By Jason Foumberg
These words have little visual appeal. At best, eyes breathe in these lines, exhaling in the brain feelings, memories and thoughts. At worst, they compete with rapid-fire images and pithy, twittered texts, and are waved aside like a flitting mayfly, alive for only one day. Either way, the printed page as you see it now is anti-imagistic. It is not understood at a glance. Its form is unintentional, satisfying a need rather than an aesthetic choice. Like air, text is almost invisible.
No, it is packed and heavy. It is work. The slab of dried black ink locks the eye into a radius of seesaws, and it only gets easier if you make it into a little ritual and find your momentum. It makes me feel optimistic that in spite of its inherent difficulties, the format endures. Cornered, though, by abridgements, truncations and demands for the gist, long-form creative writing has become a specialty item. Once mainstream, it is now the alternative. Once tradition, it now thrives underground. But the light there is good.
Some of my favorite books can be devoured in a week. Anyway, you’re not a bad person if you like trashy novels and popular fiction. But some stories take a lifetime—not just to read, but to resonate. It’s been eight years since I first picked up (and, admittedly, never finished) Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” and it still stalks a distant part of my brain. I wonder how contemporary audiences perceive Proust. Is he a symbol of literary pretense? Does the book cast a long shadow, or is it just a burden of shelf space? There was a recent self-help book titled “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” (Could you just read this book, and not actually anything by Proust?) Another book, titled “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” seems to inflate his genius out of bounds and out of touch with the common reader. Does Proust’s legacy preclude access to his writing?
Proust’s pages are the content of Molly Springfield’s project, titled “Translation.” Using graphite pencil, the artist has meticulously drawn photocopies of the first chapter of Proust’s great novel. The page’s edges, the typeface, and a reader’s underlining and marginalia are carefully copied. The words are not just rewritten, but each letter and serif is crafted. Black spaces from the photocopier’s toner and shadows in the book’s folds from the machine’s scanning arm show up in trompe l’oeil precision.
Springfield doesn’t necessarily transform the non-visual text page into a visual-art object just by drawing it. Unlike Apollinaire’s experimental calligrams and e.e. cummings’ pictographic poems, Springfield stays true to the lock-step form of the printed page. There is a steady hand and meditative skill, but no original lines. The compositions come straight from the book. Springfield treats her material strictly—Proust’s words are Proust’s words. They are vehicles for a story, not abstract shapes. Even though it is a drawing, it is still a text.
Springfield has a clearly stated aim for initiating this project, but I’m going to claim that it does something else entirely. The project contains pages from the several English-language translations of Proust’s book (he wrote in French), and with grad-student gusto Springfield interleaves the pages of the first chapter from the various translations into a single narrative. Of course, the story doesn’t follow from one page to the next because different translations result in differing expressions and words. To further make her point about faulty copying, the drawings clearly derive from photocopies of the books. (Somewhere, a Walter Benjamin scholar is slapping his knee.) It’s not apparent from this scheme if Springfield likes or dislikes Proust’s book. With the rigor of a conceptual artist, she plucks it as a readymade symbol of a “good” and important text.
Anyway, I think the project is a call for slowness. Springfield’s anti-multi-tasking endurance inspires deep concentration, as embodied by reading a text. I like to imagine that Springfield became extremely close to Proust’s words as she studiously copied them by hand, memorizing them and ingesting their power (although maybe she put on her headphones and tuned out, I don’t know). It took her two years to produce these twenty-eight pages; it took Proust thirteen years to produce his 3,200. Words take time. As technology evolves, text is not in crisis, but readers are.
Proust had a lot of time to write. He spent his days reminiscing about his days, and turned it into “In Search of Lost Time.” He was moneyed and sickly, which amounts to a free space in life. Does that mean art is a privilege, a leisure class plaything? If you feel compelled by art then you will know the answer. What will you do with your given time?
Molly Springfield shows through October 17 at Thomas Robertello Gallery, 939 W. Randolph St.