Tom Sowden | Deputy Head, School of Art and Design, UWE
For my five books I have tried to focus on artists’ books that explore place, either through a journey, correspondence or interrogation. I am fascinated by the visual exploration of a place and during lockdown, I have found myself looking more closely at my surroundings and discovering many new things that I am trying to document. Through my daily exercise walks/bike rides I have been exploring new areas on my doorstep that in my usually busy schedule I have ignored or was completely unaware of. Through my new lockdown acts, I have kept in mind these books in particular, but many other artists’ books that explore place.
Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963
I first came across this book as a student at Camberwell College of Arts in 2002 and became so taken with it (and Ruscha’s other books produced in the 60s and 70s), that it started a body of work that I am still producing 18 years later. Ruscha produced Twentysix Gasoline Stations in 1963 and with it changed the nature of artists publishing. The book documents the journey from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City (where Ruscha grew up) on what was then Route 66. Although not quite in correct geographical sequence, it contains photographs of the gasoline stations each titled with pithy text describing the name and location. It didn’t immediately have an impact on me, at first I was a little underwhelmed as they had been talked up to be such important books. But they gnawed at my consciousness and the apparent simplicity and understated humour took a hold and I couldn’t help but be inspired by his books and see them as a score to be replayed.
Twentysix Gasoline Stations is available to view as part of Arnolfini’s artist’s book collection held at Bristol Archives. Much has also been written about this book and can be found online, along with images, such as this from Tate:
Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations, 2008
The impact of Ruscha’s books means that many other artists have made their own artists’ books in tribute to him. These homages are many and varied and are still growing in number. It could be using his look, systems, processes, subject matter, concept, as well as a multitude of other ways. I collect these homages and have many that are personal favourites, one of which is Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations by Eric Tabuchi. As an update to Ruscha’s original we are now presented with apocalyptic images of the abandoned shells of closed and empty stations. However, this time not as a standard codex book, but on a series of postcards collected in a slipcase. These are no longer relevant buildings for route planning, so the individual postcards and the changing order of these as they are interacted with, makes sense. There is no formal journey that needs to happen between them, so they can be arrived at in any order or happened across by accident.
Museum Piece, 1975
I am very keen to include one of Don Celender’s books. I was first introduced to Celender’s work by looking through the Arnolfini archive with the then archivist Julian Warren. I was immediately drawn to his work because of the humour, some of his books are laugh out loud funny. Often taking the form of a survey, Celender would write to groups of specific people, inviting them for a response on a theme, which would often be collated together in book form. In Museum Piece, Celender wrote to museums asking for photos of their loading bays. They responded in writing and with photos that in some cases had been commissioned as this was not a part of the museum they had photographed before. The letter and photographs are presented alongside the usual postcard images of the museums’ facades. As it says on Printed Matter’s website ‘armpit architecture from the art world’s back-door man’.
Museum Piece is available to view as part of Arnolfini’s artist’s book collection held at Bristol Archives. More information on Don Celender’s books can also be found on the Public Collectors website:
Celender’s work was also exhibited at Arnolfini in an exhibition curated by Sacha Waldron in 2013: https://arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/don-celender-surveyed/
Printed Matter: https://www.printedmatter.org/catalog/223/
Malbik Endar, 2002
This letterpress printed flip book, contains words taken from Imi Maufe’s journal written on a 121-day bicycle journey to Iceland and back, via Orkney, Shetland, Faroes, Norway and Denmark. As Imi Maufe has previously said, ‘it is designed to represent a journey to someone who did not experience it first-hand in a minimal and evocative way’, and that is exactly how I experience it. I have not been to most of the places these words relate to, but the short phrases invoke observations and feelings that many of us will have experienced on similar journeys. I am transported to my own journeys, mixed with imagined landscapes in which Maufe was travelling. Although produced as a flip book, this is a book I want to take my time looking through and imagine. At this point in which we cannot embark on long journeys, and the tarmac really has ended (Malbik Endar is Icelandic for tarmac ends), I find imagined journeys invoked by Maufe’s book still allow us to wander.
Malbik Endar is available to view as part of UWE’s Special Collection of artists’ books held at the Bower Ashton campus library (entry and access available to all) and also on Imi Maufe’s website: http://www.imimaufe.com/other/bookarts/
Insects and Grasses, 2008
I have been a fan of Helen Douglas’s books for quite a number of years but have found myself returning to this one in particular recently. Much of Douglas’s work revolves around an exploration of her environment, particularly an almost forensic investigation of the flora and fauna that surround her living environment in the Scottish borders. In recent years I have found that I don’t often look as closely as I would want to at the places that I inhabit, but this has changed in recent weeks as I have been forced to slow down and look again. Daily exercise walks in new locations, are opening my eyes to the overlooked right on my doorstep. I greatly admire Douglas’s ability to truly observe and am taking inspiration from this beautiful little book. Isolated from the meadows in which they exist, the insects and grasses on which they reside exist in space on the stark white pages in this delicate book. Forcing us to quietly look again and again, in more detail.