A River Runs Through It: Rivers in the Mind of the Artist
by Martha Scott Burton
In 1929, American country singer Jimmie Rodgers sang, “Oh, you Mississippi River with waters so deep and wide / My thoughts of you keep rising just like an evening tide / I’m just like a seagull that’s left the sea / Oh, your muddy waters keep on calling me”—an ode to the Mississippi River near his hometown. From the earliest recorded narrative of the Epic of Gilgamesh to the present day, river waters have called artists to create work meditating on their nature and influence on the lives along their banks. Rivers & Books, presented by Zucker Art Books, New York, in cooperation with Gagosian Book Shop, showcases a collection of artists’ books that highlight the artists’ relationship to rivers—whether a specific location such as the Rhine in Dieter Roth’s issue of Poeterei, or a collection of rivers, as in Alighiero e Boetti’s Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World. The qualities of rivers are presented as nourishing and pleasurable—as in Ito Jakuchu’s On a Riverboat Journey or Richard Long’s River Avon Book—and at times as a source of destruction—Yun-Fei Ji’s The Three Gorges Dam. The river also serves as a central figure in memories of an unrecoverable time and place, as in Louise Bourgeois’ recollection of the vanished Bièvre River in Ode à la Bièvre.
Forming the center of the exhibition is one of Boetti’s most famous works, Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World (1977). Initially inspired by Albert Hochheimer’s Novel of Big Rivers (1956), Boetti’s book is a result of seven years of research with art critic and his then wife, Anne–Marie Sauzeau. One of the most important and influential Italian artists of the 20th century, Boetti had a keen interest in the relationship between chance and order, the number and the world in various means of organization and classification, and the ways in which cultural order is imposed on the complexities of nature. Known to many scientists as “Boetti List,” the thousand-page book categorizes a thousand waterways in order of their length according to the most reliable sources at the time. The difficulty in this effort, as Sauzeau writes in the foreword, is that it is “impossible to measure the length of a river because of the thousand perplexities raised by its flowing existence (because of its meandering and going through lakes, because of its branching around islands and shifting in its delta area, because of man’s interference along its course, because of the elusive boundary between fresh and salty waters).” Therefore, the top of the page in the book gives the “reliable” measurement, while alternative lengths are listed at the bottom. In the same spirit as On Kawara’s One Million Years, Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World is at once poetic and scientific, rigorous and absurd.
Richard Long created an artist’s book also with a view towards river classification in River Avon Book (1979) by dipping handmade paper into the River Avon (in Bristol, England, Long’s hometown) and leaving the pages to dry, resulting in muddy watermarks. Through this process, Long creates an explicit physical record of a specific time and place in the river’s journey, a qualitative archive.
Ode à la Bièvre (2007) by Louise Bourgeois is homage to the river which ran through Bourgeois’ childhood home in the Parisian suburb of Antony, a center for Parisian gobelin manufacture. As the family supported itself through a tapestry restoration business, the river was key to their relocation, allowing for the washing of the textiles. Bourgeois used fragments of her own garments to create sewn fabric collages in a unique book created in 2002. In 2007, three editions were created based on that original book: a trade edition of 1,800 copies; a limited signed edition of 95 copies with two initialed photographs depicting the two pages of text in the book; and a deluxe edition of only 14 copies made entirely of fabric. The books serve as a placeholder for the river, which no longer exists in the town, having disappeared underground, the colors and textures of the fabric as a reminder of an unrecoverable time and place.
Dieter Roth similarly commemorates a specific river in the double issue of Poeterei (1967-68), a bi–annual review for poetry and poesy. In the first part of the issue, Roth writes a poem dedicated to the Rhine, accompanied by a reductive yet evocative blue illustration, elaborating on the experience of entering the Rhine and engaging with the river by way of its contents or “bark.”
