Time and Book // Beth Sheehan

15 Oct 2021 1:57 PM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

Exploring where Book Art fits in the broader art world and pushing the boundaries and definitions of Book Art is exactly what we’re here to do. That work is made easier because artist books lend themselves to expanding definitions and context anyway. Book Art situates itself along certain in-betweens – it can’t be placed in the same category as flatworks like much of painting, drawing, and printmaking, but it also isn’t exactly in the same category as more dimensional art like sculpture, ceramics, or even installations. Artist books often borrow visual language from typical 2D and 3D art forms, but a key element that works its way into discussions about books is the element of time. 

Artist’s book by Beth Sheehan.

I would argue that a majority of artist books invite time into the equation as a viewer: flips through pages, picks up the book to turn it around and inspect it, unrolls or unfolds or moves the book in other ways. This dimension of time through interaction is not necessarily absent from more two-dimensional art works, but it is not expected of those mediums. Three-dimensional art forms are more likely to encourage an interaction, triggering the additional dimension of time for the work, but even sculptures don’t carry that expectation in their core in the way that books do.

Mock-up made by Beth Sheehan.

Time’s role in books becomes more evident when trying to accurately document artist books. To fully capture an artist book, multiple photographs are needed at minimum. I would even argue that a recording of the book being handled is infinitely more preferable, and even then, the recording can hardly compete with interacting with the book yourself.

Artist’s book by Beth Sheehan, alternate view.

But this addition of time in Book Art doesn’t place it completely in a time-based artwork category either. Artworks that are typically called Time-Based art are more along the lines of videos, sound art, or performance art. This article by the Guggenheim explains that in addition to dimensions that the artwork may have such as height or width, these works all have the added dimension of a duration. Unlike the works discussed in that article, Book Art again fits just outside of the category because while time is a dimension of most books, duration is not.

Book Art’s relationship with time feels like its defining factor for me. Each book will ask each viewer for a different amount of time each instance that the viewer interacts with it. It feels to me like the book’s gravity is fluctuating and time is dilating in response, like Einstein’s theory of general relativity (then proven through this cool experiment). The more gravity the book has affecting the viewer, the slower time flows for that viewer when handling the book.

“Outside of Time” bookish installation by Beth Sheehan.

This is why artist books don’t have a set duration. The amount of time a viewer spends depends on the amount of pull the book’s gravity has on them. Then, I’m left contemplating ways to increase the gravity of my books and wondering which artist books that I’ve encountered had the most gravity, pulling me in and bending my time.

Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harland and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

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