Monday, February 04, 2008

Revelation: Natalie d'Arbeloff - A Personal Response

At times in the past I have done some work with The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and, whilst the details are unimportant, part of that work involved having sight of the 'hate file': a file of material (once the excrement has been removed!) which has, over the years been sent to the organisation and which express, shall we say, unfriendly sentiments. It's a fascinating collection. From memory, there are letters which are typed on ancient typewriters, the dense black ink punctuated thoughout by parentheses containting scriptural references; there are handwritten notes, some scrawled in obvious haste and anger, others meticulously and tightly written using every inch of the paper; there are 'improving' or downright offensive religious tracts, some of which are illustrated comic-strip style. All in all, the assemblage looks much like the stereotypical serial-killer's wall in a Hollywood movie... There is the same obsessive quality, the same sense of moral squalor and feeling of dirt attatched to this file as there is to that kind of movie representation of the insane.


The hate file, the serial killer's bedroom wall, they both have the same aura of psychological rawness about them, a little like when one has been doodling absent-mindedly and looks down to see a page covered in black ink and full of strange images, sigils and glyphs that we barely recognise.


At the 'Covered' exhibition of artists' books today, I handled and looked through, for the first time properly, the Old Stile Press publication of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine visually interpreted by Natalie d'Arbeloff. This is how it is described:

"On first encountering the book you will see what appears to be a considerable slab of dark slate out of which loom letters - Alpha to Omega . . . On one side is the single word Revelation. As though inscribed upon the stone are the opening words of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, ringing with the seventeenth century language of The King James Bible - the book which tells of the visions as they appeared to St John on Patmos. The covers unfold, as on an icon, to reveal a shrouded face - cloth faintly imprinted with the characteristics of a man whose eyes engage directly with the soul. The pages create the sense of a powerful current sweeping through the book, words sometimes floating up, magnified, sometimes completely submerged but still present beneath the surface. Words and shapes sink deeply into the paper and become at once both tactile and visual. Word and image are off enqual importance, together both swirl across pages conveying with powerful immediacy the devastating visions os St John himself might have experienced them"


There is something of the insane about this book. The same psychological rawness of the hate-filled scribblers, the serial killer's wallpaper collage, the paper thick with doodles - is exuded also by these pages: the text is mercilessly overprinted, cut and pasted, enlarged and turned and twisted, the thickness of the black ink do indeed make it a tactile experience to read the book; the very act of taking a biblical - a 'sacred' text - and daring to interact with it by almost tarring the pages with ink is, in itself, something of an act of desperation, of need to communicate.
Of course, the text of the book itself is one of the most hallucinatory, apocalyptic and bizzare canonical holy texts known to us, from any majot faith. It's imagery is very much the source and inspiration for a lot of the language and use of language found in the hate files of LGCM or in the mind of the religiously inspired bigot or terrorist even.


Like all these objects I'm describing it is important that they are objects. I remember when handling this file of hate mail - there was something about the letters and notes and pamphlets which seemed very physical. I think the intensity of the interior processes that they represented was so great that something of that intensity was imbibed by the 'object' - the paper, the ink, the scratches on the page, the crumpled edges... The book is a tactile experience. In the picture above, the left hand side of the double page spread shown is edged by concentric, thick black lines, those lines have been close to 'stamped' into the paper. You can run your fingers over them and 'feel' the violence of the press. And it is in the object-ness of the book that some of the insanity begins to be healed - maybe redeemed.

The Book as an object is described thus:

"345x245cm. 38 drawn and collaged images with text, arranged as double page spreads and printed on one side only of the sheets which are concertina-folded and contained within a case-like binding which has an added enveloping cover which opens out to present the main cover image as a 'tryptich'. The type is Columbus. The paper is Fabriano Rosaspina. The edition is limited to 150 copies, numbered and signed by the artist."


There is order here and beauty, the sheer quality of the materials puts the book as an artifact into a different league and indeed, a different moral sphere than the ravings of serial killers or bigots or the highly disturbed. In fact, for me it begins to raise questions about the distinctions between sanity and painful psychological outpouring, between the perception of reality and the perception of metaphor and 'vision'. Which is, of course, also a large part of the purpose of the book.

The theological statement and aims of the book of Revelation are, to a large extent political. The relationship of early Christians, of John's school of thought, with Rome and the Roman Empire was antagonistic and subversive. There would be no appeasement of the secular authority by John, no assimilation of the Christian faith into Roman thought forms. The apocalyptic vision is one which is subverting and destroying Roman authority. I love the fact therefore that in the making of this book too there is a subversive element, in what many people would see as the 'defacing' of the Holy scrip. The intensity of feeling which might move someone like Saint John, or Natalie d'Arbeloff to be so iconoclastic is summed up for me in the page which shows a 'maddened' head, in the middle of speech, perhaps in the middle of screaming or shouting and with the word apocalypse repeated and enlarged near and around the head several times - a little like it were in a speech bubble. [The page is visible as part of a short 'movie' of the book.]
Ultimately the brief encounter I had with this book today made me want to scream, to become intensely involved and, if not insanely, then involved in a way which is close to the psychological rawness which the book as a complete artifact represents.
When I was a child, someone described to me a nightmare they had, they told me how they had been walking around in this nightmare with no skin so their raw flesh was exposed: nerve and sinew and bloodvessels like in any piece of meat. It was an image which has stuck with me and one which came to mind again today reading, holding and touching the binding and pages of this Revelation.


John C said...

That looks marvellous, and the drawing over the pages reminds me of Tom Phillips' Humument.

The physicality of books will come to be valued all the more as they turn digital, I think. One of the things I love as a book designer is the creation of a new object, even if, as Borges once said, it is only another thing added to the world. We strive to make good things, at least.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Callum, I've already emailed you but I wanted to thank you again here for this insightful, and incisive, review. It gives a new slant to my interpretation of "Revelation", one that I hadn't been aware of before.
I wanted to get a sense of the words tumbling over each other in an unstoppable incomprehensible flood, as I imagined they did when St.John was writing them, but I hadn't until now associated my result with the kind of filled-to-the-brim outpourings of the mad etc. Of course you're right, there is that connection, even if I put more order into it. The thin line between "revelation" and madness is always fragile.

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