Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Island of Rota

Stunning book arts: The Island of Rota, a collaborative effort between the designer Ted Muehling, the world's most interesting neurologist Oliver Sacks and the photographer Abelardo Morell is now on view at the The Drawing Room in East Hampton.

                                                                                                                                                                                   photo by Loring McAlpin
Organized by MOMA's  May Castleberry, the book is one in her ongoing publication series that is published in conjunction with the Library Council of the Museum of Modern Art. Under  Castleberry's keen eye, The Island of Rota now takes its place among some of the world's most seductive and sought after limited-editions. In her tenure as New York's preeminent publisher of artist's books, Castleberry has sought to bring artists and writers together to reinvent the book as a work of art, or, as Ted Muehling put it, to create "an artful book."

                                           L:Ted Muehling, R:May Castleberry
"It doesn't always happen this way," said Castleberry, "but this time I knew it (the collaboration) would happen organically."

The text was selected from Oliver Sacks' The Island of the Colorblind, in which the author examines a neurological abnormality that has resulted in total colorblindness among a century of island residents populating a tiny Pacific atoll in Guam. In the book, Sacks explores the adaptive vision of these islanders and, at the same time, reignites his youthful passion for botanicals. 

Micronesia is home to jungles of prehistoric cycads, a plant species that has existed there for over 500 million years, since the Palezoic age.

At last week's presentation of the book, Ted Muehling talked about many things, cycads among them:  

Ted Muehling: Oliver has an amateur interest in botanicals and this text is basically about him exploring specific islands in Micronesia and their ancient plant forms -- plants that have endured for millions of years. I was very taken by it.

TM: One of the first lines in the book goes back to his childhood -- it was during the second world war. He grew up in London, and his beloved mother took him to the gardens at Kew...writing about this later in his life, Oliver still has this childlike wonder. It's a wonderful text. He quotes Darwin frequently, and he tells stories back and forth about plant forms and explorations. We chose to take this quote -- the last line of Darwin's Origins of Species. I think it sums up Oliver's enthusiasm -- it's quite beautiful: 
"...whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." evolved."                                                                                      Charles Darwin

cliche-verres by Abelardo Morell, photos by Jonathan Singer
TM: Abe Morell was very enthusiastic to do the book. Oliver's text is full of visual possibilities -- from early map making to ships that sailed the Pacific in 1500 and all these different plant forms. We went to the New York Botanical Gardens and met with the head of cycads...Abe took some plant material...the photographs -- they are cliche-verres -- really suggest fossils. Some of them are extremely abstract. They look like outer space. 

My job in putting the book together was to combine this very deep text and these beautiful images and to create a seductive 3-dimensional artifact. The text is so worth reading -- I started thinking about Micronesia and what might represent these atolls, islands, plants -- and what Oliver was talking about. I worked a lot with Dieu Donne -- they do exquisite work -- and a brilliant man there named Paul Wong. We pressed the paper pulp on to sea fans so that each one is unique, and that's what we made the cover with. Very textural.  

                                                                                                                                                                             Photo by Loring McAlpin
May Castleberry: May I tell them, Ted, how completely obsessive you are? 

Ted found a silk paper that he loved, but he felt it needed something more explicit and so he would crinkle it up. Then he spent nights ironing it -- I would call him up and he would say, "I'm ironing" -- until it got a certain rattle when you touched it. No other designer that I've ever worked with had such an impact on the design of a book.

Ted Muehling: The book is in black and white. For Oliver, being a neurologist he actually went to these islands for various reasons, one of them being that  there are true "achromatobes" there -- people that are truly colorblind. Most people that are colorblind see color wrong, but these people see only black and white. They have developed an extreme sensitivity to light. They also have a a pan-sensitivity to texture and their ability to see is very precise. And so, I wanted to keep the book in the sepia/black and white range and still make a very rich book. So the texture is important -- the sound of the paper -- the silkiness of it. It was another layer of thinking about design and the experience of going through the book. 

The Island of Rota is an edition of 135 with a deluxe edition of 25. The deluxe version comes with an extraordinary bookcase milled from Polonia wood. Muehling then addresses the wood -- drilling myriad patterned holes and randomly inserting mother of pearl, abalone and tiny seashells across the surface. The result: a subtle but dazzling surface that glistens with things of the natural world.

TM: This box is made from Polonia -- my friend Chris Lareke makes them for me from a tree he milled. It's the type of wood that the Japanese and Chinese use for precious lacquerware and ceramics. It's used to hold precious things. The perforations -- I'm doing them. 

MC: You can hear Ted's drilling all over Sag Harbor!

TM: (laughter) There are mollusks called Teredo worms and they ate through a lot of the early ships that sailed. The Japanese celebrate this kind of wood -- they'll often make objects from this type of deteriorated wood. I collect pieces of wood like that -- these boxes remind me of walking on the beach as sand dabs disappear into the sand. I inset mother of pearl, abalone and pearls, tiny seashells. Being a jeweler, I have all this raw material in my studio. Each box is different.

With typeface by Leslie Miller, Dieu Donne handmade papers both inside and out, breathtaking cliche-verres and fantastically absorbing text...you won't find a better stocking stuffer this year.                                                                                                       JMG

1 comment:

Will, 50Watts.com said...

Thanks for linking to me (I just added your to my links too). My mind is rapidly expanding as I scroll through your archives. Wonderful work!!!