artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.
The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series will showcase artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.
Mishka Henner’s various photographic works display an interest in both the expanse and minutia of the human existence. He has mined satellite imagery of Earth for startling illustrations of scale of the beef industry, and Google Street View for images of street-side women (see Feedlots and No Man’s Land here); with his book Astronomical, he puts the expanse and minutia into perspective for the viewer.
Spread over twelve volumes, Astronomical is a scaled representation of our solar system. Each page width is one million kilometers. Unsurprisingly, most pages are just vast blackness. Volume one begins with the sun, which spreads across two pages, and then there is nothing but black until we reach the tiny speck that is Mercury—then back to black. Each of the nine traditional planets are shown in Henner’s work (you’re welcome, Pluto) at an average of their orbital distance from the sun. There is some artistic license taken in the squarely placed planets, but Henner actually did the math to bring the six billion miles between the Sun and Pluto down to a size that you can hold in your arms.
The viewer is left with a startlingly cold experience of the nothingness that surrounds our planet, which happens to be just what Henner was going for. “…because the universe is cold, isn’t it?” he said in an interview with Kat Austen of New Scientist’s CultureLab blog, “And isolated, lost, lonely.” (full article can be found here). Maybe even more interesting than making our solar system a manageable size is that fact that Henner’s series has enabled the viewer to travel the solar system in a manageable amount of time. Flipping page by page through the distances between planets allows a similar appreciation of distance that one would gain walking to work instead of driving. In this video it takes Henner nine minutes and forty-seven seconds to “travel” six billion miles:
(For bonus points: what is the scale of seconds to light years in this video? Or, how many light years does the width of each page represent? Is that calculation even possible? I’m an artist, not an astrophysicist…)
At its most basic level, Astronomical is a different scale with which to talk about unimaginable distances. Henner’s work also operates on complex emotional level, his somber palette and unsentimental approach reminding this viewer of the incredible improbability of our existence.
Mishka Henner is an artist living and working in Manchester, England. His work is held in various collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Centre Pompidou. Astronomical, 2011 was published as an “on-demand” edition of 130 and is now out of print.
Margret Hall is a book artist and photographer living and working in Asheville, NC. Before moving to Asheville to train in book restoration (and live life in the mountains), she taught book arts at The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, where she also received her BFA in Photography with a minor in Art History and Book Arts.