Reading the image and viewing the words…

Abstract: The text offers the author’s personal observations from his close collaboration with graphic artist Jan Měřička in creating several artist’s books in Liberec from 1999 to 2003. On the books’ pages, printed on original handmade paper using etched copper plates, the nature of the poetic word underwent a tangible transformation. Both authors’ aim was to abandon established ways of accompanying text with illustrations and even to erase the boundary between reading and viewing altogether.

 

I was pleased the most by one particular reader’s contribution saying that the books that came into being through my collaboration with Jan Měřička rather represent book performances than books as such.

An artist’s book treasures its text almost as a precious secret of its own: it does not facilitate the access to the text, on the contrary. One does not get many opportunities to meet such books. They tend to be hidden rather than displayed, and even if they are on display, they are more often briefly viewed than attentively read. Yet I still do believe that even this brief viewing is of different kind than the random attention to which the books in bookshops are sacrificed. In fact, the reader perceives the fragments of sentences together with the fragments of images; thus it is not only the sense of words that enters one’s memory, but the whole incident of that one encounter. The experience of reading particular words is transformed into an experience of seeing, viewing them.

When I finished the cycle Thwart (Vniveč), I had this tenacious urge not to take the common way of addressing the reader, pushing the texts to a publisher. And it was right then, in 1999, when it occurred to me and Jan Měřička that we should consider a mutual cooperation on a book.

I realized that Měřička’s etchings were striking to me the most in their special perforation, in their tattered structure; and this awareness soon connected with the perforated quality of the texts in Thwart.  Even there one can find numerous empty places; the texts seem to be torn and broken in a way, loudly calling for something to intervene from outside.

I happened to be the first author writing in Czech, whom Jan Měřička introduced into his free line of artist’s books: he would always prefer the original text above the Czech translation with poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot, Guillaume Apollinaire, Hanus Magnus Enzensberger etc. Perhaps I complemented them because even my own texts rather represented a search for a foreign language within a language that would only seem to be “native”. It was Czech indeed, yet often on the verge of intelligibility.

The layering of pages in the book Thwart (1999) is quite free. There is no binding; only a bullet hole that connects them. A penetration, which makes one feel that the book has become a target. And of course, the bullet hole disrupts the text in some places as well. Its coherence has been torn; some lines can only be read with difficulties; letters crumble and disappear. As the author, I approved it gladly: there was an unpredictable life emerging within the words – a new rewriting of something that already seemed to have been finished.

Even though Měřička worked with randomness quite deliberately at that time, he was strictly particular about a well-thought rational ground. Through coincidence and disruption, he would usually uncover a certain layout, a defined system. When looking back into the past, I must say that Měřička’s rationalism has interestingly matched that of mine. We shared the same: a rationalism that would not suffice as such; therefore, deliberately entering the shaky ground in order to test its own limits.

In reality, there is no “calculation” that could be brought to an end: any result of all possible operations turns into nothing beyond certain borders. Yet it is precisely this turning into nothing, which can be well experienced when flipping through an artist’s book.

In my view, the most important piece of work that resulted from my collaboration with Jan Měřička is the book Braincreasers, which actually underwent a number of modifications in 2000 – 2003. Already when writing the text, I kept in mind that the words would be printed on original handmade paper, manufactured by Měřička himself from raw cotton and all sorts of waste material. The result of his experiments was quite a disturbing matter – distorted, tattered, tangled, and seemingly flimsy in a way. It was no accident that the theme of Braincreasers was brain and thinking, the awareness of itself in all the alarming incertitude of the apparatus working in our heads. Certain words printed on the surface of such animate paper immediately induce a feeling of emerging out or else being absorbed by it.

“To allow the brain to learn the map of the brain,” that was exactly the very purpose of the entire book.

