How to Make a Manual?
10 • 09 • 19Bea Istvánkó
In the time before the internet, in other words, the predigital era – or the days of yore, if you will – we used to consult books regarding all sorts of matters related to daily life. In those days, a major section of the bookshelf at home was filled with dictionaries and encyclopaedias, as well as handbooks and manuals. Per definition, manuals are publications summarising practical knowledge related to a scientific or professional field. Initially containing only text, and by the mid-20th century, an abundance of illustrations, these provided guidance to all those wishing to engross themselves in a given field of expertise. In the heyday of the genre, perhaps the most widespread manuals were cookbooks, but bookshops across the world offered a remarkable amount of illustrated literature on gardening, dogs, dressmaking, DIY, home remedies, and every other conceivable subject.
By today, manuals have almost completely lost their significance, as with the help of the internet, it is now possible to obtain much more up-to-date and detailed information from various websites, blogs and most importantly, YouTube, amply illustrated by photos and videos. All of this is a natural development, as the internet allows us to check out dozens of different methods before picking the technique we prefer the most. Also, these visual guides are completely free of charge to use and almost unlimited in number. Today, if we would like to try a new cake recipe or wish to learn the correct techniques of pottery, the most natural thing to do is to turn to Google. We have almost completely forgotten about manuals, we do not miss or feel the need for them. Consequently, one of the victims of the universal presence of the internet in the context of book publishing – besides the aforementioned dictionaries and encyclopaedias – is most certainly the genre of the manual, as at the current rate of development, in fifty or a hundred years we will at best encounter such guidebooks in the rare finds sections of second hand bookstores and libraries.
A good thing about contemporary art is that it raises awareness of such changes that would otherwise remain largely unnoticed by the better part of society. And this is where Ruth van Beek and her exhibition How To Do The Flowers (which was on view at the PaperLab Gallery, Mai Manó House until the 6th October) gains importance. The mid-generation Dutch artist has been building her now monstrous photo archive for several years. It is the basis of her exhibitions, installations, and last but not least, of her photo books. For the most part, van Beek’s collection consists of illustrations from manuals from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. Owing to the nature of photographs illustrating manuals, most of the old photos feature hands that are in the process of making something. Depicting the different stages of various actions, the photos are taken out of context by van Beek, and grouped according to her own subjective aspects, mainly along the lines of iconographic or visual associations. The juxtaposition of the images is purely associative, though, as there is no explanatory text whatsoever, nor is the photographer and the original place of publication indicated. The source of the photographs is only referenced by the title of the exhibition and the eponymous photo book published in 2018 and also presented at the show: How To Do The Flowers. Ruth van Beek is very delicately balancing on the border of appropriation and plagiarism; she takes and recontextualises the collected and appropriated photographs as ready-mades, but doomed to oblivion without her intervention, these images have no other chance for survival. Van Beek is also not shy concerning the title, as the title of the series and the book is identical to the title of the legendary British floral designer Constance Spry’s handbook of flower decoration published in the ‘50s and republished several times since.
Looking at the exhibited photos, and above all browsing the photo book, the seemingly random but at closer inspection logical juxtaposition of found images gives rise to a narrative that is quite extraordinary, especially shrouded by the remarkable atmosphere of applied photography from the second half of the 20th century. It is, however, van Beek’s collages of archive photographs that endow the series with an absolutely unique atmosphere. The artist cuts monochrome patches out of photographs, which she then folds and damages by other methods before mounting them over colourful surfaces in other photographs. Eventually, she makes photographic reproductions of the small collages so conceived and installs them in the form of large prints. The abstract colourful patches are repeated like a refrain across the walls and on the pages of her book. The repetition and blow-up give the impression that these shapes are the protagonists of the series. With the help of the photographs recording stages of various actions between them, these abstract figures all but come to life and come together as characters of an arbitrary animated film in the spectator’s or reader’s imagination.
By way of archiving and recycling, van Beek salvages (at least part of) the photographic material of once frequently used, but by now marginalised handbooks, while also giving rise to the functional antithesis of the definition of manual. For in the original sense a manual would serve to impart a technology on the users by having them follow steps and making them capable of creating something. To the contrary, van Beek’s book is based more on intuitive editing principles; even if we learn anything from it by leafing through the pages, that will most certainly not be “useful knowledge” in any field of expertise (at least in the classical sense). Despite the choice – or rather, borrowing – of title, neither this book, nor the pictures at the exhibition will enable us to acquire the tricks of perfect floral design or any expertise at that. In the case of van Beek’s series, the spectator best let go of such expectations and immerse into a much more poetic narrative instead. Practical or not.
Ruth van Beek: How To Do The Flowers. PaperLab Gallery, Mai Manó House.
28 August – 6 October 2019
Ruth van Beek: How To Do The Flowers, Dashwood Books (NY), 2018.
Available: Mai Manó House Bookshop and PaperLab Gallery