The Canadian Art Database

Carol Podedworny

Jane Buyers: The Bookworks

[ 2180 words ]

The experience of a book is both tactile and intellectual. In turning the pages of a book, we connect with the texture and warmth of pages worn by others who have also turned its pages. Searching for what? Knowledge, truth, sustenance, company? A good story?

Books. Objects with a long and rich past — traditional and significant. Emblems of power in our western patriarchal culture. Histories / stories, thousands of years old. Worn velum and parchment pages, bound in velvet, encrusted with jewels, texts methodically recopied by hand; manuscripts ornamented in gold and aquamarine, again by hand. Recordings of belief and mystery, and for most people of an earlier time, symbols of unattainable power and knowledge. But this is history.

We reside in a period that devours books of a printed mass-produced character but which nevertheless attributes a beauty to them. That is, a beauty in the quality of a book's flyleaf, the luxury of the colour and texture of its pages, a typeface, its decorative element, a cover image, by the shape and weight of the book in our hands.

We also live amidst an epoch in which the book is potentially obsolete. We pick up the mouse more often than the pen, and we consider the hyper-reality of cyberspace a valid site for today's communication and exchange — indicative as it is of our time's adeptitude for piracy and anarchy, for defining our constantly shifting search for new locations and ideas. We no longer turn pages, we scroll down the screen; the activation of one icon leads us to another and then another, linked but not in any really tangible way. Computers enable the complexity of the wondering (and wandering) mind to become apparent in a way that the linear read of a book never could; they provide efficiency of production and they enable us to access the world. Furthermore, to deconstruct the text is today a societal preoccupation. How troubled the idea of the book appears to be at the end of the 20th century.

Whether in an archivist's role to preserve indices of the past, an historian's attempt to re-write history, or a prophet's ability to portend future events, Jane Buyers has relinquished the format of the manuscripted text and has opted for an open book. Through the potential of a sheet of paper not yet written or drawn upon, Buyers activates the viewers' critical inquiry of what has been handed down and invites comtemplation of what might constitute the next chapter.

In the Beginning: The Life of the Mind

In 1983 Jane Buyers created a miniature environment - a part of a series of six such spaces. In The Life of the Mind (1)  the mind takes the form of a two-storey dwelling. The main floor is entirely occupied by a room lined with bookshelves over which are hung several works of art. The titles of the books suggest the reading habits of Buyers herself — the mix is eclectic though considered. Most of the books deal with social and cultural theory, with feminist theory, and history, though judging by their size, fiction also has its place.

The second floor of the 'mind' is occupied by an empty room whose windows are vacant and whose ceiling mimics a star-studded night sky. In the doorway to the room, between room and hallway, is a child's toy train. In comparison to the weight of the lower level, the second storey seems light, billowing — a place from which to take flight — ascension seems likely. The Life of the Mind contains both an audio component and a text element. The audio tape is comprised of the listing of title, author, and the first line of several books; among them The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, and The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt. The books listed were chosen because of their connection to the theme of memory and desire. The text component of the work, located in a drawer in the lower portion of the environment reads:

Re-presentation — making present that which is absent, is the mind's unique gift. Thinking, the quest for meaning, always implies remembrance.' (2) 

The Life of the Mind is about remembrances and our desires — the exhibition from which it hails was entitled Mixing Memory and Desire. In presenting memory as a bookcase loaded with publications, however, the work can also be seen to mark the beginning of Buyers' book-related imagery. (3)  The Life of the Mind concretizes the artist's interest in the value of texts and the significance of books in our culture. The work forewarns Buyers's subsequent forays into the notion of the written work as a means toward knowledge and transformation — and ultimately power — whether that power be true or merely perceived. Additionally, in providing books and titles — without providing the means for us to read what is inside — The Life of the Mind suggests the artist's understanding of the potential of the symbol of a 'book' in deference to the significance of the words which are actually written therein.

City of Learning

The first instance of Buyers using an open-book format occurred in 1989 in an installation about a 19th century Ontario woman's lifestyle — of what it was constituted and how it was controlled. City of Learning: Mothers and Daughters was an installation in which the artist arranged a desk and several wall-mounted books in a room. (4)  The desk is a symbol both of learning and submission, of teacher / authorial disciplinarian and malleable, obedient student. Around the room, placed on the wall at reading height, were six open-faced 'books'. These 'books' were not in fact books at all but only appeared to be. They were actually blocks of wood, cut and fashioned to resemble a book lying flat — opened to a particular page and passage — like a Bible or dictionary on a podium in a church or library. Upon each book shape Buyers placed a real page torn from a dictionary. The content of the page was specifically chosen for its reference to traditional notions of femininity, women's place and patriarchal superiority. Upon each textual entry Buyers also affixed collaged elements: illustrations taken from other book sources of flora, especially roses; bracelets (adornment? chains? handcuffs?); and images of 'women's' handicrafts, knitting, crocheting, and the like. City of Learning identified Buyers's commitment — which in academia would be recognized as 'feminist' — to consider the inequalities women experience in a patriarchal culture and to work toward erasing those injustices. (5)  The installation remarked upon several aspects of women's subordination in western culture: the disappearance of women in the family — through marriage and the subsequent loss of her name in the taking of the man's name; the cultural (as opposed to natural or biological) impositions on women's behaviour to act 'feminine'; the categorization of 'women's' aesthetic productions as craft or low art, rather than fine or high art; and so on. City of Learning was also a conscious explication on the artist's part to equate book knowledge with not only the acquisition of academic knowledge and skills, but also with the development of 'appropriate' behavioural and emotional responses. With this installation, Buyers introduced the realm of gender politics into her bookworks. Consequently, City of Learning established a source in Buyers's oeuvre from which women might locate histories of women's work (both domestic and artistic), as well as a place from which women might find a voice.


