Books as art; a valid medium with the same facility for portraying meaning as a painting or sculpture, or a separate art form altogether? There is no denying that there are books which are in themselves works of art, but these tend to be illustrated manuscripts and ancient texts. This is in no way intended to debase literature, which is an art in its own right, but when we pick up a novel the pleasure we expect to derive from it is focused on the quality of the story, the author’s way with words and perhaps also a sense of suspense or humour. We don’t want to be able to put it down. We do not however, expect the book itself – other than perhaps a nice front cover – to be aesthetically pleasing. Artists who put forward book works, therefore, could be said to be blurring the line between high art and literature, and can we really experience art through a book?
Perhaps my gripe is derived from an inherent laziness; when I go and see an art exhibition I would like to be aesthetically enthralled. I love a bit of curatorial explanation as much as I love works of art with coherent titles, and I want to come away from the show with a sense of what the artist was trying to tell me. I find that the exhibitions where viewers have to read endless pages of text in order to grasp the point of a work are those where eyes tend to glaze over. For this reason I didn’t find Rachel Khedoori’s show at Hauser & Wirth entirely satisfactory. Khedoori has filled the gallery’s main exhibition space with rows of high tables covered by enormous tomes into which the artist has printed every piece of journalism the internet produced from her searches for “Iraq”, “Iraqi” and “Baghdad” since March 2003, when the war in Iraq broke out. Iraq Book Project is a meticulous study of the endless reports written on the conflict, and indeed continues to be added to by gallery staff as the reports flood in. I like the concept of an art work constantly evolving and indeed Khedoori’s idea is both clever and innovative, but the reality of the room doesn’t quite work. The viewer is faced with row upon row of books, and whilst the reading room aesthetic is pleasing, the only real impression that remains is that an awful lot was written about the war in Iraq. There is such a breadth of information that it is impossible to process it all, or even to read sufficient quantities to really take in the level of day by day coverage produced. Whilst an overview of the types of reports published and the different approaches to the subject would make an interesting book, in the context of an art gallery a photograph of the anguish and destruction caused by the war would have had a more immediate and long-lasted effect, and would have told me more about the conflict, than all Khedoori’s hours of hard work.
In the gallery’s upstairs space the artist has arranged a screen and mirror in such a way that her panoramic film of Australian forest is reflected back in the mirror and two versions of the same image appear to be moving away from each-other. Khedoori associates landscape with the harnessing of memory, and the density of the trees and slow movement of the camera certainly have an emotive, slightly suspenseful quality. The set-up itself is also engagingly novel (although I did stand for some time behind the screen wondering what was supposed to be happening and preparing an outraged review in my head against artists hanging blank screens in dark rooms for no reason). Did it tell me anything? Not really, but the aesthetics of the reflected moving images are engaging and they certainly draw you in. This is less intellectually stimulating than the Iraq Book Project, but as a piece of art it works. Unfortunately this is where conceptual art often falls down; the ground work can be brilliant, but when completed it lacks sufficient punch to convey its message, however well thought out.
-- Alex Field
Images Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Images, Rachel Khedoori, Untitled (Iraq Book Project), 2008-2010, Books, wooden tables, rolling stools, computer, Installation view, Hauser & Wirth London, 2010, © Rachel Khedoori, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Peter Mallet