[Nine nails protrude through and hold up a book called Nailed by AM Hunter. A circular white mass is bound by layers of black-and-white string and topped with a red wax seal. Hands open a folding book with a picture of an owl on the cover and black-and-white sketches of furniture inside. The books sit in front of Des Cowley, a grey-haired man wearing a dark coat and blue scarf around his neck.]
Des Cowley: When it comes to artist books today, artists are pushing the boundaries of what we might think of as a book.
[Des holds up Nailed, which has nine nails protruding from the front cover through to the back cover.]
Des: They can take the form of Anne-Maree Hunter’s book Nailed, a book which can’t possibly be read or opened.
[Des holds up a book shaped like a cigarette packet.]
Des: Or this lovely work, His master said..., which comes in the form of a cigarette packet.
[Des opens up one of the folded-up pieces of paper found inside the cigarette packet and reveals writing on the paper.]
Des: And, inside, 10 chapters.
[Des holds up the book shaped like a circular white mass bound by layers of black-and-white string topped with a red wax seal.]
Des: Or Nicholas Jones’s book, Medallion, which began life as a conventional book. Or like Gracia Haby’s wonderful concertina book...
[Des opens the folding book with a picture of an owl on the cover and black-and-white sketches of furniture inside.]
Des: ...that unfolds and tells its stories in a series of images.
[Wearing white gloves, he opens up a book]
Des: It’s worth keeping in mind that artists have always been involved in the production of books since the earliest times.
[Des opens a small leather-bound volume containing colourful pictures and text.]
Des: And if we look at something like this medieval manuscript from the 1400s, we can see, with their beautiful painted pages, the wonderful hand-done scripts, that artists have had such a role in the look and production of books throughout history.
[Des holds a red-covered book with text-filled pages.]
Des: But by the 19th century, frankly, books had sort of become dull. The text and typography, the layout, I mean, there wasn’t a lot of attention to that sort of detail.
[Des opens a larger leather-bound volume featuring ornately illustrated letters and title pages.]
Des: It was people like William Morris, who came out of the Arts and Crafts movement in England in the second half of the 19th century. These fine bindings, beautiful paper, the beautiful typefaces he created really brought back to our attention what is absolutely beautiful about books, which is that three-dimensionality and their tactile and sensory qualities.
[Des holds a large volume with an asymmetric geometrical design on the cover.]
Des: We tend to talk about artist books as very much a 20th-century phenomenon. And this is a lovely example of a work by Picasso. And that was very much typical of the kind of deluxe books that were being made in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Surrealism, constructivism, dada all produced lots and lots of little books.
[Des holds a slim volume with a red, black and white cover featuring a large letter ‘K’ with letters diagonally next to it spelling the word kunst, and the years 1924 and 1914.]
Des: And this is a terrific example here by the Russian constructivist El Lissitzky. And we can see the kind of beautiful elements of design involved. In the 1950s, there tended to be a new generation of artists,
[Des holds up a book with the title Crackers in large red letters no the white cover.]
Des: American artists. Ed Ruscha, for instance.
[Des picks up a thick brown book with the title hand-written in black on the white cover.]
Des: Or the Swiss–German artist Dieter Roth. This wonderful work, 1234 most speedy drawings. This is a new style of artist books, and they were using things like cheap offset printing and photocopier, selling them for a few dollars, and getting that conceptual art practice out there amongst the public.
[Holding an open book, Des stands in a stately room (Queen’s Hall), in front of a row of pillars and chandeliers. He smiles at the camera. Then, sitting at the table of the books he’s been showing, Des picks up a small tin with a red ribbon around it.]
Des: When it comes to contemporary artist books today, artists are refocusing our interest in the book as a physical object. And I like to think they’re both responding to a 1000-year-old history of the book and also taking the book into its future.
[Text onscreen: State Library of Victoria. Produced by Renegade Films. Music by Kevin Macleod. Copyright State Library of Victoria 2011.]