Disruption and Complementarity: A conversation between Robert Vas Dias and Claire Reddleman
Claire Reddleman is the book artist who made The Thing Itself. She is a photographic artist and writer based in east London. She makes work which intersects and explores the space between politics and art as two schemes for making meaning. She has recently made a series comprising two triptychs called We Happy Few which was exhibited on 2 June 2010 at Showcase London. The Thing Itself is editioned and was exhibited at The Bookart Bookshop in September 2010.
Robert Vas Dias is a major contemporary poet. He is the author of eight poetry collections in the USA and UK, has edited or co-edited four literary journals – two in the USA and two in the UK – and is the editor-publisher of Permanent Press, which he founded in Michigan in 1972. His influential anthology, Inside Outer Space: New Poems of the Space Age, was published in 1970 by Doubleday Anchor Books in New York. He was founding director of the Aspen Writers’ Workshop in Colorado, was Poet-in-Residence at Michigan’s Thomas Jefferson College, where he also founded and directed the National Poetry Festivals, and he coordinated two poetry reading series in New York City. His poetry and criticism have appeared in about 100 magazines and journals. Most recently, he has published two artists’ books Leaping Down to Earth, with images by Stephen Chambers and Tom Hammick, which appeared in 2008. His most recent publication is a pocket-portfolio edition of The Lascaux Variations: Fractals of Being, 2009, with images by John Wright. Still | Life: and other poems on art and artifice will be published in 2010. He has been awarded a Creative Artists Program Service (CAPS) Fellowship in Poetry (New York State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts), and the C. Day Lewis Fellowship in Poetry administered by the Greater London Arts Association. He writes on book art and artists’ books, particularly those which incorporate poetry and text.
Claire and Robert met to discuss the first and second realisations of The Thing Itself, during the process of making the third realisation that is recorded on this site. They began by discussing The Thing Itself as book art:
RVD: I approached [the first realisation of The Thing Itself] first of all, from the standpoint of the images, the book itself was quite amazing, quite astonishing. I was really impressed with this, how you did it. The fact that there’s this layering and exploration of the layers of imagination. I was really impressed with it, quite astounding. How long did this take you to do?
CR: It was fiddly rather than extremely time-intensive. It’s actually made by a fairly easy process…
RVD: I can understand that it has to do with photocopying, doesn’t it?
CR: It’s using Photoshop, are you familiar with it at all?
RVD: I have it but I don’t know how to use Photoshop.
CR: It’s just using one of the tools on Photoshop in a quite simplistic way, really. It’s called the magic wand tool and it selects areas that have the same tonal value within the image. So if you click on a medium grey it will select everything within the image that is that grey. My idea was that it was a method, an analogy for breaking down the picture, trying to replicate digitally how the light might be emanating from the centre and travelling. Obviously the travel isn’t discernible because of the speed, but [it’s] almost as if you could slow it down endlessly.
RVD: Well, there is this one central light which you describe. A kind of thing, an object which is there throughout. It’s a kind of node of energy, you might say. It could be a motif, also, and what impressed me with this is how fruitful it was in terms of provoking the imagination. I read [the book] first, [then] read this text and at the end, after you talk about the heterotopic principles, you have an epilogue. And the Epilogue is most amazing in the sense that it acts as a metaphorical interpretation – or a metaphorical response, is I think the word – to this image. The unfolding of this image. That’s what I think is really neat, I was really impressed by that.
CR: I’m glad that worked.
RVD: Oh, beautifully!
CR: That was what I was wanting to see if it was possible to do in a piece of text. I became very involved in the idea of this space and the cave image. To me it is the cave image because obviously I’ve been to the real place and I’m familiar with it, so all of that is within my lexicon, but I got very interested in whether it was possible to experience that space, to sort of re-experience it, because I obviously have this sort of originary experience of the real – well, ‘real’, a doubtful term…
RVD: Well, the memory-trace…
CR: Yes, and so the image has sort of replaced that ‘real’ place. I’ve never been back there since I took this photograph and I don’t think that’s necessarily interesting in itself, but I was interested in that layer of the real, giving rise to the memory, giving rise to the image, which now gives rise to this sort of imagined experience where I feel like it’s this heterotopia and I wonder can you actually exist in it, so [the Epilogue] was my imagining of whether that was possible.
RVD: Well, I think it works in that sense very successfully. The other thing I noticed about this, by the way, is how the cave gets transformed or is – ‘transformed’ is a weak word, ‘morphed’ is the teenagey word for it – into the house. And that turn releases other memories about being there with the mother and so on. That piece at the end, that Epilogue is a prose poem in my opinion. It’s gorgeous, it really is. And it’s doubly effective, I think, after you have experienced the deconstruction and the reconstruction of the image and that’s what makes it so powerful in my experience of it.
CR: The translation into the house space?
