Artist book display at Tai Kwun/CPS display during Art Basel Hong Kong 2017.
The crowds may have been at Art Basel Hong Kong, but running concurrently the modest Photo Book Fair in the basement of the Hong Kong Arts Centre gave a satisfying intimacy. There were opportunities to discuss the books on sale, often with the photographers who produced them. I bought some excellent titles; including the beautifully printed Message From the Exterior by American photographer Mark Ruwedel, depicting abandoned houses in the Californian desert.
Photobooks have a long history – some of the most recent and most celebrated were published by photographers in Japan, in cheap editions, often on newsprint, who were reacting to their country’s great changes, angst, anger, radicalism, expansion and the ‘miracle’ of Japan’s post-war recovery. Artist books have had an even longer history. Mediaeval illustrated manuscripts or Chinese Imperial reports or the elaborate pre-Columbian or Spanish colonial-era codices depicting Aztec and Mayan culture, and more recent books by European surrealists: all could be seen, in the widest sense, as artist books.
Art book fairs are becoming increasingly popular around the world. The largest in this part of the world, the Melbourne Art Book Fair in Australia, is organized by and held at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). The NGV’s Senior Publications Coordinator and fair organiser Megan Patty recently explained* that the original motivation to run the fair is because “Melbourne is a literary city filled with book lovers, publishers, designers and authors. It seemed vital to me that the NGV should curate and host a high-calibre event to bring all of these groups together, in one space, to create new publishing discourses with global resonance.”
At Tai Kwun/Central Police Station’s booth at this year’s Art Basel there was a small display of artist books for visitors to peruse. Once the galleries at Tai Kwun open in late 2017 there will be a collection of artist books on permanent display for visitors to read and look at. This is a good initiative. But, what is a contemporary artist book? Megan Patty further explains: ”An art book expands upon existing artistic practice: it can be scholarly, illustrative, critical, reflective, immersive or completely abstracted or absurd.”
Artist books extend and expand an artist’s practice. Books are currently an underdeveloped area of interest for collectors in this part of the world, but, not withstanding such archival issues as humidity, collecting artist books is perfect in Hong Kong, where space is scarce. Artists’ books can simply fit, with appropriate storage measures, on a bookshelf. They are a perfect niche collecting area for Hong Kong collectors!
*See: NGV Magazine, March/April 2017
This article was originally published in Perspective architectural magazine, May 2017.