In Conversation : Marie Hanlon with Catherine Marshall

Marie Hanlon with Catherine Marshall ( curator, writer )

CM: Maybe we’d start by talking about how the project originated, the genesis of it.

MH: I saw an exhibition in the Cregan Library a few years ago – a glass exhibition by Róisín de Buitléar: standing there made me think about what kind of show I’d make for this venue and I thought I’d love to do a show about books. It’s a great space, up on the top floor of the new library looking out over Dublin, and I’m delighted to have this exhibition here now.

CM: This is such a wide subject we could start anywhere. Maybe we should think a little about libraries themselves and if there is anything significant about this library in particular. But actually your project is more about the book than the collective library; it did seem interesting to me that you are presenting the book as an object and the library surrounds you as an object. Many libraries created in the past were pseudo libraries where people had beautifully bound leather volumes that they never read. But when you come to look at the book as ‘object’, you actually take this very seriously and look at ways in which to represent different kinds of books – so maybe we should talk a bit about that.

MH: Firstly, on the point of libraries: this is an active working library, the books on the shelves are well thumbed, although it is a bit disquieting to see how many devices are also being used here – laptops, phones – the technology is very evident. I have a work in the exhibition dealing with this called Real Books in a Virtual World. That wonderful tactile feeling of the book in the hand is something you don’t get from devices. Yes, of course, you get the knowledge, information and access, but I prefer to read actual books. I like to go forwards and backwards, check things, make connections, write notes; with a book in your hand you can more easily do that. And there are other aspects of the book as object which you don’t get from devices; things like scale – the sheer size of the first publication of Ulysses for example: it’s a big, big book.

CM: Absolutely, you wouldn’t read it in bed very easily!

MH: No, it’s twenty-four centimeters high and five centimetres thick – the first hundred copies were seven centimetres thick.

CM: When you put the statistics beside it, that makes it all very stark, but so is the starkness of the way you have portrayed Ulysses.

MH: Yes, I made a mock-up to resemble the first publication, then bolted it together to suggest the difficulty of access around Ulysses in the early years – the fact that it was banned in England and America and unavailable here in Ireland, which was another kind of banning, I suppose. There is also the difficulty of the text: parts are easy to read and hilariously funny and other parts are incredibly difficult. I bolted it together to suggest difficulties of access in all these ways. The making of it for the exhibition was difficult too. I got permission to photograph one of the first copies, a gift from Sylvia Beach held in the National Library (still with its pages uncut). Staining on the original cover made it necessary for me to create a new blue background and then transfer the type on to that. Getting the colour exactly right was impossible.

CM: Anyway, none of us is seeing it exactly as it was when first produced in 1922. I’m sure the colour has faded on all extant copies by now. And then there is another book here in your exhibition, with the black pages which you equate with white noise. In a way, this book sums up the whole library, the collective of books is represented in this one book.

MH: Yes, imagining everything that has ever been written, printed and overprinted so that it produces total blackness. In the blackness nothing emerges; when you take something to an extreme it becomes everything and nothing, detail and definition are lost: it is either complete fullness or complete emptiness.

CM: I found myself thinking of both of those things; it’s all books and yet it’s the void, the emptiness, the darkness which is relieved for most people by books and knowledge, so it manages to encompass both of these. And you had an interesting starting point, a moment of inspiration, for that black book.

MH: Yes, the black page in Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. I also put a black page into the catalogue with the title Alas, poor YORICK! as a direct reference to Sterne. When I first encountered Sterne’s black page it was so arresting and unexpected, it stayed with me over the years, and I’m sure it provided the source for the Black Book here.

CM: Where did the idea for the Book of Mirrors come from?

MH: From the ancient notion of mimesis and art reflecting life. To ‘hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature’ is Shakespeare’s description of it. And there is a lovely piece by Proust who talks about recognising the undiscovered self when we read. Reading is so solitary and intimate.

CM: Walter Benjamin talked about the cinema experience as a shared collective one, whereas we read on our own.

MH: You make discoveries when you read and it all happens in your head. I read The Portrait of a Lady many years ago and remember vividly that moment well into the book where the character, Isabel Archer, sits alone in front of the fire late at night. She begins to realise, what the reader already knows, that those around her are untrustworthy. It’s such a wonderful moment, and yet nothing is happening, there is no action, just this woman alone with her thoughts and the slow dawning on her of her reality. I think it’s like this when we read, it’s about associations and connections, the dawning of things. Looking at the exhibition as a whole was interesting in this regard. I didn’t think it at the start, but when I looked at the works collectively I realised that they’re all, in some way or other, about ‘seeing’ – seeing and understanding: Ulysses is about what we can’t see, due to access issues, Unwritten is concerned with books which will never see the light of day, books we will never read due to failed ideas and failed plans, books which remain unwritten; the piece New Words for Old, grew out of the fact that someone noticed that nature words were being dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary; if that person hadn’t seen this and sounded the alarm, things would simply have moved along as before, unseen.

