Altered Books

Odires Mlászho

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"On a table, on bookshelves, in store windows, they wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality, from their immobility." So writes Georges Poulet in his classic essay "Phenomenology of Reading." A book is not just any object. As Poulet states, "You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside."

In contrast, São Paulo-based artist Odires Mlászho does not deliver books from materiality but cedes their materiality as objects. Mlászho bends, twists, and interweaves encyclopedias and handbooks to create arcane objects. The volume, as bound paper, is recast as a volumetric thing. I first saw Mlászho's altered books at the 2013 Venice Biennale where Mlászho was one of five artists representing Brazil. The bookworks were spread across tables, and viewers often stooped to read the spines and open pages. The open books look as if they are about to be consulted, but their pages are bookmarked by other books, resulting in constructions of endless deferral. Mlászho's altered books are often comic in their contortions, but some are ominous, such as the disfigured, illegible handbook on international law.

Mlászho's altered books are a logical extension of his collages, which experiment with techniques of cutting and transferring images from albums, manuals, and antique books. So central is collage to the artist's practice that he changed his name from José Odires Micoski to Odires Mlászho in homage to the artists Max Ernst and László Moholy-Nagy. Whereas Ernst painstakingly reassembles Victorian steel engravings to produce dream-like collage narratives, Moholy-Nagy experiments with the formal elements of photomontage to generate dynamic abstract works. Likewise, Mlászho's work explores the metaphoric possibilities of collage but is also rigorously experimental, continuously testing the formal and material properties of collage and book-making.

This interview was conducted over email with the assistance of Marcos Gallon of Galeria Vermelho in São Paulo. Mlászho's answers were translated from the Portuguese by John Norman.

—Eva Heisler
Visual Editor

You are a self-taught artist. How did you start making art?

I always define myself, briefly, as self-taught. It's a category free from classifications based on age, aesthetics, histories, feelings, and politics, and it allows me a great deal of autonomy over choices and behaviors.

My first series of any importance was I Dig a Fossil Full of Hooks, from 1996, which was a set of 38 images in collage. This was followed by other series in which I experimented with collage techniques. For example, the series Serpentine involved slicing images in one continuous spiral. Exfoliation involved lifting thin layers of images with adhesive tape. Poetry, however, was my first experience making art.

Can you talk about the role of poetry in your art-making?

Poetry and visual art are languages that share a border; they have a band of territory in common. It is an old, vast, fascinating territory, and understanding precisely how they touch has been a great adventure for me. This is where I work with passion. Naturally, the work also includes research, experimentation, technical effort, discipline, chance happenings, and many surprises.

I understand that your early art pieces were actually poems. Could you talk more about this early poetry?

Without a doubt, poetry was a point of entry, but I have never considered myself a poet in the formal sense even though I have been writing for a long time. The weight of the word, as a more-than-semantic structural element—an actual "atomic," molecular material—was, and still is, at my origin. The "physical" content of the word, if one can say that, was always my main passion, and, certainly, it precedes the semantic.

Brazilian concrete poetry was an important influence, and spurred my own idiosyncrasies. Of particular importance is Galáxias and Panaroma do Finnegans Wake, by Haroldo de Campos. Hóstia Leigo, from 1992, is my first book of poems and, by choice, still unpublished. It is an experimental project that intensifies visual elements both in the graphic as well as the textual dimension, and the latter is certainly a great challenge for a translator.

Many of your works use books or materials associated with books. What is your own relationship to books? What do you read?

I am a voracious reader. Recent reading includes 2666, by Chilean writer Roberto Bolãno; Paradiso, by Lezama Lima, as well as books by the German author W.G. Sebald; and contemporary writers such as the Portuguese author Valter Hugo Mãe, the Brazilian Bernardo Carvalho, and the American Jonathan Franzen. Books are also raw materials for one of the most important segments of my production, the collages. I read technical manuals, catalogs of law firms, of tools, Bibles in various languages, encyclopedias, everything, in short, that I can bring to my visual work. My most recent acquisition is a textbook of dermatology in four volumes.

For the 55th Venice Biennale, you contributed sculptures made out of books. Can you say more about how this series of altered books came about?

The series Altered Books transforms conventional books into sculptural objects with the preservation, or not, of semantic content. I am expanding the language of collage into three dimensions.

Nomad Soup is a series of prints featuring fragmented lettering. Can you explain how these prints were made?

The images are based on a large collection of Letraset sheets, a practically extinct technology. I experimented with new ways of applying the letters to paper, followed by a conventional process of scanning, enlargement, and printing.

What's behind your work The Fall—James Joyce?

In 2008, I received an award from Cultura Inglesa, in São Paulo, for a work that took its inspiration from British culture. For that exhibition, my theme was Finnegans Wake, and the title was riverrunreverseflash. Later, in the exhibition Sopa Nômade, at Galeria Vermelho, in 2010, I revisited the same theme where the work The Fall—James Joyce was part of the set. It is based on a 100-letter word by Joyce, and I attempted to reconstruct it with movable metal type using a restricted set of material, which suggested word-generating nuclei. It was unfinished by definition.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I am completing the illustrations for Christian Werner's new Portuguese translation of Homer's The Odyssey, due out from Editora Cosac Naify in October 2014. I produced a large roster of collage images, of which twenty-four were selected. Later this year I will begin work on 126 collages for the Divine Comedy, using the illustrations by Gustave Doré as a starting point. I am also producing my first "artist's books" for publication.