We chat to Vince Koloski about his project that brings to life a poem by T.S. Elliot, his background growing up in a family of printers, and the symbolic connotations of light.
What attracted you to the Unbinding the Book project?
I’ve had the idea for doing a piece based on the J. Alfred Prufrock poem for quite some time. This seemed like a great impetus for getting the piece done with the possibility of having it exhibited. You often have ideas for work that kick around in the background or fit into the “someday I’m going to do this” category, but without a specific theme or venue to provide some structure they often don’t get done. We all work with ideas and projects we create without ever knowing whether they will be seen or not. The Unbinding the Book project provided a way that, if accepted, It would not only be completed but people were going to see it.
What drew you to the book as a medium?
I’ve always loved books. I grew up in a family of printers. My father was a typesetter, my uncle was a pressman, another uncle founded his own printing company. I can remember loading single sheets into a platen press when I was a small boy. Even today I have a day job as a rare book dealer. About 20 years ago while working with edge-lighting plastic sheet I realized that you could etch text into the plastic and have it appear to float in space. By combining that with a book form you could create a book-like object that appeared to have its content floating between the covers. I’ve been working on various forms of that kind of idea ever since.
Could you explain your practice?
A friend of mine William Wareham is a sculptor, a big steel guy. He always said that you treat your artwork like a job in that you go to your studio every day and you work at making art. That’s the sort of thing I see as what you might call a practice. The ideas for my pieces can come in any time; middle of the night, early morning, afternoon, when I am at the studio or when I’m not at the studio. It’s when I take those ideas to the shop and try to work out ways to turn them into real objects that what I would consider my practice comes into play. It’s a matter of determining the form of construction, the content and the materials and then working out how the combination of those parts resolves itself into a piece that best expresses the idea that I have.
Could you describe your project?
The project is taking a small cabinet and treating it as though it were a chest of drawers containing the objects that J. Alfred Prufrock would wear. There are four drawers. The drawers are hinged at the front or rear of the drawer with piano hinges. The drawers themselves contain articles of clothing: a 1910. era shirt, trousers, underwear, shirt collars and suspenders. There is also a small box containing cufflinks, shirt studs a pocket watch and there is a cigarette case. The text of the poem is etched into clear acrylic sheets. The clear acrylic sheets have LEDs along the edges which project light into the sheets. The light goes through the sheets comes out through the etched letters causing them to glow and become readable. These sheets are placed top the drawers. The four drawer unit is pulled out of the cabinet and rotated 90° until it rests on the sides of the drawers. The drawers are then unfolded, if you will, into an accordion fold structure. The LEDs are plugged into a small transformer and the poem is illuminated above the contents of the drawers.
What drew you to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for this particular project? Do you find that poetry’s emphasis on subjective reading mean that it lends itself better to creative interpretation?
The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a poem that I have liked for a very long time. I was introduced to Elliott while studying poetry in college and I think Prufrock has a wonderful melancholic tone to it that probably fits my Slavic pessimism. I don’t think that poetry’s emphasis on subjective reading means it lends itself any better to creative interpretation than other forms of language. I think while poetry emphasizes emotion, feeling, and sheer linguistic play more than prose, nonetheless any form of written language lends itself to subjective interpretation. And I don’t think that one can single out poetry as being any more or less suitable for creative interpretation. For instance I would love to do a William Burroughs style cutup piece with half the page being L. Ron Hubbard Scientology butted up against the other half of the page being the writing of Jacques Derrida. I think it would be wonderfully subjective and open to wildly creative interpretation in ways that in no way could poetry exceed.
Your two main mediums appear to be books and light. What motivates you to combine the two?
I could go on for quite a while in answering this question but to put it simply, light carries an enormous amount of symbolic weight. Light symbolizing warmth as supposed to cold, good as opposed to evil, safety as opposed to danger, and for my purposes, knowledge as opposed to ignorance. When you combine that particular symbolic dichotomy of knowledge versus ignorance with books, which are the repositories of language which is the medium or device we use to preserve knowledge; then the combination of light and language creates a synergy of the philosophic/emotional symbol with the physical symbols of language and structure of the book.
How do you feel that the visual elements to your work contribute to the viewer’s reading of the narrative?
I’m not sure what the contribution might be. The cabinet with clothing and other accessories all a bit worn, a bit tarnished, a bit dusty, suggest or illustrate an emotional tone. I’ve always read the poem as the expression of a man who didn’t quite make it, was in the background, was a best friend but not the leading man, or as Brando put it in On The Waterfront “could’ve been a contender.” But he was never able to push himself forward to grab the brass ring. He has settled before a life as a secondary character and while he seems to accept it, there is a great deal of sublimated regret. In the piece that I’ve created, perhaps the background illustrates a bit of that.