CM: And what does it mean to omit words like ‘bluebell’ etc? The things that those words represent have not left us.

MH: An emphasis is being placed ‘elsewhere’. I believe that we are becoming more mechanical and when you look at the words that replaced the nature words it would seem to support this view.

CM: Can we go back for a minute to your idea that all the books are about ‘seeing’? Of course every time you read a book, I think you look at it from the point where you are in your life. You look for where you can find an equivalent moment in the book and then you take off with it; it might lead you somewhere else, but you start with that. You have a piece here which is about the death of the author. There is a sense in which books are no longer written by ‘authors’, they’re written by all of us, readers; and, of course, when anyone reads a book they read it differently to another person, so what you get out of it is a different book to the one your best friend is reading.

MH: Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ is provocative, but nothing comes into being easily and I feel some sympathy for the author.

CM: As, I think, Barthes does too. But there was a sense in which the great artists had to be challenged to democratise the whole process. Anyway, greatness and authorship have been challenged now and things won’t go back into Pandora’s Box! Would you like to talk for a few minutes about Ghost?

MH: I wanted to look at ghostwriting, which has become a common practice. In interviews, I hear people talking about ‘my book’ although it has been written by someone else. There must be shades of meaning which escape; words come from a person other than the one with the lived experience. Through someone else’s language aspects are surely lost – you end up with a shadowy thing.

CM: I think this practice has always been there, but we’re much more aware of it now. It’s a commercial thing. It also takes a direct line from Barthes and ‘The Death of the Author’: who do you attribute authorship to in a book like that? I notice that you also pay homage to popular writing in Who Done It?

MH: This was a bit of fun for me. If you look at the name which has been highlighted, it’s the most unlikely person to have committed the crime, but it’s about playing the game, dropping a clue and misleading the reader in the way that murder-mystery writers do.

CM: Of course, some of the great writers of the twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century if you think of Edgar Allen Poe, were mystery writers. I think I’ve read Raymond Chandler’s books three or four times.

MH: I haven’t read Chandler, so that’s something to look forward to.

CM: We haven’t talked about the piece called Assimilation.

MH: Yes, this will involve a performance (for the exhibition opening) something I haven’t done before. The piece started out as an installation and worked back to include performance. I was thinking about where knowledge resides – we take in ideas as we read and they become our reality. In the work, a male and female sit at a table reading blank books. The content has been absorbed into their clothes and accessories. It also seemed important to change the stereotypes, so the male is associated with the arts (through text from Joyce’s Dubliners, echoing the link between the library and Dublin city), the female has a cotton bag printed with a mathematical diagram from The First Six Books of Euclid by Oliver Byrne. Oliver Byrne, an Irishman, born in Wicklow, was a really interesting discovery for me. His book, published in 1847, adds the three primary colours to Euclid’s geometry diagrams to make them more easily understood. The diagrams could be seen as foreshadowing the De Stijl and Bauhaus art movements.

CM: It’s a lovely precursor to your own work, what I knew of you as a painter before you moved in other directions. In your general practice you’ve moved towards sculpture and installation. All the books in the show are objects, really, but the Morris Column is particularly sculptural.

MH: Well, I’m not sure that I can call this an artwork at all; I was thinking of the pillars we see in continental cities advertising cultural events, also something with colour and height was needed to generate scale and contrast in the space. The pasted posters are a good reference for the many book festivals and writing events that take place each year in Ireland.

CM: It occurred to me that there is one huge book that you haven’t looked at, the Bible, and I wondered had you thought about it?

MH: Yes I did think about it. I had an idea based on western thought coming almost exclusively from the Bible and the classics. My plan was to cut such books into chunks of text – building blocks, but also text blocks, making a connection with modern computing and technology. I couldn’t resolve it fully and so I abandoned it.

CM: Perhaps, going into 2019, you may have been unwilling to suggest something so reflective of western religion when a whole range of other cultures has become prominent.

MH: Also relevant here is the changing nature of this educational institution, of which the Cregan Library is a part.

CM: There may not be time to discuss pieces by other artists working with books that have interested you …

MH: I’ll mention only one – Parthenon of Books by Marta Minujín shown at Documenta 14. This entailed a metal ‘Parthenon’ covered with banned books and constructed at Friedrichsplatz, Kassel – the site of Nazi book burning. It’s consoling to know that books have survived.