It’s very difficult to make an exhibition of books, confessed José Arturo Rodríguez, the curator of “Leafing: Four Decades of Artists’ Books and Magazines in Spain , as he bounced from one book to another.
The exhibition, organized by the Spanish Embassy in Cairo, is the current highlight of Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Third International Biennale for the Artist Book, which opened last week.
The exhibition seeks to trace the trajectory of Spanish artist books since their emergence in the 1960s. It is comprised of 186 books and 18 magazines.
Coinciding with the age of conceptual art and the proliferation of experimental poetry, the idea of the “artist book was born of the desire to make art more accessible to the public. Artists appropriated the printed page whenever they had the chance, trading it in for the gallery.
Since then, artists have manipulated that space in all sorts of ways making the books themselves into artworks, rather than just media for their works of art.
With advances in print technology, publication had become inexpensive and the artist book came to be considered as the most convenient medium for the initial articulation and the subsequent circulation of the idea behind a given work.
But Rodríguez made sure to emphasize that the artist book came into being as a democratic space primarily for economic reasons. In other words, all the books, when published, were produced by special printing techniques that made them affordable for most people.
Some of them, especially artist-made catalogues of exhibitions – arguably considered artist book productions according to the criteria under which the selection was made – were in fact given out for free.
Today, a large number of such books are made available from publishing houses via internet and delivered directly to the readers’ homes.
Designed as a bookstore, the exhibition guides visitors along panels of display shelves that chart the evolution of this art idea as it was realized in Madrid, Barcelona and Catalonia. Early on in the show is “Viaje a Argel , created by Juan Hidalgo in 1967, and considered by most as the first Spanish art book.
Further on, Rodríguez pointed to a set of five works produced by The Zag Group, a collective related to Fluxes. The library at the Reina Sofía owned four of them, but not the fifth.
Most of those books, no longer in circulation, are showcased behind glass.
Paradoxically, the form of display denies these artworks their democratic posture, the essential quality for which they were once conceived and for which they have since then been celebrated.
“It is a great challenge, because you have something that is a narration, and you have to have it in the hand in order to look through it. And then suddenly it is behind the glass, Rodríguez said.
“You only can see a page, or the cover, but you can’t touch it. You don’t have access to this information, he added.
Conscious of this limitation, the curator ensured that certain copies were available for visitors to play with as part of the experience; the “aura of art , as such.
“For me it was important, on the other hand, to try to break this barrier that you have between the viewer and the book, making it seem very sacred, said Rodriguez. “You have seen this book there, it is very beautiful. And now you have it here, outside; you can touch it.
The books are arranged primarily in order of artist-chronology, meaning the order in which artists themselves arise and fade, rather than in strict date order of publication.
In the 1970s, Rodríguez notes, the art form was dominated by men, and while there were three women working in Barcelona, he was only able to locate one of their books. By the 1990s he found a remarkable rise of female artists on the scene.
Speaking true to the librarian he once was – at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía – Rodríguez insisted that the best part of the process was looking for the books, and selecting them.
For Rodríguez, the fact that the event was taking place at Bibliotheca Alexandrina made it somehow archetypal, giving the affair a certain symbolic status.
But curatorial questions aside, such as issues of visual aesthetics and the usual problems brought about by red tape, he says the outcome has been marvellous.
The exhibition is held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Tel: (03) 483 9999 8 am-9 pm.