The Book's Undoing: Dieter Roth's Artist's Books

The Book's Undoing: Dieter Roth's Artist's Books



What is a book? What can a book do? Must it have text? How can one make books about books? These are the kinds of questions
Swiss artist Dieter Roth was asking when he began experimenting with bookmaking
in the early 1950s. Trained in the technical side of printing Roth was a
master of his craft and collaborated artistically with concrete poet Eugen
Gomer. His innovative use of the book as an artistic medium has contributed to
his reputation as one of the most original and imaginative post-war
European book artists. He broke the boundaries of what a book
is by elevating it from a means of transmitting knowledge and linear
narratives to an art object to be exhibited. This Duchamp-ian achievement
was a pivotal moment in the history of the book and heralded myriad
possibilities for the book as art. One aspect of Roth's practices that
merits attention is the early exploration with non-linearity and
conceptual spaces. Johanna Drucker explains the net artists books ability
to function as a conceptual space is done either by presenting a conceptual
piece or by using the book conceptually to duplicate a function normally served
by a real space of performance or exhibition. Roth primarily worked with
the traditional codex form a structure able to efficiently exhibit content in a
linear manner but allows the reader nonlinear access to the material. He also
created unbound works whose disjunct form allows multiple entry points to
their non narrative, nonlinear content. The Cu library's collection of Dieter Roth's
books include his entire Kazaakaverta or collected work series and here
we will take a look at four that explore materiality and conceptual space. Roth
created his first artist book in 1954 for the son of his friend Klaus framer
who was also a fellow member of the Darmstadt circle of concrete poets.
Conceived with the intent to appeal to a child sensibilities Kinder-buch or
children's book is a 28-page spiral bound book filled with colorful printed
and die-cut geometric shapes. Absent any text or narrative element, the work
appears as a graphic designers exercise with shape color and balance. The reader
is allowed self-directed exploration through a visual playground. The readers
turning of each page conducts interaction between physical or absent
geometric shapes and a performance of relationships is witnessed. As Stefan
Riplinger explains, "the individual pages never stand for themselves alone they
give a value to what precedes or follows them, or what is to be recognized by them. A process of orientation and perception
over many pages." With each page turn a single die cut shape transforms and
carries out a new task both as a compositional element as well as a
window offering a view of previous or subsequent pages. Ultimately the book
provides a space where these shapes and colors become active, where they interact
and grow. The performance is temporal seemingly musical. The movements and
rhythm in kinder-buch accomplish a visually polyphonic rather than
narrative performance and the most lively action is the steady
amplification of color and shape facilitated by the readers interaction
with the work. Compositions grow more complicated as the reader continues
through the book. The size of the geometric shapes decrease as their
numbers increase, causing a delightful crescendo and then decrescendo of
percussive visual rhythm. In 1955 Roth created his second book Bilder-buch, or
picture book. Again here is a title implying a work dedicated to young
audiences and while the visuals in Bilder-buch are more elementary in design
than Kinder-buch, now the artist begins to complicate form
and structure. Bilder-buch is constructed from 20 sheets of multicolored view foil
from which square holes are cut. It too is constructed without pagination or
bibliographical information and once orientation is established the rear with
each turn of the page watches compositions develop through the
blending of colors and layering of squares. Minimalistic qualities put recognizable emphasis on space, reinforcing Roths'
reference to the work as visual poetry buildable stages a poetic optical
performance. The array of superimposed colors and shapes delivers a
kaleidoscopic display. Elements confined to one page are allowed to synthesize
with individual elements, not only on the next page but with several subsequent
pages simultaneously. Design also invites a nonlinear experience to the book. The
reader is permitted to move both forward and backward with the materials to view
multiple compositions of blended colors and overlapping shapes. This forward and
backward movement does not equate to a rereading of content per se but rather a
bi-directional and dialogic navigation through a work of art. Consequently the
author shares a small measure of control with the reader over the navigation of
content, specifically over what the content can do. The blending of colors
and mingling of squares is slightly, though not insignificantly, conditional
upon the inclination of the reader. The book behaves as a performance space
where physical elements meet, create optical harmony and then diverge all at
the hand of the reader. In volume 8 the possibilities of conceptual space
evolved through an adventurous departure from the books traditional structure.
Here, there is a compelling shift from performance to exhibition space. This
unique work consists of two books of identical structure. Each is a portfolio
of approximately 20 loose sheets with die-cut lines that create grids of
parallel rectangles in alternating vertical and horizontal arrays. To access
the colored cards the reader removes them from a slip case and because the
pages are not bound together the reader is free to arrange and overlay the pages
