Bookworks in Museums, NYC 2018

On a recent visit to New York we knew to seek out the exhibit The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity at Bard Graduate Center but were also happy to discover some beautiful books and calligraphy at The Met as well.

According to the website, the Bard exhibit was a "Focus Project," which is one of a series "developed and executed by Bard Graduate Center faculty and postdoctoral fellows" working together with graduate students. 

A large screen caught our attention first: a video that showed the making of a Coptic binding with headbands, leather cover, and clasps. We were transfixed by the process, and I feel I will have to try this out, as it takes the binding several steps beyond what I usually make. I've never seen anyone put covering material over a Coptic binding; most people leave the spine visible and unsupported. But clearly the books don't have to remain that way.

Addendum 9.17.18: Bard has posted the film on their website and at YouTube: Crafting the Codex

There were a few authentic books and objects and several facsimiles precisely made by Georgios Boudalis.

Tablet codex, 4th century AD
wood and wax

The origin for the term "codex" is "caudex" from tree trunk. The wooden frames for some of the codices in Egypt, like this student's "exercise tablet," had a wax surface that could be incised, then melted and reused. Each board was sewn to the next.

Someone once said this book was much like the "magic slate" toys with the black waxlike substance coating cardboard, the two plastic sheets (one clear, one frosted), and the red stylus. You drew or wrote on the top sheet, then lifted the sheet to "erase." The toys still lurk around the web, on Ebay and such (not in the exhibit). It turns out that our household has one. The back suggests: Write Your Name / Make Fun Designs / Draw Pictures / Play Games / Scribble & Erase. Nothing about practicing writing or arithmetic.

I suspect the magic slate has been erased by the magic tablet: the iPad. Similar, but the tactile sensation is missing. Moving along…

Facsimile of tablet codex, 2016
Georgios Boudalis
"the original tablet codex was smoothed, burnished, and coated with sizing, possibly gum arabic" and black ink could be used

It included a cord that wrapped around it like a carrying handle. From this example we are led to understand that the wax tablets were like notepads and the burnished and sized tablets were for permanent information storage.

Facsimile of a single-gathering codex, 2017

Tackets (rolled strips of parchment) and leather stays reinforce the binding and hold the folded pages (which would have originally been parchment) in place. The cover, wrapped around and tied shut, would have kept the springy parchment book from popping open and provided a portable case.

Codex of a Psalter, 18th century
Coptic, paired needles
This book had no cover over the boards and spine, and it was kept in a leather satchel.

This Coptic stitching is a model for what we do today.

The Bard Graduate Center sells a catalogue of this exhibit here.

Downstairs, in the Reading Room, many shelves held many artist's books and zines. 

On the wall was a 2016 textile piece by Francesca Capone, courtesy of Nationale (Portland, OR gallery: shown on her website in "Text means Tissue" show and her book of the same name available at Printed Matter here),  that reminded me of Lisa Kokin's asemic work from 2015-16. Capone's piece invokes ancient writing, such as Greek, that was written one way, then written back the other like an ox plowing a field, a boustrophedon. (The snake book structure, developed by Scott McCarney, was originally referred to as a boustrophedon for this reason.) Capone's thread-writing seems to mirror itself, the edges like tabbed or marked pages.

PLEASE DON'T FIND ME I'm bellowing still. Experiencing loss in the woods. Lost is me. Seeking actual touch (TBL)
Francesca Capone

Armchair travelers can search the Met collection with the word "book" and see what happens. Here were some of the books and calligraphy that we saw and that excited me, primarily for their design. I think you will agree that they relate to both Kokin's and Capone's work and to the Bard exhibit.

Turkish Qur'an Manuscript
15th-16th c.
sewn endbands

page view

Folio from Qur'an Manuscript, Egypt or Iraq
9th-early 10th c.

Folio from the "Qur'an of 'Umar Aqta'"
Calligraphy attributed to 'Umar Aqta'
reconstructed page, each page originally over seven feet tall
Present -day Uzbekistan
late 14th-early 15th c.

Second Volume of a Qur'an
Iran or eastern Mediterranean
9th c.
"second volume of a thirty part Qur'an meant to be read over the course of a month"

I liked how these displayed together. 
Folio from the "Tashkent Qur'an"
Syria or North Africa
late 8th-early 9th c.
"based on early form of kufic script with no diacritical marks to distinguish the letters, and with very little illumination"

Album of Calligraphies
Turkey, ca 1500
Calligrapher: Shaikh Hamdullah, d. 1519 "the most famous Ottoman calligrapher"
Each line of text was by the Prophet Muhammad regarding moral and legal behavior, pasted onto marbled paper.

Panel of Nasta'liq Calligraphy
Calligrapher: Sayyid Amir 'Ali
mid-17th c.

Section from a Qur'an Manuscript
twenty-ninth section of thirty-section set
each page only has five lines "providing a sense of monumentality."

  • Books, texts, textiles 
  • Ink, thread 
  • United States, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and India 
  • Fourth century through the twenty-first century 

Different museums. Various purposes, different religions, variety of meanings. All are related, interwoven. Whether they were chosen consciously or not, the contemporary artwork calls back to the ancient crafts. There is something powerful, dynamic and electric  in the lines—and in-between the lines—that speaks to us. A continuation of a chain.

I'm reading The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. Birds know about the plow and the lines of the plow; it provides them with food: worms and bugs for gulls and small birds; gulls and small birds for the peregrine. It seems we can all find nourishment in the lines.