The Art Of The Book
Interviews by Charmaine Poh
Images courtesy of Yang Tan (La Libreria), Notabilia and Dddots
On book artist Adelene Koh’s blog, she writes, “Making books is an art. Nothing beats holding a book in your hand, feeling its cover, turning its pages and even smelling the paper. When you write or draw into a journal, it is forever and leaves your touch in it. When you have a book that is handmade, you know that you are holding something that is made, with heart and soul, by a bookbinder.”
More than mere containers for words, books have historically been part of traditional art forms, with pages, covers, and spines transforming into artistic experiences. Working with bookbinding, paper cutting, and typography, among other skills, book artists tell a story using more than the words printed on each page. In light of the upcoming Singapore Art Book Fair, we sit down with three book artists in Singapore to talk about their personal history with the book and their connection with this gentle craft.
—Singapore-based Japanese book artist Eriko Hirashima, owner of La Libreria, on starting her own book art space.
How did you get started in book art?
It was a long process that lead to my making books. I had been studying both traditional and contemporary textiles for a long time. The medium for my artwork had been textiles such as printing and dyeing, weaving, embroidery and et cetera. I graduated from a Textile course at Goldsmiths College, but in the end I started to feel that it was too confining as a medium. I looked at my work on a broader level and took on a Fine Arts course at the same college. I started using different mediums.
Eventually, I realised that the book was the appropriate medium to use. I thought that the nature of the book best suited ideas and work. My personal tutor was really supportive. He arranged for me to meet a well known artist book collector in the United Kingdom. His magnificent collections struck me—it was beyond description. It convinced me to make books my art practice. Later I found a new course, an MA in Book Arts at Camberwell College of Arts. So, I went there.
How has the move from London to Singapore influenced your art and perspective?
I lived in London for nine years before moving to Singapore. When I was in London, I occasionally worked with artisans to make my works. There were times when I needed advice from a professional who knew their specialty more than I did. However, it has been difficult to do the same in Singapore. So I started to do everything myself.
For instance, I learnt basic bookbinding skills, but bookbinding was not my main focus. Therefore, I always worked with experienced bookbinders to find solutions. Unfortunately there was no artisan community here. So, I restudied binding. It turned out to be a great opportunity for me. I learnt more about binding and the art of bookmaking through the use of materials.
On top of this, my experience with textiles has come to influence my current bookmaking practice.
—Adelene Koh on rekindling her love for bookmaking after taking a six-year break to work in a different industry.
You’ve made books out of cereal boxes, old dresses, and even wedding gowns. What has been the most interesting and challenging material that you’ve used?
All materials have their little quirks and it is always fun to try something different, especially when the material is typically not associated with bookbinding. Duct tape has been a very interesting material, it comes in all sorts of colours and you can manipulate it in various ways to create a design to your fancy.
The most challenging material I have worked with is satin and when I tried to make the covering for a book, it will catch on almost any stain or crease very easily.
You worked in the advertising and travel industry for a long while before becoming a professional bookmaker. How did the switch come about, and how did it feel at the point in time?
I was very fortunate to be in New York at the right time for the annual New York Art Book Fair. It was then that I realised that Book Arts and bookbinding is very big and exciting in the United States. I started to remember the joy and satisfaction I got from binding notebooks and journals for friends when I was in college.
When I arrived back in Singapore after that trip, I started cutting paper, and looked for scraps of leather and thread, and made a leather journal for my partner. It was then I decided I will start bookbinding as a profession. It was a lot of adrenalin and my mind was bursting with ideas then, and it still is now.
Could you please introduce yourself and how you ended up in Singapore?
I’m a writer, editor, teacher, book artist, and mother. I am the editor of Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race (Seal Press, 2004) in America and Altogether Elsewhere (Math Paper Press). My bylines have appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, POSKOD.sg, and DesignSponge.com among others. I’ve also conducted writing workshops and presentations at a number of colleges and universities, schools, libraries, and other educational institutions all over the United States and Singapore.
I hold a B.S. from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. My partner and I relocated from New York City to Singapore in 2010.
Thats quite an impressive list! Has your move from New York to Singapore influenced your art in any way?
This move out of my comfort zone has allowed me to see myself and the world from a different perspective. It has profoundly expanded the topics that I’m interested in exploring through my art. They are two very different places; I’d imagine that the move has resulted in a lot of introspection.
I’ve been obsessed, as an artist, with race, identity, feminism, urban spaces and lives, memory, and the South Asian diaspora for as long as I remember. This move has allowed me to look at those obsessions through new frames of reference.
Read more in The U Press N˚4 (Singapore edition).