RVD: Yes. […] The fact that it’s tied together with the conceptual development and the argument makes it much more powerful. But what I’m interested in also is […] how you envisaged the final book, how you envisaged the text with the image.
CR: The text of the essay?
CR: I’d never really envisaged it having any relationship, or even really being something I would display or share with a viewer. Originally, I thought of the book not really as an artwork or a thing in its own right but really being an illustration of the things I was talking about in the text; to really have a go at whether it was possible to enact some of the ideas I was talking about, to make that step from theory to real art practice. So I thought of the text as primary and this book as really secondary.
RVD: [surprised] Really?
CR: And then as it evolved, now the text feels a lot less important.
RVD: I considered it very useful as the critical underpinning of this practice, but almost as ancillary to what is happening here [in the original book]. What’s happening here is like the poem, and how the reader, the viewer, responds to the poem on a variety of levels.
CR: Do you mean ‘the poem’ as in the experience of a poem?
RVD: The generic poem. And how the reader or viewer responds to the poem. The one main objection I have – and I understand why you did this – is how you reproduce some of the poetry, or most of the poetry and that is as a paragraph…
CR: There is a real loss in the lineation, it’s quite violent…
RVD: A real loss! So I went back to my [Wallace] Stevens and the only way that I could make sense of this Wallace Stevens, to start with, is to go back to the poem and the way that it is set out in three line stanzas and the lineation of each. It’s so difficult to hold in your mind the lineation that is represented by the slash and the double slash for the stanza spaces. It’s difficult to bear that in mind as you are reading, that I had to go back to [the poem]. I had to.
CR: That’s really interesting I think. Because I was making the poem into a reference for its meaning and using it in that quite appropriative way just to serve my purpose. I do think there is an interesting violence to the form of the poem in presenting it that way.
RVD: The only advantage that this has is spatial – it saves space. But it doesn’t do justice to the poem, as poetry.
RVD: I wanted to register a strong objection!
CR: I think that’s really interesting in the context of what the book turned into. So shall I show you the new Thing Itself?
RVD: Yes, yes, I’d like to see. I’m very very conscious, as a writer, of the way the poem appears on the page. To me, the way the poem appears on the page is akin to a work of art and its appearance, within a frame, let’s say. A visual work, like a picture, for example. And this is most strikingly evident in the poetry of Emily Dickinson whose poetry depends, so much, on its lineation but also on its appearance. She wrote on various kinds of pieces of paper, but she had a very clear…
CR: Out of necessity or of taste?
RVD: Yes, of necessity, and she bound these pieces of paper into fascicles with thread and these were the bases of the formalisation of her poems into books after her death. But she had a very strong sense of the way the line appeared, the line break appeared and the spaces between words, how space was used as part of the poetics. Ever since I studied her manner and her way of doing things … Actually, the first poet who made me very conscious of this was EE Cummings and it was after I had got to grips with Cummings [that] I got to grips with Emily Dickinson. The edition that attempted to restore her punctuation and her lineation was that of Thomas Johnson and that appeared after I had gone to undergraduate school. Since then, there have been facsimile editions that go even further in restoring the originality of her orthography and her manner of composition.
CR: I was wondering how to show you this [the second realisation of The Thing Itself]. I think the way I imagined that this should be best approached by a viewer was lying open on a surface, so the fact of my handing it to you is perhaps a bit unusual.
RVD: Well, let’s see how I react… I’m familiar with these two things now, the text and the images [the original essay and first realization of The Thing Itself]. Oh wow… So this is much… Oh I see!…
CR: I was interested in what you were saying about the spacing.
RVD: Well, you’ve obviously thought about this quite a bit.
CR: Actually, it might look quite thoughtful in a way. Obviously, there is a lot of thought underpinning it but the process was quite arbitrary in a sense, about selecting words. As I was mentioning, with using Photoshop. What I realised was that I had selected a method and then applied the method again and again and again in one permutation after another. If you take them as being individual images or image-texts in their own right…
RVD: I didn’t take them so much as individual images as layerings of one basic image… Even to say one basic image is, in a sense, misleading because it’s a series of images. The interesting thing about this is that, once you deconstruct this image so to speak, taking a piece of it, which I did with the smaller version there, it can be interesting like so, I’ve dipped into the middle and taken a page. That is of interest, there is no doubt about it. It is of more interest, however, when it is put together as part of the layering process. The layering process, for me, gives it a depth. This [first realisation] does not have the depth that seeing it this way [second realisation] does. This is much more one dimensional but it is not without interest. But this, this is what is of interest; when you put it down like this or like that and you look through and see this multifarious assemblage of images and when it turns into the house, this is extraordinary – I was really amazed when that happened, when I came to this part here – wow.
CR: Yes, I was interested in that moment when it translates, as well…
RVD: It’s extraordinary, extraordinary!
