Who stole the turnip?--Three Artists' Books by Ann Tyler
Sally Alatalo, 2009
Billy Rabbit--An American Adaptation (2007-08), Souvenirs (2007-08), and The Unmaking and the Making of the World (2007-09) constitute a trio of limited edition artists' books by Chicago-based artist and designer Ann Tyler. As in her earlier works, Lubb Dup and It's no different than (Sara Ranchouse Publishing, 1998 and 1999 respectively), Tyler makes savvy use of the interactive elements and narrative structures of antique children's books to seduce us into confronting difficult histories of violence and injustice.
Tyler's research, which has culminated in these three books as well as a suite of six digital prints, was inspired by a 2000 New York Times reproduction of a souvenir photographic postcard of a lynching, pictured with one of several reviews related to the publication of James Alan's Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms Publishers). Tyler's work has as much to do with her examination of this and other images and accounts of lynchings, as with a struggle to understand both the personal and social ramifications of the seeming normalcy with which such cruel spectacles are enacted and recorded.
Billy Rabbit--An American Adaptation is 15.25 x 11, cloth-bound, with 22 leaves, letterpress printed in red on Cranes Lettra acid-free paper. Images of hand tools, mostly farm implements, are sewn onto the pages and must be lifted by the viewer in order to read the text beneath. Billy Rabbit's generous size and fine materials recall early children's picture books, a reference Tyler employs to retell the early 20th century English children's storywriter and illustrator Earnest Aris' dark tale of Billie (Aris' spelling) Rabbit, supposed to have stolen a turnip from Farmer Hayrick's vegetable patch. Tyler adopts the moral of the story to suggest that the exaggeration of transgression and punishment delivered to Billy for making off with a lowly turnip parallels the dim, often imaginary circumstances devised to justify lynch mobs. In this and other children's stories of the time, barnyard friends are often recruited with repetitive, sing-songy language to share a joke or relay a message. Tyler uses this strategy, surreptitiously enlisting us to pick up the tools around the barnyard and gleefully follow along in order to proceed with the narrative. It's not until the end of the story, when the tables turn on him, that we recognize we've joined the weapon-wielding mob, as both perpetrators and witnesses, to Billy Rabbit's violent death.
Tyler also utilizes rabbits and their attendant folkloric references (lucky rabbit's foot; scared as a rabbit) as a counterpoint in Souvenirs. Smaller in scale, it is presented, innocently enough, as an 8.25 x 7.75, 32-page, pink cloth scrapbook, stab-bound with a black ribbon. Images of rabbits, sourced from a field guide, are peculiarly cropped, digitally printed and collected on the pages as if family snapshots, or ticket-stubs from a holiday, or a personal collection of specimens such as pressed flowers. Each image is paired with a text that describes purchasing, digging around for, or otherwise retrieving various souvenirs of a spectacle of some sort. Picture postcards, toes, and a piece of cooked liver are all on offer--fathomable, if bizarre, references to the rabbits, we suppose. Though familiarity with Tyler's methods and the strangeness of the images might gradually begin to hint that all is not as it seems, it is not until we reach the end of the book and read the bibliographic details that any fears are confirmed--the texts are actually excerpts from newspaper accounts of lynchings.
The Unmaking and the Making of the World is perhaps the most complicated of Tyler's three books--visually, conceptually, and materially. At 16.25 x 11.75 and bound in a traditional marble paper with a black cloth spine and corners, its first impression is that of a reference tome, possibly an atlas or a dictionary of some sort. On opening, however, it's clearly a book that asks more questions than it answers. Tyler has used a 1/2 diameter punch repeatedly to draw each page by removing material--delineating it into a shape that is layered with other punched pages to create a cumulative image that shifts as each page is turned. In her title, Tyler makes reference to Elaine Scarry's 1985 book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Scarry's influential text prompted Tyler to physically study the contradictions inherent in acts of destruction and creation, using the punch to simultaneously unmake and make each page, and to contemplate torture as not only destructive but sadly and horrifically creative--because the world is changed--we are all changed when our history (or our contemporary life) contains torture that has been sanctioned within our social and legal institutions. (Tyler/Alatalo interview.)
As with Souvenirs, The Unmaking and the Making of the World reads like a specimen book, but less innocent--more like a complex, instructional anatomy text in which each illustrated, transparent page reveals a different system of muscle, bone, blood, or nerves that, collectively, constitutes a whole body. Tyler's shadowy pages indeed reference bodies, but we are not exactly sure of what we see. They are slumped, contorted, disfigurements, deeply interior and void, but also accumulative, complex and full. We are completely drawn in as we turn the pages, seduced by the changing mysteriousness of the forms and the beauty of the materials--so much that, as with her other books, we are stunned by the bibliographic understatement that describes the metaphoric process she has enacted: To 'riddle' is to pierce with holes suggesting those of a sieve, to pierce a body repeatedly with bullets. Victims were often subjected to riddling during the course of a lynching.
Tyler acknowledges the difficulty of her research. The quantity of documents related to lynchings and the sheer scale of lynching events portray a measure of intention and participation that is horrible to comprehend. The motivation to materially represent lynching--whether by means of the original souvenir postcards, or the subsequent collecting, exhibiting, and scholarship that surrounds them, or Tyler's own careful labor and meditation--inevitably brings questions about the potential for exploiting or sensationalizing the material. But part of Tyler's project is to get the viewer to exactly that place--one that is not very comfortable. We open these books with greedy anticipation of the sumptuous materials and entertaining stories that lay within, but she's tricked us. She's left us standing in Farmer Hayrick's turnip patch yelling at the top of our lungs, Who stole the turnip? Who stole the turnip? and wondering, just exactly how is it that we got there?