Monday, March 4, 2013

CODEX: Space + Books

Don’t get me wrong. The books were the stars of CODEX 2013, as they always are. Meeting and reconnecting with artists, getting a sneak preview of a book in-progress, or listening intently as an artist walked his or her listeners through a book that took years to complete—all of this captures the essence of CODEX. But this CODEX offered an added allure that was all about the space, and I returned home haunted by one of the snapshots I took that first morning. Since I enjoyed the path it opened up for me, I thought you might, too, after I’ve carried us through my other musings. 

Here’s the photo, on the right:  
In previous years the CODEX Book Fair and Symposium has taken place in two buildings on the UC Berkeley campus. Because of construction in Pauly Ballroom, the 2013 Fair was moved to Craneway Pavilion, the former Ford Assembly Plant designed by Albert Kahn and built in 1931. 

Early that Sunday morning, February 10th, artists and ravenous book collectors arrived together on shuttle buses and filed into the space amid a collective gasp. Those of us not tied to setting up were free to wander the aisles and stroll outside as books found their way onto tabletops. And the space itself demanded equal attention: theatrical was the word. 

The former Ford factory, requisitioned during WW II into a tank manufacturing plant, is situated on (right on) San Francisco Bay. As the story goes (so a visiting park service ranger told us), as the tanks were finished they were literally rolled right on board ship. Far from cold and dreary, the rejuvenated space is lit by 40,000 panes of glass and, far above, Kahn’s sawtooth-designed roof tucks in two lines of clerestory windows that run along the building’s length. For this sun-starved Midwesterner and for every visitor arriving from East of the Mississippi, this was a gift.  

The Pavilion’s proximity to water added another element. At any time, talking with an artist or engrossed in a book, a reader might glance up to see a sailboat silently powering past on its way out to open water. Within sight and not far away, a trawler and a US Navy ship sat moored at anchor. Despite the fact that artists and admirers had to occasionally resort to dark glasses (lending it a Hollywood air! Berkeley’s Oscars!) as the south-facing windows tracked the sun’s trajectory throughout the afternoon, the 
               sun’s rays were, all in all, much welcomed.

When surfeited with great work, I would walk/stagger out to the adjacent parkway to breathe the air and track the course of bicycles and boats. To reach that Eastern side, one exited the building between a pop-up café and a raised eating/viewing area. Outside, an expansive Eucalyptus tree perfumed the air. Reentering, the visitor beheld the full interior expanse. 

Look up, and see the massive dividing curtains ruched and held, up in the rafters, along with spotlights awaiting the next event. Clearly, the theatre of the book had expanded to fill the theatre of the space, the performance place of books. I later learned that one of the building’s previous incarnations had been a book depository. No permanent deposits here, just momentary stagings in hopes of securing for each book an ultimate home.

Ines von Ketelhodt and Peter Malutzki
And here’s a question that always seems to arise: why are book fairs so exhausting? Besides the standing and walking, talking and looking, I think a quieter, subliminal depletion ticks away just under the conversations and musings. On both sides of the table there is an understanding that every encounter at a book fair is fleeting and valuable. All that content and beauty, unsettling or operatic, all of that passion poured into each work has to go somewhere as artist and listener meet for an exchange of sorts. So the artist conveys the book’s story along with his or her emotional resonance to the viewer, who chooses to live with it for that moment and often long afterward. Conversation by conversation and book by book, the intellectual and emotional content accrues in the visitor, as if it has been absorbed into the reader’s hands while reading, held and then handed back, and carried into the next reader’s hands, the next heard story. Add to that the stress by both artist and collector (how many books? which stories to take home? Which artists did I not see? What did I miss?), and the whole exchange multiplied many times over takes a toll, an exhaustion replete with color and language and a body memory of cradling, concentrating, absorbing.

Dan Mayer Studios & Pyracantha Press
I wish I had the time to write at length about the many great books I had the luck to hold and learn about. Instead, let me note one unique and distinctive pleasure of a book fair, which is the privilege of a preview, the sneak peak, the lifting of the veil (curtain!) into the artist’s process. I am always humbled by the courage on an artist’s part, to invite the viewer into that private process fraught with the unknown.

Julie Chen, Flying Fish Press, Praxis (Illustrated), in-process
These midway viewings reveal layers in the palimpsest of making that will soon be covered up by other actions on the artist’s part. This book fair I caught a glimpse of three in-process books. Julie Chen’s Praxis (Illustrated) seen here on the left, to be published by The Letterpress and Book Arts Center at Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota. This book once again demonstrates Julie’s mastery of structure, color, and the memoir transformed into universal truth. Try to not pick this book up and live with it. Impossible.  

