Wanted! Artist Books

Hettie Judah searches for acquirable, desirable objects, at the intersection of where art meets fashion and design. This month: Artist Books

By Hettie Judah

Matthew Brannon: An Irresponsible Biography Of The Actor Laurence Harvey, 2014. Three Star Books Sara McKilliop, Argos 1976 Joël Tettamanti: Works 2009–2019. Benteli, 2014 Helen Douglas: In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James, We Productions Giphoscope, Officina K, Turin

(Scroll through to see images of all products)

Hello old-time medium of printed books! Greetings to you from the (no longer particularly) new medium of the blog! As with the title-providing metaphor from the film Catfish (2010)* it’s tempting to imagine that new media has had a nippy, invigorating effect on the world of book publishing and stopped it from becoming too flabby.** The fun technological toolbox is changing the form of the printed book, and as the constantly self-fascinated, self-digesting world depicted in You Are Here: Art After the Internet suggests, it is also providing fecund subject matter.

Motion Pictures, White Wine, Older Women and Long Thin Cigarettes may sound like a pithy summation of the contemporary art world (certainly from Desire’s current location in Miami) but actually it’s the subtitle to Matthew Brannon’s An Irresponsible Biography Of The Actor Laurence Harvey, a title that extends across a fancy edition, a series of lobby card display cases and a print on demand paperback (it turns out print on demand is useful for more than the production of misogynistic slogan T-Shirts). Softcover publisher One Star Press’ policy of making PDFs of their books available online underscores the subordinate role the text plays to the physical object and the actions behind it.

Brannon’s project is an exercise in glorious contrarianism and obnoxiousness – an exercise in un-Like-ability in a landscape of Facebook neediness (which naturally makes me want to write ‘I ♥ !!!!’ in a way I’ve never wanted to before). His biography is a flat, adjective-shaved, present-continuous trawl through the inglorious life of a mid-century film star, documenting his scatological obsessions, calculated seductions and meagre talent, interspersed with quotes from Freud, Derrida, official biographies and Brannon’s voicing of the man himself.

A thrillingly unvarnished and unpleasant addition to a genre more usually crowded by star-struck sycophancy and hero worship, the biography itself is merely the necessary sideproduct to Brannon’s desire to be a biographer: a laborious somewhat self-abnegating process, the performance of which was the end point and the creation of a book merely the means. As Brannon writes in his author’s note ‘It is an artwork about being a biographer. It is an artwork that takes the form of telling people you’re writing a biography.’ Brannon the artist comes to occupy the character of Brannon the biographer – and as is the nature of his calling, Brannon the biographer comes to occupy the character of Laurence Harvey. 

Sara MacKillop enters unloved territories of a different sort in Argos 1976 - not an Aliens-style sequel to the Ben Affleck Oscar-vehicle, but a response to new media of a rather different sort. We have mourned the demise of many things in 2014, but the Argos store catalogue is one that seems to have passed without a collective outpouring of grief – nevertheless, this was the year that the frill-free high street outlet made the switch to digital, and the cumbersome laminated catalogues in store were replaced with swipey tablets. To commemorate this cultural turning point, MacKillop has lovingly reprinted the 1976 Argos catalogue in a plain ‘archival’ cover. While the Argos catalogue of our days may be a by-word for unthrilling, a gap of almost 40 years renders the contents oddly compelling – a world of tiger-print bedcovers, wood-sided stereo systems and electric blankets – the only thing that looks bang up to date are the full beards sported by the catalogue models; hairy-faced men, consider yourselves warned of the cultural associations you may be invoking. 

Surreal clashes between the wild and the artificial of a more majestic ilk infuse Swiss photographer Joël Tettamanti’s primary selection of worldwide images for Works 2009–2019, a thoroughly modern work in progress. Tettamanti has embraced the potential of the print on demand model, and will be adding to and rearranging the body of work shown within the book over the next five years. While the standard book is printed entirely in black and white, the special edition one page, to be selected by the purchaser, will be printed in colour (oh the joys of digital!). 

The limits of the book – and the landscape – are also explored in Helen Douglas’s In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James, a double-sided concertina in which Douglas’s sapid photographs of Las Posaz, Edward James’s garden at Xilitlatangle and weave into each other beneath reproductions of Mexican embroidery and beadwork. The garden of the book becomes an impossible dream-like space, melding overwhelming wild and half-tamed nature with man-made framing and illuminations, some of which are James’s structures from the garden itself, and others appearing as part of Douglas’s digital fantasia.

From the sublime to the decidedly silly: the Giphosocope is a machine that allows GIFs to be played IRL: a way to sell a GIF as an edition rather than an amusing online novelty. Somewhat nineteenth century in appearance, it’s a suitably low-tech answer to a problem posed by one of the digital world’s lowest-tech delights. 

* "They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They'd keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin." If you’ve not seen Catfish, please be assured that it is really in no way a film about the piscine shipping issues. If you’re looking for a film about fish on containerships, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

** Of course, as ArtReview’s designer John Morgan’s recent book-destroying event I Will Not Make Any More Boring Books suggests – there’s still a lot of flab out there.

Matthew Brannon: An Irresponsible Biography Of The Actor Laurence Harvey, 2014, €3,500, Edition of 15 in shirt box/ lobby card cases, €10,500, Three Star Books.   Softcover print on demand: €20, One Star Press.

Sara McKillop, Argos 1976, £60, edition of 40

Joël Tettamanti: Works 2009–2019 Benteli, 2014. Basic Edition €38, Special Edition €78, Premium Edition (with colour print) €360

Helen Douglas: In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James, We Productions, £30 

Giphoscope, €199–€599, artist editions POA

Online exclusive published 11 December 2014