Artists live to reinvent the visual world they embrace.
This is a consistent theme in many contemporary exhibits. Reinventing, repurposing, reimagining, and reliving experiences, taking traditional perspective and turning it upside down, and asking the question: "What if this thing we know and trust and are comfortable with was actually an entirely different thing?" The best exhibits are about realigning perspective and envisioning the world with new eyes, usually with the intent to bring viewers to a new point of view about an issue, their physical world, or even themselves.
Nowhere is this aim more apparent than in the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art's latest exhibit, Reopening the Book. Twenty-three artists are included in the exhibit, which features pieces that reimagine what defines a book, what books mean, and what purpose they truly hold. As a whole, the exhibit invites the question: What truly constitutes a book?
Inside the museum, pages quite literally crawl out of the wall. Some hang from the ceiling, some spread out on table tops, and some are encased in glass, too precious and fragile for human hands. On a first glance, it may not be obvious that all of these works of art, each one vibrantly distinct from one another, are all having a uniform conversation about books and the way people interact with them.
The exhibit aims to show viewers that just about anything can be a book, a conduit for a narrative or non-narrative story. Head curator for the exhibit and participating artist Pamela Zwehl-Burke made it simple to understand.
"Imagine I'm holding up a set of car keys," she explained. "That's a book. The key ring is a binder. The keys are pages in the book."
The exhibit even challenges the idea that pages of a book must be made of paper. Artists used unusual materials such as ribbon, glass, and even algae deposited in the Santa Ynez riverbed to create their book art. Nina Warner's The River's Journey features a pamphlet-like booklet in an accordion fold. The booklet depicts a map of the river made with dried filamentous algae, decorated with ink and blue thread.
Zwehl-Burke's own work on display is another gripping example of how a book can be reimagined as anything. Resting on two separate window sills inside the main gallery is a long row of small, clear needle boxes, each one joined together at the end with magnets. Inside, Zwehl-Burke has meticulously penciled an image representing each letter of the alphabet from A to Z. Surrounding each image are more than a dozen words that start with the corresponding letter.
"I'm trying to learn Spanish right now," she said. "So I'm playing with the idea that images can be many different words."
Jill Littlewood and Bonnie Thompson Norman have a powerful piece in the show that pays tribute to a group of booksellers in Bagdad, Iraq, who were killed when a car bomb exploded on Mutanabbi Street on March 5, 2007. In their work, called Remember, Littlefield and Norman meticulously removed the names of each bookseller who died using a highly controlled matchstick burn technique.
William Davies King's work The Romantic Landscape: Human Anatomy presents another interesting angle to the exhibit as well. Too delicate to be touched and explored by human hands, King's work hangs on a wall, but an iPad display below the work allows viewers to interact with the project, turning each page digitally. This fusion of ancient and modern techniques creates a new relationship between technology and the product it previously threatened to eradicate. The exhibit demonstrates that there is value to both and that both can exist symbiotically.
As a whole, Reopening the Book is one of the most stunning and comprehensive exhibits to debut on the Central Coast in the past year. It's a technical and creative masterpiece, fusing form, functionality, and visionary imaginativeness into one unified theme. The Elverhoj has presented a collection of work that not only pays homage to the spirit of Johannes Gutenberg, but also gives a sly nod and wink to the digital junkies eagerly snapping pictures of the exhibit on their phones. Each piece reminds the viewer of not just the physical beauty of a book, but the simple power its pages (or lack thereof) hold inside.
Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is an open book. Contact her at [email protected].