Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Order and Chaos: Playing with Constraint and Creativity in Book Form

Cover of Pfeiffer's Abracadabra
Abracadabra!” Werner Pfeiffer’s limited edition artists’ book shouts at you in bright red letters from behind its black box encasement.  From the outside, Abracadabra (2007) presents the illusion of order: the letters of the title word are arranged neatly in evenly-spaced lines on the cover.  But opening the box unleashes the chaos held within: eleven squares of paper each collaged with one letter of “abracadabra” and various geometric images in every font, angle, color, and orientation imaginable.  Each page uses simple typographic elements and predetermined geometric shapes, but Pfeiffer rearranges the elements on each page in an abstract and unconventional way.  The reader cannot know which way is up and which way is down.

Collage of Abracadabra's first "B"
The letters themselves are disorienting, but the chaos reaches a climax at the bottom of Pfeiffer’s box.  There you will find three Flexagon structures mounted with the images of the eleven letters of “abracadabra” from the previous pages.  By folding and flexing the structures, the letters magically appear and disappear as they are mixed around into nonsense.  Pfeiffer breaks the notion of the “page” and the traditional sequential order of the book by literally slicing the paper into pieces that can be folded and rearranged to disturb and reform the layout of each letter composition and confuse their order.  The physical action of flipping letters around forces the reader to deal with the nonlinearity Pfeiffer is imposing upon an otherwise well-ordered word.

A Flexagon
One of Werkman's Druksels
Pfeiffer is consciously playing with the idea of creativity and nonconformity in the face of the order of linguistics and the sequential nature of the traditional book.  Abracadabra is a tribute to Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman, a Dutch printer and artist born in 1882 and a resistance fighter during the Nazi regime.  He was known for his defiant spirit and his tendency to challenge conventional form.  Werkman experimented with traditional printing methods and discovered his own unique techniques.  The artist produced many inventive typographic collages called “druksels” which were the basis for Pfeiffer’s book.  “Abracadabra,” meaning “nonsense,” was the derogatory label given to Werkman’s work by critics.  Pfeiffer took this insult and reversed it to produce a positive, magical representation of the innovation that captured Werkman’s creativity in the face of constraint.

To flip through the Flexagons yourself, ask for Presses P327pab.

Posted for Ann Dunham '16

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