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Art Basel Portfolio

  • By Emily Stokes
  • Issue 4
  • Shelf Life

How is Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook like a bunch of flowers? Or, how is The Golden Notebook like this bunch of flowers: arranged in a white trough balanced on two little feet, like nipples; asymmetrical and oddly lawless, combining the plain (Leatherleaf Fern), the symbolic (Star of Bethlehem), the luscious (Persian Buttercup), the common (Red Carnation), and an unidentifiable spray of shimmering bronze?

For her show at the New Museum in New York earlier this year, Camille Henrot, who is interested in systems of taxonomy, interpreted the Japanese art of ikebana to translate titles from her library into exotic flower arrangements. Each “book” in Is It Possible To Be A Revolutionary and Like Flowers? was displayed in a different kind of vessel, and each choice of flower was personal and associative, taking into account the names of the books, the Latin and common names of the flowers, and the plants’ reputed and actual pharmacological powers.

Henrot was drawn to ikebana, she has written, for the way the arrangements create a “healing object” for both maker and viewer. “By translating books into flower arrangements in a single gesture,” she writes, “the aim is to concentrate in one object the entirety of a thought, bringing together disparate fragments—reconciling opposites in a whole of global dimensions.”

Since seeing Henrot’s work, I have been thinking about the way books become art objects. At the art fair in Basel, where quiet concentration is hard to come by, books kept cropping up—on shelves, in photographs, and in paintings, like Liu Ye’s Book Painting No. 2 (2013), a trompe l’oeil that wanted its pages turned. Books seemed to unfurl even where they weren’t. Was it just me who saw in every outsized brushstroke in Bernade Frize’s rainbow-colored Ruled the splayed pages of a novel left out too long in the sun?

Peter Wüthrich turned books into potions in Pharmacie Littéraire (2013)—a medical cabinet of tiny glass bottles so alluring that they seemed suspect. Roman Ondak’s Ulysses (1995) and other indigestible classics were also on display, in cans, on a shelving system designed by Martin Boyce.

Artists who work with shelves—like Tacita Dean, who displayed her revisions of old postcards of Kassel, Germany, on simple wooden beams—invite the viewer to scrutinize the objects on them as they would not in a museum but in someone’s home. Charlotte Moth’s photo series To See The Things Amongst Which We Live invites the viewer to visualize, and perhaps fantasize about, the person who would stack John Gribbin’s Companion to the Cosmos above Vilém Flusser, next to the phone.

Bookshelves are pretty—too pretty, perhaps, for art. They blur the boundaries between art and design, or art and interior decorating. However casually arranged, books inevitably appear a little self-conscious when put together, spines bared for the world to see. Once read, what do books become? Evidence of learning? Husks? What remained of the volumes in Claudia Parmaggioni’s Untitled (libreria), which left a clean negative against a scorched, sooty board?

What was once revolutionary becomes decorative, like the paintings of the American artist Paul Chan, which turn cloth-bound hardbacks into canvases, and which are best hung salon-style, covering the walls like a library you need never read. Like Wüthrich’s Pharmacie Littéraire, Chan’s works are irresistible—but perhaps Chan, who has set up Badlands Unlimited, an e-publishing house to reconfigure the coffee-table art tome, is also posing a question with his mounted Volumes. What does it mean to turn a book into something so precious and consoling? Can you read a bunch of flowers?

Emily Stokes is an editor at the New York Times Style Magazine, T.