'Fragile Metaphors' by Dr John Mulloy
This essay is based on a conversation between John Mulloy and Sioban Piercy in Galway on 28th January 2014.
ACCORDING to the Zohar, the Jewish mystical text, the angel Metatron is the only being allowed to sit in the presence of Yahweh. This is by virtue of his being the scribe of heaven, creating books that contain both the knowledge of the tree of life and the story of Israel. In Sioban Piercy’s piece, Metatron (below, 2013), we are presented with a light timber construction, holding four sets of pages of abstract prints and drawings, squeezed and bound together by the bolted wood to form wing-like shapes. In the Zohar, Metatron is described as having 72 wings and 365,000 eyes, representing his power and command over knowledge through the sense of sight and control of text. Piercy herself explains the relationship between the angel Metatron and the eponymous artwork in formal rather than symbolic terms, connecting the many wings of the angel to the sheets of paper, and therefore his role as the scribe of god/keeper of the book may be incidental to the piece.
However, ‘the book’ is of importance here, as Piercy describes the various sculptural objects she has produced of paper and wood in this manner variously as books, folded drawings and constructions.1 Is there any sense in which Metatron is a book? Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose suggest that the book is an ‘endlessly protean form’ that constantly ‘adapts and reconfigures in new forms offering new services.’2 As the primary service of the traditional book, the provision of textual information, has increasingly migrated to various digital formats, books – even for a mainstream publisher like Penguin Books – ‘have to justify their presence and expense by accentuating the qualities of the physical object.’3
Deleuze and Guattari suggested that historically there were three phases or types of books: the root, the radicle-system or fascicular and the rhizome.4 The first is ‘the classical book’ that ‘imitates the world, as art imitates nature’5; the second is the modernist book of Joyce and Nietzsche, where the ‘world has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world […] a book all the more total for being fragmented.’6 These two models follow the pattern of the Porphyrian tree, a medieval diagram used to illustrate Aristotle’s classification of categories.7 For Deleuze and Guattari they ‘constitute two aspects of the dream that the book could become the mimetic image of the world: a representationalist recapitulation of a reality external to it.’8 Against this they posit the now familiar trope of the book as rhizome, whereby ‘any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.’9 However, despite their resistance to dualities through the creation of a textual assemblage, their discussion of the book continues to centre on the problem of writing, the book as text. Is this all a book is?
There has, since the beginning, been a tension between form and content, between the book as an object and the book as text. Early manuscript books often turned the text itself into an artwork, and, while the development of printing in the fifteenth century shifted the focus primarily to the textual content, there emerged a new emphasis on the visual elements of typography and bindings. The emphasis on textuality was accentuated by the fixed nature of the printed word, no longer subject to the whims and errors of the scribe. Illustrations too became fixed, often used many times within the same book, as in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1490, or even in books printed centuries apart. Images of the ruins of Persepolis were regularly reprinted in Europe for two hundred years as if time had stood still in ‘the Orient’.10 The loss of colour in books led to a formal elegance that reached a peak in the late eighteenth century, coupled with extreme levels of skill in engraving techniques. In the face of the mechanisation of the nineteenth century, the ambition of the ‘fine printers’ of the turn of the twentieth century revived the concept of the book as art. In 1900, when Ambroise Vollard published Paul Verlaine’s Parallèment with lithographs by Pierre Bonnard, the livre d’artiste was born. While this genre pairs text and image, Johanna Drucker has defined the artist’s book ‘by the ways in which it “interrogates the conceptual or material form of the book as part of its intention, thematic interests or production activities”.’11 More recently a new genre has emerged, which Garrett Stewart has described as the ‘book-work’. ‘The book-work – as material object – once denied its mediating purpose as verbal text, can only be studied for the bookwork – as conceptual labor – it performs.’12
Stewart suggests that ‘the demediated book-work […] is a conceptual object: not for normal reading, but for thinking about.’13 Demediation, ‘as an active function of such works rather than some a priori condition, names the undoing of a given form of transmission, now blocked or altered, in the medium of its secondary presentation.’14 Piercy argues that creating the book as a sculptural/conceptual object not only gives a third physical dimension, but also combines the word-image context of the book in a new structure. All these elements of this new book-work have metaphoric possibilities, building the capacity to work across different communication systems, making the book work as ‘approximation, heuristic double’,15 but only ever in a partial, tentative manner, unlike the ‘image of the world’ posited by Deleuze and Guattari. A phrase that has become associated with Piercy’s work is ‘ontological insecurity’, and she connects this to her use of open-ended metaphors. For her, metaphors reflect a relationship with the world, and this is suggestive of the business of constructing a world. The ‘why are we here?’ question is rooted in the impulse to search for meaning, and Piercy’s work is a metaphor for this search, but it does not presume that there is an answer to this kind of question.
While traditionally metaphors were considered as relatively simple substitutions, describing metaphor as an abbreviated or compressed simile,16 Max Black ‘developed the claims that metaphors possess a cognitive value internally of a kind that cannot be reduced to literal paraphrase.’17 By placing a literal element or ‘focal word’ within a new context (what Black calls the ‘frame’ of the metaphor), the meaning of the focal word is extended. ‘[F]or the metaphor to work the reader must remain aware of the extension of meaning – must attend to both the old and the new meanings together.’18 Hagberg argues that this move ‘emancipated’ the metaphor from literalism, and enabled the application of metaphor to a wide range of artistic practices.19 David Summers describes much of the making of art as being dependent on ‘real metaphors’, metaphors that happen in physical (real and social) space and make ‘the absent present by the transfer of what is already at hand.’ 20 He claims that ‘This is an irreducible basis for the construction of significance within the extralinguistic spatial relations and possibilities acknowledged and indicated by language itself.’21 But surely we are back in the totalising dream of producing images of the world? Perhaps not, as Deleuze and Guattari’s privileging of the logic of expression over representation reflects their search for a neo-Bergsonian metaphysics.22 This is contrary to ‘the strong turn towards a realist and causal-explanatory approach that has been the single most conspicuous feature of philosophy of science during the past two decades.’23 Also, the logic of representation forms the motivation for scientific pluralism, as ‘all representations are partial in that any representation must select a limited number of aspects of a phenomenon (else it would not represent, but duplicate).’24 If the image of the book is bound to the philosophical consideration of materiality through the logic of representation, then, as Selcer asks, ‘if the objects and practices that constitute […] a crucial series of metaphors for materiality itself are to be superseded, then are we on the verge of leaving the concept of matter behind?’25 While the tree-form – and perhaps even the rhizomatic – book traditionally has been the place to go to look for answers, Piercy’s book-works are fragile, temporary structures that struggle to resist meaning while continuing to generate metaphors, even as their own materiality as books begins to fall apart.
While the majority of the book-works in Stewart’s anthology use pre-existing books as their raw material, the key point for Piercy is that she is actually making books, therefore the deconstruction is taking place on a conceptual level, rather than in the demediation of an already existing physical object. Classic models for this approach may be the kits, boxes and books of the Fluxus movement, or pieces like Anslem Kiefer’s Volkszählung (1991), featuring a library of massive lead books. British artist Heather Weston also makes new books, using spiral binding in Book of Babel (2001) to create ‘explicit instrumental textagons’ or conflating lip-reading with the flip-book to subvert communication systems (Flip Read, 2005). 26 Communication is also a key concern for Piercy, especially in her titles, which are often phrased negatively – as in Not the Story of Tantalus But the Other Cunning Thirsts (above, 2012). She suggests that this is based once again on the idea of keeping the metaphors open, while using the logic of representation, arguing that ‘you can’t suggest a negative to the unconscious’ as you always think of the thing you’ve said it’s not. For example, a title such as Not the story of Marsyas both can and can’t be – it is not that, it is itself. Many of the titles refer to religious or mythological victims, such as Tantalus and Marsyas. This is because Piercy regards religion and myth as our original attempts at giving explanations and answers to satisfy our ontological uncertainties. In a sense we are all victims of our own negotiations, creating our own meanings, which are often misleading or false. Even martyrs and saints make their own realities, but these then become their own prison, as the search for meaning will inevitably fail if there is no meaning. Piercy’s work has been influenced by Buddhist ideas of the world as illusion, in a constant state of flux and tension, a world that holds itself up through its own tension, just like her book-works themselves.
This approach has obvious echoes of the modernist agenda of making explicit the tension between the illusion and the reality. Piercy seeks to destabilise this, by questioning the logic of representation and the idea of constructing reality – as, after all, the work is only ink on folded paper. This exploration is carried further in her use of elements of figurative drawing and photographs in the construction of the works. The images are of natural forms, but are not always identifiable in order to resist pinning down the meaning. Folding a representational photograph also turns it into a physical thing, again generating a perceptual tension. Placing non-narrative work in the context of ‘a book’ creates new meanings, and exploits the tension between the conventional forms of the book as a carrier of ideas/stories versus the ‘book-work’ in Stewart’s sense. Demediation is obviously not a process confined solely to the traditional book as it is also now a commonplace with other forms of communication technology, as data, sounds and images routinely ‘surpass the boundaries of data channels and manifest materially.’27 Thus, although Piercy’s background and training is that of a highly skilled printmaker, there is very little traditional printmaking in evidence in these book-works. Rather, putting drawings through the computer and manipulating them is at the foundation of the practice. She points out that drawing is related to print, and that books are a different way to use prints and drawings. For her, the book is a way to bring different things together, mixing the word and image; also the book creates the possibility of making a series, and allows room for many different kinds of images to come together, such as drawings, prints and photographs. This kind of practice has echoes in other domains, especially in the field of design culture.28 Examples close to Piercy’s practice include the work of the German artists Maria Fischer and Anne-Grit Meier, using existing words and threads to re-interpret the connectivity of books.29 In contrast, Waldemar Węgrzyn explores the book as a kind of interface, by making a paper book that can be connected to the computer via USB cable.30
Apart from the issue of demediation, another key concern for Piercy is the notion of technical skill and expertise. She links this back to the logic of representation, but also makes a connection with seduction and desire. She is seduced by and wants to seduce through the material qualities of the physical objects, in an echo of the old idea of beauty. There is then an attempt to overcome the class-based dichotomy between art and craft by trying to marry beauty with the conceptual and the sensual. This is achieved in part by the limited palette, which is a way of reconciling drawing with the black and white photos, emphasising their common tonalities while still exploring their differences. The demediation of the book as authority is also reflected in the use of gilding and limited amounts of red, echoing the book as religious tool, an outmoded answer to the ontological uncertainties of the world. These book-works enter the world as fragile metaphors, floating on the web of memory as ghosts of a once powerful medium.
