One for the books


An exhibition of art created in response to the literary strand of the Kilkenny Arts Festival is just another chapter in the love story between art and words, writes GEMMA TIPTON

WHEN ART and language get together in book form, usually the art is there to add to the text: from the illuminations in the Book of Kells to our children’s storybooks, the pictures are there to help us see more in what we read. Artists have also used the written word as a source of inspiration, creating illustrations that go beyond a simple depiction of what is in the text but which nevertheless remain in service of it.

The stained-glass artist Harry Clarke made satisfyingly creepy images to accompany Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination,in 1923, and, having seen them, it is impossible for me to read Poe without imagining Clarke’s vision of his world. More recently, Louis le Brocquy’s illustrations for Thomas Kinsella’s adaptation of Táin Bó Cúailngein 1969 were part of what Kinsella described as the first “living version of the story”, although le Brocquy added that “if these images, these marks in printer’s ink, form an extension to Thomas Kinsella’s Táin, they are a humble one. It is as shadows thrown by the text that they derive their substance.”

Not all artists are satisfied with this shadow-making role, and many have taken on the role of making what are termed artists’ books. This art form emerged with the pamphlets produced by avante garde artists in the lead up to the first World War.

They were seen as a way of bypassing the gallery system, and disseminating manifestoes, such as that of the Italian Futurists. Later, artists took on bookmaking as way of exploring the form and function of books themselves. Le Grand Désordre(1960), by Isidore Isou, was an envelope containing fragments of a narrative the viewer had to piece back together, not only altering the role of the book but also of the viewer, who now became an active participant.

Dieter Roth, a major figure in the development of the modern artist’s book, worked with its form. Picture Book(1957), had holes in it, allowing the reader viewer to see more than one page at a time. Daily Mirror(1961), consisted of pages of that newspaper, bound together in book form. Perhaps the most bizarre was Roth’s Literature Sausageseries, made from 1961 to 1974. He pulped books and newspapers, mixed them with onions and spices, and stuffed them into sausage skins. “From time to time I take books I can’t stand or from authors I want to annoy and make: sausages,” said Roth. Each sausage was made of a single, now unreadable, title.

Artists have also realised the power that an object or image can have, a power that can be far stronger than words. Killing(1988), by Denise Hawrysio, is a red leather-bound book in which the pages are made of fur. Killing demonstrates the mutually dependant nature of language and image. Without the word “killing”, the fur is just fur; and without the disturbing fur pages emerging from the covers of the book, “killing” is merely a flat, unqualified word.

Text, in the form of commentary about or reviews of art, can run the risk of limiting images to narrow or single meanings. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the butterfly motif appears so frequently in the work by the artists in Modified Expressions, an exhibition, where the artists responded to the writers in the literary strand of the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

In Tracey Bush’s The White Butterfly, printed pages are cut into butterfly shapes and pinned down, whereas in Claire Brewster’s We are Liberated,they fly, free: two different ways of seeing what language does to art and what art can do to language. Both are but the the beginning of another chapter in the fascinating story of what can happen when art and words come together.

Modified Expressionsis at the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny until Sunday 14 August