Stretton, Andrea. L’ex-île, Marché de la Poésie, Paris, 2007, ill. (catalogue English)

The book has long been revered as a sacred object: as a mine of information, a symbol of wisdom and as the footprint of history. This work, L’EX-ILE, exquisitely brings together many tenets of contemporary book art. Its journey begins, appropriately, with words, via the text and poems of French author Daniel Maximin, who was born and raised – until the age of thirteen – on the French West Indies island of Guadeloupe. His family’s subsequent migration to France, in 1960, and the ensuing role of memory (so powerful for all who experience exile) are central to Maximin’s writing. 

In L’EX-ILE, two Australians – artist Nathalie Hartog-Gautier and the dedicated ‘graphic artisan’, Penelope Lee – bring great integrity to their engagement with Maximin’s prose and poetry. Their purpose is not to simply illustrate his text in a literal way, but to re-iterate and explore it through the potency of their art, providing a poetic reflection of the author’s abiding themes of exile, water, memory, geography, language and history. All bound, so to speak, between covers that suggest, in a minimal and subtle manner, that universal trope of travel, flight and migration – the suitcase: a simple object of utility that is nevertheless curiously akin to a book, storing within it the most precious of possessions, memories and artifacts.

The artistic integrity to which I refer does not exist only in the poetic metaphors that abound in L’ EX-ILE. It is also enacted in the highly collaborative and labour-intensive process of the work.

Hartog-Gautier’s superb etchings, incorporating chine collé (a printing method dependent, in symmetry with the poet’s theme of water, on dampened printing paper) and ink drawings, merge Maximin’s evocation of intricate maps and sense of place with the artist’s own migration from France to the earth’s largest island, Australia. The images range over responses to the landscape of Hartog-Gautier’s adopted country, including the dappled marks on the floor of an old volcanic region, Cradle Mountain, in northwest Tasmania, to the wider vision of migration per se, such as the strong and enigmatic symbol of an unfinished cross which suggests the marking of the spot: here it is, here I am.

Lee imbues the project with her long-standing vocation: to explore the archetypal structure of the book and its many meanings. Her studies have highlighted the idea that easy access to knowledge via the world wide web has paradoxically re-invigorated book art by reminding us that books were never, even in their earliest incarnations, simply about information. The extraordinary covers and intricate cotton binding she has created for L’EX-ILE – each element being a central, visceral experience for book lovers and readers everywhere – are testimony to that belief.

L’EX-ILE can be viewed as art on the wall, and then opened as a book in which the essay and poems of Daniel Maximin can be read through the transcendent prism of art. This intriguing ambiguity makes it a remarkable, and exceedingly elegant contribution to the long history of the book as a site of meaning, translation and beauty.

Andrea Stretton is a Contributing Editor, Books, for Art & Australia. She was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government for her contribution to the arts.

This entry was posted in Catalogues and Statements on November 13, 2007