as they like. As illustrated by the works previously discussed interaction with
Roth's visual poem books generates a kind of choreographed perform
or perhaps rehearsal. Vol.8 invites a more complex and intimate experience
with the artwork which involves the readers manipulation and control of
visual exploration, a setting that fosters spontaneity and improvisation. By
rearranging the cards as they wish, the reader is able to create numerous
compositions of colorful parallel, perpendicular and diagonal grid work. Roth is both artist and curator and the
reader is an active participant with the art. The intimacy and singularity of each
engagement with this book yields a unique performance which cannot be
reproduced volume 8 is a major subversion to the idea of the book. Here
the book is no longer a reproduction or dissemination of a single text but
rather a singular creation executed by each reading and consequently a work
that cannot be circulated. Roth's investigation of conceptual exhibition
space by means of the book is distinct in volume 8. Though probably best fulfilled
by the self referentiality of the Copley book. Here the production process of the
book is staged as an artistic performance where the final product is a
work of art that documents the process involved in making the book itself.
Essentially Roth's Copley book is a biographical inventory of everything
used to make it. All bibliographic content involved in the books production,
letters, notes, directions are the subject of the book. The content varies in
material, shape, size and printing quality yet each element, whatever it's full
measure is packed or folds easily and uniformly into an inconspicuous book
sized box. Ultimately the Copley book offers two dialogues: one, between its
format and the history of its own production and two, between the reader
and a disjunct object that can be accessed at any point and arranged in
any direction. Similar to a monograph the work illustrates Roth's artistic
practices concerning bookmaking, yet designating this work as Roth's writing
on the subject of his own book making perhaps remains in question as it does
contain managerial notes and texts censored by others. It is not only Roth's
voice we are reading. What Roth has done to the everyday object of the book here
is applied techniques to bookmaking that ultimately defamiliarize it to the
reader. He has undone the book by deconstructing
the object. Unlike Kinder-buch and Bilder-buch, the Copley book is neither directional
nor does it provide any recognizable visual theme that might give the reader
a clue as to how to approach the work. It does however, exhibit one traditional
feature. It must be opened. The gizamaluke Edition resides in a book size box
titled "Band zwölf" or "volume 12". When the box is opened an archive of itself
is exhibited. One could consider it a mini gallery of the book with pera-textual works on display. Suraj na argues that "a text without para-text does not
exist" but Roth has certainly reversed the relationship between frame and
narrative here, granting paratext the role of story. In fact paratext becomes both the body or incarnation of the book object as
well as the book's text. The collection of managerial anecdotes and dictated
footnotes is a repository of self-reflexive material and the object
is therefore put into dialogue with itself. This plastic entity provides it's beholders
access to the viscera of its own construction. The production and
curatorial labor of this exhibit are laid bare. It is an exposition happening
beyond a comfortable architecture. To read the Copley book is, as Richard
Hamilton remarks, "to enter a temporary space with multiple entry points and
avenues where artifacts of administrative exchange and assemblage
are on view." It is not an easy book to experience, though some elements are quite humorous. For example, Roth's friend Richard
Hamilton who oversaw the production of the book received a letter from the
publisher regarding lost materials. There is also a poem about crapping which the
publisher censored. And then there is a single page book titled "Schneewittchent" or "Snow White". This book within the book playfully epitomizes the
conceptualization of literary object space. On the cover of this short book
Roth's scribbled a note, "Nicht zu Hause", "not at home". The single page book opens
up to a picture of an empty room. The reader has entered the space of the book.
Snow White is not at home and that is to say the expected narrative is absent
from the architecture. When the book is closed the reader sees a second
scribbled note on the back cover that reads "Zuhause", "at home" implying that
the reader still exists in the space of the book even after it is closed. Or
perhaps alternatively, the reader might be instructed to try to enter backward.
Whatever intellectual puzzle work Roth is inviting his readers to participate
in, the book within the book thematizes an entrance and access but makes it
unclear to the reader how to move through it. The interrelations of
conceptual and formal elements excited Roth and drove his exploration with
bookmaking. A visionary and prankster with a typographer skill and avant-garde
attitude, Roth created works that both deinstitutionalized and revolutionized
the book.

5 thoughts on “The Book's Undoing: Dieter Roth's Artist's Books

  1. i find the over visual presentation here distracting and pretentious. its dieter roth!! his work is so engaging and interesting, theres no need to compete with it. this new style of documentary with animation added (maybe for the youngsters so they dont get bored, heaven forbid) has been played out. if the doc style over reaches beyond the subject its game over. you failed. luckily here Roth's work will happily outlast the fancy packaging.

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