For three years straight, Julie Chen, book artist extraordinaire, was obsessed with wheels.
Intrigued by the concept of turning one’s way through a book, Chen would dream up new projects and, without fail, fantasize about their potential as some great rotating affair.
“I’d think, ‘Is this the book with a wheel? No, there’s no reason for it to be a wheel’ — so I’d put it on the back burner,” Chen said. “And then I was thinking about systems of belief, and in my mind, belief is a cycle, and I was like, ‘I think this is the wheel book!’”
“I’m a big proponent of: Use structure but only when you need it,” Chen explained.
The idea being that, if you can find the right structure for the right idea — revealing itself over time — you create not only an experience, but a world.
Now, Chen has taken that idea to the center stage of the Environmental Design Library, curating a new exhibit, called The Book as Place: Visions of the Built Environment. The show, up through May 17, features works from 25 book artists, hailing from across the country. Chen solicited her network of artists to curate the exhibit, including former students of hers at Mills College.
The materials, themes, and structures of the artists’ books run the gamut, each exploring the questions: How does a book represent a place, and how do you create that space within its binding?
“The artists’ book form is a built environment in miniature, conceptualized using the same basic principles as in architecture: How will a person navigate the space — in this case, the space of a book — and, most importantly, what kind of experience will the reader have?” Chen said at the opening reception for the exhibit on Saturday, which drew in a large group of artists, along with friends and family.
For David Eifler, environmental design librarian, that’s why the exhibit is perfect for the library, frequented by aspiring civil engineers and artists alike.
“We can talk to students about, what is design and construction in this particular format, the book?” Eifler said. “Now, we’re asking book artists to use that medium to talk about what constitutes place.”
In the exhibit, several common themes emerged. Many of the works examined the threshold between man-made environments and the natural world, and how they bleed into each other.
Landscapes of the Late Anthropocene, by Philip Zimmermann, gives a dark — and perhaps even probable — portrayal of the world after sea levels have risen by hundreds of feet. Keri Miki-Lani Schroeder, a former student of Chen’s, created Influxstructure: A Topography of Ghosts, which overlays patterns both man-made and natural, including the Nazca Lines in Peru, the network of synapses in our body, highway systems, and an atomic bomb testing range.
Chen’s own piece, Wayfinding, explores how the natural environment transforms into a man-made version, and vise versa. Chen, who spent three years conceiving and building the art piece, created an alphabet of human body positions, and translated those shapes into rocky structures made of meticulously crafted, rough paper.
Again, Chen had asked herself: “How am I going to use texture in a meaningful way? I don’t want to just slap the texture in there.”
Other pieces concentrated on how books act as a physical vessel for the undefined, serving as a portal between the real and imaginary.
Heather Peters, also one of Chen’s former students, created the piece The Shape of Longing Recalled, which uses hand-dyed paper to reflect on the ephemerality and randomness of memory. Each page in the book is stained differently — a factor of the materials Peters used and how the chemicals happened to react from one day to another.
That process, Peters said, emulates how little control we have over our memories and their “haphazard development.” The concept of a book, she said, represents the space in which the human experience converges, in our universal desire to hold on to memories.
“It’s a place we can go back to,” she said. “We think of memory so often as this concrete object, but really it’s a very ephemeral thing that changes and isn’t always accessible — and the book becomes a stand-in for memory.”
Robbin Ami Silverberg, an artist from Brooklyn, was also inspired by memory and memory loss, and created a representation of her “mind palace” — the imaginary structure in our brains in which we can, according to ancient Greek thinkers, place items to locate and recall them more easily. The piece is called Memory Walk.
“The conceptual trick is that this is actually a built environment in your mind, manifested as a physical artifact,” said Deepa Jayanth, a friend of one of the artists, who was admiring Silverberg’s work. “I think it’s a brilliant interpretation of the (exhibit) theme.”
At the reception, Eifler announced that the Environmental Design Library and The Bancroft Library would together purchase one of the books from each artist in the exhibit.
David Faulds, curator of rare books and literary manuscripts for Bancroft, was struck by the wide diversity of materials and interpretations of what a book can be, and is excited to add the books to Bancroft’s vast repertoire of materials.
“You can’t digitize these things — you have to interact with them and feel all the moving parts,” Faulds said. “The smell, and the touch — all of it.”