15 Jul 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

The experience of wonder, as discussed in my first post, is not only evoked by works of beauty. Wonder also accompanies surprise, from the “unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.”Reclamation: Artists’ Books on the Environment also includes books that invite wonder through imagery of fantastical worlds, which, when reframed through an environmental lens, emerge as harbingers of loss. 

Before the reframing, however, there is the invitation: book artists must first initiate and hold a reader’s focus. Paging activates that dynamic. Eyes directed toward the page, book in hand or opened on a surface, the rhythmic movement of paging prompts a reader’s autonomic nervous system to down-shift, as the heart rate lowers, breath elongates, and attention deepens. In this quietude, the artist’s negotiation between structure, content, and a reader can take full effect, with wonder a kind of aphrodisiac, prompting a reader’s pursuit of the unfolding story. Two books from Reclamation immerse a reader in the wonder of an unreal world, to then refocus on an underlying foreboding that constitutes the work’s true voice.

A reader’s initial impression of Lucy Helton’s Transmission (above),for example, is foregrounded in the book’s superannuated technology of thermal printing, associated with the fax machines prevalent in the late twentieth century. Along with technology, access plays a critical role, as a reader must first free the book from the cardboard tube that holds it. Once released, the rolled thermal prints require a reader’s constant manipulation while paging or the sheets will curl back up. At the same time, handling the book is inexplicably sensual, as the flimsy thermal prints, secured at one end with metal clips, are barely restrained beneath a luscious synthetic paper wrap. The resulting reading experience requires a level of concentration distinct from the tranquil perusal of Lizzie Brewer’s scroll, Ten Meters of Mycelium, discussed in my previous post. Transmission is resistant; its message will only slowly accrue. 

Transmission’s wonder arises from its mix of nostalgia with the mystery prompted by the book’s title: what message is being conveyed? The thermal prints display grayscale panoramas in images of distant mountains rising out of scrub, and moonscapes reminiscent of long-ago glacial incursions. Only at the end does the colophon relate the backstory, that the artist’s father, an environmentalist, authored a science fiction novel in which nearly all humans lived on other planets so that Earth could survive as a wildlife reserve. The reader holds Helton’s response, not a utopia, but a dystopian warning of an earth devoid of life, the warning reverberating in the mind like a bell tolling unnervingly close, marking the world’s rush toward a future’s worst outcome. 

A second book, Solastalgia (above), by Sarah Nicholls, also shifts a reader between worlds. The term, solastalgia, refers to the experience of the simultaneous emotions of nostalgia and a sense of loss, common in the world today. Unlike Transmission, Solastalgia revels in color, printed through risograph and letterpress, with pressure prints, woodcut, linocut, and polymer plates on a variety of papers and glassine. Solastalgia begins by enveloping the reader in visions of the lost civilization of Atlantis, its imagery conveying a utopian retreat, in fantastical scenes and fragments of historic maps, vibrant in a tropical palette. Other imagery suggests a shift, in topographic contour patterns that overlay a rippling water motif—land and water converging. Nicholls’s text reflects on the role islands play in the collective imagination, as sites of projected desire and retreats from reality; for example, “We can’t see it, so we don’t really believe it exists / nothing ever truly disappears”. 

The story shifts, the idyll dissolves, and readers leave paradise to confront the environmental realities facing the South Pacific. Solastalgia tells of Nauru, a tiny island in Micronesia, whose interior is decimated due to strip-mining for phosphate, a natural fertilizer. Readers also learn of the Marshall Islands, which endured atomic bomb tests in the twentieth century, and now faces rising sea levels, forcing its residents to permanently relocate to the U.S. as climate refugees. 

Two books, two distinct voices, Transmission and Solastalgia each conjure a spell by instigating an experience of wonder, and, once held in thrall, open a reader to warning or revelation. Voice upon voice, the works in Reclamation ask each of us to find our own voice in this global community of stewardship.

Betty Bright is an independent writer, curator and historian who helped to start Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). In 2005 she published No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980, and continues to write and curate, including contributing to the forthcoming Materialia Lumina (Stanford University and The CODEX Foundation, 2021).

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