Angela Lorenz’s artist’s books, like hairdryers and icy bridges, require circumstantial caution. “WARNING:” her website proclaims, “Artist’s books should come with a warning label. Once you know what they are, be warned, you have the burden of trying to explain them to others.” Attempting to grasp the distinction between visual art and text can be, literally, physically disorienting. The standard notion of a book—a horizontal surface, which prompts the reader to look downwards—and the standard notion of visual art—a vertical perceptual plane—do not always intersect at the usual angles. Subsequently, artist’s books—unconventional combinations of images, objects, and text—prompt the question: which way should we look at them?
A clue to this question comes from the physical exhibition of Lorenz’s artist’s books, which McCabe’s Rare Book Room has been collecting for more than 20 years. The books themselves are rarely two-dimensional. In one case, a cloth board game based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress unfurls into its own take on Candyland. In another, cubes of soap containing cloth pages sit cleanly atop their wrappings. Simply put, the ‘books’ take up space. The physical stature of each work had a large influence on exhibition’s curation, librarians Susan Dreher and Amy McColl explain; it was more that just a matter of deciding which pieces to feature where. Some of the works, such as The Mansion of Thought – Making Knowledge Visual in Three Dimensions, East and West, a vast, house-shaped piece, require a three-dimensional expanse.
Yet the exhibition’s physicality is secondary to its conceptual weight. Lorenz describes her works as “mnemonic devices,” and “memory palaces,” referring to the technique by which one memorizes items in a set by imagining a house and placing the items in each room. As spaces, her works house her research; as art, they are habitable.
Just as mnemonic devices often use playful or unconventional means to trigger memory, Lorenz’s work is a serious study in humor. For example, Sir Thomas’more or Utopia Impaled: A Memento Mori, which puns on s’mores and Sir Thomas More, is more than a one-liner about the famous writer. As Lorenz explains, the use of marshmallows (branded with More’s likeness) and graham crackers, which she terms “junk food,” symbolize “the most trash-talking, disgusted exchange” between Thomas More and Martin Luther, excerpts of which are printed on the inner panels of the piece.
In all, Lorenz’s book exhibition maintains a way of existing in a space. In discussing how she was inspired by Pilgrim’s Progress, Lorenz began, “I became fascinated in it for a few reasons,—” and then, correcting herself, “fascinated by it.” This prepositional substitution, fortuitously, expresses the aim of the artist’s book: for the audience to become fascinated within a work and enter into its paper architecture.
Yet the shame about people who frequently memorize things, explains Lorenz, is that “they use the same memory palace—only, one—with the intention of erasing it each time.” The individual mental palace cannot tolerate clutter. However, Lorenz’s memory palaces remain. They stand as monuments to research, the ancient underground palaces that have been meticulously decorated and then surrendered to time, buried beneath packed layers of meaning. And even the most adroit reader-bandit cannot steal away with the whole of each piece in grasp.
In our time, things that used to intrinsically require mobility through space—theft, exploration, education—can now occur on the screen. In the screen-world, we have become accustomed to flatness, and in the process, we have flattened our planes. We have ceased to bristle before the landscape, the curving palaces, our notions of spaces and the words that fill them. It is only by looking away from the screen and into the distance, downgrading our technology—perhaps using Lorenz’s Balzaculator instead—that we rediscover our bearings, ourselves.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore College.