1 http://www.siobanpiercy.co.uk/index.php/works/books-folded-drawings-constructions [Accessed 7th march 2014]
2 Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, ‘Introduction’, in Eliot and Rose (eds.), A Companion to the History of the Book,
Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2009, p.5.
3 Coralie Bickford-Smith, quoted in Robert Klanten, Matthias Hübner and Andrew Losowsky (eds.), Fully Booked: Ink on
Paper – Design & Concepts for New Publications, Gestalten, Berlin, 2013, p. 18.
4 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ‘Introduction’, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (trans. Brian
Massumi), Continuum, London/ New York, 1987, pp. 3-13.
5 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 5.
6 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 6.
7 See Umberto Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Indiana University Press, Bloomington/Indianopolis, 1984,
8 Daniel Selcer, The Philosophy of the Book; Early Modern Figures of Inscription, Continuum, London/New York, 2010,
9 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 7.
10 Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco, N’espérez pas vous débarasser des livres, Grasset, Paris, 2009, pp. 180-181.
11 Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artist’s Books, Granary, New York, 1995, p.3, quoted in Megan L. Benton, ‘The Book
as Art’ in Eliot and Rose (eds.), A Companion to the History of the Book, (pp. 493-507) p.505.
12 Garrett Stewart, Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art, University of Chicago press, Chicago/London, 2011,
13 Stewart, Bookwork, p. xiv.
14 Ibid., p. 1.
15 Stewart, Bookwork, p. xiv.
16 Garry L. Hagberg ‘Metaphor’ in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, The Routledge Companion to
Aesthetics, Routledge, London/New York, 2005 (2nd edition), pp.371-373; George A. Miller, ‘Images
and models, similes and metaphors’ in Andrew Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1993, (2nd ed) p. 379; A.P. Martinich, ‘Metaphor’ in E. Craig, (ed.). Routledge Encyclopedia of
Philosophy, Routledge, London/New York, 1998 (http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/U025SECT1 [09. Febr.
2010]); Matthias Nueckles and Dietmar Janetxko, ‘The Role of Semantic Similarity in the Comprehension of
Metaphor’ in Michael G. Shafto and Pat Langley (eds.). Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of the
Cognitive Science Society, Cognitive Science Society, New Jersey, 1997, p. 578.
17 Hagberg ‘Metaphor’ in Gaut and McIver Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, p. 373.
18 Max Black,Max Black, Max Black,Max Black, Max Black,Max Black, ‘MetaphorMetaphorMetaphorMetaphor Metaphor’ in ’ in ’ in Proceedi ProceediProceedi ProceediProceedi ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, ngs of the Aristotelian Society, 55 , 1954 , pp., pp., pp. , pp. 273 -294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).294 (p. 286).
19 Hagberg ‘Metaphor’ in Gaut and McIver Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, p. 373.
20 David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, Phaidon, London, 2003, p.257.
21 Summers, Real Spaces, p. 258.
22 Jeffrey Bell, ‘Between Realism and Anti-Realism: Deleuze and the Spinozist Tradition in Philosophy’ in Deleuze Studies,
March 2011, Vol. 5, No.1, pp.1-17 (pp.14-15).
23 Christopher Norris, ‘Hawking Contra Philosophy’ in Philosophy Now, Issue 82, 2011, online at www.
philosophynow.org/issues/82/hawkin [accessed 21st March 2014].
24 Stephen H. Kellert, Helen E. Longino and Kenneth C.Waters, ‘Introduction: The Pluralist Stance’ in Kellert, Longino
and Waters (eds.), Scientific Pluralism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolois/London, 2006, p.xv.
