Breathing Books

The traditional book has stopping places, opaque pages like walls. The content must inspire curiosity so the reader will continue turning those pages, opening the doors and looking through the rooms. Many architects like the idea of the open floor plan with no doors, so that the flow from room to room is seamless, letting you wander. Some book artists, myself included, like the idea of a book that breathes, with one page letting you see a little of the next so that you are always moving forward until the end.

Keith Smith addresses this movement, writing about translucency in The Structure of the Visual Book (47) and discussing such concepts as "preview" and "afterimage." A nice example of preview using cutouts is In the Light of Passing by Peter Sramek (1994, page 25). A few slots are cut in the pages which show a preview word or word fragments before the viewer turns the page and sees the complete text. The afterimage is the back of a printed translucent page like in the example he gives: Repro Memento by Kevin Osborn (1980), which contains images of the Washington Monument's reflecting pool that are printed on translucent vellum. The back of the page, the afterimage, is a reflection of the front. Since vellum is translucent, similar to the transparency of water, Osborn links form and content in this way as well, giving strength to the book's concept.

Dieter Roth also seemed to be interested in this potential breathing quality of books. He experimented with holes in the pages, first in his artist's book Children's Book (1954-57), then later in another called Holes (1961). Roth was interested in the shifting nature of layered, colored acetate, and combined the die cutting and the translucency in Picture Book (1957). Another example, Bok 3b, was a book made of 250 comic book pages with diecut holes; it was then produced in an edition of 50 signed and numbered copies (1961). While the first of these types of books was created for a child, clearly something about the look or the process compelled Roth to keep investigating the form.

Hedi Kyle is most famously known for her flag accordion structure, which addresses aspiration in a more three-dimensional way. The accordion as a musical instrument must have air in order to make sound, and her accordion books use that air to set up movement with multiple flying pages. Kyle's Mica Flags book is a particularly luminescent example, giving the viewer a feeling of breathing in light.

In the new release from Lark Crafts, Masters: Book Arts, I noticed this fluidity from page to page in a sampling of the works. Claire Van Vliet's Aunt Sallie's Lament by Margaret Kaufman (1988) has differently shaped pages that layer and stack to look like a completed quilt by the end. Brian Dettmer alters books by deeply cutting through them and finding the imagery buried within, leaving windows throughout. In the book Pennyviews (1995) by Yoko Ono, Harry Reese and Sandra Liddell Reese intersperse black pages that have a penny-sized circle cutout with brown paper on which are printed Ono's drawings: the circles give a partial glimpse of the next page. Sarah Bryant uses cutouts in some books and translucent papers (2007-2009) in others. BĂ©atrice Coron's books all breathe as she meticulously cuts shapes into every page to make the images. Many of the books by Susan King address the quality of light and breathing, from the flag structure of Women and Cars (1983) to the translucent pages of I Spent the Summer in Paris: A View of Life in Paris, France, and Paris, Kentucky (1984). Karen Hanmer's Random Passions (2008) beautifully layers line drawings on translucent paper to give a sense of movement as the couple passionately interacts. Macy Chadwick's Cell Memory (2002) lets the viewer inside the cell as the view changes and the translucent pages turn.

I like thinking of books as living, breathing pieces of art. Diecut pages and holes invite curiosity and discovery, translucent pages suggest mystery and memory. By inviting us to investigate them from various angles, these books continue to live.

Ocean Tucked In, 2008

Addendum, November 14, 2012: In 2008, German artist Edith Kollath created an installation of antiquarian books with motors and microcontrollers called thinking i'd last forever that look like they are breathing.