Saturday, July 2, 2011

art books, books and books on art

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 won't find a better stocking stuffer this year.                                                                                                       JMG


 Author Evan Harris interviews Tom Rayfiel about his new book, Time Among the Dead:

Thomas Rayfiel is the author of the novels Split-Levels, Colony Girl, Eve in the City, Parallel Play and Time Among the Dead, his most recent, published this June by The Permanent Press. Time Among the Dead takes place in England in the late Victorian era. It is written as a series of journal entries made by the elderly William, Earl of Upton, as he chronicles his last months among the living in and about Upton Hall. In the novel, William periodically addresses the future readers of his journal. It's not exactly "dear reader" or "gentle reader" -- it's more pointed and aggressive than that. The device has a way of implicating the actual reader of the novel in a very immediate way.

From his home in Brooklyn, Rayfiel and I embarked on an email conversation about his latest novel, his readers and...reading.   
                                                                                        Evan Harris, East Hampton

Evan Harris: Did you do any particular reading in preparation for or during writing Time Among the Dead? I'm wondering what kind of research you might have done for this book.

Tom Rayfiel: I don't believe in conscious research. I believe you're researching unknowingly, in the course of your life. You look back, halfway through a book, and realize, 'That's why I was compulsively reading up on (say) Burma.' So, no, I didn't visit the English countryside prior to writing Time Among the Dead. But I did read Trollope's six volume Palliser series. Which provoked a lot of puzzled stares from my wife. I didn't read it with any aim in mind, though, just a need.

Author Thomas Rayfiel

EH: This may be too nosy, but do you imagine your readers? 

TR: The only reader I try to interest is myself. I figure if I'm getting bored then surely anyone else will be.

EH: From the refined quality of your writing I imagine you as a devoted reader, living amongst packed bookshelves. Can you confirm or deny this? Can you describe your identity as a reader?

TR: I do read a lot, although I live close to a good library so that I don't have a book-choked apartment. That crazy line of reading -- what follows what, sometimes logically, sometimes in unexpected jumps, sometimes putting a book down and picking it up exactly where I left off but years later -- is a big (hidden) part of my life. I read intensely and never feel guilty about it. I feel it's a fundamentally virtuous act. I can't defend that statement rationally but that's how I feel. You know how Pascal has that statement that all human evil comes from man's inability to sit still in a room? I always assumed he meant with a book.

EH: And now for the kind of question I secretly like best: If you could communicate with any character from literature, which character would it be? And what would the mode of communication be (telephone, email, letters, dinner...)?

TR: Hmmm...I'm not sure characters exist for me that way. I guess I'm too aware of them as being made to imagine having dinner or emailing them. Writers, though, are another matter. They interest me -- their shadowy presences. 

I'd like to visit with Robert Pinget (1919-1997), a novelist and playwright. He lived in rural France. His work has been very important to me and yet I can find out almost nothing about him. In an obituary his editor describes him as a man of "almost inconceivable modesty."
How rare is that in this era of relentless self-promotion?

EH: What are you reading currently?

TR: I'm reading, almost against my will, yet another Iris Murdoch novel, The Green Knight. It's my thirteenth. She is a maddening writer, exhibiting at times unbelievable range and mastery and then, one page later, seeming utterly trashy and slapdash. Clearly she is supplying some vitamin deficiency in my reading life, providing an example, either negative or positive, that I can learn from.

EH: I really liked Time Among the Dead. Can you recommend another title for me to read? Something that might be a good companion to it, or an interesting book to follow with in "that crazy line of reading" you mention?

TR: Why not continue to explore the diary form? Simon Gray kept a journal while his play,
The Common Pursuit, was in rehearsal. The result, An Unnatural Pursuit & Other Pieces, one of the funniest and yet most moving books I have ever read.

Evan Harris is the author of The Quit. Her short fiction has appeared in Open City, The Brooklyn Rail and the Fairy Tale Review. Harris reviews books on occasion for The East Hampton Star. Her review of Tom Rayfiel's Time Among the Dead can be read here.

No comments: