Marcel Duchamp's famous sculpture "Fountain," simply a urinal rotated 90 degrees, is installed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But get a plumber to install the same urinal in a bathroom, and all you have is a toilet.
The difference is intention, according to artists engaged in a lively discussion on the book arts.
Intent is what separates an artist's book, as the works of art are called, from a traditional book, says Genie Shenk, artist and instructor at San Diego Mesa College and the Athenaeum School of the Arts in La Jolla.
"In the book arts," says Shenk, "everything about the book contributes to the content, the meaning or the reader's experience," including materials, text, illustrations and, most notably, structure. The book itself is the artistic expression, not what's "in" the book, or the narrative it conveys.
But artists seem to shy away from attempts to define what precisely constitutes an artist's book. "I don't dare do that," says Shenk. To do so would be limiting to artists, who are reinterpreting traditional concepts of page, content and readability.
At a current book arts exhibition at the Mission Valley Library, a piece by Ava Fullerton titled "Altered Hoyle" features a modified paperback book about how to play various card games. Opened wide, the book displays a chain of bent cards that run through a "tunnel" cut into the book's center. Pages have been delicately sewn together to fan out no more than a centimeter apart, creating an artistic card game of viewing strategy. The piece is a playful sculpture manipulating structure and content.
The exhibition is part of an art exchange showcasing work from local and Santa Fe book artists, and will be on display through April 1. The many works demonstrate traditional and novel bookbinding techniques, experimentation, intelligence, humor, the personal and the political. But you might not recognize some of them as books at all.
Like a traditional book, an artist's book requires interactivity. The act of turning pages and reading draws the viewer into the object. With an artist's book, though, "pages" consist of virtually any two- or even three-dimensional items bound together. Assemblage pieces -- a sort of three-dimensional collage -- might have readers turn pages by opening concealed compartments or unrolling scrolls.
"Lost and Found in the Garden of Wild Birds and Grasses," by local artist Joyce Cuttler Shaw, also on display at the library, is a square of intricately folded paper with illustrations of birds and tangles of branches. In order to read this book, an observer must open individual folds, revealing a shifting landscape with each turning of the page.
Structure determines how the book is read, and how the observer interacts with it. A book in the shape of a star with panels facing outward forces the observer to walk around the artwork to read it. Pop-up books reveal hidden aspects. Pages might be clothespinned to a wire, necessitating a strolling read. Transparent papers can change images and context as the pages are turned. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Renee Richetts, a local book artist and instructor at the Arts College International downtown, explores these possibilities in her work. "I'm very interested in formatting," she says. "I'm interested in what are the rules and how to break them."
She agrees with Shenk's assertion that the definition of a book is open to interpretation. "It's really fluid. If the book artist says, 'I'm a book artist and this is a book,' everybody else says OK."
As the discussion continues, that may change, she says. The artist's book may become more defined through the jury process, for example. But for now, artists are content to push the boundaries of the traditional book. Artists are even incorporating various disciplines such as sculpture, ceramics, glasswork and painting.
"You have people bringing to the book arts format very diverse backgrounds in fine arts," says Richetts. "So that makes it very exciting, and also very dynamic."
She says a "phenomenal resource pool" and supportive community contribute to a burgeoning book arts scene in San Diego. The city's educational infrastructure includes classes at San Diego State University, Mesa College, Arts College International, the Athenaeum and University of California, San Diego Extension.
For a closer look at the book arts, check out the current exhibition at The Next Door Gallery, featuring the work of local book artists. The show runs through April 24, and the gallery is at 2963 Beech St. in San Diego. For more information, call (619) 233-6679.
And for something delectably unique, try the fifth annual Edible Book Tea. Members of San Diego Book Arts will exhibit their edible works of book arts in the Seuss Room at UCSD's Geisel Library on Sunday, April 4 at 2 p.m. Tea, coffee and books will be served at 3 p.m., and artist-donated books will be raffled. Distinguished painter, printmaker and book artist Ian Tyson, whose work will be on view at the library, will lecture following the event. For reservations, call Melanie Treco at (858) 534-2533.