Connections between books and films are familiar, but seldom explored or commented upon. Popular novels like “Harry Potter” get turned into movies; big-deal films like “Star Wars” are re-imagined in print.
But there’s more to the crossover as seen in “Directed: The Intersection of Book, Film and Visual Narrative,” a show of more than 70 books and literary fragments (illustrations, photos, artful memorabilia) at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). On view through Aug. 4, “Directed” adapts the language of film to the printed page, demonstrating how book artists use cinematic techniques — closeups, flashbacks, foreshadowing — to animate their narratives.
“If I talk about [artist’s books] in film terms, people understand because they’re more familiar with that” language, said Jeff Rathermel, executive director of MCBA and the show’s curator. “If you talk about flashbacks, fades, split screens, people know how that’s altering their perceptions, but people don’t think about that when they’re reading a book.”
Attractively installed in MCBA’s spacious galleries, the books are a cross section of famous names in art (Yoko Ono, Max Ernst, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol) and people known primarily for their book innovations.
Ruscha’s legendary 1966 “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is suitably enshrined with publications and videos it inspired. The original is a 25-feet-long accordion-fold booklet that records, in deadpan black-and-white images, all the tacky buildings on both sides of Los Angeles’ famous boulevard. The artist took simple snaps of every structure, fire hydrant and palm tree for 2.5 miles, but his montage can be read in cinematic terms as a “pan” down the boulevard.
As cultural criticism, Ruscha’s wordless assessment endures as an ironic look at a mid-century icon associated with sex and glamour despite its banal reality. In a recent video homage, Tanner Teale used Google Maps’ “Street View” technology to pan down the current Strip, and Paul Soulellis followed suit with Google images of the sky along both sides of the street.
“Directed” is a quirky compendium of droll, often self-referential essays of this sort. Some items seem to have been included chiefly as a nod to an artist’s fame. Visitors can, for example, page through copies of Ono’s “Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings,” watch a video of the artist reading the text, peruse photos of people performing the actions she suggests, or act out her instructions in spontaneous performances. An irreverent video interview with Los Angeles conceptualist John Baldessari and examples of his funny collages (he’s famous for sticking dots over faces) are hilarious in a non-narrative way.
Pages from a handful of graphic novels by Charles Burns, J.T. Waldman, Lyn Ward and others more effectively demonstrate the genre’s debt to cinema with its abrupt shifts from closeups to long shots, strange angles and ever-changing points of view. Ward’s handsome black-and-white designs also show a respectful debt to Rockwell Kent, one of the 20th century’s premier book illustrators.
A case that displays flip books notes their importance as precursors to motion pictures. Artist Scott Blake cleverly updates the genre using miniature bar codes as pixels to create “moving” portraits of cultural icons (Marilyn Monroe, Mao Zedong, Oprah Winfrey). Dangling from bungee cords, Blake’s books nicely allow visitors to play, while rarer examples — by Gilbert and George, William Kentridge, Nauman and others — are frustratingly off-limits in a display case.
Cases are the bane of book arts, essential to protect the art but irksome barriers to real appreciation. An attractive 2008 book by Karen Hanmer called “Random Passions,” for instance, is said to employ dissolves and fades to advance its narrative. Perched upright on a low shelf in a sealed case, the book is angled open to reveal tantalizing bits of drawings of elbows, limbs, gestures, a couple embracing. But without being able to turn the pages, who knows whether or how Hanmer’s book employs cinematic concepts?
Curator Rathermel agreed that “it is incredibly frustrating when you have to put the books behind glass.”
That problem aside, “Directed” offers a chance to encounter, albeit at a distance, some rare classics, including 16 pages from Ernst’s 1934 surrealist novella “Une Semaine de Bonte” and Warhol’s 1967 “Index,” which includes a 45 rpm recording, a folded geodesic dome, a pop-up can of Hunt’s tomato paste, and a sheet of water-soluble stamps that may or may not contain LSD.