Research task: Exploring artists’ books

This brief asked me to find two artists’ books that I felt demonstrated an interesting relationship between their form and content through the materials the artist chose to use. I then had to reflect on these books. I was also directed to look at libraries and online resources (unfortunately, due to lockdown, physical library access is not a possibility at the moment). My tutor had included a couple of links in my feedback for Part 3 to explore, and the brief also mentioned Tom Phillips’ ‘A Humument’, a novel I own.

First, I selected two artists’ books I own to reflect upon. I felt it would be more beneficial to be able to physically hold the books and flick through the pages, to get a complete sense of the book as an object. I have Tom Phillips’ treated Victorian novel, ‘A Humument’, and Graham Rawle’s novel, ‘Woman’s World’.

A Humument was created by Phillips using a found book – ‘A Human Document’ by W. H. Mallock – and altering each page. His process involved looking for the word he wanted to string together, the words that jumped out and created something moving, coherent, or poetic, and then basing the imagery on this theme. He covered the rest of the words – sometimes with pen, sometimes with paint, sometimes with collage, and often a mixture. This was a way of creating something new, a hidden story, using words that already existed, but bringing them together in a new way. It also involved eliminating words – and sometimes individual letters – to leave only the wanted words. Phillips describes the book as a ‘disposed narrative’ with ‘more than one possible order’ and ‘more like a pack of cards than a continuous tale’. I have often found myself flicking through out of order, and this makes sense; Phillips did not change the pages in order, so his out of order working pattern resulted in something unique. This challenges the reader’s assumptions about how a book should be read.

The materials used for this book are so varied, which also links to the content. Even when describing the title, Phillips states that the book was always intended to be a lifelong project, something monumental. He folded a page that stated the title – A Human Document – and formed the word ‘Humument’, a new word, blending ideas of humanity and monument. To bring together so many materials, colours, patterns, and shapes, matches this theme. It also retains some of its bookishness – we can still see the page numbers and the original type in places. It is as if the book has been shaped by Phillips’ life, resulting in a document that explores every aspect of the human experience. For example, the page that states ‘the glimmering shores of yesterday receding’ speaks of nostalgia and uses old black and white photographs collaged and doodled over. It is like a scrapbook of things from all over and a truly beautiful book to read.

I wanted to include Woman’s World because it is so similar to A Humument in some ways, and yet the opposite. Rawle created this book by using cuttings from 1960s women’s magazines to build an entirely new narrative (and a continuous, coherent one too). This is not only one of my favourite stories (as a piece of excellent writing) but also for its artistic value. The rhythm of reading is changed entirely when your eyes have to adjust to different typefaces in different sizes every few words. Some of the text starts at different points across the page if there is an oversized word, letter, or image that it must move around. It makes the reading experience unique – again, a little like a scrapbook of memories.

Rather than Phillips’ approach of eliminating words by covering them up with inspired imagery, Rawle cut out select words, phrases, and sentences that he felt would work to tell his rough draft of a story. Gradually, his words were replaced with the words from 1960s women’s magazines, and the story is told with a mish mash of type from lots of publications, brought together to create something new. I love the appearance of this; it is a visual representation of 60s magazines and reflects the time period in which the story is set, so greatly adds to the reading experience. It is truly like stepping into the shoes of the main character, Norma.

I also explored the links my tutor suggested in my Part 3 feedback and picked out a couple of artists’ books from here that caught my attention. It was certainly different exploring them online versus being able to hold them. Accessed 01/02/21

Ron King and Roy Fisher created a version of Punch and Judy called ‘The Left-Handed Punch’ which included moveable parts in the book. I think it caught my eye because of the collage effect, the bold, bright patterns and shapes, and the sparseness of the pages – the focus was entirely on the characters. The materials used here really reflect the content of the story; Punch and Judy traditionally being told as a puppet show, the artist created these bright illustrations and moveable parts to encourage the reader to interact with the story and physically bring the characters to life, as if they are controlling the puppet show.

Liliane Lijn created a series of ‘poetry machines’ in the 60s that truly challenge the idea of a conventional book as a medium for communicating an idea. Inspired by Tibetan prayer wheels, she constructed a conical shape with blue text covering it, mounted on a turntable. There are lots of repeating words – with the theme being the sky and the title of the piece being ‘Sky never stops’, the repetition makes sense – and the words are blue on a white background. When the motor is turned on, the cone spins and the words become blurry. Buddhists believe that when a prayer cylinder is spun, the prayers are activated and fly out into the world. Lijn intended for the words to take on a new form, in this spinning, blurry sculpture. The reading experience is certainly different here and the materials were specifically chosen to create this new way of experiencing poetry for the reader. They can move around the sculpture to read the words (rather than turning a page) and then the words can move on their own, changing into something new. This is an example of a sculptural approach to language – visual or concrete poetry – that I believe I will be exploring in more depth in this Part 4.

I read through an interesting article about the artist book as a concept and learnt much more about the history of this genre. I took notes in my sketchbook and looked at lots of examples to strengthen my understanding of what a book can be. Accessed 01/02/21

When I was reading about Stephen Willats’ ‘Taking the short cut’, I remembered a book I own by Olivier Kugler called ‘Escaping Wars and Waves’. Both publications aim to record information about people and the environments they find themselves in, with different purposes in mind. Willats spoke of using his book as a tool for social engagement and ended up distributing copies in a local newsagents. Kugler wanted to record experiences of Syrian refugees, probably with the intention of educating others, informing people about a range of perspectives, and hopefully encouraging them to see refugees as people, with emotions, history, and ambitions, and connect with them.

Kugler used reference photographs, notes, and his own drawings on location (as a reportage illustrator) to build this book. He has used mostly digital methods to create the final book, but it has a hand-drawn quality. The text all looks handwritten, again, speaking to that connection we feel to other humans when we see our similarities – it looks friendly, informal, messy – HUMAN. The materials he has used here reflect the content of the book because they represent the spectrum of human discovery – drawing, writing, and creating digital technology.


This brief asked me to find two artists’ books that I felt demonstrated an interesting relationship between their form and content through the materials the artist chose to use. I then had to reflect on these books. I looked at several artists’ books and reflected upon the form, the content, and the materials used by the artist. I found that A Humument and Woman’s World have similarities, in that they use a historical/many historical documents and extract words, phrases, and sentences from these to tell a new story. The Left-Handed Punch had interactive elements, allowing the reader to not only physically turn the pages but also to move the characters and engage with the story (usually told as a puppet show). Sky Never Ends was the most unusual of the artists’ books as it did not take a traditional book form – it was a cone of text, able to spin and completely change the reader’s experience. Escaping Wars and Waves was a very personal book, digging into human lives and presenting them to the reader in layers of images, handwritten text, and quotes.

I think the running theme in all of my chosen artists’ books was the way the artist tried to change the way the reader interacted with the book. They each provide something unusual or unexpected, whether this simply be frequent changes of type or not having to turn pages at all. I have learnt that an artists’ book focuses on that one-to-one experience with the reader and how to make this special or memorable, even if only subtly.

I was also directed to look at libraries and online resources. My tutor had directed me to a particular website and I wanted to explore ‘A Humument’. I looked through online libraries and took lots of inspiration from the link my tutor sent me. I also delved into three artists’ books I own, so I could physically interact with some examples. I definitely feel as if I have a greater understanding of the history of artists’ books and the vast range of ways the concept of a ‘book’ can be interpreted. I am intrigued by concrete poetry, so I am looking forward to exploring this in more depth further into Part 4.

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