On the second floor of Rapson Hall on the University of Minnesota campus sits a quiet haven of bookish delight. It is the Architecture and Landscape Architecture departments’ library, so its stacks are filled with beautiful books and the furniture is designer-made and lovely. More urgently, for the next week (my apologies for the late notice) the library is also chock full of a curious assortment of artist books that take up architecture’s familiar preoccupation with place.
A Sense of Place in Artist Books is one of a series of collaborative efforts among university departments this fall; the sprawling table-top exhibition contains nearly 100 literary portals to elsewhere. The concept of “place” at play in all these artist books is only minimally defined in the exhibition description, and the territories covered in the material on view are as varied as the book forms themselves: tiny and coffee table-sized, photocopied and letterpress-printed, flat and sculptural, handmade and machine bound.
Not surprisingly, many of the places these books ponder are natural sites. Flipping through page after page, I find myself immersed in islets in the River Thames, the bends of the River Axe, the forested Rookeries, hillsides in Croatia or Norway; there are several meditations on the sky. These landscapes are rendered in drawings, photographs and text.
A particularly poignant text-based work is a small, purple cloth covered book, simply titled One Hundred Scottish Places, with a list of place names translated from Scots and Gaelic into English: e.g., Field of Driving Rain, The Little Loch of the Trout. Each page contains just the one phrase, cumulatively making a composite portrait of place that reads like something out of a fairy tale.
On a table nearby another small volume claims to enlighten the reader on A History of the Airfields of Lincolnshire II, but instead contains a ribbon of letterpress-printed green text running atop each page comprised only of the word “flax” and the letters “f” and “x.” I learn nothing about Lincolnshire II nor its airfields, but am pleasantly surprised by the artist’s typographic horizon line.
An emphasis on travel permeates the show. Some epic journeys are documented in text and image (e.g., a 121-day bike ride to and from Iceland, a American cross-country road trip) ; other travelogues are more fictional than documentary. My favorite of these is a book by Gracia Haby of altered, fantastical postcards, and letters from an unknown traveler that become more surreal as the journey wanders on:
You never came, but in your place, a moose, an elk on a ramshackle bicycle, a wolverine and a pair of lynx from Gästrikland. They spoke to me of the weather, their plans, their likes and their loves.
Of course, a “sense of place” is not only about romantic engagements with the sublime in nature, or escapist dreams of world travel. A smaller number of books on display investigate “place” as a locus of labor, the mundane: domestic interiors, neighborhood streets, hotel rooms. Of these, my eye is drawn to Paulette Myers-Rich’s urban industrial landscapes, elegantly printed images of abandoned buildings in St. Paul and Minneapolis where she and members of her family once worked.
After spending the better part of an afternoon reading these books, I realize that any of the volumes, individually, might well have been enough to pull me from my bearings; but altogether, they caused a total (if temporary) loss of any sense of my own time and place.
I look up at the clock to find it has sped farther ahead than I anticipated. Where am I again? My surroundings reemerge. I am in a quiet library on a gray day in an Eames chair paging through a portal to elsewhere.
A Sense of Place in Artist Books is on view through December 12 at the Architecture & Landscape Architecture Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis campus. Find a symposium about the exhibition and its topic online here.
Sarah Peters is a Twin Cities-based artist, writer and arts programmer who is interested in public engagement with the arts and critical issues of our time.
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