"The vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them: they frame things, suspend things, tantalize through distance.
"This is what I realize I failed to understand about vitrines. I spent the first twenty years of my life as a potter earnestly trying to get objects out of glass cases. . .They die, I'd say, held in that airlock. Vitrines were a sort of coffin. . .
"But the vitrine -- as opposed to the museum case -- is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric." (The Hare with Amber Eyes, Pages 65-66).
Edmund de Waal is again referring to his work as a ceramic artist and his collection of netsuke (see my previous post). However, to me as a book artist, the quote above brings to mind the ongoing issue of exhibiting artist books.
Most artist books, to be experienced fully, need to be handled. Or, as I prefer to say, activated. However, most curators and librarians fear this handling. They don't want to cause damage to the book -- an understandable concern.
Another fear is that when exhibiting outside of the glass case, even if touching is not permitted, that artist books will disappear. Most tend to be smaller in size and easily pocketed -- I once was in an exhibition where five of my zines were literally right next to a guard's desk, but sitting out unrestrained, and all of them disappeared.
But the quote above has made me reconsider the purpose of the case or vitrine. The experience de Waal describes is limited mostly to librarians and private collectors, but it is something to which I can relate. I have been the viewer pressed up against the glass, twisting and turning my body to peak at all angles of an artist book. This has been frustrating, but maybe this frustration is a good thing. It is how artist books beckon to viewers, through their words, hidden and revealed, their tactility, the feel of ink on paper, the paper itself.
In grad school, my friend and colleague Amanda D'Amico and I discussed how we felt collections that displayed artist books should have "handling times," a point during the exhibition of the artist books in which the curator or librarian would come out of their office and open a case, select a book, and present it to any viewers to happened to be there. I am now re-imagining this idea, picturing the hands of a curator slowly turning pages, the narrative seduction as each page is revealed, the sound of turning pages taking on a very different eloquence than it ever had before.
Perhaps we as book artists should consider these ideas. The case or vitrine is not to protect the book, it is instead, to tantalize the viewer.