Wednesday, October 13, 2021

533. Artist's Statements and Manifestos

Last week we reached the deadline for a major project I have been working on as editor-in-chief for the past few years: an almost 400-page work for Stanford University and the Codex Foundation, Materialia Lumina: Contemporary Artists' Books from the Codex International Book Fair. The book is due out next January when an exhibition on the twenty-first century artist's book opens at Stanford University. It will not surprise readers of this blog that I have managed to smuggle Charles Ricketts's name into this work in an essay on the Chinese book artist Leilei Guo, whose book Waves is discussed. It is a work without words, with images of an apartment building in Beijing.

Leilei Guo, Waves (2013)
Photo: Huug Schipper

Ricketts's name could be dropped in an exploration of a collection of artists' publications on their own work: from manifesto to letter.

Without the artist’s explanation, we would probably not be able to grasp the meaning of the visual presentation. Guo provided an artist’s statement for Waves that is an alternative manifestation of it. 

As a genre, the artist’s statement is controversial and not always recognized, although it has a long history. We can link it to the early modern artist’s manifesto that can be seen as a 'passport to modernity' (1) — starting with the Futurists just before the First World War, but we can go a step further back and refer to artists’ manifestos written by book designers such as William Morris, Lucien Pissarro, and Charles Ricketts to defend the private press ideals in the 1890s. 

The antithesis of the manifesto’s opinions and ideals is another modernist idea: the work of art should speak for itself. This proposition may compromise the performative nature of the artist’s statement that can be either the narrative or the meta-narrative, a supplement or a contextualization — 'the artist statement performs a vital if complex rhetorical role' (2). 

In addition to the manifesto, conceptual art is the breeding ground for artists’ statements. Since the 1990s, these have become more or less mandatory, for facilitating acquisition, as a justification for commissioned works, or as an explanation in exhibitions. Nowadays the statements correspond to the responsibilities of the artist as a cultural theorist and practitioner (3).

The viewer should also be aware that an artist’s statement may contradict or extend the artwork. In this case, Guo has produced a loose sheet of paper (or e-document) that is not specially designed to align with the style of Waves. As such, it shares the ephemeral position of an artist’s talk, an interview, or an exhibition statement, similar to other manifestations such as prefaces, sketchbooks, and private correspondence.

(1) 100 Artists’ Manifestos, ed. Alex Danchev (London: Penguin Books, 2011), xxix.
(2) Ibid.
(3) W.F. Garrett-Petts, Rachel Nash, 'Re-Visioning the Visual: Making Artistic Inquiry Visible', Rhizomes. Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 18 (Winter 2008),