LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How did your interest in artists’ publications begin?
ROWENA HUGHES: I have always loved books as objects since I was a child obsessed with reading. I grew up in a house of other people’s old books and my earliest meaningful encounters with art were at my local library where they had an incredible collection of old art books donated from a university nearby – a lot of artworks that I love, I first encountered in worn and faded books rather than in museums.
An interest in the intimacy of this way of looking rather than the public looking at an exhibition stayed with me. I love the possibilities contained within an artist’s book – of being able to physically move through the artwork in a sequence and duration of the viewer’s choosing, the portability and privacy of looking, the potential for it to be lost in a library, and then to be revisited with new eyes many years later.
I have made many works with books rolled and held as sculptural objects by layering drawings or screenprints on top of images from the pages of old books. I was invited for a residency in a library of rare books in Athens in 2014 and made a body of work thinking about two key references: Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade (in which he gifted his sister a geometry textbook with the instruction to hang it from her balcony so it would be gradually destroyed by the rain and the wind) and an unusual book from 1847 that was held in the library’s collection, The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid by Oliver Byrne. A work prized by book collectors as the geometric diagrams seem to foreshadow geometric abstraction by seventy years.
LŠ: In the ongoing series of book works, you redefine already existing scientific printed matter. Could you tell us more about your approach to working with pre-existing material? How do you see its role in your work?
RH: The book works originated in a way of dealing with language around art – the name of my undergraduate course at Goldsmiths in the late 90s was Fine Art and Contemporary Critical Theory. The theory to me at that time felt like a heavy weight pinning down and crushing the art – often it felt so far removed from the joy and spontaneity of the studio. Students felt the need for this tenuous justification of their work with text. For me, art is not a linguistic exercise – it’s a visual language, but it’s not naming or describing. As an antidote, I became interested in the Oulipo group of writers – their playful, sometimes absurd, and game-like approach to writing. I began to use an Oulipo-influenced method of writing through found texts in old scientific books as a way to play with the requirement for text around visual artwork. And I started using these found texts as titles for my other works and as a sort of illogical framework.
I collect a particular series of scientific textbooks printed in the 50s or 60s by a specific publisher, cut out each page and then select a phrase from the text on the page beneath to print over the top – it is important that these are scientific texts written only to convey information clearly. It would not be an interesting game to do this with a work of literature or the imagination. The work is an attempt to discover phrases that conjure poetic visual images or evoke emotional or sensual experience within even the driest scientific texts.
The books are chosen for their physical and tactile qualities, their format, colour, cover, and evocative traces of previous ownership. It is about thinking of books as objects rather than containers of information, with the potential to be malleable. Removed from circulation the books’ materiality can override the previous functionality – they are re-interpretations or translations rather than destructions.
Until now these books have by necessity been one-offs artworks but I recently received funding to reproduce one of these book works as an edition. The book was chosen for its title – Elasticity, Fracture & Flow, referring to properties of matter (related to my sculptural works), qualities of language as well as states of mind. I am interested in the concept of ‘flow’ in psychology – being entirely immersed in an activity, so engaged that there is a loss of awareness of ego and the passing of time, as well as the plasticity of the mind and its potential to fragment and reconfigure. How the meaning of language can stretch and be ambiguous how the meaning of a text changes when broken up and enlarged and how its spatial and visual qualities are emphasized.
The images for Elasticity, Fracture & Flow are based upon a twisted elastic loop recurring in many permutations and layered with elements of drawing. Images for these books are made by using combinations of drawing and inkjet printing – playing around with the possibilities of old printers and moving backward and forwards between the digital and analogue. I like using an interplay of intention and chance, and creative freedom within constraints – I’m fascinated by the unexpected images that arise from overlaying my images onto the printed diagrams or illustrations.
The reproduction of the original artwork presented its technical challenges – for example, the paper of the original book was thin so images that I printed bled through to the reverse page – so when the original work was scanned it had to be printed on thick paper to reproduce the bled through images without the risk of creating another.
The next book in the series is based upon a geology book from 1953 full of beautiful diagrams of folding layers of rock and will consist of 28 hand-printed and drawn copies – the printing of which provides a new and interesting challenge!
Rowena Hughes (born 1979) is London and Athens-based visual artist. She holds degrees in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, University of London and The Slade School of Fine Art (UCL). Selected exhibitions include Sunlight Still Loops, The Eyes Sees, Arles (2020); B, Belmacz Gallery (2019); In Quotes, East Gallery NUA, Norwich and Gerald Moore Gallery, London (2017-18); Freshly Broken Surfaces, Galerie Pcp, Paris (2016); Text:Image, FotoGalerie Wien, Vienna (2015); Liquid Library, University Museum, Athens (2015); From the Slopes of the Curves, Galerie Renner Prinz, Vienna (2012); Soft Parallels, Roaming Room, London (2011); and Diamonds & Diagrams, Guestroom, London (2008).