CR: …and this time I wanted to make the transition subtler, in a way, and make it slower.
RVD: It is slower and it builds. That was the way I first looked at it. I turned each page and I looked at it as a whole. And then, actually, what I did was I took several pages together and looked like this, not as a book. It was a really curious experience I had, because I looked through it from the first leaf, then I took bunches of pages and looked at it that way. Then, every once in a while I would take a page and look at it separately. Every once in a while I did that. That was my first experience of it. And then I went through it page by page and then I went back again and looked at the whole thing again, particularly where it transitions to the house image. I thought it was quite extraordinary what you have done here. I don’t know how, perhaps I don’t even want to know how you did it with Photoshop, I’m not that much of a techie so… I thought this was just incredible.
CR: I saw Photoshop very much as a means to an end. I didn’t know at first what aesthetic I was driving at, and so I imagined a process and tried it. I was looking to find a legitimate way to deconstruct the image because in the writing of [the essay], I maintained that this was just one method that you could use and if you wanted to deconstruct the same two photographic images, there would be other ways you could do it but I was drawn very much to this method. Not in the sense that I experimented with other methods and decided that this was the best one, but rather I wanted it to remain a theoretical possibility that someone other than me could undertake the same aim but end up doing it in a really different way and that that would be their experience and be very different to mine.
RVD: I mean, the experience of the images would be different. The words are always a little more directive, aren’t they, less abstract. Whereas, if you take this kind of thing, here [second realisation], you are dealing with an abstraction or with a series of abstractions, with an idea of the image which is becoming realised, let’s say. And words are more directive, in that sense, so you have a contrast between the abstract quality of the image and a different kind of specificity here, in terms of the words.
CR: Do you think they lose any of their specificity, their capacity to be directive, because they are so disrupted here?
RVD: I don’t see a disruption, I see a complementarity. I think one would have to read the text… I don’t know how one would experience this as a whole. To lay the leaves out separately on a surface would not be the way. Since I’ve seen it this way for the first time, it seems more natural this way; you have used the space on the left for the words, on the right for the image. The words can be read in their blackness but also in their greyness, as they recede, which is a lovely idea especially when you are talking about darkness and qualities of light, and even coldness.
CR: I was really interested to see it come together, as a stack of leaves, and see how the words functioned.
RVD: I think you’ve presented it, that is to say, in this form, as a traditional folio, a traditional way of putting a book together. Have you seen many artists’ books for example? I’m interested in artists’ books and I have a number of examples of them and I have worked with… Have you seen the book I did called Leaping Down to Earth? That is much more conventional.
CR: Is that the one where there were four of you working on it?
RVD: No, that’s The Lascaux Variations with abstract images – semi-abstract images – by John Wright. That little book was put together by the images being created along with the poetry; that was more collaborative. And then a third artist came in consultation with me and arranged parts of the text right on the images themselves.
CR: So had you made the images with a view to that happening?
RVD: Yes, with a view to that happening, but not leaving space. What you’ve done here with the image on the right and the text on the left on the semi-transparent leaves so you can see through – it’s like a palimpsest but it’s quite a different principle. I haven’t really seen it before, which was another one of the reasons why I was excited by it.
CR: That’s interesting that you mention text being introduced into or onto the image because one of the earliest ways that this – I say this, but what is this; this is one of the things that I find problematic about this project. These two photographs are part of a series [To Set the Darkness Echoing] that developed over the last five years. The cave image is one of the first that I took, so that has existed for that length of time. The second image here, the shed/house image was taken much more recently. But the cave image, about four or five years ago was part of a film that involved other images. It’s a bit crude now, and it was experimental, done when I was a bit younger and it was less thoughtful but it involved my taking the Keats poem A thing of beauty is a joy forever which I hand-wrote onto the images, photocopies of the image – so I was trying to degrade the image even then but I didn’t have any kind of theoretical underpinning for why I was interested in that – I was just drawn to it and was experimenting. So it involved my handwriting in white on the black areas of the image.
RVD: I had considered doing it calligraphically also, this was one of the things we talked about. And Julia [Farrer] who was the artist who worked with us thought that because the images were abstract, because they were very delicate – in colour, by the way – the calligraphic designs would detract from the images. So she thought that using print would be the best solution. And since she is not a typographer, we roped in a typographer to help us decide on the font. She decided, Julia, on the placement of the text on the image and the typographer saw this information and decided on the best font for this.
CR: So what did the person who had made the original images make of it?
RVD: Well, he loved it. He’s not a typographer, he’s a painter, he’s not a printer, he doesn’t make prints. Whereas Julia is a printmaker – a very fine one – she teaches at Camberwell and she has a show on of some of her work right now at Cork St at the Flowers Gallery. A very fine artist, beautiful stuff she makes, abstract but architectural, geometric. One of her cards is up there; just a rough idea of one of the things she does.