The text of Braincreasers consists of several disparate levels that may seem not to relate to one another from the outside. Yet I was attracted by the possibility to read something as if above all these layers. I tried to use the seven beginning sentences of the individual units of the book to “construct” a strangely interconnected shape, a magic “schem” of a sort, representing both, the beginning and the end. The first version of Měřička’s Braincreasers (2000) displayed this text through graduate trimmings of the paper edges. The Naive Theatre in Liberec hosted an exhibition about the book and on the occasion, I prepared an artist’s performance where live reading interconnected with recordings made in advance. The book itself played the role of the “corpus delicti.”

Soon afterwards, Jan Měřička decided to reject the original version and came up with a new variant of Braincreasers (2001, together with a French translation by Jérôme Boyon Les crase-têtes, which followed in 2002) where handmade paper sheets were interlaid with translucent films. This combination emphasized even more the tension between the physical and the dematerialized text – some words were only projected on the paper matter, merely fleeting over as shadows, while others were printed by hand.

The question of creating, linking, and storing of thoughts received a new dimension then thanks to the spread of data means, discs, electronic storage devices etc. It was not by accident that their imprints penetrated onto the pages of the artist’s book. Měřička then focused on the ambiguity of various “waste” shapes where one cannot precisely determine their biological or technological origin.

After Braincreasers, Jan Měřička selected some of my earlier poems to publish them as artist’s books. These included Instinctea (2001, 2003), The Rabble (Sběř, 2001, French translation La racaille followed in 2003). Further texts emerged as well: When You (Až Tě, 2002), or Smokescreen (2002), which in many ways corresponded with the theme of Braincreasers: “Heads are the spacing of smoke.”

At last I realized that all the texts written – or rather tailored – for Jan Měřička should not be limited to the radius of public exhibitions and their visitors: they could be published as collected writings in a higher number of copies (up to that time, the majority of artist’s books came out in three to five copies at the most). In 2003, we decided for a compromise between a common publication and an artist’s book with original graphic prints. It was the book that-the un-struck (že ne zas až, 2003, published by Host), yet it still rather represented a “book as object” than a common book as such. The pages were not bound and one could reassemble them quite easily: the reader had to learn to operate the book in the correct way in order to be able to restore its shape again after disassembling it.

Still, artists of Měřička’s nature are attracted to the uniqueness of their work at last, to its unrepeatable quality, even though it may sound as a paradox in the case of graphic art. The book that-the-un-struck revived his doubts: whether an artist’s book should circulate, come out of itself, be displayed on the shelves in libraries. And if so, should it perhaps be connected with the original graphic techniques like silk-screen printing? Nevertheless, the majority of artist‘s books that Měřička came up with after the turn of the year 2008 and 2009, using the silk-screen print as a technique, represent quite a different chapter.

 

 

References:

1. Tschechische Buchkunst der neunziger Jahre, catalogue for the exhibition in Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, 14. 9. – 14. 10. 2000.

2. VOKATÁ, Martina. Text in the catalogue Jan Měřička: Graphic Cabinet, Liberec: The Regional Gallery in Liberec 2001.

3. KARPAŠ, Roman. Umělec Jan Měřička. Jan Měřička, the Artist, Kalmanach 2, December 2004, pp. 91–95.

4. ŠRÁMEK, Petr. Definitivní nápis si prostě nenapíšeš. (One Cannot Write One’s Own Funeral Speech). Interview with Jaromír Typlt.  Literary review Souvislosti 14, June 2003, pp. 172–226.

5. TYPLT, Jaromír. Grafická instalace Jana Měřičky. (Graphical Installation of Jan Měřička). Interview with Jan Měřička. Review Ateliér 16, December 2003, p. 7.

6. BOYON, Jérôme. Néologie typltienne a le corps měřičkien. Contribution for the international colloquium „Dialoge des cultures: interprétation, traduction“ (Prague, Charles University 4. 11. 2005), http://ebookbrowse.com/boyon-dialogisme-pdf-d317461003 (downloaded on 5. 5. 2013).

 

 

Keywords: the book as object, Jan Měřička, etching, original handmade paper, literary experiment, open text.

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