Maurice Scheltens and Liesbeth Abbenes
Designed by Laurenz Brunner and Julia Born
Frank van der Stok, ed.
(Kodoji Press, 2012)
No one makes an exhibition catalogue like Kodoji Press. The small, experimental Swiss publisher approaches every book with a unique form, collaborating closely with artists and designers to produce complex works. Unfolded is a self-reflexive artists’ book by Maurice Scheltens and Liesbeth Abbenes, designed by Laurenz Brunner and Julia Born, that articulates the form of the book through a reconfiguration of the artists’ photography exhibition of the same name. The result is a translation of practices and a negotiation of approaches between spatial conceptualization and the conceptualization of the publication: The project embodies a cross-pollination of conceptual processes, an aesthetic thinking through the arrangement of 3-D to 2D and visa versa.
The book guides its reader through full-bleed 3D renderings of an exhibition space, cover to cover. Moving through rooms, the viewer glimpses through thresholds, looks closely at specific works, and considers new juxtapositions that were not included in the physical exhibition. Each spread determines the continuity of viewership, which is often disrupted by the perspective of the lens or the design decisions of the publication.
These structural disruptions stem from two different systems of construction. The first derive from spatial elements within the gallery such as walls, doors, and reflective glass; the second derive from the constraints of the book form: the page’s gutter, the layout, and the bleed size. To illustrate my point, I will describe, in a kind of walking tour style, the experience of moving through three pages of Unfolded.
Each room in the exhibition-book is demarcated (Entrance Hall, Room I, Room II, etc.), and each work is numbered. Works are not numbered according to their logical order in the would-be space of the gallery, but in the sequence that they appear in print. A view of Room V shows us works 26 and 27—photographs of pressed clothes—side by side on a wall to the left; it also shows us a view through the door to Room VI on the right of the spread, where works 28 and 29—a photographic diptych of a Jil Sander Eau de Toilette magazine advertisement that has been split in half across its central latitude—are hung on the parallel wall. Turning the page, we are given a fuller view of Room VI; works 28 and 29, on the right side of the spread, are bigger now, and in focus. On the left side of the spread hang works 30 and 31, large format prints of cologne samples, visible now that we have passed through the door.
Turning the page again, we see a double-page spread of works 28 and 29. The left segment, work 28, is of the Jil Sander perfume bottle, while the right segment, work 29, captures its misted fragrance arcing onto the Jil Sander logo. On the gallery wall, these two works are displayed as a classical diptych, side by side, assuming a holistic visual completion. In the book, the page gutter falls directly between the two works in an almost satirical gesture toward its self-reflexivity. The gutter is an active visual implement; its function is pronounced and reinforced by the image of the sliced magazines. It simultaneously frames and unites the works by bisecting and binding the wall between them. In this way, Scheltens and Abbenes make use of conventionally neglected functions of the book form to enunciate their operative capability in the construction of an image. The gutter, the bleed, the action of turning the page all become critical implements, visual strategies, in an aesthetic project.
So what exactly is the project? Within its greater critical project of deconstructing the process of curation and publishing is a series of images with their own sharp aesthetic narrative.
More than anything, the works exhibit an attitude. This attitude is luxurious, masculine, groomed, and sensuous. There are some 41 works in the exhibition, all of which could be described as some sort of photographic still life. Some of the works were not featured in the physical exhibition, but were added to create new juxtapositions. Most of the images were sourced from the growing number of lifestyle brands and publications like Fantastic Man, The Gentlewoman, Doingbird Magazine, Paradis, and Droog that meld fashion, art, interior/architectural design, and culture.
Here, for example, is a cross section of a handful of the photographs’ subjects. Work 1: a clean, pressed, white shirt. Work 3: a Tuscan entablature. Work 11: a blue fabric swatch. Work 14: an arrangement of black leather, designer men’s shoes. Work 18: an impeccably made bed, on which a suitcase is opened to reveal men’s clothes; and beside the suitcase, a pair of red velvet shoe inserts. Works 30 through 25: single sample bottles of cologne (Karl Largerfeld, Fendi, Chanel, Dior, Yves-Saint Laurent, and Jil Sander). Work 39: two blue glass goblets overlaid onto a flat black background.
The works are reproduced in the book in their original colors: a rich palate of synthetic blues, blacks, ochers, and whites. The 3D rendered gallery space (rendered by Thomas Traum), however, is completely monochromatic, becoming an ominously detached realm. Neoclassical architectural details are rendered with such a specificity that it gives the uncanny appearance of a real space, but the grayscale tonal levels alter that realness. In blown-out artificial light, shadows appear more pronounced, edges harder, surfaces exceptionally smooth.
Alone, each image is a peculiarity, an incarnation of an aesthetic attitude. But together, Unfolded signals to a greater archetype, to an intellectual conceit; this archetype is fully conscious of its aesthetic tone, its implications, and its derivations. Their experimental methods indicate the calculated volition behind the project, and the work’s self-reflexivity becomes merely a contribution to the attitude as a whole. I would even go so far as to describe this self-reflexivity as a kind of vanity; not on the part of the artists, but of the work itself. Scheltens and Abbenes have crafted a project that indulges in itself, over and over, and that indulgence, so fully conscious, is profoundly beautiful.
SANDEEP BHULLER is the co-founder of Cambridge Book, a contemporary art book collection and consultancy firm in M.I.T.'s media lab. She is also the art, design, and architecture buyer for McNally Jackson Books in New York.