Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Book as Hourglass: Transforming Time

I like to imagine that the three young people at the outside restaurant table have their heads bowed because they are all reading while waiting for their food. And maybe they are. But they aren't reading books. The world is in front of them, contained in tiny devices. Large or small, artist books, too, are able to open up a world, approach big subjects, broaden a view, expand a moment in time: what can make them work?

The activity of reading is usually solitary. The activity of making often is as well. Either way, the head is bowed in reverence to…what? There's that mystery again: the creative process, the things that inspire us, and where it all comes from. Imagine all that noise out there coming through a funnel with a filter—your filter—a way to make those large moments smaller so that a protest, a courtroom, seven dreams, or everything you saw on the street today make sense. And so you can make them into art: a story, poem, book, sculpture, orchestral work, play, video, comic—whatever medium you like. What would be cool is if you could take those large moments, fit them into the art, and then have the viewer/listener experience that largeness again. The book doesn't have to be bigger than your head but the concepts can be.

Another way to do this is to start with the small, then connect to the large (mentioned in this related post and this one). We rented a Polish film the other night called Big Animal that was seemingly about a camel that appears in a small town and the childless couple who adopt it, but turns out to be about something larger: intolerance and fear. The film has no villains, yet it has conflict and heart. Each person is made up of emotional and intellectual shades of grey—perhaps appropriate since this 2000 film is in black and white. The film takes you from the small problem of one couple to the larger problems of the world. A moment in time, expanded, possibly exploded.

An intriguing essay, "The Beaten Path" by Carlo McCormick in the excellent book Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art & Street Culture takes up the back and forth, push and pull between the larger background of history, particularly art history, and the personally experienced, current moment. In his dynamic, hard-driving prose he shows how we yearn for an earlier time, disregard it, and/or rebel against it. When do we draw on what we have experienced in the past or what others have experienced or made and how do we make it relevant now? Chris Johanson, one of the artists whose work is shown in the book, has a piece in a monograph where he has painted the words, "This conceptual art is about human connections that can happen between people and how important it is to be in the moment with your people." Johanson's work deals with those interactions between people that are timeless, yet are depicted in his current style: paintings on boxes and walls, whole cities created from painted cardboard. His work also provides commentary on life today: one installation contained a "nice" store, "Nice Store / The store that treats people like people / that have individual needs."

Ultimately, my ideal book takes you in with your head bowed and back out again with an expanded mind. An hourglass where the sands change: the book is that narrowing of attention for a brief time that causes a thought to linger, transformed, as another world sifts and shifts into view.

Antenna, 2007

photo by Sibila Savage

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