Material Knowledge: The Book as Artistic Device

Joanne Laws ( writer, Features Editor of VAI News Sheet )

On the occasion of her solo exhibition at St Patrick’s Campus in Dublin City University, Irish artist Marie Hanlon presents a series of artworks exploring the materiality of books. Echoing and subverting the book format in multiple ways, It’s All About Books manifests the artist’s ongoing exploration of the ‘complexities of seeing’, inviting viewers to variously consider: What kind of seeing occurs when we read? How do books prompt reflection on the evolution of language? What is the role of printed matter in the digital age? In addressing some of these questions, it seems fitting to examine art historical and contemporary trajectories that foreground the physical and conceptual properties of books.
From the early 1900s onwards, books began to feature prominently in the work of visual artists, both as a pictorial element (found in the paintings of artists like Salvador Dalí, who also worked as a book illustrator1) and as a material object, incorporated into the sculptures of conceptual artists including Marcel Duchamp. Across twentieth-century art practice, the use of books aimed to interrogate a then burgeoning print culture, while exploring the preservation and circulation of knowledge. For example, British conceptualist John Latham introduced old law books, encyclopaedias and popular periodicals into his practice in the late 1950s, combining them with other found objects to create collages and large wall reliefs. Latham also created freestanding book sculptures, known as ‘skoob towers’, which he would burn – often publicly, as he did in London in 1966, as part of the counter-cultural ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’.2 Some of the artist’s later sculptures involved the bisection of bibles and other liturgical texts with large panes of glass, further extending his interrogation of books as transmitters of institutional knowledge.
In a similar vein, the work of contemporary American artist Samuel Levi Jones involves the deconstruction of historical source material, such as outmoded law books, medical journals and encyclopaedias. Creating installations and geometric patchworks from book covers, Jones reimagines the power structures that control information by grappling with marginalised histories, while generating dialogue about the ongoing maltreatment of the Other in an increasingly polarised modern society.
The advent of the digital age has ushered a gradual dematerialisation of the printed word, rendering the act of reading increasingly devoid of physical objects, in favour of virtual and screen-based platforms, including e-books, blogs and podcasts. With this exhibition, Hanlon seeks to emphasis the sensual quality of real books, as well as the interplay between reading and handling – a tactile encounter that generates intimacy between writer and reader. According to Harvard correspondent Alexandra Perloff-Giles, new media is measured against a ‘nostalgic baseline’, with the reading of printed books standing in for ‘values we used to have’ such as ‘sustained attention, linear thinking [and] non-instrumental appreciation.’3
However, tension between immaterial and solid objects did not occur solely as a biproduct of the digital age. As observed by art critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1968, prevailing art practice was becoming ‘ultra-conceptual’, emphasising ‘the thinking process almost exclusively’, with the potential to render physical objects obsolete, in a stance against the art market.4 The function of books was subject to extensive analysis during this period, not least in the work of conceptual and Fluxus artists including Yoko Ono, whose compendium of conceptual-art instructions, Grapefruit (1964), further gestured towards an ‘absence’ of art objects.5 Channelling the functionality of instruction manuals, Grapefruit offered zen-like directions for readers to create new artworks – including musical scores, paintings, performances, poems or objects – thus prompting an even greater disconnect between artist and end product.

In considering that which is absent or invisible within the realm of publishing, one must also reflect on the issue of censorship, and even the erosion of language itself. Contemporary Argentinean artist Marta Minujín uses thousands of prohibited books to fabricate large-scale, site-specific public artworks, which she often refers to as ‘living sculptures’ or ‘happenings’. For Documenta 14 in 2017, Minujín created Parthenon of Books in Kassel, on the site of book-burning by Nazi sympathisers in 1933, designed to remove ‘blacklisted authors’ from circulation, as part of an epochal ‘Campaign against the Un-German Spirit’. Minujín’s mock temple was constructed with scaffolding and covered in books that are either currently or formerly prohibited, based on a shortlist of over 170 titles, devised in collaboration with professors from the University of Kassel. In a similar project in 1983, the artist created a full-scale model of the Parthenon in Buenos Aires from books banned during the Argentinian military dictatorship (1976 to 1983). After three weeks, the public was invited to dismantle the sculpture and take the books home. Minujín returned to Buenos Aires in 2011 to create The Tower of Babel, a 25-metre tower, made of 30,000 books in a range of languages and dialects, thus forming a democratic, multilingual library.

Closer to home, James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in several countries for over a decade after it was published in Paris in 1922, on the grounds of blasphemy and moral indecency. Hanlon’s work is permeated with multiple references to canonical literary works – from Samuel Beckett’s The Calmative, to W. G. Seabald’s The Rings of Saturn – but she returns repeatedly to Joyce as a limitless source of inspiration. In the work of Spanish artist Dora Garcia, we also find a durational commitment to Joyce, most notably her film, The Joycean Society (2013), which documents a meeting at the James Joyce Foundation in Zürich – the city where the author died in 1941, following a long, self-imposed exile from Ireland. The group have been meeting every week since 1985 to read Finnegans Wake – his so-called ‘never-ending’ novel. Garcia’s film affectionately relays the paradigm of Joyce’s work and its relation to his devoted community of readers. Through their collective interpretations, these Joycean specialists are effectively ‘performing’ the text with every re-reading. Such commitment to the production and sharing of knowledge – as well as the pleasures afforded by slow, communal reading – is framed by Garcia as a political act. By attentively disentangling the complexities of the text over time, the readers are effectively devoting themselves to language itself.


Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for Lautréamont’s Chant de Maldoror were made in 1934, while he developed illustrations for Don Quichotte in 1958, as well as stage designs for several ballet performance. See moma.org.
2 ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’ (DIAS), the Africa Centre, Covent Garden, London, 9–11 February 1966.
3 Alexandra Perloff-Giles, ‘What books mean as objects’, The Harvard Gazette, 10 May 2011.
4 Lucy Lippard and John Chandler ‘The Dematerialization of Art’, Art International, February 1968, p46.
5 Yoko Ono, Grapefruit, Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, 1964.