It seems paradoxical that a self-professed book lover would repeatedly dismantle books. Yet American-artist Werner Pfeiffer’s book-objects, currently on display in Kroch library, are a stunning ode to the power of the printed tome. True, Pfeiffer physically destroys books, often rendering them illegible. But by blending sculpting and printing techniques, he also transforms existing books into new composites. His book-objects are far from mute. Since they rely on form and symbolism to tell their stories, viewers are challenged to “read” in new ways. Pfeiffer’s artist books have a startlingly different creation process. As a testament to the “fading tradition” of printed books in the digital age, these painstakingly manufactured books combine computer printing with ancient printing methods, like letter block printing.
Pfeiffer certainly knows how to make a statement. This is hardly surprising, since he wears many hats and harnesses each one quite impressively. As a book-artist, painter, sculptor and printmaker, he has showcased his creations at over 170 exhibitions. In 1969, he was appointed Professor of Art at the Pratt Institute in New York City.
Growing up in war-torn Germany, Pfeiffer cherished books as his “sanctuary.” The few picture books he possessed bore the scars of the on-going political turmoil; lines were redacted and pages were removed by Nazi authorities so as to protect the people from “unsuitable” messages. These early encounters with heavy censorship made Pfeiffer realize that books were “one of the most powerful weapons ever invented.” This power to proliferate ideas is the greatest strength and weakness of printed books. Pfeiffer’s book-objects often deal with this vulnerability. A common story Pfeiffer’s book-objects tell is the violence of censorship. The book-objects take on the roles of prisoners of war. A chilling example is “Split, Hung and Silenced” (1994), comprising a suspended string of forty cut up books. The chain of books is eerily still and disconcertingly mournful. “Difficult Chapter” (1992) is an especially tortured specimen. With a white, open book as canvass, the book is thoroughly impaled with red-tipped spikes that recall open wounds. Some of the pages are tied together with unnecessarily thick rope, as if they had the power to fly open in protest. A key point of these book-objects, as Pfeiffer stresses, is that these weapons are physically real. They bring torture and pain and leave behind deep scars, just like the censor’s pen.
Books can be dangerous, for they can convey cutting messages, as Pfeiffer’s book-objects show. “Book with a Bite” (2007) is adorned with a plaster bite cast not out of place in an orthodontist’s clinic. “Literary Salvo” (1994) is no less aggressive; it features a slingshot embedded into an open book, and a pile of stones covered in type fragments. It’s hard not to believe the old adage, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Aggression also pervades Pfeiffer’s artist books. These limited edition works are flights of fancy made concrete by mixing ancient and modern printing methods. “Erranty” (2008) is a 27 foot scroll depicting a parade of whimsical war machines set to an abbreviated version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem of the same name (written between the 1930s and 1960s). A list of “Wars and Genocides of the 20th century,” with death tolls highlighted in red, runs below the troop of machines. As if all this is not enough to show how technology has perpetuated the tragedy of bloody conflict, Pfeiffer packages the work in inert shell gas cases that have done their “deadly deed.” Inspired by “Emperor Maximilian’s Triumphant Procession,” a 16th century graphic cycle meticulously detailing medieval life, Pfeiffer’s work leaves one cold.
It’s hard to imagine that the story “of journeying and plundering/ of pillorying and sundering” would end anytime soon. In Pfeiffer’s graphic Sept. 11 memorial “Out of the Sky,” the Twin Towers are dominated by bold black masses of limbs and eyes as people hurtle through the air. Gloom also resounds “The River” (1996), which features stark black woodcuts of contorted limbs against sombre text, “ice/ huge chunks/ tumbling downstream/ like/ parts of me/frozen.” Pfeiffer redefines “reading”, inviting viewers to “read” not just words and pictures but forms and textures. The 26.5 foot long accordion fold echoes the rhythm of a raging river, elevating the leaden sense of entrapment.
Does the digital age herald the death of printed books? It’s tempting to say yes, at a time when Kindle e-books are finally outselling paperbacks on Amazon.com. Nonetheless, as Pfeiffer’s works demonstrate, the intimacy that physical books generate might prove too tough an act for technology to follow — for now.