Spread from Francesca Woodman’s Some Disordered Interior Geometries, 1981, photolithographic prints on paper, 9 × 13".

Spread from Francesca Woodman’s Some Disordered Interior Geometries, 1981, photolithographic prints on paper, 9 × 13".

“Pliure: Prologue (La part du Feu)”

Spread from Francesca Woodman’s Some Disordered Interior Geometries, 1981, photolithographic prints on paper, 9 × 13".

IN HIS COOLLY PRESCIENT 1964 essay “The Book as Object,” the French novelist Michel Butor surveys the architecture of the modern printed page: an ordered space wherein we continually rehearse a repertoire of gestures, generally without giving a thought to the codes and hierarchies that structure our experience. The reading eye swivels and scans along ordained perpendiculars, but intermittently conducts tangential assays of headings, page numbers, and marginalia. Hand and mind flit back and forth between pages, turning their flat sequence into a delicately twitching time machine. And at the literal center of the book’s mechanism is sunk the hinge that makes such movement possible. This spine is pivotal, and also obscure: “The seam, in the middle of the diptych, creates a zone of reduced visibility.” Little or nothing (not even a reader’s scribbled annotation) happens along this gutter or internal horizon. An axial void—a fold, in short—splits and supports the book.

Pliure means “folding,” as action or achieved form. In English we get closest to its suggestiveness with volume: the page as furled wing or volute, spiraling inward, but in the modern codex arrested and flattened midturn. Historically, the simultaneous platitude and depth of the book have been mined for metaphoric value by the likes of Mallarmé, Blanchot, and Derrida, all of whom curator Paulo Pires do Vale invokes in the catalogue for “Pliure: Prologue (La part du feu)” (Fold: Prologue [The Share of the Fire]), a freewheeling transhistorical survey of the traffic between books and art. A sequel focusing on contemporary work opened at Paris’s Palais des Beaux-Arts in mid-April. But in its eclectic scanning of the centuries, this first installment unearthed a valuable trove of historical responses to the uncanny objecthood of the book.

At the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, the topic of the vacant fold was introduced via a selection of open books housed in vitrines. On the visible pages were a variety of gaps and lacunae, including twinned photographs of empty stretches of road in Richard Long’s Labyrinth (1991), the perfectly blank map in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1876), and, in the huge, illustrated volume Description succincte de la colonne historiée de Constantinople (A Succinct Description of the Historic Column of Constantinople, 1702), a meticulous depiction of the carvings on the titular column. As Italo Calvino once wrote regarding Trajan’s Column, such classical friezes were structured like comic strips, with graphic divisions separating consecutive episodes. In the illustration displayed here, a densely crosshatched diagonal rend interrupted the engraving, corresponding to a wound in the original marble. The butchered image of an advancing Roman army established the show’s first solid subtheme: the intimacy of book and body. The subject was pursued in a tiny book of hours opened on a studious Annunciation and an anonymous Virgin-and-child sculpture of the sixteenth century—here the infant Jesus was seen writing in the book balanced on Mary’s knee. The nudes and hand studies that Francesca Woodman inserted into a geometry textbook for Some Disordered Interior Geometries, 1981, seemed a fittingly secular, laconic skewing of the connections between physical and textual corpus.

The topic of the page as incarnation gave way in the next gallery to the abrupt ascension of books in fire and fury. A copy of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) sat inviolate under glass, while Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires, 1968, a foldout poster showing pages from Ruscha’s volume in flames, lay flat in front of it. On the wall opposite, a sequence from François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) looped on a monitor: burned volumes embodied by the characters who keep them alive, learning their words by heart. It was at this point that one began to suspect a certain literalism in the curatorial logic of “Pliure.” A sense of hampering obviousness was most insistent, precisely because most precious, in Raffaella della Olga’s installation Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard—constellation (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance—Constellation, 2009). In a darkened room sat an edition of Mallarmé’s poem printed in letters that glowed green, as on an old analog clockface, requiring regular exposures to bright light lest the text fade away. It’s a neat, which is to say too apt, conceit. Mallarmé’s foundational modernist poem is already a sparse and complex sideration of text, a game with typographical points in space, winking out of the page’s void. With its attenuated lines extending horizontally across facing pages, Un coup de dés pitched itself against the serial logic of pagination. Later, inspired by the multiple folds and discontinuous space of the newspaper, El Lissitzky would complete this modernist upending of reading conventions, establishing a textual space with no top or bottom, up or down.

In offering such reminders that the codex faced disordering innovations long before the advent of hypertext or e-books, “Pliure” historicized the literary object’s much-bruited crisis in the face of digital technologies. That said, it did broach the implications of the Internet in two oddly proleptic works, one conjuring the velocity of what we once called information overload, the other dramatizing the archival fever of textual mass production. John Latham’s six-minute film Encyclopedia Britannica, 1971, is composed of every page from the multivolume reference, a double-page spread per frame. Knowledge is channeled into a seamless gray cascade, with only islands of imagery to cling to: crowns, diamonds, dogs. Alain Resnais’s 1956 documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (All the Memory of the World) is a sinuous, exquisitely choreographed study of the workings of the Bibliothèque Nationale, tracking the progress of a mocked-up (by Chris Marker) tourist guide to Mars as it negotiates the library’s acquisition process. Resnais and Latham seem to speak of the future from somewhere deep within the folds of the history of the book.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet. His latest book is The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015).