CR: Ah, when you said printmaker I was imagining etchings.
RVD: Yes, but these are digitally realised, of course. Let me get that publication and we can talk further about it. It’s quite different from your things. Don’t read the poetry yet, it takes a while to sort things like that.
[RVD fetches The Lascaux Variations: Fractals of Being]
CR: That’s so interesting, I can’t quite imagine what you start with. It reminds me of Georgia O’Keefe. I always came back to the difficulty that, for me, the photograph, the full undeconstructed image is perfect. I’d lived with the image, especially the cave, for so long. And I had a mental block, I was really stuck about making further images because I had this sense that this was it; that was the definitive image, I had made it. And then the idea of putting text over it, I could never get away from the idea that it was violating it, that the image was sacrosanct.
RVD: Well, this for me, was made with the idea of incorporating the text at some point.
CR: So were you writing and this person was drawing simultaneously?
RVD: Yes, and we were feeding off each other. The project developed together in other words. And after he had finished the drawings and I had finished the poems, it was put together in this format. The format I got from a book I had picked up in Venice. I hadn’t come with a preconceived idea of how this should be done. Not the idea of putting the text on the image but the presentation, that is to say, within the little portfolio, comes from a little book that I picked up.
CR: So what was it that interested you about the words being so incorporated with the image?
RVD: Because of the associative effect, because the image would be changed and the words would be changed by being placed on the image. So you’d have three separate things; you’d have the text, image, and text and image together. You have three separate things and you put them together in this format and you have a fourth thing, an object. And that’s what really interested me in this project.
CR: The interplay of the different things…
RVD: Yes, the interplay of the poetry with the image producing a third kind of thing, becoming something other than they each were. And it’s more akin to the artists’ books. Where I got this idea from was the artists’ books and poetry books of the Russian Futurists from 1912 to 1916 or so, just a short period of time, there were many, many little artists’ books which combined poetry and text very innovatively and modestly because they didn’t have much money. It was just before and during the First World War and they used all kinds of materials, they used what was to hand…
CR: Like Emily Dickinson…
RVD: …and that’s why I used this digital process because that is the one that we had to hand.
CR: So how did that work digitally?
RVD: The paintings were scanned, they are much larger. And the scans were worked on by Julia after I had selected text to go on each image.
CR: Does John [Wright] – do you know – consider the images to remain discrete artworks?
RVD: Yes, it works both ways, he’s just had a show of these as images, as pictures on a gallery wall without the text, but we had piles of the books to one side. And also, the poem was published as a poem in the first place in the Warwick Review without the images. So you have the text and you have the images separately and you have them together as a third thing making this object, this little portfolio. That’s the analogy that I see to your work.
CR: Are you comfortable with that play of elements together?
RVD: Very comfortable, very comfortable.
CR: Because I’m actually very uncomfortable with it… Not with your work… But that is why I embarked on [The Thing Itself].
RVD: I’m not uncomfortable at all!
CR: I had this confusion – particularly in working with digital images where most of the time I look at them in a computer – I had this real difficulty thinking ‘what is the image?’ It’s this collection of pixels…
RVD: I don’t think you have to worry so much…
CR: That’s what this project was about, about what form the image was in and what exists in all these different forms.
RVD: I started off talking about [the first realisation] without any text at all. This is what was presented to me at first and I reacted on the basis of what I saw here in the first place and I was excited by this. At first, I didn’t know what it was, because you don’t at first, I opened this and it’s a new experience, which is always interesting when you don’t have any expectations. That’s an interesting point of departure because you open it up and you see this first image. I looked at it – as I’ve explained – and then I went back and examined each leaf separately and then I was able to put it all together and come to a conclusion – before I read the text. I didn’t touch the text until I had experienced this. So, you know what I have done. And what is really interesting, now, is to see the way the words have been correlated with the image. The advantage of this image and the idea of the layering and the looking through and the assembling of the various parts of it as an eidolon of the imagination; a kind of primary image, a primary pattern and that idea is now given further amplification by the words and that’s what’s interesting about it and really rather unique. I like the format you have chosen to present it.
CR: What do you like? Or why, perhaps?
RVD: I like the idea of being able to read as one wishes, simply by dipping in – there are quite a lot of pages here – seeing the way the words pop out at you when they are blacker and recede when they are greyer and fainter which recapitulates the whole idea of the image. There’s a unified idea here and I think this is a fantastic way of presenting it, on this acetate. I don’t know how expensive it is but artists’ books are always a lot of money, anyway, let’s face it.
CR: I started thinking when you pointed out the choice to present the images on the right and the text on the left, I hadn’t considered the possibility of incorporating them more intimately.
RVD: And I don’t think you should because I think the image is complex enough. It is provocative enough as an image and a series of images, but the words are also provocative enough and the idea of the words on the surface seen with the words as they recede is again a recapitulation of the way the images work which, I think, is a really neat idea. I haven’t seen it before; it’s really interesting. I think quite original, I haven’t seen anything like this.