25 Selcer, The Philosophy of the Book, p. 197.
26 Stewart, Bookwork, pp.172-4.
27 Hito Steyerl, ‘Too much World – Is the Internet Dead?’ in e-flux Journal #49, November, 2013, online at
http://www.e-flux.com/journal/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/ [accessed 29th March 2014]
28 See Guy Julier, The Culture of Design, Sage, London, 2014 (3rd edition), pp 3-20.
29 Klanten, Hübner and Losowsky (eds.), Fully Booked, pp. 108-9.
30 Waldemar Węgrzyn, Electrolibrary, online at thisispaper.com/Waldemar-Wegrzyn-Electrolibrary [accessed 14th March
John Mulloy is a lecturer in Art History and Critical theory at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. Having originally trained as a book designer, he worked for many years as a community artist, and wrote his PhD (2006) on ‘community arts’. Recent projects include: curating Volumes of Character, an exhibition of printed books at the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar (2011), a chapter in Gary Granville (ed), Art Education and Contemporary Culture, (Intellect, London, 2012); Salvation through Art?, a research project examining art education in Portlaoise Prison (2009-12); and City (Re)Searches, exploring cultural rights in Cork, Derry, Kaunas and Rotterdam (2012-14).
Bell, Jeffrey, ‘Between Realism and Anti-Realism: Deleuze and the Spinozist Tradition in Philosophy’ in Deleuze
Studies, March 2011, Vol. 5, No.1, pp.1-17.
Black, Max, ‘Metaphor’ in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 55, 1954, pp. 273-294.
Carrière, Jean-Claude and Eco, Umberto, N’espérez pas vous débarasser des livres, Grasset, Paris, 2009.
Deleuze,Gilles and Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (trans. Brian Massumi),
Continuum, London/ New York, 1987.
Eco, Umberto, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Indiana University Press,
Eliot, Simon and Rose, Jonathan (eds.), A Companion to the History of the Book, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford,
Gaut, Berys and McIver Lopes, Dominic, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, Routledge, London/New
York, 2005 (2nd edition).
Julier, Guy, The Culture of Design, Sage, London, 2014 (3rd edition).
Kellert, Stephen H., Longino, Helen E. and Waters, Kenneth C., (eds.), Scientific Pluralism, University of
Minnesota Press, Minneapolois/London, 2006.
Klanten, Robert, Hübner, Matthias and Losowsky,Andrew (eds.), Fully Booked: Ink on Paper – Design &
Concepts for New Publications, Gestalten, Berlin, 2013.
Martinich, A.P., ‘Metaphor’ in Craig, E. (ed.). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge,
London/New York, 1998.
Miller, George A., ‘Images and models, similes and metaphors’ in Ortony, Andrew (ed.) Metaphor and
Thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993 (2nd edition).
Norris, Christopher, ‘Hawking Contra Philosophy’ in Philosophy Now, Issue 82, 2011, online at www.
Nueckles, Matthias and Janetxko, Dietmar, ‘The Role of Semantic Similarity in the Comprehension of
Metaphor’ in Shafto, Michael G. and Langley, Pat (eds.). Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Conference
of the Cognitive Science Society, Cognitive Science Society, New Jersey, 1997.
Selcer, Daniel, The Philosophy of the Book; Early Modern Figures of Inscription, Continuum, London/New
Steyerl, Hito, ‘Too much World – Is the Internet Dead?’ in e-flux Journal#49, November, 2013, online at
Stewart, Garrett, Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art, University of Chicago Press,
Summers, David, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, Phaidon, London,
Węgrzyn, Waldemar, Electrolibrary, online at thisispaper.com/Waldemar-Wegrzyn-Electrolibrary
Piercy's work has received recognition nationally and internationally via numerous awards and exhibitions. She has exhibited worldwide in galleries such as the Royal Academy, London; the Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Pallazzo Poli, Rome; Museo Nacional del Grabado, Argentia; Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris, and the Donna Beam Gallery, Las Vegas to name some. A one-person show, 'Foreign Bodies' was featured as part of the visual art programme for the Galway International Arts Festival in 2015. She has received awards from the Royal College of Art, London; the British School at Rome, the International Print Triennial in Cracow, Poland; the Printmakers Council of Britain; amongst others. Her work is represented in major collections throughout the world- the Ashmolean, Oxford; the Instituto Nationale Per la Grafica, Rome; Churchill College, Cambridge; Arts Council of Ireland; Columbus College, U.S.A.
In art education, she has worked as a lecturer, visiting artist/resident, at various Institutes including Paderborn University, Germany; Columbus College, U.S.A.; The University of Nevada, U.S.A.; The University of West of England; The Crawford College of Art, Cork and the Centre of Creative Arts and Media, Galway, Ireland where she was head of Fine Art Printmaking from 2003 to 2018.
She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Printmakers (RE), London in 2020.
She lives and works in Athenry in the West of Ireland.