Two Perspectives

Matt Brack and Robert Minte

I began the line of work that has culminated in this edition of books not much more than one year ago. I have always felt a strong need to justify any works of art that I produce, to validate the experience as somehow genuine or authentic. As an American, I set about identifying my own heroes in our lineage of modern humanists - John Cage, Robert Motherwell, Gary Snyder - who drew inspiration from the East as Ezra Pound said they would. But despite their exploits, I still felt confronted by a certain confusion of motive and cultural appropriation. One might see this in positive terms as a deconstruction of cultural barriers, chipping away towards a common humanity; but also as inconclusive, or worse, misinterpretation: the actions of convenience rather than principle.

In my brief experience of artistic practice, I have begun to feel that the creation of fine art objects - be they prized for aesthetic, economic, political or any other reason - has not revealed itself to be an activity of necessity. As definitions shift and change in their relativity, so does their validity. It would further appear that in this relativity, no work of art could ever be the true product of the professed author, but only that of periods and social contexts, of the interdependency that consumed us from the moment we first breathed air.

This work is an acknowledgement of such conditions - the imagined foreign space that I have never visited, the contrived documentation. Each flirts with the idea that somehow it could all be real; yet it is a categorical illusion.

This project began as a cross-disciplinary learning process that sprang from two people's mutual desire to bind a book. To be able to have had Robert Minte's participation in this project over one year on is a privilege confluent with the spirit of the work. The fact that crafts and conservation elements still play so significant a role speaks volumes about the impact of my initial engagement with craft-based processes last year when, learning from Robert over the period of a week, we attempted to emulate the Oriental form of a four-hole binding.

There is something that might best be described as refreshing in witnessing a natural and useful handmade object. This is probably because objects that fit into all three of these categories are not encountered very often. What is not contrived is, by definition, natural. As human beings, it might be fair to suppose that we are of nature, yet most of what we produce is contrived; of artifice. Any attempts to produce an uncontrived object seem to require a different set of systems and processes from those with which most of us are accustomed. I would make the point here that these systems cannot necessarily be defined by culture or the shifting fashions of society, but rather by what is natural - of necessity, not of convenience.

Matt Brack, 2006

For a book conservator the opportunity to rebind a book or to create a new binding is rare, and so I welcomed the collaboration with Matthew in this project, and especially the chance to bind books in a traditional Japanese way. Although initially I imagined that I would do most of the binding myself, the shared experience which followed, imparting knowledge and technique through example, observation and practice, was perhaps appropriately, more in the Japanese spirit of a Kenshusei (trainee) observing his Sensei (teacher or master), rather than a Western approach of questioning and analysis. Whilst the Japanese will spend many years studying a chosen art, the journey of learning and discovery has to start somewhere, and for me this reflects the true essence of learning about books over a long period of time; observing the way they work, and learning about materials by the way they feel.

The Japanese Fukuro-toji ('Pouch' or 'Envelope' binding) or Yotsume-toji ('four-hole binding') is the culmination of a long development of the book in the Far East, shaped by cultural, technological, material and aesthetic influences. It remains one of the most beautiful and effective book structures; beautiful in the simplicity of its design, construction and in the way it functions, and effective in preserving the texts contained within it.

As a book conservator I am concerned with the materials, structure and condition of books, wherever possible endeavouring to repair the original elements that make up the whole, whilst striving to preserve the integrity of the book as a functioning, historical object, and carefully documenting the process. This process can only be possible with a clear understanding of the book structure itself, together with an appreciation of the materials from which it is made. Although allowing for creative thinking and whilst modern-day aesthetics are inevitably imposed on the final result, it does not fully allow for true artistic creativity or expression. Even in the restoration of books, or more artistic pursuits such as Designer or Fine binding, the artist or craftsman is limited to an extent by historical structures and book formats, specific materials, and the need for functionality and hopefully durability. In the case of these Japanese bindings, the desire to conform to a traditional structure, and even a particular format size (A4 folded to A5 very roughly approximates the Japanese Hanshi ('half-paper'), a paper size obtained from a folded full sheet), meant that artistic expression was restricted to the selection of materials chosen for their particular physical qualities or aesthetic appearance: paper of a certain tone, weight, flexibility, opacity and surface texture; decorative paper for the covers, and silk thread for the sewing.

The techniques of book conservation are inextricably linked with the art and craft of bookbinding, but as a conscious break from traditions in trade binding which had become increasingly mechanised, the principles that developed were influenced by, and reflect the philosophy of the Arts & Crafts Movement, where high standards of craft skill, and an appreciation of natural materials, mechanical structure and function, are fundamental. This philosophy in turn allows for and encourages individualism and freedom to explore the potential and capabilities of materials, and to experiment in technique. In Japan, the binding of books forms part of the wider profession of the Hyogu-shi or Scroll-mounter, who not only mounts scroll paintings and screens, but also binds albums and books, and so has evolved alongside a long tradition of hand skills associated with the preservation of pictorial art and manuscripts on paper and silk.

It is with this philosophy and these influences that I have been fortunate to learn about books and conservation, and which I in turn would hope to pass on in a true Japanese spirit. The book, whilst considered primarily as a means of conveying information, whether regarded as an object of decorative art or purely as a craft tradition - be it the ornate and highly decorative fine binding in the West or the simple, sublimely beautiful thread-bound 'fascicle' contained within it's Chitsu (wrap-around case) in Japan - contains within it something of the person who created it.

Robert Minte, 2006

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