The V&A exists specifically to own interesting stuff, and to explain why it’s interesting. They’re generally very, very good at it. So when I saw on a visit there that they would be putting on an exhibition on the Art of the Book, I was really keen to go and see it.
They made a conscious decision to let the objects speak for themselves, but that really does need some help on the part of the curator. What we saw was a half-dozen small rooms containing books, or book-like objects, in glass cases, with the occasional large centrepiece which may have been designed to echo the form of a book, or contained books somewhere in its structure or inventory.
The idea, apparently, was to examine how contemporary and recent artists had responded to the idea of the book – mostly they did this by, well, making books, whether the traditional kind with words and/or pictures in, or the other kind with pages (optionally attached to each other and/or covers) which had some kind of adornment, decoration, defacement, or other pseudo-informational content on.
Unfortunately, the only metadata any of the items had was the title, the name of the artist, the dates, and a very brief summary of what they did. Nowhere was there any information about which parts of the process the artist had done themselves, how the construction fit into traditional ideas of what a book is (or for that matter any introduction to traditional ideas of what a book is), or any opportunity to do anything other than look at the item as the curator chose to display it in its case and stroke your beard thoughtfully.
It was also very restricted in time and cultural space – the earliest example was from 1947, and there wasn’t any work from anyone who wasn’t a European or American artist. Cai Guo-Qiang’s work has a lot of traditional Chinese elements (his contribution, and Anish Kapoor’s, were the only two that really stood out for me) but he’s based in New York. Interestingly, 37 of the 39 artists whose work is represented are male.
It was curated by Elena Foster (of the Ivory Press) and one of the curators from the National Art Library, apparently.
A bit of brief research shows that Foster has very definite ideas on what constitutes an artist’s book – it’s anything the artist wants it to be. I can very much see the validity of this idea, but personally I’d like to see more emphasis put on the idea of it as a book, as a functional object rather than a knowing nod in the direction of a functional object.
That said, there isn’t much difference at all between a traditional functional book sealed in a glass case, and one of Anselm Kiefer’s sealed metal boxes containing sheets of poetry. We can’t read either of them, can’t process the text, can’t interact with it as an information-dense cultural artifact.
Given the incredible history of the book, this exhibition just seems a complete waste of a moderately nice space.