I have seen more of my own work damaged by poor handling on the part of institutional staff than by the public. Several of my books have been stolen from exhibitions over the years. A lacquer binding that was in the 2e Concours International de l'Art de Relieure came back with a smashed corner. I had sent it Fedex in a box with bubble wrap and they returned it ordinary surface mail wrapped only in brown paper with no padding. Then they denied any liability, saying the damage was done in shipping and that was not their responsibility! The good news was that in repairing the damage I invented a method for making stronger corners very simply, by saturating the corner of the board with epoxy and sanding that instead of using gesso under the lacquer. The point, however, is that I could not sell the book in damaged condition, and had to repair it. I believe the exhibiting institution should return the book to the artist (collector, institution) in the original condition. That's why there are registrars and condition reports. Books intended to be handled are lent with the risk understood.
When the Center for Book Arts circulated Book Arts in the USA throughout Africa and Latin America (1990-92) the 51 works came back with only one work having minor damage. And this exhibition went to venues that had no facilities whatsoever except a roof. White gloves were provided for the installers and Polycases were shipped with the exhibition. These are the demountable lexan boxes that Polly Lada-Mocarski invented for travelling book exhibitions. I don't know if anyone has continued manufacturing them since her death. There was an installation book with detailed photos and text in French, English, Spanish and Portugese. I went to the first venue in Madagascar, videotaped the installation of the show by local artists, and sent copies of that tape to all the other venues in advance of the exhibition's arrival. Accompanying the show was a bilingual videotape (stereo tape with different languages on each channel) on which I handle each of the works in the show and explain what is interesting and important to note about it. That video is still available from The Center for Book Arts.
When creating a book for exhibition it is important to consider the circumstances in which it may be viewed. I made Minsky in London with double Mohawk Superfine cover-weight pages hinged with bookcloth and sewn to a folded N-guard structure. It opens for display in a vitrine so that it can stand with the front and back covers touching and the pages open radially. For exhibitions with the book open for handling, the pages lie absolutely flat. I kept one copy separate for exhibitions where it would be read, and that copy was used over a thousand times in various shows before one of the linen threads broke, a simple repair. There was a small amount of darkening and bending to the page corners, but the book was otherwise unscathed. Eventually I retired it from exhibitions and sold it at a discount price.
An alternative is to create books specifically for viewing as objects. As a bookbinder, my goal is to iconify a text to stimulate interest in it. By making a totemic object out of a book and placing it on exhibit, and getting pictures of it in newspapers and magazines, more people become aware of it. It's a political act to foment social change, raise awareness of issues, get people to do something. It's also an aesthetic act, to create an object of beauty, a chilling image, a sense of wonder, or whatever is suitable to the book at hand. Many of the books I bind are easily available if someone wants to read them. They don't have to read the copy that is on exhibit. They can go to Amazon, bibliofind, or their local bookstore to get a copy, new or used. Or they can get a different book on the same subject.
The Biological Time Bomb, for example, has live firecrackers wired to batteries and a timer, attached to the cover with electrical tape. In order for people seeing it in a vitrine to understand it, a photocopy of the Table of Contents is in an envelope stuck to one of the wires. The outside of the envelope says "Read This" in cutout magazine letters (ransom note style). When on exhibit, the Contents stick out of the envelope, letting people know that Gordon Rattray Taylor's 1968 book predicts the dangers of genetic engineering. It doesn't matter to me if they read this book or read a different book. My mission with this work is to alert people to an explosive issue.
All the bindings I do open properly for reading-- they are not "only" sculptures. When on exhibit they are visual objects. In the homes of their owners they are books.
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