“I remove such stuff as could make visible the remainder as armature of a different value.”Buzz Spector
Not objects as an end, but objects as jumping off points. It is the spark that is interesting, and the process, not necessarily the conclusion. Because the objects don’t really end, they just stop and offer up a waiting area for what’s next. Like a train platform, or a cliff ready for a hang-glider.
A man in the otherwise empty, serenely quiet gallery interrupted my looking, my thinking. He asked me, “Do you think the art is about the content of the books? Do you think the artist is interested in what the books are about?” Maybe this man has my usual approach in museums and doesn’t read labels. I told him to read the labels.
(OK, that’s not all I said to him. I was balancing the frustration of being interrupted by a man as I looked and thought. Did I appear to be doing nothing? As a woman, did I seem to be waiting for a man? Someone to ask me to help him out of his confusion? But then I realized this is something I’m actually good at, something I happen to enjoy: talking with people about art in galleries. And although my thoughts were nowhere near shaped yet, I stepped out of my head and entered into a conversation).
At that stage of still standing on the shore, of not having really waded into the work yet, I gave this man some guideposts. I said yes, I think the artist knows what is in the books. And not only that, but I think he loves books. A lot of his work deals with books or their composite parts: paper, binding, words, communication. And I did suggest the man read the labels, because they are really helpful in providing, you know, context.
Books and their context: paper, words, photos of books, frozen books, books as building blocks, books deconstructed or altered (and pencils, but that’s a different post). And what books? Well, you can’t know just by looking, for most of them anyway. They are pictured with titled spines turned away, their pages are missing, or they are actually invisible, buried and unknowable within multiple stacks.
This is where the labels help in showing the bigger picture, explaining how the books and paper are not alone, they do not exist here as isolated objects. They are each physical (or pictured) items within extensive, interconnecting webs, which the labels themselves are part of.
The labels explain that an individual book, pictured or altered, can be part of a collection or refer to another artist’s work. Torn paper is just one element in an on-going conversation, across time and distance, and even academic discipline. The title might be funny or sly to those in the know. But for all of us who are not academics, or not-so-well-read-in-the-classics? A book whose pages have been carefully torn and reduced to beautifully feathery but illegible shapes becomes a decision point: is the vagueness of meaning acceptable enough (am I contented), or am I intrigued enough to put in some effort and find out who the fuck Actaeon is? The missing parts expose the curiosity of the viewer, who becomes part of the context. No longer just looking, they’re involved now, with thinking, with seeing; they are connected and the web is extended even further.
The content of the books is very important to Spector, but it’s not the primary focus of his work. He doesn’t, for example, make images that refer directly to the stories or arguments presented in the books. Instead, he removes the text, rendering the book unreadable. In tearing away the content, the structure of the book is revealed, exposing its utter strangeness. The loss of the text is shocking, but it is a void that brings the function of the book into the spotlight. If it can’t be read, what is this paper thing that usually communicates ideas across time and space?
Words connect people, and books for Spector are (maybe) just one form of something that holds words. Without their words, books are no longer disguised by a purported use and can be seen more generally for what they are: containers. It is not the words themselves that are important, but rather the ideas and connections that are carried and supported by those texts. Once consumed, the words become thoughts that can be shared and changed and expanded. And once pages are torn away, books are freed to become something else: beyond narrative or explicative repositories they are now unknown objects, mysteries for strangers to ponder, together or alone, in a quiet gallery.
The altered books challenge us to connect and question, to learn, or decide not to. Together we not only replace what is missing, but we expand upon the loss by exploring the books beyond their physical forms. From the muted, missing books we leap, get lost, maybe find help, and (stacking things, tearing things up), we connect and create.
“Buzz Spector: Reading Matter,” is on view at the Rockford Art Museum from February 4–May 29, 2022.