amazingly subtle books about the lop-eared arrived from Japan because the Moon is believed as a rabbit there (The moon rabbit or moon hare is a mythical figure who lives on the Moon in Far Eastern folklore).
We present books of various styles in the exhibitions starting with huge objects, mural artist’s books, installations to some matchbox size tiny roller books or absolutely classic ‘codex’ to help the visitors to concentrate, to learn the variety of artist’s book, to fall in love with it.
Object which was intended for reading loses its initial purpose of collecting and conveying information after it becomes an artist’s book. Is it true that the concept, objectivity, structure, shape and materials are more important than the content?
Yes, ‘objectivity’ is very important but who could explain what is it? Jean-Claude Carriere and Umberto Eco in the book ‘Don’t hope to get rid of books’ discuss on collection and storage of information…
Written down the artist’s thoughts are likewise significant. Just they may stay invisible if the object of art itself communicates its idea. I think that exactly the artist’s book contains a huge amount of information so much about the artist, so much about our age and the world around us.
© Translated by Andrius Sprindziunas
© Photos: Kestutis Vasiliunas
© Circle “Bokartas”, Kestutis Vasiliunas