The most unusual book ever made by a North Texas artist is currently on display in a Dallas gallery. And it’s probably the most expensive one as well. KERA’s Jerome Weeks asks Dallas Art Fair co-founder Chris Byrne about his intricate little black box titled The Magician.
- The Magician is on display at the Reading Room through May 17. Publisher Ed Marquand of Marquand Books discusses the book Thursday night at the gallery
- KERA radio story:
- Online story:
The gallery may be called The Reading Room, but this is the first time it’s ever actually exhibited a book. But then, the book is unlike any you’ve ever seen. Its component parts are laid out along a 16-foot long black table (above). At one end is the box that holds everything, painted like a miniature version of a stage prop, the kind of crate a magician would saw in half. At the other end is a video monitor showing a magician’s gloved hands demonstrating how to ‘operate’ each of the books.
Together, they make up a “complex, graphic novel,” says Reading Room owner Karen Weiner. “It is twelve separate books. There’s a children’s pop-up book, there’s an artist’s sketch book, a flip book, there’s an animation. It’s really a tour de force.”
The Magician isn’t a book so much as a mega-book, not just a wordless narrative but an encyclopedic compendium of bookbinding and printing techniques: longstitch binding, glue binding, cloth covers, letterpress. Each book, each mini-narrative, has its own style of illustration, layout and information delivery. There’s even a DVD. Unpacking all this does suggest a magician pulling birds and scarves and endless flowers from various pockets and sleeves.
Art dealer Chris Byrne started all this obsession almost two decades ago as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Inspired by semiotic theory and its talk of signifiers and signified, he developed a comic strip that told stories without words. The cartoons used just images, symbols and gestures. For his main character, Byrne chose the simple icons he saw on airplanes designating male and female restrooms — they’re called Isotypes (International System of TYpographic Picture Education, first developed in Austria in the ’20s). But Byrne gave his character a top hat — voila, a magician.
It wasn’t, Byrne explains, out of any love of magic. “I think at a certain point when you’re a kid, David Copperfield has really ruined it with television. So it had more to do with the viewer’s expectation. You know, like, if someone took their hat off, you’d expect to see a rabbit. So that started to help the narrative.”
A person with a hat makes — a story. Over the years, Byrne kept doodling ideas, adding more visual puns. He created an origin story for his magician. Born in a restroom as a hermaphrodite, the magician combines male and female. There’s a fold-out book that features some of the magician’s clothing: bra, tie, cape. Byrne’s Magician mixes together the cosmic, the comic and the microscopic: The box even lets you view slides that tell the magician’s story on the cellular level.
“I love the idea of artists who created whole other worlds,” Byrne says. “It’s a whole other place and there’s a whole other vocabulary, and there’s a whole other way that things are connected.”
But his little world just kept getting bigger. Byrne compares the development of The Magician to a tinfoil ball that a collector adds to until one day, he finds he can no longer fit it through his front door. Looking for help in putting his pile of ideas into some sort of order, Byrne contacted graphic designer Scott Newton: “Scott was very helpful in terms of the design but also as an editor. You know, I would completely trust, like, does this work? Does this make sense?”
There are art-world precedents for such a little cabinet of curiosities. Artist Marcel Duchamp created his famous Box in a Valise in 1966. He called it a “portable museum” because it held photos and miniature versions of all his previous drawings and sculptures. But Byrne says the idea of putting his entire project into a container actually originated with publishing. “Slipcases” are those fancy boxes that come with multi-volume art or history books, holding the entire set together. From the slipcase, Byrne says, it was a simple, practical step to come up with a custom-made box into which everything is slotted.
“We never felt we had to make it more complicated,” he says with a laugh. “It was already hard enough.”
Late last year, The Magician was released by Seattle-based Marquand Books, which specializes in finely-crafted art catalogs. Only 20 copies are being made. You can have one for $15,000. Despite that price and the small print run, Byrne has been showcasing The Magician at book fairs in Paris, LA, New York and even the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair, the oldest such fair in the world. In July, he takes it to Buenos Aires. Columbia University’s Rare Book collection already has a copy.
But in a joking, consciously childish manner, The Magician offsets all this high-art, high-concept, high-priced publishing. It’s filled with toilet humor – literally, humor about toilets. Byrne admits the magician’s origin as a restroom symbol inspired this.
“Instead of dreaming up a place where this story would take place,” he explains, the bathroom gave him an overarching location for everything. “Obviously, you have an idea of a scroll, which is how a story would be rolled out and told” — so one of the books looks as though it’s printed on toilet paper.
There’s even a non-book-related, stand-alone feature, a plastic top hat. It opens up like a toilet seat. And gallery owner Karen Weiner points out The Magician is rare in that it’s a book with its own audio loop.
Or what she calls its “laugh track.”
It’s the recorded sound of a toilet flushing — over and over again.