In a Bind

Love and terror take book form at the UA Museum of Art.

Judith Sloan and Warren Lehrer have some wondrous stories to spin about Queens, the teeming New York borough of 138 languages and 100 nationalities, a place where cultures don't so much melt as "boil over, overlay, transmutate."

Take their tale of Labib Salama, an Egyptian who runs a coffee shop in the heart of Queens' Little Egypt. Five nights after Sept. 11, four neighborhood roughs infected by anti-Arab rage invaded the café in the middle of the night and smashed the place up, shattering windows and mirrors, upending tables and chairs. Salama called the cops, who quickly nailed the suspects, but he decided not to press charges.

"I understand the feeling they have. Everybody hurt. Everybody angry. We don't want to make more hatred than what we already have," Salama later explained to Lehrer and Sloan, who recount his story in their new multimedia book Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America.

But the tale doesn't end with Salama's extraordinary restraint. An hour after the cops left, the four guys came back and wanted to know why Labib didn't have them shipped off to jail. They ended up helping him clean up the café, and they all stayed up talking until 8 o'clock in the morning.

Salama's story is just one of 79 oral histories told in text and photographs in the book, and in spoken word on an accompanying CD. Last Sunday at Tucson's Readers' Oasis bookstore, the two authors, who are wife and husband, recounted a handful of them, with actress Sloan speaking the words in the original accents of the Queens immigrants who first shared them. She told of the woman refugee from the Taliban who didn't see her American daughter for years, of a Romanian experimental musician whose American-born daughter is crazy about the traditional music of her ancestors, and of the Polish girl, now an immigration lawyer, whose parents left for America without her.

Designed in an exuberant urban style that goes way beyond 'zine helter-skelter, the book positions Lehrer's cropped color photographs upside-down, sideways and every which way on the page, and its Babel of typefaces reflects the crazy mixture of tastes, textures and cultures that is Queens.

The innovative publication, which Readers' Oasis co-proprietor Jeff Yanc called not only a "really great book but a really great art object," is also on exhibit at the UA Museum of Art's Love and/or Terror: An Exhibition of Contemporary Book Arts. The museum show was conceived before Sept. 11, and some of the works were made long before 2001, but its theme prompted a number of the artists to ponder the attacks' implications for love and terror. The Lehrer/Sloan team, for instance, started their book in the boom years of the '90s and sent it off to press "at a time of economic freefall, a declared war on terrorism without end; dramatically reduced immigration quotas" and racially based incarcerations and deportations.

The artists in the show defined the theme broadly, with projects examining the terrors of growing up female, of motherhood, of parenthood, along with more political enterprises, like UA prof Carol Flax's video-photo "travel book" about cultural imperialism.

They also defined "book" broadly. The show features some 51 examples of contemporary books, many of them handmade, hand-printed, hand-painted, hand-splattered or, as the case may be, hand-blasted or hand-drilled. Crossing the BLVD, conventionally offset-printed and published by W.W. Norton, a major New York publisher, is probably the most mainstream book in the collection. (Even so, the Norton marketing department has had a little trouble with it, trying at one point, Lehrer said, to position it as a food book.) Its groundbreaking nature notwithstanding, it's still a book you can pick up with your hands and read at the exhibition, if you're willing to put in the time, as well as put on the museum-provided little white gloves.

That's not the case with many of the other pieces in the show, which sit at the cusp of book and sculpture. They're mostly for looking, not for reading, and they don't use the expected book materials. Some of the artists use paper, but in unconventional forms, such as the paper napkins Jessi Atwood binds together in her "Wanting to Make It Work." Todd Christensen ("Sans Emotion," 2003) re-uses found leather book covers, fastening them gently together into an accordion books with black velvet strips. On top of the scribblings of their long-ago owners ("Lucille Meyer, 8th grade Spanish," proclaims one in childish cursive), he's made fine drawings of human maquettes holding each other, helping each other. It can be read as a loving response to terror.

Other artist dispense with conventional materials and format altogether; Xu Bing works in cigarettes and Nancy Solomon in mirror and glass. A few pieces, such as Byron Clercx's "Forgery: Packing Kathy Acker," have only the most tangential relationship to bookness. His piece is a heart-shaped black case, lined with red velvet; when it's opened on its hinges, as it is in the show, you can see a hammer cradled in the soft cloth.

The pieces behind glass trigger some frustration. They're acting like sculptures--don't touch!--but many of them are books, with words you can't read. Glistening behind glass, they offer only a tantalizing glimpse of just a page or two. For instance, Charles Alexander, a local poet and publisher, has made one of the more beautiful pieces, an accordion-bound book fashioned of Japanese handmade mulberry paper, splattered, sparingly, with blood-red ink. But just a few lines of his poem are visible--"only love is holy and love's ecstasy that turns and turns and turns about one center"--and you wish you could read more.

That's a difficulty with any exhibition of book arts. The show's organizers note that books are a "time-based" art, but normally, you want to put in your book time in a comfy easy chair, and you want to get your hands on the whole book. Flax's "Journeys, 1900-2000" does a good job of addressing the problematic nature of book exhibitions. You're allowed to handle its scrapbook of old travel photos, and you can listen to the sound and watch the video unfold across the book at the same time. If the Queens book is an exhilarating report about America from the novel viewpoint of immigrants living in it, the Flax piece is the opposite, a troubling look at parochial First World attitudes toward the rest of the globe. The sepia travel pix stress the exoticism of foreign lands, where the natives are "other" and their cultures are quaint.

A patronizing voiceover cautions about the travails of travel abroad, and notes at the end with self-satisfied relief, "We return to the comforts of home." But as Americans now know, our comforts are no longer immune to the problems of the rest of the world.

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