The Bay Area is the leading producer of one-of-a-kind artist books in the world, and no better place to experience this local specialty than the San Francisco Center for the Book. On view right now is an exhibit dedicated to the ongoing struggle against censorship in literature. Each artist was invited to create work dedicated to the long list of books which have been censored at one time or another. Most of these censored books you would recognize as the classics, those pieces of literature which speak perhaps too close to the truth or take a magnifying glass to the aspects of society which many people would rather not see; those are the books most prone to censorship, usually under the auspices of "protecting" the innocent minds of American schoolchildren. The length of the list of censored books is astounding, especially when you see how recently, and how arbitrarily these books may have been taken off the list of "appropriate reading" by school districts or other local jurisdictions across the USA, as recently as in last few years. The list includes not only the Marquis de Sade and William S. Burroughs, but Mark Twain, Anne Frank and even J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels.
Some of the artists chose to work with the general theme of censorship, but most chose one or a few particular banned books to interpret. As is expected for a show at the SF Center for the Book many of the works are artist books themselves, and unfortunately are under glass and unavailable for closer inspection. Some of the most notable works in the show include Brave New World as interpreted by Brian Dettmer: an incredible sculpture carved from multiple different editions of the book, stacked on top of each other with portions of text cut out to reveal the pages underneath, presenting a fragmented version of the story in layered, deconstructed phrases.
Nigel Poor, for his piece, Washed Books, assembled nine banned books with women's names in the titles (Alice in Wonderland, Madame Bovary, Lolita, etc..), then subjected them to "women's work" by machine washing and drying them. The remainder of the books, then collected from the dryer lint, and appliqued to panels, form the piece. While creating this piece he found that the more relatively accepted the book, the more resistant the pages were to deconstruction, but the fragile paperbacks were more prone to washing away.
Adjacent to Poor's piece is a heart-rending photograph of a Holy Bible by Terri Garland, found after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The remainder of a focal point of congregation and of community, tossed and torn by the forces of nature, becomes a stark visual representation of a lost community, and perhaps lost hope.
This exhibit is successful in highlighting the ever-present threat of censorship--veiled in language that assumes a protective stance, but which ultimately waters down our collective intellectual and creative domain. You'll leave the exhibit with a newfound respect for our literary arts and our freedoms (should we choose to stand up for them) and a refreshed reading list. The show at the SF Center for the Book comprises only a portion of the 60 artists invited to participate in the show, and the rest will be on view starting September 5 at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Hadi Tabatabai, Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship, August 15 - November 26, 2008; San Francisco Center for the Book, To See, 2008, hydrocal plaster, (2) 13 x 11.5", courtesy of the Artist. Enrique Chagoya, Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship, August 15 - November 26, 2008; San Francisco Center for the Book, Double Portrait of William Burroughs, courtesy of the Artist and the San Francisco Center for the Book. Nigel Poor, Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship, August 15 - November 26, 2008; San Francisco Center for the Book, Washed Books, courtesy of the Artist and the San Francisco Center for the Book. Brian Dettmer, Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship, August 15 - November 26, 2008; San Francisco Center for the Book, Brave New World, courtesy of the Artist and the San Francisco Center for the Book.)