CR: I wasn’t really sure on that point, because I’ve been doing research more on theory and photography and less about artists’ books.
RVD: Well, I approach it from the standpoint of an artists’ book – this thing here [first realisation], this is the nascent idea and this [the second realisation] is the fruition of it. And I think it ought to be presented as it is. I don’t know if you’ve considered colour or not, for the words. I think the black and white image is terrific.
CR: I’d never considered involving colour, actually, and the white covers felt like quite a natural thing with the limited colour.
RVD: Well the cover is not so much a cover as a covering…
CR: Yes, it’s trying not to be a cover, it’s trying not to really be there although it has to be. That was a transition for me from the previous book. I realised that it was quite closed. Something I was interested in… I’m not sure if it comes from an archetypal image of ‘the book’, an ideal book, the old-fashioned idea of a vast leather-bound book, with pages that would stay open under their own weight. I wasn’t quite sure why, but that openness somehow seemed to be important to me, that the natural state is being open, not closed, so you can’t see the images. The images are the main thing to me, not its objecthood as a book…
RVD: Ah, but you’ve made it into a book, it is now an object whether you want it to be or not!
CR: Yes, and I think I did want that, to retrieve the images for myself from their endless digitalness, where you see them in these compromised ways and they overlap in different windows.
RVD: You, by the way – speaking about typography – have chosen a size and a font which, I think, is well suited. The image is much more, I’ll use the term ‘archetypal’ but there’s a kind of dream-like quality to the image. It has sometimes the strength and even the horror of dreams. And the font and the way the words are spaced is very de-emphasised, which I think is very good when contrasted with the image which I think so powerful. The words do not detract from the image, which I think is very important in an image like this. The choice is a good one – and I wouldn’t want to change that at all.
CR: Since you mention dreams, that reminds me of what I talked about in the Epilogue – this [the text appearing in the second realisation of The Thing Itself] is actually the text of the Epilogue. I was reading Jacob’s Room. Something I’ve been interested in throughout the time I’ve been working on this is the way that ideas that I wish to compartmentalise insist on bleeding together and cross-influencing each other. I was really interested in the difficulty in temporality with whether what Jacob was doing was something remembered from the past or something happening now, which is why I chose to put some of the epigraphs into the essay. I wanted to include Jacob’s Room in the Epilogue, to see if you could transition from a speaking ‘I’ who, initially I was imagining as being Foucault, that’s how involved I can get in these ideas and sometimes have to say, that’s not valuable.
RVD: Obviously a great deal of thought has gone into the conception and the argument of this. On the one hand there’s the scholarship and the argument and on the other there is an art object. And I’m more excited by the art object. My opinion is that the art object works splendidly, really. I am less qualified to talk about the theory, though I have read it and what I can understand is well supported, you have done a good job in supporting the argument, which is somewhat esoteric. This [The Thing Itself] is not esoteric in that sense, this is something which can be responded to as an art object and, in some ways there is a disjuncture between the scholarship and the art object.
CR: I think that, too, now, since reading [the essay] again. I am more familiar with the object which is what this ‘project’, for want of a better word, has become to me now. Reading it again, it doesn’t seem so pressing now.
RVD: This [The Thing Itself] is more important – it’s definitely more important.
CR: I would never now think that this object illustrates anything. And it was the word ‘illustrates’ which I was continually reaching for to describe what I thought the object was.
RVD: Because you have done this you are a practising artist. This is something to be shown, editioned even. I would edition it.
CR: It will be displayed, exhibited even, at the Bookart Bookshop in September for a week on its own.
RVD: But when you have a show, at some point, this ought to be part of it. On a surface, opened up and the value of a thing like this, I presume is, or maybe I’m wrong… can you make copies of it?
CR: It would be reasonably straightforward. The reason I mention the Bookart Bookshop is that when I went and discussed this with Tanya [Peixoto] she asked if it was an edition or a one-off and, I have no experience of this, exhibiting in an academic setting is very different…I was unsure if this should be an edition or a one-off…
RVD: You could begin by editioning it and making a very small edition, assuming that you would go on to do other things or make more things of a like or comparable nature – or not, depending on how you see yourself and your practice as an artist. It seems to me that this is more than a journeyman work. It’s a fully realised work, I really do think so.
CR: I think I was a bit thrown by the idea of editions. I’ve called this thing The Thing Itself – I’m aware of how self-conscious that is and it is deliberate, but it feels as though it would be odd to make editions of something called The Thing Itself.
RVD: You’ve got to think more loosely than this…what I’m talking about is a sense of play and homo ludens which is such a basic impulse to making any art whether its poetry or prints or pictures or sculptures – whatever it is. That is one of the primal urges, the sense of play, the sense of having pleasure in making.