A place of nostalgic memory, the river is also a place of danger and turmoil, the site of much change and death. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive flood in United States history and affected more than 630,000 people (Musician Randy Newman wrote in his lament “Louisiana 1927”: “Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right. Louisiana….Louisiana…they’re trying to wash us away…they’re trying to wash us away.”). Yun-Fei Ji calls attention to a time and place dominated by a river with the handscroll The Three Gorges Dam (2009). The ten-foot-long horizontal image, hand printed in China from over 500 hand-carved woodblocks, depicts the flooding and social upheaval caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The dam, completed in 2012, is the world’s second largest hydropower plant, generating enough electricity to serve four cities the size of Los Angeles. At the same time, the construction of the reservoir has displaced at least 1,200,000 people and submerged thousands of villages, beautiful landscapes and valuable archaeological sites. Recalling a traditional Chinese landscape painting, The Three Gorges Dam focuses on the contemporarily dispossessed along the Yangtze River. Occupied with water incidents, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina has engaged the artist, as well.
In the handscroll format more than two centuries earlier, the inventive Japanese artist Jakuchu and his mentor, Daiten, meditate on the aesthetic pull of the river in their eighteenth century masterpiece, On a Riverboat or Happy Improvisations on a Riverboat Journey (ca. 1767, reproduced in 1989). Just as Mark Twain follows Huckleberry Finn’s journey down the Mississippi River, the handscroll depicts an unfolding view of a river bank during a journey from Kyoto to Osaka through Daiten’s short, impromptu poems and Jakuchu’s impressionistic sketches. For the first time, Jakuchu employs an unusual method of simulating ink rubbings used to take impressions of calligraphic texts carved on stones in China, a highly ingenious approach that pays homage to the Sinophile taste of Daiten’s circle. The grainy effects of the rock surfaces in combinations with the velvety black and pure white of ink intaglio create a hauntingly lovely image. The book on display is a 1989 reproduction of the original handscroll held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Several of the artists in the exhibition address rivers through the photographic medium. Susan Derges, a painter before a photographer, is internationally renowned for her methods of camera-less photography. Following a simple yet elegant and unusual process used in early photography, Derges employs the raw materials of light and chemically sensitive paper, submerging positive photographic paper beneath the surface of the water and controlling a milliseconds flash of brilliant light to fix a brief moment of the water’s ebb and flow on the paper. Among her most celebrated works are the River Taw and Shoreline series made near her studio in Dartmoor, England, between 1996 and 1999. Azure (2006) collects the final body of River and Shoreline works, as well as a more recent series.
Roni Horn created Still Water (The River Thames, For Example) (2000) as part of a larger public arts project involving a group of artists commissioned by the Public Arts Development Trust in London and Minetta Brook in New York to produce new works connected with the Thames and Hudson waterfronts. A series of fifteen photolithographs, each photograph focuses on a small stretch of the Thames River and is overlaid with tiny numbers that refer to footnotes printed on the bottom of the work. Some footnotes relate anecdotes connected with the Thames, particularly concerning incidences of suicide. Interspersing these observations are references to films and songs, and to literary sources including novels by Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens and William Faulkner, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, whose works have inspired Horn elsewhere.
Jun Morinaga, a leading contemporary photographer in Japan, has long been interested in waterscapes and the vanishing rivers in Tokyo. In River: its shadow of shadows (1978), Morinaga creates haunting and evocative photographs of rippling water throughout Japan.
The final photographic work in this exhibition is Goodbye, River, Goodbye (1971) with black and white photographs by George A. Tice and poetry by George Mendoza. Tice and Mendoza create a moving epitaph to the Battenkill River in Vermont, a once-idyllic location, which has since been corrupted by pollution and human traffic. Like Yun-Fei Ji in The Three Gorges Dam, Tice tracks the changes in nature that result from human interference.
Finally, Cats in Bag Bags in River (1991) is an artist’s book exhibition catalogue for Christopher Wool’s show of paintings at the Museum Boymans–van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the Kunstverein in Köln. The phrase is one that appears as “CATS IN BAGS IN RIVER” or “CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER” in Wool’s iconic black stenciled letters against a stark white background, a punk haiku of somewhat sinister humor. Wool pulls the phrase from the tough talk of the character Sidney Falco in the 1957 film noir The Sweet Smell of Success, in which Falco spits out punchy one-liners like, “You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” “Just don’t leave me in a minor key,” “You’re dead son, get yourself buried” and “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”, meaning that the deed is done.
With these books in mind, it is appropriate to leave the reader with the words of Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”