Sunday, 29 July 2012

Reflective Histories

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful Reflective Histories, an exhibition of printed works by seven artists, at Traquair House in the Scottish Borders. I’ve been mulling bits of it over ever since. The work that stood out most for me, perhaps predictably, was a book: Helen Douglas’ ‘A Manuscript for Contemplation’.  A one-off, unlike Douglas’ usual limited editions, the book is shown in and responds to the Priest’s Room. This was used as a chapel and as living quarters for the family’s priest during the period following the Scottish Reformation when Catholicism was outlawed: the entrance to an escape route, a stairwell built into an outer wall, is hidden behind book-shelves. A modest space in an otherwise luxurious house, the room has simple floor boards and white walls. Douglas’s book is shown on what appears to be a small, high desk before the window, furnished with a bare cushionless chair. The book itself is small and bound in burgundy leather, with gold tooling on the front cover. It sits alone in the sparse room, on a simple ironed white linen cloth: there is no obvious indication that this is an artwork.
Perhaps I was meant to mistake the book at first, as I did, for an old bible: after all, the rest of the room houses objects related to the priest’s function—linens, ritual artefacts from the mass and so on. Eventually I realised that this was the manuscript I was looking for, and with delight, I realised that I was allowed to touch it, to sit down and spend time with it. As everything else was walled off in glass, it felt really special to carefully open these pages, as if I was opening one of the ancient tomes in the adjacent library. I got that same thrill that I get when, having made a special trip to an archive or library to study a rare volume, I’m able to gently open the anticipated pages, smell that dusty odour of aged paper and leather, and begin to read the printed words: the material experience of the book floods me with ideas and questions: Who owned it and who read it? How did they use it? Why was it bound this way? Why was this paper and this layout chosen? Where has it been? What has it experienced? What can it tell me?
‘A Manuscript for Contemplation’ considers all these questions as it explores ideas about books and their functions. It focalises the relationship between the book and tactile experience. There are no words between the covers, but recurrent images: hands, jewels, pearls, clothing, emblems of ornateness and decoration. Drawn from the historical paintings that she found around Traquair house, the images are layered over one another and printed not with the form of the individual page in mind (we do not see complete images on each page) but more like a pattern (figures are partial and cut by the page). Interspersed between these rich dark pages are white sheets, embossed by hand with patterns from linen, echoing the white ceremonial linens of the priest, shown in the closet on the other side of the room. Deep in the book, sewn into one gutter is a single pearl.
Talking later with the artist, whose other most recent project has been the digitization of one of her delicate paper scrolls, she said she had enjoyed making the book but that as a unique work, celebrating the sensuous richness of pages and print, it could be considered atavistic. It was interesting to hear her say that about her own creation, not least because ‘atavistic’ is usually an insult. Originality and its correlate uniqueness are usually prized.

I do, however, know what she was getting at. Sometimes I do wonder whether the current interest in fine editions, artists’ books and so on is rather conservative and reactionary. The fetishization of the book as an object seems to have become established and intensified throughout the last century, inaugurated with Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer it finds its apex with imprints such as Ivory books whose limited edition artists’ books capitalise on book art as an almost purely financial proposition. Of course, on the other hand, it’s precisely this process that has focused attention of the book as an object itself and in doing so has opened the doors to study of the material history of writing and books. In terms of how we understand books, I guess, the recognition of their object-life has ambivalent consequences.

For the record, I think this particular work is not atavistic at all: in fact, I think, it speaks to aspects of the hidden past – the domestic and private uses of books, which have been forgotten. It remembers and celebrates an unofficial, sensual, perhaps even a femininised, history that the ‘legitimate’ reference books of the library next door obscure.
Anyway, a little more about the exhibition because it really is well worth the drive…
In the first place, the setting is pretty special. Set in beautiful lush surroundings, Traquair is apparently the oldest house in Scotland and dates back over 900 years. It has been home to the same family for generations and in fact, although its open to the public in the summer, they still live there: when you visit, you not only see ancient artefacts and historical displays but also evidence of more modern lives, rooms that are used, books that are read, couches that are sat on. In other words, the house is both historical and personal, both public and private. It’s a deeply resonant space, vibrating with memories, ancient and recent.  Of course, this makes it an interesting but complicated space in which to show art-works. You really couldn’t get further removed from the ‘white cube’ space of most contemporary galleries. Here, the works could potentially get lost amongst the array of other interesting objects: how do you make an art-work that can hold its own in, for example, a room full of 17th Century furnishing, or among the preserved 18th Century costumes which are fascinating in their own right? 
A number of the artists showing responded to this dilemma by playing with questions of hiddenness and visibility. David Faithfull, for example, created an oak motif that appears in various subtle ways throughout the house: on a William Morris-like wallpaper, on specially printed pamphlets interspersed with historical documents in a glass case, and on the modern brewery van outside. Perhaps its most memorable appearance for me was its joyful incarnation as the white knight of a chess-board set up in the drawing room (in the experimental 3-D printing the image-pattern was not imposed onto the surface but shot through the entire material of the figure). Works like Nicola Murray’s Gathering, printed moths which are only visible under ultraviolet light, and Duncan Robertson’s ‘Stitch in Time’, small tapestries that are subtly changed reiterations of the patterned wallpapers on which they are shown, continued this sense of a treasure-hunt, turning the whole experience of the exhibition into something playful and joyous.  Rachel McLean’s film ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ while also playful, managed to add another dimension by bringing into play the politics of the hidden by using the voices of contemporary figures such as politicians and royalty within a visually ‘historical’ setting.
It closes in September, so go soon!