I’ve had several people ask me for a transcript of my talk from CBAA so for the final installment of my conference notes, I offer a (somewhat amended) transcription of my talk Figuring Absence, Using Theme-based comparison to Look at Artists’ Books. It is long enough that I am going to divide it into several posts—one for each of four books I examined.

Figuring Absence, Part One

I want to talk with you today about the theme of absence as played out in several different artists’ books. We will be looking at works by Sophie Calle, Ken Campbell, J. Meejin Yoon, and a work of my own that was done in collaboration with Brad Freeman. Absence takes many forms—physical absence, emotional absence, political absence, historical absence—and each of the works looks at a different type of absence and they each express it in radically different way. In comparing these works I hope we can discover something about how artists’ books work by examining how a variety of artists, working in different book mediums, have approached a somewhat perplexing challenge—that of figuring absence. How, after all, does one visually represent absence—The non-being-thereness of something? It is a visual paradox, but each of these books draws strength from their visual components and utilize the form of the artists’ book to speak with more than just words.

Absence by J. Meejin Yoon

Let us begin with a book that takes as its name our very theme, Absence by the architect J. Meejin Yoon. This book is extremely simple. There is no text. Its pages are made of the thick white cardboard of an architect’s model and when closed it forms a rather solid cube. The front cover is die cut with the word absence, and as you open it up, all you see is the small black dot of a small hole missing from the first page. That continues, page after page, for awhile and then the hole transforms into two squares, which again continue on and on until the last page which is a die cut angled grid of streets familiar to any who followed the news at the time. Upon turning to that last page you suddenly realize that what you’ve been seeing (or not seeing to be more accurate) are the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the 110 pages you’ve just gone through represented each of the 110 floors of the now absent buildings.

Opening spread of Absence

Opening spread of Absence

Middle spread of Absence

Middle spread of Absence

The obvious thing to point out about this book is that it is about negative space. The architect’s traditional model has been inverted, and the usual negative space of air around an architectural model has been turned into the model itself so that now the negative space of this model represents the absent buildings.

Last page of Absence

Last page of Absence

But what makes this book interesting is more than just the simple use of negative space to represent loss. The book form brings something more to the equation. This is not, after all, just an architectural model of inverted space. When you stop to think of about it, you realize that you cannot actually see the negative space of the twin towers that the book has created. The absence of the buildings is locked up inside the white cube. From the end of the book, I can try to look up into the void, but I can only see so far, certainly not up to the antenna that those initial pages of small holes represented, and anyway, this is not the perspective from which we ever looked at the towers. Were this a solid model I would not be able to see its subject at all, but because it uses a book format, I know what is going on. I can see each slice of the negative space as I page through the book. So negative space, yes, but the real effect comes from the use of the book structure to both give us the understanding of the book’s subject, while at the same time preventing us from visually experiencing that content. Now that is a truth of absence—the thing is present in my mind, but I can never see it.

There are other things that are going on in this book as well, for instance the lack of any text to introduce the subject.  You don’t know anything about what the book is about until you reach the end. The impact of that is that the book is, in fact, quite boring when you first encounter it. Page after page of small diecut spaces. After awhile you think, “I get it—absence—missing squares. Clever. Are we done yet?” You get impatient. You flip through the pages quickly. You pay them no special regard. They all seem the same. And then when you’re done, and you finally realize what the book is about, and that each of those pages represented a floor, a unique floor with unique people,  you feel like you’ve violated something. You feel guilty for your disregard, your impatience. Like the guilt that is felt as tragedies slip into the past and survivors begin to go on with their lives and no longer feel the presence of the absence quite so strongly. Absence is not always painful, as painful as that may be to admit. The experience of this book reminds us of that.

Which leads to another interesting aspect of the lack of text. Not everyone will get the book, even at the end. That grid. Those shapes. They aren’t recognizable or meaningful to everyone. And if they aren’t meaningful to you, all the textual descriptions in the world won’t change that, or help you experience the book as it was meant to be experienced. 100 years form now, no one will experience this book in the way that some do now, because it is not the mere absence of the towers that is the point, but rather the feeling that they should be there. That they belong there. A feeling that comes from having known them when they were there.

To give a simple example, you could look to your left, and look to your right and say that I am absent from your side—except that you would never say that. Because I don’t belong there in the first place. Absence is not the random non-presence of something, but rather the non-presence of something that once was there, or should be there, or is desired to be there. There is intentionality in the idea of absence. The absent one or absent thing belongs. This leads to our next book, Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain which will be taken up in the next post.

I’d like to thank Laurie Whitehill Chong at the RISD library for access to their copy of Absence.