Gaylord Schanilec, leaning over the end grain Maple blocks
on which he engraved the fold-out map
of Lake Pepin for Lac des Pleurs
 Gaylord Schanilec’s stunning meditation on Lake Pepin, Lac des Pleurs, appeared in a final dummy form bound by Craig Jensen. Check out Gaylord’s blog, to join with him in his process of thinking, making, remaking and slowly resolving each conundrum. As we follow his journey, we metaphorically dip a toe into the lake on which Gaylord has spent many hours fishing, photographing, and writing poems (he is an accomplished poet, and a selection of these reflections are in the book as well). 

His earlier books, such as Sylvae and Mayflies of the Driftless Region, capture the intersection of related stories to the subject, that refract out from its beginning, and slowly entrance a reader into following those threads that weave into a larger whole, a world-within-a-world. This will be another world, and I can’t wait to live in it. In particular, visitors were fascinated by Lac des Pleurs’ custom-marbled papers, created by Jemma Lewis and based on one of her patterns, but adjusted and painted in a color palatte derived from Gaylord’s photograph of wet stones along the shore of the lake. The pattern truly resembles stones under water, and yet, it doesn’t. I swear I saw the water move.
Lac des Pleurs's custom-marbled papers (on left) by
Jemma Lewis, with Schanilec's photo on the right

My third in-process find was Robin Price’s Love in the Time of War by Yusef Komunyakaa (below). I was struck by the book’s dark, crisp, semi-translucent sheets of hand-dyed and -painted silk, whose shifting earth tones suggested Camouflage (I later read that this visual reference was Robin’s intention for the book’s etched aluminum covers), or perhaps, as I followed that thought, the sheets suggested the earth re-absorbing war’s detritus, evidence of lost life. 
Robin Price's in-process Love in the Time of War
by Yusef Komunyakaa
An entire blog post could discuss the CODEX symposium speakers this year, who carried their listeners into the poetics of the book (Alan Loney) and the imperative of the artist to seek social relevancy (Tim Barrett), across continents (Sandro Berra) and into content that exposed and explored deviations to and through ancient cultural traditions (Veronika Schaepers) as well as into a printer’s absolute obsession with following his path into type but through hand-drawn letters (Russell Maret), along with a commitment to the book itself. Finally, for those of us who learn from and live with these books, we were lifted to pursue our commitment to the book, to each book, to risk following what the book wants, even and especially when the path is twisty, contradictory, and found “within the space between the act of creating and the act of reading” (Mark Dimunation).

After all these travels in conversations, books and reflections, I returned to Minnesota and to yet more snow and cold, which returned me to that snapshot taken as the sailboat glided past, as a booklover stopped to look up and out through the many-paned windows and into the indistinct lighted water reflection, ghostly and inviting. Finally, finally, after mastering my new snowblower and returning inside to hot tea, the reference revealed itself:
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, ca. 1818
 I laughed aloud at the reference—perfect! Craneway Pavilion is nothing if not a romantic space, soaring in height, engulfed in light, the Eucalyptus tree filling the Eastern wall, and just inside the stage, the spotlights, and more light. That scale which holds in it a disjunction in the intimacy of each book’s exchange—we could call it a sublime experience. Sublime, because Friedrich takes us there.

Caspar David Friedrich made the concept of the sublime a central concern to the Romantic Movement. Beginning in the late 18th century and lasting until the middle of the 19th century, Romanticism exalted individualism, subjectivism, irrationalism, imagination, emotions and nature as opposed to the rationalism that characterized the Enlightenment and the established values of the social order in general.

Friedrich’s pictured figure has just ascended to an outcrop, leaning on his cane as he gazes out into the mist threading through the rocks and mountains beyond. He is captivated by this mysterious, primal landscape, and his way forward is not clear, perhaps threatening, or at least confused. He must turn back, descend, return, but not just yet. What is hidden in the mist? The walker looks outward, but we intuit that he is just as strongly gazing inward. We may be looking with him at his subconscious, the limitlessness of the unknown. The subject has often been suggested to represent the artist himself.

I am relieved to have found my visual wellspring, and amused that in finding it, I was in turn carried a great distance. I hope it has carried you forward as well, and that you settle in tonight with a good book…no, a great book, and keep looking out, into the light and mist.