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Read Your Book and Eat It, Too

In examining the book as medium, material, and subject, the exhibition Text/Messages: Books by Artists includes a number of unusual works from the Walker Art Center Library’s collection of 1,600 artists’ books, illustrated volumes, and multiples. Some of these are only vaguely booklike, and many take a playful approach toward ideas about books as well […]

Robert The, Readers' Digest (cake book), 1998 Walker Art Center Library Collection

Robert The, Readers' Digest (cake book), 1998, Walker Art Center Library Collection

In examining the book as medium, material, and subject, the exhibition Text/Messages: Books by Artists includes a number of unusual works from the Walker Art Center Library’s collection of 1,600 artists’ books, illustrated volumes, and multiples. Some of these are only vaguely booklike, and many take a playful approach toward ideas about books as well as reading itself, our expectations of great literature, and the giving and receiving of wisdom through the printed word.

For instance, Readers’ Digest (cake book) at first glance looks like a generous slice of layer cake resting on a robin’s-egg blue plate. On closer examination, we notice that artist Robert The created the piece from a two-volume bound set of Reader’s Digest magazines, jigsawed into a wedge and delicately frosted with wax. It’s not just a clever take on the adage about “having one’s cake,” but also on the “ingestion”—and perhaps more important, digestion—of knowledge.

Despite its title, Xu Bing’s Red Book is actually a line of cigarettes packed into a neat little red case, each printed with quotes from Chairman Mao’s Chinese classic. It presents a tough choice: Keep the leader’s timeless words literally close to one’s heart in a shirt pocket, or send them up in smoke for a fleeting nicotine fix.

The self-help genre of books becomes a theme running through many works in Text/Messages. Katherine Ng’s Fortune Ate Me (a play on “fortunate me”) is a series of boxed paper “fortune cookies” imparting advice from her father such as “If you can’t find time, make time.” A similar self-improvement impulse unspools from Angela Lorenz’s Maxims by the Yard, a length of ribbon woven with phrases, ready to wrap up as that little something extra on a gift.

Many of us hope to gain great insights through reading classic or legendarily difficult novels, if only we had the time. The amusing Literary Essences by Wendy Fernstrum offers an alternative: composed like a set of healing flower essences, each bottle is filled with tiny paper “pills” punched from the pages of a particular book. Then there’s that perfect cube by James Lee Byars—what kind of enlightenment might be gained by meditating on its hundreds of pure white pages? And how might a seeker undertaking this project interpret the final pages, which actually do contain text? It’s possible that those last words are simply Byars’ reward for a certain kind of reader: the one who can’t resist skipping forward to a book’s ending.