CR: I was going to say, do you think pleasure comes into that idea?
RVD: Absolutely! Absolutely!
CR: I’m quite mindful that I’ve tried quite self-consciously to be academic about it and put together this theoretical basis. Thinking more visually – I wonder if it’s prior to meaning – I’m always very drawn to the way that words look and I find them very beautiful. If I look at this, the first thing I’m thinking is not ‘what do these words mean’ and what references do I have, it’s just the words, the typed words and they’re beautiful and it’s that enjoyment that comes first.
RVD: Well, you’re a visual person and you not only have an intellect but also a visual acuity and it is the visual experience of this to which I am responding. I’m not responding to the development, let’s say, of the text. What I am responding to is the visual quality of the image and the words, together in a complementary sense, rather than an illustrative sense. Those images, for example in Lascaux are not illustrative in any way. They don’t illustrate anything in the poem but I hope they are complementary. I hope the poem is complementary to the images and then the text on the images, as I say, is a third thing. In that sense, the same thing happens here – in a different way – in that you have an image and then you have the words, but in this presentation what you have is a unified visual object which is formed with text and image. That’s what makes it an interesting artwork or a piece of book art. Not all artists’ books are what is known as book art. This is much more what is meant by book art. That is to say that the initiator is solely responsible for the art and everything else in the object, the book.
CR: You mean it’s there, if it involves writing, they’ve written it.
RVD: Not necessarily that they’ve written it but that they’ve put it together, that they are the maker of the text and the image together – the format – that the person responsible for all this is one person basically. That’s Johanna Drucker’s definition of book art, she’s one of the authorities on book art. Her definition means that when you have an artist’s book, let’s say Matisse illustrates a poem by a poet and those illustrations are made into colour lithographs and put together through beautiful printing and binding by a publisher or dealer and are sold. That’s not really book art, it’s an artist’s book which is sold for a specific purpose.
CR: You mean you have in mind the book, the form of the book, the idea of making something, rather than representing…
RVD: Making something, making a work of art in that sense – which is what you’ve done – so this is an example of book art and a very nice one. Beautiful.
CR: What I’ve become interested in since making this is the idea of representation and the distance between or… if you can get to grips with any distance between the reality and the representation, the reference… and then I’ve gone into structuralism and signification which is what I am now trying to involve myself in.
RVD: Why are you trying to involve yourself in that?
CR: Essentially I am interested in how meaning becomes possible, the creation of meaning, the generation of meaning – if it is the generation or the revealing of meaning. Does meaning have an existence outside of the mind, is there a meaning that resides in any way innately in words. And that is how I got interested in Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes at that time and now Jean Baudrillard.
RVD: If this kind of preoccupation can result in works like this, that’s what interests me.
CR: So the thing that results?
RVD: Yes. I am less interested in your intellectual engagement with the ideas as I am with the product, that’s what interests me, as a writer, as a poet, that’s really what I am concerned with. It is necessary, I suppose, for you to get to this stage and I wouldn’t want to… who am I to say you shouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing if this is what results! But this is what turns me on, not the essay although that is of interest. But that’s me, that is a subjective reaction.
CR: But it is more interesting. I am more interested in this object than I am in my own writing about it, now. For me, I need to have all those ideas underlying what I think about making, and being the context…
RVD: Maybe, to give yourself permission to do something like this?
CR: Yes, exactly. But for me, the making… there needs to be a reason.
RVD: Ah! We get to the nugget – does there have to be a reason for the making? I’m of the opinion that the reason for its making lies in the object itself; that is its reason. The object is the reason.
CR: But how can that operate as a reason – because it doesn’t exist until you make it?
RVD: Well, not so that you can lay it out in essay form, no. The art object is its reason for being. It’s difficult to explain and I suppose it is an aesthetic position but that is what I believe. There would be no reason for me to write a poem, to write that poem [The Lascaux Variations] for example, in order to illustrate a theory. The theory is included within the attitude with which I approach the poetry, it is included within it.
RVD: And that informs my impulse to write poetry, perhaps, but a more pressing moment in this instance was the experience at the caves at Lascaux which is, of course, analogous to your cave. Like what provoked you to use that particular image, what provoked me to use the particular images in the poetry, or John Wright to make a series of drawings of his experiences?
CR: Did you visit it together?
RVD: Separately. But within about a year or two of each other, both being absolutely overwhelmed by that experience. I visited with Maggie [his wife] and both of us were absolutely bowled over by it.
CR: What do you actually get to see? I’d love to go, but I’ve heard…
RVD: What you see is an exact replica, a reproduction, very very faithfully done, a meticulous reproduction of the caves themselves. It looks terribly authentic, but it’s not of course; it’s a picture of a picture and that’s one of the things I deal with. That whole idea intrigued me, these prehistoric images which are not prehistoric, of course, because they were made a few years ago. But intending to be exact reproductions of the prehistoric images.
