What it's not
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This week, Bank Street Arts in Sheffield announces the jury and student winners of the 4th Sheffield International Artist’s Book Prize, which OCA is supporting. There were 455 entries, a ten-fold increase on the number received for the inaugural prize five years ago.
Entries came from 35 countries, more than half from outside the UK. Among them were 120 student entries, including the winning entry from Isla Millar, featured below. Bank Street Arts’ creative director John Clark ponders the logistics of dealing with artists’ work on such a scale in the current issue of ‘Book Arts Newsletter’ (pages 14 and 15).
In October, every one of the 455 entries will be on public display at Bank Street Arts in ‘Opening up the Book’, a free exhibition and programme of events running until the end of November.
Artists’ books defy definition, so much so that the judges of the Prize, who include Elizabeth James, Senior Librarian, National Art Library Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and OCA’s Visual Communications course leader Christian Lloyd, do not provide one, either for entrants or for visitors to ‘Opening up the book’. They tell us only that the prize is for books as art, not for books about art.
Expressed differently, the genre of artists’ books is essentially democratic. So is the prize, as there is no entry fee and entrants have equal status with one another, whether the artist’s book they enter is their first foray into the form or whether, like one one entrant, they are a nominee for this year’s Turner Prize. In its democracy lies the attraction of the Sheffield International Artist’s Book Prize for OCA. As Chief Executive Gareth Dent says in the introduction to the catalogue for ‘Open up the book’:
‘….the genre’s boundaries stretch in the direction of the anarchic, as often artists’ books are books without words and therefore without language.’
Through the Prize, there are other outlets for stating what an artist’s book is and what it’s not. A programme of artists’ book-related events is taking place at Bank Street Arts and the University of Sheffield to coincide with the exhibition. It includes a miniature theatre show for children made of paper and light; a workshop led by composer Stephen Chase which considers the possibilities of musical notation; and an experiment in turning pages into sculpture under the guidance of Katherine Johnson, who won the inaugural Sheffield International Artist’s Book Prize in 2008.
Sheffield’s ‘Off the Shelf’ festival will be showcasing artist’s books in city centre hotels, shop windows and local libraries throughout October and November. Further afield, in Scotland and Portugal, exhibitions of books from the collection built up from prize entries are planned for 2014.
This year, there have been entries in all shapes and sizes – books made from wool, cloth, metal, wood, plastic, porcelain and every type of paper imaginable. There are books that light up when opened, elaborate paper sculptures, an eight-volume illustrated novel that was ten years in the making, pop-up books, cut-out books and sculptural books. Their variety strikes a warning note against the impulse to definition which marks people just as it does artefacts, drawing – or tricking – creative artists into labelling themselves as ‘photographer’ rather than ‘writer’, ‘painter’ but not ‘sculptor’.
Books. 455 of them. But are they books? What about those without a single sentence? The ones made without paper? If they are not books, are they something else? Visitors to ‘Opening up the book’ can use their public vote as one way of stating their opinion, then wait until the winner is announced at the beginning of December to find out whether their approach to definition is shared by others.
So to the bigger question. What place does definition have in the creative arts more widely? That’s a debate for OCA.