In 1992-93, Buyers created a serial work in which four open-faced bronze books became a metaphor for the developmental and transformative capacities of the human mind through learning. (6)  Each of the books in the series was titled independently of the others: Seedling, Bud, Bloom, and Fruit. From within the pages of each book, an element from nature grows — a sprouting seedling, a rose bud, a tree in full bloom, and a tree bending under the weight of its fruit-bearing limbs. The connotations of development and transformation — from seed to fruit — and a like process for the growth of individuals through learning, is obvious. However, Buyers's textless pages extend the metaphor — an empty book symbolizes potential.

In cleansing a book of content, Buyers performs a subversive act — that of erasure.

Within the vacancies left by pages not written upon. Buyers intimates the forces which manipulate how and what we learn. An empty book alerts one to learning's inherent potential to transform that which is learned within society's institutions — that is, from within its ordering structures or systems. Nevertheless, in the crafting of these books out of bronze — through a foundry system thousands of years old — Buyers's work is based, unmistakably and unapologetically in a cultural history.

Fiction in the Archives

The absence of content — and implicit from this, the notion that a book elicits connotations of knowledge and power before we even open its cover — is further
critiqued in Buyers's 1994 series of bookworks, collectively titled Pardon Tales: Fiction in the Archives. (7) 

The Pardon Tales books are variously handmade by the artist or take the form of real re-used books which the artist has manipulated in a variety of ways. For example, some of the books have been collaged with illustrations from other printed sources. Other books have been affixed with three-dimensional extensions — papier maché fruit, plaster relief disks, or bronze limbs and leaves. Most of the Pardon Tales works have been overlaid with a foreign surface: wax, shellac, or paint. The text in all of these books — save for the bronze and greenware versions — is not literally absent but rather is unreadable. The artist has interfered with our interpretation of the text either by choosing a variety of sources in different languages, or by actually obstructing the text with overlays.

The lack of literal content, but nonetheless the presence of a symbolic content, in Buyers's library is important. Absence of text not only offers the potential for writing one's own tales, but enables Buyers to provide an open and ambiguous read. Like the collaged elements affixed here — for example, a cabbage, a rosette, which have rich historic and cultural symbolic associations — ambiguity in content bears fruit, since the one viewing must consider the possibility of several readings / meanings. Moreover, Fiction in the Archives documents Buyers's understanding — and exposure of — the untruths valorized and perpetuated in the vast archives of the intellectual tradition of the West. Fiction in the Archives, as its title suggests, reveals that fabrication in the written word is common, that perhaps those 'truths' attributed to the text might and/or do have a biased element...depending upon who is writing, for whom and what purpose, and to what end. This notion of questioning the authorial presence of a book — and hence the premise(s) upon which western society is based — presupposes Buyers's intention to reveal not the content of the published book so much, as the potential of learning in general. It also supports her feminist convictions that writing systems support the ideology of those writing.


In Buyers's most recent series of four bronze bookworks (1995-96), variously titled Archaeologia, Geographia, Alchemia and Metaphysika, we sense an intimate understanding of the consequences of learning and growth. In the conflation of the processes of decomposition and growth, Buyers intimates the cyclical process that characterizes both the development of knowledge and the experience of life. In meandering across the worn and ragged pages, whose contents literally bear fruit, the artist hints at the take and give of the one who has laboured to acquire knowledge with an open mind. Ambiguity resides in our inability to determine direction — are the leaves growing out of, or decomposing into, the books upon which they lie? A laurel wreath surrounds the bronze leaf in Alchemia and is significant in the series in that it stands both as a symbol of victory and of acquiescence. Glory comes to the one who wears the wreath. On the other hand, to rest on one's laurels suggests that one no longer strives for glory — that the struggle toward 'achievement' has been forsaken. Typically, Buyers leaves us with an open book, an ambiguous read, a moment's reflection from within which we might inscribe our own desires, fuelled as they are by the knowledge we have learned ... even at this instant, as we stand before Buyers's work.

Epilogue (8) 

Buyers's library contains many books, none of which provide a complete story, history, or encyclopaedia of information. Yet all of the books elicit the promise of truth and offer up possibilities for what might constitute written histories and narratives.

Buyers books are beautiful and seductive in the fashion that books are — offering us wisdom and comfort — and symbolizing power. But they are also beautiful in the sense that they are works of art — works formed and created in the hands of an artist. In this later regard, the books enable us to perceive books, and the content that is written therein, with a critical eye. In suggesting that we might have some role to play in the definition of facts and the compilation of history — in the development of societal 'truths' — Buyers's bookworks contribute a valuable lesson learned.

Text: © Carol Podedworny. All rights reserved.

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