CR: It’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it, the real thing that we are admiring and reverent of, and cherish to the extent that it must be protected from us.
RVD: And of course a great deal of work has now gone into it and books and monographs have been written. Anyway, that’s what led to that. And what led to [The Thing Itself], obviously, is quite clear, especially from your Epilogue, is a series of memories and images held in the mind, as always whenever one experiences an image which is somehow fixed in the memory. And is changed by it; the memory changes the actuality of course. For example, if I’d gone into that same cave, my memory would have been entirely different to yours. And that’s one of the things about this image, by the way, the way it changes, the way that in a sense it is a paradigm of the mind – the tricks that memories play on us. That my memory is different to yours, that hers is different to ours. And of course, the other thing about that is, the way we read poetry is going to differ from person to person, that my experience of the poem is going to be different from yours and yet the poem is there, as the image is here.
CR: Yes, I was interested in the idea of absolute separateness from other people, that your perception is always going to be isolated within yourself; to be different and separated from other people. And that feels like a cynical position to arrive at.
RVD: Except, except that yes, it is going to be isolated within your own perception but there is a definite sense of communion.
CR: Yes, exactly, which seems to contradict that separateness. There is this degree of communion, as you put it, but what I’m really intrigued by is that you can’t quite ever cross that final divide or that final barrier to sharing.
RVD: The thing about poetry, though, that intrigues me is that the barrier, as you put it, can more possibly be – not broken through, but – surmounted in another way that might otherwise not be possible. That’s the beauty of poetry when it works. It works with great poets or a great poem. It works with people like Emily Dickinson, for example, in many of her poems. The privacy of the psyche; there is always going to be a barrier. But on the other hand, poetry brings the possibility of a glimpse into that psyche, that imagination.
CR: Yes. And on different terms than if you were trying to have a conversation about the matter at hand in the poem.
RVD: Because there are so many subtleties going on in a good poem.
CR: I think that’s where I arrived at with this book; that an infinite array of meanings would be, somehow, implicated in the object and if it was looked at by thousands of people then there would be thousands of meanings and understandings produced.
RVD: I think you should do a small edition and that it should be shown, perhaps as part of additional work that you have, that you do.
CR: So what do you think of context then? Something I was always interested in when I was studying history of art – and architecture particularly – was the amount of knowledge required or expected in order to have a ‘full’ understanding of whatever the item in front of you might be. And then the terrible question of what a full understanding might be…
RVD: Well, that’s an impossible question…
CR: Yes! You mentioned the text before and I hadn’t imagined the text being involved at all in the display of this item. I don’t want people to have to wade through that.
RVD: I thought it was fascinating.
CR: But how much information do you think people need? If you come to this, it’s very blank. Maybe if it’s open that’s a different thing.
RVD: Well, of course, you have two pages here. Let’s start with the convention. A book has a certain amount of information about its production and affiliation, let’s say, a part of which is at the back and a part of which is at the front in the form of a title and an artist or author which might be there, very very minimally, and in fact I think ought to be there. Setting it up as the kind of object that is to be looked at as a book is. You might have two copies, one open like so and the other open to a title page. And maybe a third copy as open to the colophon which is always at the back which gallerists and suchlike like to have because it helps them market it to the client.
CR: It makes a lot more sense of what the object is, even if you don’t read the text it tells you it is legitimate, it’s following conventions that we understand.
RVD: It tells you what it is, briefly, an edition of 5, let’s say and published by so and so, where it’s made, the studio it comes from, just some basic information. And then it can be presented as a book. And on the basis of this, I would presume that you would make other things.
CR: What I’ve made since then is a photographic work that is a series of two triptychs, one of which is a series of photographs and the other of which is a concrete poem.
RVD: That’s interesting.
CR: Three images show its evolution. And it continues my interest in whether a definitive image can be claimed. So it shows the progress from an original full text, through a selection – the selected words are black, the rest are grey, so that the information is still there and the reader could make different selections if they wanted to.
RVD: Yes, that’s your modus operandi, isn’t it.
CR: It does seem to be. I didn’t really think I was so interested in that.
RVD: Well, that’s the way, it seems to me; and you should explore that and exploit that idea in a number of objects, a number of things. I mean you have, it seems to me, a lot of confidence in coming up with something like this and bringing it to fruition.
CR: I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Maybe…
RVD: If you consider yourself as a practitioner, either of book art or whatever, of photograph-based art, I would do it.
CR: I like The Humument by Tom Phillips, [which you have here]. I got absorbed in reading it, in letting my eye follow the lines. I was struck by how different it was to any normal experience of reading because you’re always looking for meaning; skimming web pages, or [newspapers]… And with this I wasn’t reading for meaning.
