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Deception in Fixing

Opinion Written by Héloïse Parke

When I first set about putting down some opening remarks about Readable Objects, the exhibition that we opened recently at The Aram Gallery, I found myself consistently getting tongue-tied.  Whilst words like ‘fix’ and ‘repair’ have taken on a new lease of life of late in a design context, they just didn’t seem the right fit for the work of Tomorrow’s Past. 

Tomorrow’s Past, nine of whose members exhibit in Readable Objects, are an international collective of bookbinders who deal with the conservation of damaged books. As a group of like-minded individuals they have a manifesto which states that the books they select for rebinding must have been printed before 1900 and must come to them in a state of distress: casing lost, stitching unravelling or fraying, pages nibbled or waterlogged, or the text block left vulnerable. Tomorrow’s Past select books which have been neglected.   

The problem with using the word ‘fix’ is that it implies the subject of the necessary fixing is broken. Despite a dictionary definition of ‘fix’ being to ‘put back into working order’ and that is what Tomorrow’s Past do, it still feels inappropriate. 

To fix is to patch up or remove defects; to try, though it’s arguably hardly possible, to reverse the hands of time and blend a repaired element into the body of the whole. A recent revived interest in the role of the hand however, has meant that designers no longer attempt to mask work done but to highlight it. They attempt to bring to the object in need of mending a sense of designer self-importance; ‘I am a designer, look what I have done, see how I have repaired this object.’ Tomorrow’s Past do not play this game. 

The problem with this ‘designer fixing’ is that the aesthetics of the repair begin to take centre stage. A viewer’s impression of the totality, is diminished (or less negatively, changed) by the brashness of a single component. That is not to suggest that there is no evidence of the binder’s aesthetic style in Tomorrow’s Pasts books, but that that style is tempered to the existing thing and does not detract from the entirety. Furthermore, that applied style comes second and only once the function of the book is returned.  

The ‘Repair Aesthetic’ 

Perhaps it would be useful to look at two contemporary objects which have a ‘repair aesthetic’; that is, show evidence of damage which the maker has sought to restore. Let us take Kathy Abbott’s Q. Haratti Flacci Carmina Expurgata by Josepho Juvencio (1784), 2013 on show in Readable Objects and Susan Collis’s, The Oyster’s our World, 2004. 

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Kathy Abbott, Q. Haratti Flacci Carmina Expurgata, Josepho Juvencio (1784), 2011. Hand gilded hand-made paper, hand dyed alum tawed thongs, linen thread. 173 x 97 x 46mm. Photography by John Hammond.

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Susan Collis, The Oyster’s our World, 2004. Wooden stepladder, mother of pearl, shell, coral, fresh water pearl, cultured pearls, white opal, diamond. 813 x 380 x 580 mm. Courtesy Seventeen Gallery 

Abbott takes a ‘Kintsugi’ approach to restoration. In the Japanese conservation technique, areas of damaged pottery are filled with resin and sprinkled with powdered gold, as a means of a visually pleasing patch up. In Q. Haratti, the temperature of the gold infill matches tunefully with the original boards and thus does not takeaway from the general impression. 

Opposed to this is Collis who tricks her viewer into thinking an everyday object is in a state of disrepair. A paint splattered wooden stepladder has not been accidentally dripped upon but is painstaking inlaid with mother of pearl. Collis is interested in the change in reaction that occurs when a viewer realises the ‘splashes’ are contrived. Again, tonal similarities between gloss paint and mother of pearl do not give away this deception. 

Where Abbott strives to unify a repair with the object, Collis manufactures a repair on an unspoiled article. Both show us they see the repair of damage, whether it be accidental (Abbott) or made (Collis) as something to be both looked at and overlooked. 

Abbot and Collis work with an acute understanding and sensitivity to the needs of the object. Their selection of infill materials, whose hues match so seamlessly with the whole and whose treatment is so easily overlooked (surely a credit to their finesse of hand) offer an exciting viewpoint in a conversation about contemporary fixing. 

This seems to be leading us towards saying a contemporary repair must be aesthetically deceitful. Overlooking the labour involved in these artefacts is easily done, so can we take this a step further and pitch these two at loggerheads with ‘designer repairers’? Not quite, because each camp is driven by a separate set of principles.

Repairing in the Now

Tomorrow’s Past is very clear that the work its binders do must locate the binding in the now. A book ready for repair which was printed in 1853 should be conserved with a contemporary eye. Core member Jen Lindsay writes, ‘We must cease to make facsimiles of inappropriate historical ‘styles’, and we should use modern conservation materials, methods and protocols to respond in a thoughtful and principled manner to the individual needs of the book. Only in this way will the integrity of the book, and of the bookbinder, be respected and sustained.’ 

As such, members work hard not to create deceitful copies or imitate antiquarian style in their bindings. It should be said however, that each constituent is highly skilled in the art of fine bookbinding conservation and many, like Charles Gledhill, work in this way as their profession. This is an important factor for this argument - their refusal to just duplicate, even though they indisputably can - has caused the group to be shunned by antiquarian bookbinders and dealers. 

Conservation convention says that one ought to bind a book in the common style of its years printing; to attempt to turn back time and restore the tome to its former glory. Unfortunately this implies that to update a book, to create perhaps a material or technical disconnect between text block, endpapers and boards (as would reasonably occur when binding a book 200 years after its printing), would mean to not do a ‘good’ repair job.  I put good in inverted commas there, as the ‘goodness’ of a thing is entirely subjective. Speaking in antiquarian terms, to actively allow for a detachment of old from new, is not accurate preservation and therefore ‘bad’.

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Jen Lindsay, Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches (1673) 2013. Sewn on five linen cords with 25/2 linen thread, alum tawed goatskin. 340 x 200 x 35mm. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

A very nice counter argument to this is Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches (1673), from 2013 by Jen Lindsay.  Lindsay discovered this damaged debound book which had suffered biopredation (when pages are degraded by natural matter) in an Antiquarian bookshop in London. Her process was to halt any further damage to the pages and to give it new endpapers, fly-leaves and contemporary cover. The pairing of pale alum-tawed goatskin and neutral linen cords offer a quiet nod to an antiquarian aesthetic with its series of parallel ridges down the spine. It is a fitting surprise then that Lindsay says her approach to this contemporary binding was stimulated in part by the revivification of the Neues Museum by David Chipperfield Architects in Berlin between 1997 - 2009. Chipperfield’s intentions when preserving the WWI bomb damaged museum were to ‘reflect the loss without imitating it’. This seems apt here. 

Lindsay’s restoration not only returns the book to function and protects it but transforms repaired thing into a simply beautiful object. The strength of an argument for Tomorrow’s Pasts’ endeavour is surely summarized by this case study. 

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Readable Objectsat The Aram Gallery 2013, installation view. Photography by Christina Theisen

About the Aram Gallery:

The Aram Gallery, the central London gallery who hosts the exhibition Readable Objects, is fascinated by this approach. To come across a group of like-minded individuals who push at the restrictive boundaries of their profession to experiment in mending is an excellent match for us. It is hoped that in putting on this exhibition our wide-ranging design audience will have their eyes opened to Tomorrow’s Past’s conservation approach as a valuable chapter in the ongoing dialogue about contemporary fixing. 

Héloïse Parke is curator of The Aram Gallery, London. 

Readable Objects is open until 17th January 2014 

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