Review of The Book Pages Project at Jett Gallery, San Diego, California.
At the Jett Gallery, next door to Scott White, is an extraordinarily clever set of works by David Fokos that twist pleasantly our received notions about the originality, priority, materiality, and reproducibility of art.
In 1935 the cultural critic Walter Benjamin celebrated how the “Age of Mechanical Reproduction” had shattered the magical “aura” that had up to that time kept the work of art as the special fetish of those who could afford it. Now the image could be reproduced, without mediation, before the innocent gaze of a mass audience. Of course Benjamin may not have anticipated that we would soon make fetishes of technology itself, and erect temples to the muses of photographic technology, of computers, and of Xerox machines. Nor have most gallery owners, it seems, absorbed Benjamin’s message; magic is as celebrated, and as expensive, as it always was.
But an artist may yet transform these persistent ironies to his own ends. Fokos presents us with a series of dramatically enlarged images of yellowing pages, richly textured, curved or folded upon themselves, glowing like the candlelit flesh of a Rembrandt portrait against a background of thick shadow.
But these are not just any pages; each is torn from a text that has become iconic, and at the heart of each page is an iconic phrase, the first occurrence of a verbal formula that has since infected contemporary culture at large. We find Tom Wolfe’s “right stuff,” Erika Jong’s “zipless fuck,” Orwell’s “War is Peace,” and William Gibson’s “cyberspace.” But what at first seems to be a celebration of priority, even of original genius, is immediately complicated by an awareness of the means of reproduction itself. These magical images were actually created by laying pages upon a simple mechanical scanner, and the resulting images further reproduced by printing them out on a large inkjet printer. And the source of the image, a page from a printed book, is in fact an example of one of the earliest forms of cheap mechanical reproduction. And writing itself is cheaper still, and even more easily reproduced, an ingenious “technology” that makes out of our very words, out of our very breath, a set of scratches that can be passed around like cheap copper coins, with neither thought, nor trace, of origin.
It is perhaps appropriate that most of the texts Fokos highlights are roughly contemporary with the developing technologies of image reproduction themselves. The earliest text presented is from Lewis Carrol’s “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” written in the 1860’s. One wonders whether the same unity of effect would be achieved by scanning a ripped out scrap from one of Shakespeare’s folios. It is also true that the charming freshness of this work would be diminished if it were repeated too readily, even if this very repetition would have its own delicious irony. I hope Fokos resists the temptation to dispel his own magic.