RVD: Well, this is a much more visual kind of book, isn’t it? What he has done is so extraordinary. He’s been doing this for 30 years at least.
CR: Yes, and he has a website where you can turn the pages and I was interested in whether the book remains the thing or does the website; the representation of the book is quite a different thing from holding the book and actually turning the pages… Some of the interrupted words they bring things to mind. You would think there wouldn’t be meaning in “vocat” for example because that doesn’t have any meaning for me, as far as I know, but it does bring up ideas of ‘vocal’, ‘vocalness’, ‘vocation’ maybe? So you have these odd half-formed ideas all existing alongside each other.
RVD: Well, it sounds to me like you are a maker as well as a scholar. You have those two impulses in you?
CR: Yes, it’s very important to me to find ways to make while thinking.
RVD: You feel you have to justify what you’re doing in terms of scholarship?
CR: Not perhaps scholarship, but I feel that if I made something like this and I presented it, I would need to know that there was a really good reason why it was the way it is. I think that’s about quality not about the need to explain it. I think about the idea of quality – that thing that you know when you see it but you can’t inject by looking. Different people might look at the same thing and disagree about whether it contains that characteristic of quality, if indeed it is a characteristic. But I think that underlies then what you see. So I might not need to be able to articulate why I think this is a good idea that [Leaping Down to Earth] is printed on tracing paper but I think you get the feeling that a lot of thought and ideas exist behind the object, and I think they become apparent.
RVD: They do. A lot of talk, a lot of decisions, a lot of refinement and so on and so forth go on, from the making of the poem in the first place, to the art but then there comes a point where you do it because you derive a great deal of pleasure from it.
CR: I think you have to allow that, or rather I think that I have to allow it. I think in part that is a reaction against art college. And I think its quite standard for an art college atmosphere to be quite uncritical.
RVD: Yes, nowadays.
CR: That’s the environment that I received my art higher education in and I wanted to reject that.
RVD: You wanted a firmer underpinning.
CR: Yes, I’m not satisfied with saying ‘it’s really beautiful’. Beauty is very important – it’s important to me and I try to make work which is beautiful – but I don’t feel that that is a reason in itself. That is the experience for me but to build up into meaningful work it has to be more than beautiful and if I reflect on the work it will reward that reflection because there will be that depth.
RVD: Got it. Well, certainly that’s true with a writer you quote, Sebald, as with some other writers, definitely, as with some artists.
CR: What I like about what visual art [can do] is that it can just sit in your mind. It’s not a statement or a question that you have to answer right now, you can just sit with it. I feel like I ought to have an opinion – but I’m getting more comfortable with the idea that things will just sit there in the mind and that someday, maybe, I’ll make a connection with something else.
RVD: Precisely, sometimes you do just have to sit for a while before you start making connections. That happens. I think that’s a very natural thing and that happens all the time.
RVD: It’s been a real pleasure, really very much so. Also to have the privilege of looking at something like this [The Thing Itself]. This is a really lovely thing you have done – talking about beauty. I have a much greater understanding than I would otherwise have and I think it is highly original and that you should make a small edition. Half a dozen, something like that. Then you can exhibit it, sell it if you wish. There are book art fairs.
CR: I got involved with a book art project as an eager foundation student. And it was nice reflecting on this that this is something I have been involved with for some time… because I wouldn’t have said I was interested in [making] book art.
RVD: How curious!
CR: Well, I thought photography, photography is the thing…
RVD: Well, you can make book art with photographs, you can make book art with anything.
CR: [As an artist] when you think about what mode, ‘what thing do you make’? Well, I make photographs, and then… do I make prints, do you make them into this sort of ‘thing’? So I hadn’t thought of myself as a…
RVD: A book artist.
CR: Yes, or more as someone who works in different ways, in different forms.
RVD: I think you ought to do it. As I said before, you had the confidence to do something like this. You can go and do things. Why stop here?!
CR: Well quite.
RVD: No, I mean it. It’s very exciting, this stuff, really really exciting.
CR: Thank you, I actually feel quite a lot more excited having talked about it; it feels alive again.
RVD: You should and I’m interested in book art anyway and I have examples of some of it, of artists’ books and so on.
CR: I think that’s what I find quite difficult about those exhibition scenarios. My background is in the Renaissance especially and it’s absolutely drummed into you that you never touch anything, engagement is only ever with your eyes.
RVD: You’re living in the twenty-first century! The other thing that produces anxiety is the whole market element – that you are producing a commodity – and especially for artists and poets.
CR: And then the question of who you are producing it for, who you think will be doing this looking, this assessing.
RVD: I don’t worry too much about that because the way I regard it is that I’m producing it for myself in the first place. If I’m happy with it and satisfied with it, it’s up to other people to kind of get with it.
CR: I can see that and I can see why you say confidence I suppose…
RVD: It’s important if you are going to do anything to have some confidence in what you’re doing.